Donn Poll is the chief executive officer of Arts Integration Solutions, or AiS, a nonprofit that aims to "transform the education system by bringing the classroom practice of arts integration to every child, in every classroom, every day," according to its website. The organization has worked with teachers and administrators across Arizona since 2004, integrating the arts into classrooms to improve student engagement and achievement. Recently, AiS released its first arts-integration handbook to help teachers use the visual, theater, dance/movement, music and media arts to create learning experiences in core subjects and to improve life skills such as problem-solving, creativity and collaboration. To learn more about AiS, visit artsintegration.com.
What is your personal background in the arts?
I've always been interested in the arts. I was a visual artist and a singer, and ... I did some tap dancing. They've always just been part of my life, they never really were separate. And I've always been in the audience of performing arts.
Why is it important to integrate the arts into classrooms?
Because the arts is such a catalyst for learning. For kids who may not have an interest in learning or tradition in learning, the arts can be what connects them to knowledge that they're going to need, that they might not be drawn to without the arts.
How do you measure success with arts integration programs?
You measure them in the same way that you measure any academic success. First of all you measure ... the capacity or their interest in bringing (students) into the classroom. Certainly you measure them by student engagement ... and that certainly shows up in behavior. I think we find that absenteeism is a great way to measure student's interest, and then of course we measure them in the usual way—in student achievement. I think test scores go up, in reading, in math and certainly performance in science. And we're actually doing training in what we're calling "student performance assessments," so that while students are actually in an arts activity, they're demonstrating their knowledge in an academic area ... and that's very cool.
What has been the most rewarding part of integrating the arts into classrooms?
I think it just shows up in student's engagement and their joy of being in the classroom and learning. You know, they get up out of their seat and they start to work with each other and they get totally absorbed in the activity. And they start to actually engage with each other, and they problem-solve with each other. It doesn't matter what language they speak or if they have a disability or if they didn't have breakfast that morning or if they came from a family that is in poverty. All those things are erased when they are engaged in an arts activity ... they're really engaged in the process of learning. That's really the reward.
Have there been any challenges?
The challenges are the system. The teachers are just so overburdened in schools that when they think about arts integration, they think, "Oh, I don't have time for arts integration. My butt's on the line; I've got to make sure that my students pass this year." And they don't necessarily see arts integration as being a solution.
Tell me about the new handbook.
It gives an overview of what arts integration is. It helps a teacher learn how to do a lesson plan using arts integration. It talks about arts integration and the common cores, which is (the) English language and mathematics. It talks about arts integration in STEM, which is science, technology, engineering and math. It talks about arts integration and literacy, and then it talks about visual arts, dance, theater, music and media arts, which includes video programming and gaming.
Anything else you'd like readers to know about AiS?
Only that we have high hopes that arts integration will really be something that every teacher will feel they can approach, even if they don't know much about the arts. And we do hope that arts integration will be looked on as something that is a solution to the challenges with our education. And, I guess, lastly, that an individual teacher will see this is something they can do, even if they don't get support from their school.