The Right Brain Initiative’s training incites inspired teaching

IN 2012, a record 14 new schools joined The Right Brain Initiative, bringing the total served by RACC’s five-year-old arts education program to more than 11,000 students at 44 schools from six districts across the region. Right Brain teaching artists excite these students with classroom experiences that integrate the arts with other subjects from their curriculum.

Professional development for teachers, principals and teaching artists is key to Right Brain’s long-term vision of change. By giving educators the tools to facilitate the arts in their own classrooms, they can build a culture for creativity in their school—every day of the week. Multiply the number of students each teacher serves by the number of years they’ll teach, and the total sum of students this impacts is staggering.

“Every year, we can only add a handful of new teachers to our professional development program from each school, but they go back and share Right Brain strategies at their schools, so that over time, whether they’ve been through our training or not, teachers are beginning to adopt the approach,” says program manager Marna Stalcup. “It’s beginning to ripple and spiral out.”

Eventually, teachers at all partner schools will participate in Right Brain’s training. The professional development series, which includes continuing education credit through Portland State University, is a 42-hour, three-part sequence designed in partnership with Deborah Brzoska, a teaching artist with The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC who facilitates all of the sessions. The first stage lays the foundation for arts integration, which spreads across all subjects using the arts to engage students in higher-order thinking. (In a Hillsboro school, for example, a dance artist worked with students to create dances inspired by the water cycle, an idea their teacher carried back to the science classroom.) The second year of the sequence takes teachers, artists, and administrators even deeper into the practice, while the third year focuses on assessment, helping educators respond to students’ needs and make adjustments that enhance learning. All participants take away a ring of strategy cards, an in-hand set of ideas that can be put into practice in the classroom. The strategies tie in with the Common Core, a set of standards adopted by 47 states that will be fully implemented in Oregon by 2014-15.

A May 2012 survey revealed that 100 percent of teachers who have participated in the professional development program have used Right Brain strategies in their classrooms, with 64 percent using them on a regular basis (more than six times in the past three months). The longer schools have been involved with the program, the more often strategies were implemented, but the benefits begin right away. Stalcup recalls a story from a newly enrolled school: “The teacher who had been at professional development had shared one of the strategies, and everybody wanted strategy cards. Everybody was starting to use them already, and they haven’t even had an artist walk into a classroom! We’re seeing how this is really igniting the excitement among teachers and reinvigorating their work with children. It’s sparking their imaginations as much as it is the kids’.”

Learning opportunities aren’t limited to partner schools, though. Right Brain’s “Imagine This!” summer seminar is open to anyone and draws educators from across the country. Presenters have included Rae Takemoto, an arts integration specialist from Hawaii, and Frances Bronet, dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, who used a design challenge to simulate students’ experiences and show the value of open-ended, ambiguous assignments as vital learning tools.

Like Bronet’s activity and the Hillsboro team’s water dance, all of Right Brain’s professional development offerings practice what they preach: “It’s not a sit-down-and-talk-about-it experience,” Stalcup says. “It’s a get-up-and-do-it experience.”