By: Jacob Forbes, Staff Writer
Since 2013, USM has been partnering with Side x Side, a non-profit arts education program in Southern Maine that aims to integrate art into cross-disciplinary learning processes in local K-12 schools. The partnership has been placing USM students and educators in local public schools to help integrate the arts into a variety of subjects such as science, history and physical education. With a newly-announced 2.5million-dollar award from the Federal government, Side x Side will be expanding its outreach from the Portland area to the Lewiston public schools which will allow more opportunities for USM students to gain experience teaching in public schools and to learn the best practices for public education.
Side x Side aims to broaden the scope of what the arts can teach a young learner. The program discusses on their website how they want to ignite “academic excellence in education through comprehensive arts integration, bringing critical thinking, creativity and innovation into the classroom through arts-based programs.” This does not mean supplanting a young learner’s time in concert band or pottery class, but allowing the arts to become a part of, for example, the scientific study of the ocean.
This was a specific program for second graders called “Moving Oceans.” Side x Side’s Director or Communication and Design, Perryn Ferris, explained via email, that the program “kicked off with a visit by a marine biologist and children’s book author who shares her experiences with the students.” Ferris told how each student then chose a Maine sea creature to study and were taught by a Side x Side teaching artist how to create a scientific illustration of their creature. Another Side x Side teaching artist would then teach them how to build their creature three-dimensionally using paper-mâché and paint.
“Moving Oceans” illustrated to children how creative thinking and artistic practices can be used for all kinds of study.
This integration is often overlooked in many public education curriculums as they aim to erect clear barriers between subjects. For example, the Maine Department of Education’s website lists specific requirements and expectations for mathematics, science and technology and so on. Under the “Visual and Performing Arts” section, the department states that “connecting the visual and performing arts with other content areas of the curriculum may improve a student’s engagement and learning [italics mine].” Side x Side aims to show how the arts always improve engagement and learning and not just focusing on helping students “perform better on standardized tests.” By aiming arts-integration at all grade levels, Side x Side works to empower learners with knowledge about their own creativity that they can use for any sort of academic task.
USM students have been an integral part of Side x Side’s mission of artistic and creative empowerment. With the new federal grant, Side x Side will grow and USM student involvement will too. Kelly Hrenko, an associate professor of art education and Chair of the Art Department, places “student teachers in both art education and general education in all program schools,” she said in an email. “USM students will be a part of the Lewiston expansion.”
Though no specific schools in the Lewiston area have been designated, Ferris said that “Side x Side programs in Lewiston will be similar to existing programs in Portland.”
Along with additional USM student involvement, the program’s expansion will bring more of the Lewiston area artists and professionals into the public-school system to engage with students. Ferris says that the “program model is built upon developing partnerships within each community it serves,” so that local businesses and organizations become partners with the Side x Side program. “We plan to expand our collaborations in Lewiston to include visiting experts from a variety of fields who bring increased knowledge and career awareness to classroom programs and local libraries and other spaces which provide important showcase opportunities,” said Ferris.
Hrenko said that “alums of this work all report benefiting from the experience and using it in their current practice. This work is changing the culture and curriculum of teacher education at USM.” With the expansion to Lewiston, Side x Side will be allowing more opportunities for USM students to not just teach, but to collaborate with fellow professionals and artists in Maine. Of course, the largest benefits will be going to the young learners of Maine, who, as Ferris says, will be “creating new knowledge through arts-based learning processes” and will have the opportunity to learn how something like book-making or illustration can ignite one’s curiosity for the world-at-large.