The Right Brain for learning

The revolutionary mission of an innovative program in the greater metropolitan area schools: to transform learning through the arts

Shannon McClure, an arts integration specialist for the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s innovative Right Brian Initiative, stood before a classroom of teachers this fall at North Clackamas Scouters Mountain Elementary School, helping to brainstorm as they kicked off the planning phase for this year’s artist residency. 

The residency, which brings an artist to the school to work with students over the school year, is a crucial component of Right Brain’s mission to use the arts to help spark learning in all disciplines. What exactly is arts integration, which McClure travels from school to school to nurture and promote? In the words of the initiative, which serves schools across Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah counties, it’s “the secret sauce when supporting kids’ abilities to problem-solve, innovate and think critically. By introducing new ways to learn, kids will become more engaged students.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Shannon started things off by mentioning a significant book in neuroscience and education – Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by a trailblazer in the field, Zaretta Hammond – before offering the most simple and compelling explanation for why the Right Brain Initiative and arts integration in general matter so much: dendrites, the little tree-like extensions from nerve cells that spark connections. Shannon had just read some exciting research which confirmed “that the more we are able to form dendrite connections in our brain, the more we are able to retain over time. Arts integration – learning through different pathways – makes those connections in the brain.”   

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Shannon McClure in the classroom, spreading the Right Brain word. Photo courtesy Right Brain Initiative

On a recent fall afternoon, while driving to Happy Valley Elementary School in Clackamas County to observe Shannon at work for a second time, I found myself reminiscing about Roberta Moore. Mrs. Moore spent a career as a beloved fifth grade teacher from a K-8 school nestled in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town in mid-Missouri. Warm and understated and possessing endless patience, she read to her students after every recess, books like Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller. And on every Friday, she traded traditional lessons for the production of a news program called WMBS news. 

Early each week, the students in her class would divvy up roles. Someone would be the weatherperson; others would play the main newscasters. Celebrity guests filled the set, along with camera wielders and stage managers. Throughout the week leading to production, students learned how to perform in front of a camera, the structure and theater of creating a television program, how meteorologists decipher and deliver the weather each day, how weather patterns form, and how newscasters prepare their stories. In the process they also learned lessons in social studies, history, and current events. 

The process was so much fun that those of us lucky enough to participate had no idea how much we were actually learning. The show felt exhilarating.  I don’t recall a single student who wasn’t thrilled by the production of WMBS news. I imagine many former students cite that year, as do I, as the pivotal one that helped develop a next-level passion and curiosity for school and learning. It is often acknowledged that teachers may never fully know their impact – that such an impact cannot, in fact, be measured — yet with Sisyphean determination, day after day, they shall toss the pebble into the water and will likely fall away from this world long before the ripples settle. 

It is possible that Mrs. Moore had never heard of Zaretta Hammond or her ambition to inspire “students to be the leaders of their own learning.”  Perhaps she never studied any of the neuroscientists who have helped educators rethink traditionally accepted teaching methods in favor, as Hammond once explained at a talk in the San Francisco library, of “curiosity over compliance” and “questioning over quiet.” Although plenty of literature exists to demonstrate the positive impact of arts integrations, I can never know for sure whether those studies inspired Mrs. Moore. Perhaps she herself had been deeply influenced by a teacher; maybe she intuitively understood that art and “play” in an enriched environment is compatible with, and necessary for, ultimate learning – that for every student to get the most out of a classroom experience, activities should call upon the full measure of the brain. 

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Right Brain learning with Homowo African Arts at Hollydale Elementary. Photo courtesy Right Brain Initiative

Luckily for many students in the greater Portland metropolitan area, teachers like Roberta Moore abound. Arts integration is serious business here, in no small part because of the vision of Marna Stalcup, who after a long and varied career in arts education, joined the tri-county Regional Arts and Culture Council in 2007 as the founding program manager of the Right Brain Initiative, a program that has since garnered national attention for its success.

Right Brain, which operates in 70 schools in RACC’s three-county territory – about 20 percent of the area’s 337 public or charter elementary and middle schools – is something of a counterbalance to prevailing national trends in education, which have downplayed liberal arts education in favor of the “STEM” core of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The initiative asserts the importance of the arts and, crucially, emphasizes their value as a tool in teaching and learning other subjects as well. Right Brain’s founding goal was to operate in 100 percent of eligible schools. The current focus, says program manager Sinéad Kimbrell, is to give priority to adding schools “with notable populations of students of color, low-income students, English language learners, and schools in rural communities with limited access to the arts.”

Trained and mentored by Right Brain facilitators, classroom teachers develop skills to enhance and meet core curriculums by using arts-integration strategies. The science behind understanding how a student’s brain works isn’t vague and guessed at: It’s been rigorously studied, and ultimately guides the way educators engage with students in a classroom.  Right Brain reaches 29,630 students across eight school districts in Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah counties. Since its launch in 2008, it has had an impact on more than 70,000 students and 14,000 educators. The heart of the program’s mission is to change the way kids learn by bringing discovery, collaboration, and creativity into the classroom.    

Arts integration is quite a bit more complex than merely offering art opportunities in the schools, or even integrating art into the curriculum as a stand-alone subject. It differs from the long-established Young Audiences, for example, which brings artists to schools for performances and residencies. (Young Audiences and Right Brain work together: YA artists are often incorporated into the Right Brain classroom programs, and Young Audiences, in the initiative’s words, “manages the daily work of our teaching artists and arts integration coaches.”) The heart of that difference seems to be that the Right Brain Initiative aims to provide long-term training to teachers and administrators to use strategies in the classroom that support full-brain learning, so that all kids have access to art. The Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) has constructed a to-the-letter definition of arts integration: Arts integration is an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both. The definition was rigorously debated before being agreed upon: The sense was that anything less than a precise and measurable definition could cause educators to conflate efforts to include art within the classroom with true arts integration, resulting in squandered opportunities for learning. 

Shannon offered a simpler way to think of it: “We often use a double spiral to demonstrate this.  If you think of content as one line and the art form as another, students are learning both at the same pace. With residencies, this is what we are trying to do.”

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which has had a formal relationship with the Right Brain Initiative through the Partners in Education program since 2010, has broken down the ways that arts traditionally appear in classroom settings into three distinct areas:

1. Arts as Curriculum: programs such as music, art, drama, dance.

2.  Arts-Enhanced Curriculum: the arts support other curriculum areas, but no objectives in the art form are specified (the center cites the example of students singing the ABCs, yet not being expected to learn about melody and song structure).

3.  Arts-Integrated Curriculum: in which the arts become the approach to teaching and the vehicle for learning. Students meet objectives in both the art form and another subject area (Shannon’s double spiral). While acknowledging that all three approaches enhance a child’s education, making a distinction clarifies objectives and helps educators define their curriculum. 

The Right Brain Initiative approaches its goals in four ways: professional development workshops, classroom artist residencies, coaching, and reflection & research.

  • The professional development workshops, where educators and artists explore ways of teaching over three years, are the foundation of the work.
  • The artist residencies rely on Right Brain’s extensive roster of artists who work with a school’s teachers and principals to design an “integrated arts unit” in which the artists visit the school and work with the students over a period of time, or a “residency.” 
  • Coaching, which occurs during a school’s first three years in the program, provides ongoing, on-site work that allows collaboration between an integration coach from Right Brain and the school’s teachers and principals. 
  • The reflection and research phase includes a structured process based on Harvard’s Project Zero, a program founded by philosopher Nelson Goodman at the Harvard Graduate School in Education in 1967, with a mission to “understand and enhance learning, thinking and creativity for individuals and groups in the arts and other disciplines.”      
Getting a groove on with Tears of Joy puppet theater at Hayhurst Elementary. Photo courtesy Right Brain Initiative

My introduction to the Right Brain Initiative consisted of a meeting with Stalcup, the director of arts education for RACC and the initiative’s founding program manager; current program manager Kimbrell, who facilitates much of the initiative’s logistical functioning; McClure, one of three arts integration specialists; and Bob Hicks, my editor at ArtsWatch. Apart from joining in such an invigorating and cordial meeting, I quickly recognized that the puzzle pieces are mighty and constantly in flux, requiring a high level of training, dedication, passion, and commitment from everyone involved: the RACC specialists, educators, administrators, teaching artists, and students. 

A decade after its launch, the Right Brain Initiative continues to evolve and break ground in arts integration.  In 2017, it was represented at the National Council on the Arts. In 2018, Stalcup testified before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce at the Innovation Forum. With a 20-year goal of reaching 1 million students, perhaps the best news came in 2014 when a study conducted by a leading research firm, WolfBrown, showed some staggering results. Scores more than doubled their rate of annual increase in reading and math between 2007 and 2013, after students began working with the Right Brain Initiative, and the rate of increase for scores in English language proficiency jumped by at least ten times after students’ participation in the program. The large sample size, the study said, suggests “a significant and promising correlation” between Right Brain participation and test scores, adding that the correlation doesn’t necessarily imply a causal relationship.

The Right Brain Initiative, with a budget of just under $1.3 million, is funded by foundations and corporate and individual donations, while just under half of its funding from public sources, including an investment by school districts of $15 per child for participating schools to cover artists’ services and supplies. Portland’s Arts Tax is not part of the budget.

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What does all of this mean on a day-to-day basis? I look forward to a winter spent in North Clackamas schools observing Shannon and some of the artists-in-residence in action to answer that question. Shannon might just have one of the most fascinating jobs in the greater Portland area. Commander of a bright yellow Chevy Sonic aptly named “Lil Zippy,” Shannon logs about 250 miles a month and claims to be as comfortable in the car as in the classroom. I have never observed Shannon in a car, but I have so far observed them in meetings, managing the agenda to within a split-second of time allotted, and later confiding that they made it a habit not to waste anyone’s time … ever: “If I schedule a meeting for thirty minutes and I never go one minute over, people are willing to meet with me again.”

When I asked the scope of visits to various schools, Shannon – who had been a K-12 teacher and an assistant principal in Portland Public Schools before joining Right Brain – lit up: “Sometimes I just drive all the way to a school for a signature. I do whatever is needed. In those cases, you could say I am a freckle-faced nudger.”

Rick Huddle, spreading happiness at Happy Valley. Photo: Danielle Vermette

Lightning-quick with a compliment, to give credit for a good idea, or to acknowledge the excellent work of colleagues, this dynamo does more than nudge. They inspire. Teachers appeared to be fully at ease and engaged. Rick Huddle, the musical-theater artist resident at Happy Valley and someone I hope to observe later in the classroom, seemed to delight in collaboration with Shannon. After he’d guided teachers through an imaginative exercise that ended in the dashed dreams of a dropped ice cream cone (I cannot convey how fun it is to watch teachers in this form of “play”) he and Shannon discussed the upcoming school year with zest.

Shannon had plans this December to journey to Tanzania and “take part in a residency of my own,” they reported enthusiastically, to help set up a kiln in a small town near Kilimanjaro with two former Black Panthers they met somewhere along the way.  As I recall, Shannon was preparing to climb Kilimanjaro, a tale I am eager to hear and another reason I look forward to spending part of my winter back in the classroom observing this crucial program.  I cannot think of anyone more suited to the task of Right Brain-ifying every school in the greater Portland area.    

I only wish I could bring Mrs. Moore along for the ride.

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NEXT SCHOOL TERM: Travels with Shannon. Following Shannon McClure into the classrooms with the Right Brain Initiative.

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