Orchestrating a New Approach to Learning: Over the Past Several Years, the Phoenix Symphony Has Built a Thriving Arts Integration Program in Partnership with Its Local School District

By Kaplan, Michael | Phi Delta Kappan, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Orchestrating a New Approach to Learning: Over the Past Several Years, the Phoenix Symphony Has Built a Thriving Arts Integration Program in Partnership with Its Local School District


Kaplan, Michael, Phi Delta Kappan


For decades, the Phoenix Symphony has played an important role in making Arizona one of the nation's best places to work and live. Not only does it bring world-class performances to the concert hall, but it has always strived to support the community in other ways, too, especially through music education. When it comes to this second part of its mission, though, it has struggled at times. Like many other orchestras across the country, most of its outreach has taken the form of "drive-by" programming: classroom concerts that do not feature much student involvement. Typically, musicians would be bused to a school, perform selections from "Peter and the Wolf," and then head on down the road.

When he took over as president and CEO of the Phoenix Symphony in 2011,Jim Ward pledged to do more to support the region's public schools. Inspired by the growing movement to integrate the arts into K-12 classroom instruction, he and Kim Graham -the symphony's new director of education--created a program called Mind Over Music, which aimed to tap the skills and talents of professional musicians to make meaningful contributions to student learning.

The idea was to bring musicians and elementary school teachers together to design and deliver a new STEAM curriculum, incorporating live music into academic lessons. Such an ongoing partnership, Ward and Graham anticipated, would lead to improvements in teacher knowledge, planning, instruction, and assessment; boost student achievement in music and the STEAM subjects; maintain the integrity of music instruction in the schools; and build strong working relationships among teaching faculty, symphony musicians, and education staff. Further, they hoped the program would become a model of successful arts integration, inspiring other arts organizations to build effective partnerships with local educators.

But still, Ward and Graham had to wonder: If you pair professional musicians with elementary school teachers, do you end up with magical classroom partnerships or awkward shotgun marriages?

First steps

Graham found the symphony's first partner school just a few blocks away: Arizona State University Preparatory Academy, a Title I charter school, embraced the new program, agreeing to a three-year pilot project, with some classrooms participating and others providing a control group for evaluators. A core group of five musicians then signed on to the project, telling Graham they were interested in trying this new kind of outreach. At that point, ready or not, Mind Over Music had become the nation's first arts integration program involving a professional symphony orchestra. "I had never worked with a symphony before," Graham recounts. "I didn't know anything about the restrictions governing unions, pay scales, that sort of thing. [In the last arts integration project I directed,] we used a corps of teaching artists from every genre. Our symphony musicians, however, were professional artists who had never been placed in a traditional teaching position. There was a learning curve for all of us."

The first step was to pair together the musicians and teachers to discuss curriculum ideas. However, as Jim Ward notes, that created a challenge from the start. "The musicians and the teachers needed to feel confident that it would be a mutual learning situation," he recalls. "It was hard for each side to admit what they didn't know." Despite some grow ing pains, though, the value of the approach became clear from the very first lesson. "When you hear the kids go 'Yeeeeeeahhhhh!' the moment the cello appears in the classroom, it gives you goosebumps," says Laura Harnish, administrator for assessment in the Maricopa County Education Service Agency.

Dian D'Avanzo could not agree more. A violinist with the Phoenix Symphony, she and her husband Mike, a cellist, joined the program in Year Three. "One of the great early moments," she says, occurred in a 2nd-grade classroom:

   The teacher was having trouble getting the kids to
   understand map reading. … 

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