Story Seeker: Margaret Lam
People interviewed: Vicki Allen-Cook, English Arts Education and Creativity Curriculum Specialist; Cécile Arsenault, French Cultural Program Coordinator
Interview date: August 30, 2021
In Prince Edward Island, arts education for Kindergarten to Grade 12 students is championed by two staff members at the Prince Edward Island’s Department of Education and Lifelong Learning: Vicki Allen-Cook, English Arts Education and Creativity Curriculum Specialist, and Cécile Arsenault, French Cultural Program Coordinator. While the two are positioned in different language school boards, they are close friends and collaborators who have worked tirelessly to integrate the arts into all aspects of the curriculum development on the Island.
This is a story about two champions in arts education, their journey during the first 18-months of the pandemic, and the importance of fostering creativity in students. The story focuses on two arts-based programs: the PEI Student Drama Festival and the ArtsSmarts PEI Learning Experience.
The Innovation: Delivering arts education during a pandemic
Vicki and Cécile are both passionate about the value of arts-integrated learning in core subjects such as math, language arts, social studies, and the sciences. They have found that students perform just as well, if not better, when the arts are integrated into the learning environment. Arts-integrated learning is an arts-based pedagogy that incorporates art making and the creative process into the curriculum of any subject. It offers an alternative mode of engagement for students who might not be receptive to the more traditional classroom format. It also intentionally fosters creativity in K-12 students. A big part of Vicki and Cécile’s work involves debunking the often mistakenly held belief, by teachers and parents alike, that arts education is only for those who aspire to be artists.
During the pandemic, when delivery of arts-based curriculum became incredibly difficult, alternatives that supported remote learning became a valuable source of mental health support for students. Engaging in creativity and collaboration is one way for students to feel connected and excited when they are missing the social aspects of in-person-learning. The multi-sensory nature of the arts also facilitates a learning experience that involves the whole body, which can lead to improved student outcomes overall.
Over many years, Vicki and Cécile have fostered close relationships with local artists as well as the Faculty of Education at the University of Prince Edward Island, and these relationships have paid off in the quality of their arts curriculum. Building on this strong artistic and pedagogical foundation, they crafted their response as students switched to remote learning in early 2020.
The PEI Student Drama Festival has traditionally offered an opportunity for groups of drama students on the Island to produce a short play to be performed at various local theatre festivals. It offers a chance to put together a short production and learn from local theatre professionals. With the uncertainty around live performances during the 2020-2021 school year, Vicki and Cécile decided to revamp the festival and deliver it to students as a digital experience.
In the digital edition of the festival, students were asked to write their own scripts, rather than adopting an existing script as had been done in previous years. In an attempt to compensate for the lack of opportunity to produce a full play in a venue, students were offered artist-led workshops on blocking and lighting design, as well as additional topics such as choreography, costume design, makeup and scriptwriting. The workshops were recorded so that they could be used again for future drama classes and expanded upon in future student festivals.
In addition to arts-specific programs, there are many other arts-based education offerings for K-12 students, such as the ArtsSmarts PEI Learning Experience. This program, the largest educational initiative of its kind in Canada, aims “to develop global creative / innovative thinkers and doers by integrating the creative process of the arts into school curricula.”.
The ArtsSmarts program brings together local artists and teachers to collaborate on the development of arts projects that reflect the expected learning outcomes in subjects such as math, science, and language. For example, one project introduced students to the work of M.C. Escher, as they applied mathematical conversions in order to create fibre-glass sculptures that were displayed at the school. According to the math teacher, “I had one parent contact me to say that her daughter could not, under any circumstance, miss a math class because she loved the project we were working on.”
Throughout the curriculum development and delivery process, educators gain professional development in arts-integrated education, and students have a variety of opportunities to nurture their creativity. Artists also have an opportunity to get to know the students and get a glimpse of what matters to today’s youth.
Furthermore, the ArtsSmarts program views artistic and creative processes as fundamental to innovation. Learning how to generate ideas, gather and incorporate feedback, iteratively develop those ideas, and produce a final presentation are all critical and highly transferable skills in our increasingly digital society.
The Challenges: New technologies, new channels, new processes
Coming up with the digital edition of the Student Drama Festival required Vicki and Cécile to put themselves in the students’ shoes, imagining how students might think and feel in their homes and what resources they might need to collaborate in the creation of a play. This approach was applied throughout the planning and delivery of this new learning experience. The positive response from students, teachers, and artists validated their efforts and encouraged them to continue developing and offering this digital opportunity to future students.
Regarding ArtsSmarts, Vicki and Cécile explored numerous approaches to support the remote delivery of learning experiences in 2020, modelling the spirit of creativity that their curriculum is intended to teach. For example, they broadcasted lessons through the local cable television network after a slot opened up when local school sports were suspended. This involved a huge learning curve to adapt teaching materials to comply with copyright laws related to television, in addition to directing a number of video productions — something that they had not done before. These efforts led to the creation of a YouTube channel specifically for PEI schools. All of these innovations had the benefit of ensuring that students had access to arts education even when learning remotely.
“Our Musical Island”, their most recent ArtsSmarts project, is a pilot project that incorporates the new experiences and ideas that have emerged over the last 18 months. The learning objectives were to support the Island’s large number of immigrant and newcomer students and to enrich the music curriculum across the school board. Vicki and Cécile co-developed the in-school component and video learning resources with PEI musicians who represent a variety of musical cultures and practices.
The successful pilot engaged 13 musicians and 11 music teachers, was delivered in 10 schools, and reached 1,000 students. The quality of the musicians and the learning resources can be seen in a promotional video about the program. If the team’s efforts continue, the Island has the potential to be a leader in arts-based education in Canada and beyond.
The Financials: A responsive and nimble approach
Vicki and Cécile, who respectively work for the English and French school boards, often pool their resources to deliver their arts education programs. The online Student Drama Festival and ArtsSmarts each had a budget between $30,000 and $35,000, which paid for artists, Elders, art materials, equipment, videographers, and the rental of studio and exhibition spaces. The programs also benefit from many in-kind contributions and volunteer efforts.
Since many of these initiatives were in their first year or pilot phase, some of the initial expenditures may carry forward and reduce some costs in the future. New ways to maximize financial resources across the different boards and programs, as well as other revenue generating opportunities, are expected to emerge over time as Vicki and Cécile continue to expand these new teaching and learning formats through the Department.
The Impacts: Expanding awareness of arts-integrated learning
Responding to the new reality of remote arts education involved a dramatic shift in the way Vicki and Cécile worked, but they embraced the challenges with an artistic spirit. Their creative problem solving resulted in remarkable success and was incredibly meaningful in such exceptional times.
The impacts on students and parents of having access to K-12 arts education while learning remotely is hard to quantify. However, it is noteworthy that the new learning resources were available to parents, who would not have been able to view the lessons if they were delivered in-school. This presented a tremendous opportunity to engage parents and the broader community in a conversation about the value of arts education.
A strong foundation in a few key areas gave the PEI Prince Edward Island’s Department of Education and Lifelong Learning an edge in their new, remote arts education programs:
1. Prioritizing the development of creativity as a core learning outcome.
Arts education isn’t just for those looking to become artists. It is a vehicle through which all students can develop critical and creative thinking skills that are highly transferable to any professional field. Vicki and Cécile further advocate for making it a graduation requirement for high school students.
2. Taking a student-centred and community-focused approach in curriculum design.
When developing an arts curriculum, one should start with an understanding of the students’ lived experiences and the community’s needs. This is reflected in the PEI programs, from the artists engaged in curriculum design and delivery to the reality of newcomers that have arrived to the province, to the way Vicki and Cécile empathized with students’ remote learning experiences at home.
3. Foster strong relationships grounded in strategic alignment.
The strength of the relationship and collaboration between Vicki and Cécile was fundamental to their ability to effectively respond during a pandemic. Their collaborative approach allowed them to pool English and French program resources and richly informed the content of arts-integrated learning opportunities. Their teamwork also provided much-needed mutual support, both when changes didn’t go as planned and when great successes were achieved.