Arts institute aims to activate young brains

In this Aug. 13 photo, Ed Littlefield, left, plays a deerskin drum with teachers as part of a Basic Arts Institute class at Ketchikan High School in Ketchikan.

KETCHIKAN — About a dozen teachers sat in a circle in a Ketchikan High School music room one recent morning, their brows furrowed as they leaned forward, clapping out complex rhythms while chanting simple addition problems during a Basic Arts Institute class.


They were in teacher Ed Littlefield’s “culture/movement” class, practicing ways to use movement and creativity in classrooms. He explained that the use of hands and feet to create the rhythms — and crossing the hands to slap the limbs on opposite sides of the body — was critical.

“We’re activating the brain,” he explained.

Carol Stanton, a kindergarten teacher from Tongass School of Arts and Sciences, said that she uses rhythms — and especially the more challenging crossing movements — even for her very young students because it is so valuable for brain growth.

Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities director Kathleen Light said the arts institute teaches methods based on scientific principles.

“The brain research is the stuff that just blows me away,” she said, adding that the results clearly have shown the value of the arts for people of all ages and walks of life.

The arts institute was brought to Ketchikan for the first time by a collaboration between the arts council, Ketchikan School District and the Alaska Arts Education Consortium.

Karen Stomberg, a retired Fairbanks art teacher who is the lead teacher working through AAEC to coordinate and organize the arts institute, said she gets excited by watching teachers grow in the two weeks of classes, presentations and projects.

“This can be practice-changing,” she said.

She added that teachers often are energized in the institutes by delving into exercises that allow them to indulge in the joy of learning, and exploring new ways to share that with their students.

One project that teachers had been working on was hand-made nature journals. In the Kayhi art room, pieces of seaweed, whole leaves and other collected bits of nature were pressed between layers of glass, waiting to be made into art for the journals. There also were sketches and field notes ready to be added to the books. Stomberg explained that teachers were practicing using nature journals as a device to teach several skills.

“It’s a way to observe and draw from life,” she said, adding that “it’s also training kids to observe things closely,” building the habit of attentiveness.

“This is exciting new territory,” Stomberg added.

Also, lined up on art-room tables were hand-made Native hand drums. Each had been painted by students with a different image or pattern. Some were traditional Alaska Native designs that volunteer Sonya Skan provided for class members, and others included a Celtic-inspired design, a unicyle-inspired design with a hieroglyphic bent and one inspired by French horns.

“People really are getting attached to their drums,” Stomberg said.

The class was planning to use the drums in a performance at the Saxman Tribal House during a show of the students’ art work.

After several rounds of the clapping and rhythm exercises, Littlefield ran his students through rehearsals.

Littlefield, a professional musician based in Seattle and a Tlingit originally from Sitka, led with hand-drum rhythms and singing in the Tlingit language. Then, he challenged the students to sing on their own as he drummed.

“Do your best, and forget the rest,” he advised.

The students jumped into the song with vigorous volume and dance moves.

However, at one point he stopped them.

“We’ve got some issues here,” he said, chuckling and shaking his head. “I see some almost ‘70s Bee Gees dancing.”

The teachers broke into laughter and then regrouped for a fresh try, that time garnering praise from Littlefield.

“That makes me so happy,” he said. “It’s great.”

In Ryan Conarro’s movement/drama class, students gathered in a circle to “throw” and “catch” finger snaps.

Conarro, a theater actor, director and educator from Juneau, then modeled a creative way to capture student attention by creating a character to use in classroom instruction.

Conarro asked class members to create tableaus. Students quickly split up and froze in several group poses.

Suddenly donning a red, sparkly piece of fabric and proclaiming himself to be “Anti Tableau,” Conarro’s character proclaimed their tableaus to be “terrible!”

He asked one student why she had her foot on the others’ knee.

The owner of the bent knee, Kayhi art teacher Louise Kern, who was lying on the floor, proclaimed, “It’s a mountain! That’s not a knee.”

He asked them why they would pose at varying heights. Schoenbar Middle School teacher Taylor McKenna answered, “Multiple levels (are) more interesting.”

They also suggested that their poses were more interesting because they conveyed tension and action through diagonal lines.

“They’re telling a story,” Revilla Alternative School teacher Adell Bruns added.

Conarro said that when a teacher uses a character like Anti Tableau as a device in a classroom, it is important to remember that the character play both low-status position and high-status positions. When Anti was ignorant — low status — and the students had to tell her about why their tableaus were working, the students were allowed to feel encouraged by becoming the teachers. But, when she first arrived and criticized and brought a strong opinion — high status — the students are given the opportunity to defend and explain their actions or ideas.

Conarro asked his students to create a short lesson using a character to bring back to class.

“You’re using an art strategy to teach non-art content,” he explained.

Arts Council director Kathleen Light said that the idea to bring a program like the Basic Arts Institute here first was brought up when the council surveyed teachers about what they thought was needed to improve arts education in Ketchikan.

From that research, the arts council targeted more arts education for the teachers. Former arts council education director Anita Maxwell chose the Basic Arts Institute — which not only was highly regarded for its high-quality program, but also offered a bonus in the form of four graduate credits from the University of Alaska — to fill that need.

Goals listed in institute literature include teaching participants how to use arts, storytelling, drama, music and Native arts in the classroom; use brain theory; understand the production, criticism and appreciation of art; and integrate the arts with the new Alaska state standards.

During several lunch breaks, students had the opportunity to hear presentations by local artists and representatives from art organizations.

One of the strengths of the institute, according to Stomberg, is the coordination that must happen to bring the event to a community.

“It’s a nice intersection of community, schools and the arts,” she said.


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