As an arts integration project, our goal is to support students as creative and critical thinkers. When it comes to measuring this, being creative thinkers ourselves is important.

In planning for Year 2, we set indicators of success in student learning that ranged from no new skills in an art form to students coaching each other. We arrived at the following rubric, recognizing that specific skills would depend upon the arts discipline:

              Low –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  – High
No new skills/understanding about the art form Demonstrate basic vocabulary and techniques of the art form Ability to share the techniques including basic vocabulary of the art form Students teach/coach one another in completing a similar project Students teach/coach one another in completing a similar project and lead a critique using vocabulary of the art form

Two processes were identified to measure success: 1) recorded interviews with two to three students per school, and 2) pre/post arts knowledge assessments.

Teachers at both Eastwood Elementary and Evergreen Middle School decided their artist residencies would be designed to address issues of equity and social justice.

At Eastwood, the staff chose Let’s Talk About Race by Julian Lester as its anchor text for their school-wide residency. Musician Aaron Nigel Smith was selected as the artist to work in all K-6 classrooms where students studied the rhythms and songs of Africa. In the residency with 4th – 6th graders, students learned to sing and play multi-part songs and rhythms. To frame this residency, teachers and Aaron identified 1) an essential question—how can shared experiences help people connect?, and 2) a student understanding—that drumming can help us build community. In a Twitter post, teacher Aliceon Brandt boasts about Eastwood’s 6th grade drummers.

Two visual artists worked in 7th and 8th grade social studies classes at Evergreen during their human rights and social justice units. Seventh grade teachers selected ceramic artist Karie Oakes to explore how history is shaped by significant contributions of people throughout the world. Eighth grade teachers identified comic artist Lisa Eisenberg as they examined the essential question, what is social justice? Through comics, students would understand that the way authors combine words and images can present a particular point of view and affect how a story is told.



Evergreen 8th graders creating comics on social justice themes and critiquing each other’s work.

Measuring Student Learning: Sharing the Story of Our Work

During the artist residencies, student learning was documented through classroom observations, collection of student work throughout the learning process, and classroom critique, with student interviews conducted post-residency. Teacher reflections at the conclusion also shed light on what students had learned.

Comics Panel

No matter how simple or complex, comics produced by Evergreen 8th graders conveyed historic and contemporary events of social justice significance.

Often the most powerful evidence comes from what students SAY about their work, their thinking and their creative process. A few still photos, a device to capture audio, and a handful of targeted interview questions combine to create a powerful story. (Smartphones come in handy here!) Student interviews, which we refer to as learning conversations, were generally conducted by Right Brain arts integration coaches or another Right Brain staff member. Talking one-on-one with a student for as little as 20 to 30 minutes can reveal great insight into the development of their 21st Century skills (the 4Cs: creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking) as well as growth mindset. (Check out this TED talk if you’re not familiar with the concept of growth mindset.)

Here are the questions asked of one 6th grader:

  • Tell me about what you were thinking as you worked on this project.
  • Did you know exactly what your artwork would like when you started?
  • When you first started this project, what did you think was going to happen?
  • Tell me about what you were thinking as you worked on this project.
  • How would you describe this particular artistic process to someone who has never done it?
  • What do you think it means to be creative?

Right Brain coach Lin Lucas interviewed a 6th grade student about his learning during Eastwood’s residency with musician Aaron Nigel Smith.

An arts knowledge assessment tool was not developed, and in retrospect, was not a device that was naturally aligned with investigating students’ creative and critical thinking skills.

What Surprised Us

Reflection meetings with teachers at each school were scheduled at the end of their residencies. Right Brain coach Lin Lucas captured the following observations, insights and comments:

  • Students didn’t really say “I can’t do this.”  They were very engaged throughout the process.
  • Teachers liked that students were “out of their bubble” and saw how they are impacted by the world around them.  Evergreen teachers noted that this is a great lesson for middle school aged students who may be self-focused.
  • ”The arts are simply another way to process and share information. It’s not an extra item, but a tool for students to retell and share what they know.”
  • Evergreen students are thinking deeply and seriously about their lives and social/political issues. They were greatly impacted by a video about modern day slavery and abolitionists.  “It hit them really hard.” One group of students wants to create a club and fundraiser to help.
  • This led to a discussion around social justice themes as curricular connections. Teachers had ongoing conversations with students as stereotypes came out in comics.  In exploring racial themes and/or inequities, we all must think about stereotypes, create enough time in our lessons to address them, and find opportunities for re-teaching.

Planning for Next Year: What We Learned

We had four main takeaways from our experience this year:

  1. Make sure the tools for measuring our success truly reflect the focus of our project outcomes.
  2. Collect evidence early and often. Document what we see and reflect on it collectively as often as possible throughout the year.
  3. Embed evidence collection in instructional practice. How do we help teachers with this so it becomes a formative assessment strategy?
  4. Recognize that measuring growth over time is a long-term investment. This can be frustrating or seem impossible when student experiences are “compressed” or limited in time.