Vermont Community Engagement Lab Activates Students' Creativity With Artists-In-Residence

Apr 1, 2016

Creativity within a school's walls might come in the form of a weekly serving of art and music classes and perhaps the offering of after school band, orchestra or drama club.

Vermont's Community Engagement Lab or CEL is taking on a mission to ensure that creativity doesn't stop there. Vermont CEL serves to take arts curriculum from just 'the room down the hall' once a week and incorporate it into a student's everyday learning.

Currently working to integrate arts and creative thinking into school curriculum, Vermont CEL is working with eight schools around the state and with artists-in-residence who team with teachers and students across core curriculum. Vermont CEL plans to expand its reach even further throughout the state in more school districts next year.

Recently, Vermont CEL's executive director Paul Gambill spoke with VPR to explain its mission and  several upcoming community performances.

What is the Vermont Community Engagement Lab?

"We started the lab as a way to be able to bring creativity into the core of learning. And, so much these days, we are talking about how we need to be preparing our students in a different way for the future that's ahead of them and a lot of that involves being able to think critically and imaginatively, to work collaboratively and also to be creative in how they use the information that they are given. And, of course, the arts are fantastic at all of those 'transferrable skills' as the schools call them. So, it's a way to really re-frame how creativity lives at the center of learning."

How does that play out during a student's school day?

"Now we know that creativity is a muscle that can be developed, just like math skills or science skills or English skills. And we need to be developing it." — Vermont CEL's Executive Director Paul Gambill

"It used to be that creativity was down the hall in that one room... now we know that creativity is a muscle that can be developed, just like math skills or science skills or English skills. And we need to be developing it so that when we provide all this base foundation, if you will, of information and learning, then the students know what to do with it and how to have divergent thinking around possible outcomes that they might not otherwise have imagined. So, we need to be, literally, teaching people how to be creative. How can students think imaginatively about the information they have so that it can lead to unexpected outcomes? And that process is a very exciting and fun and engaging way of learning. And it happens excellently through the arts."

How many schools are involved?

"We've got eight schools this year, so we're in the Northeast Kingdom, the Montpelier school district. We've got a school in Ferrisburgh and a school in Burlington. And next year, we're expanding into an additional four counties... we certainly aspire to be serving statewide and it's growing quickly, so it's exciting."

What does integrating creative projects into core school subjects look like?

"The goal is to really connect across curriculum-content areas, so we invite school teachers to build teams — maybe an English/science/math teacher team — and then we pair them with a teaching artist and then collectively they build a project that crosses those discipline areas and brings creative learning to that whole core team. So it's not just about creativity but also about team-teaching and cross-curricular integration, which is a really exciting way to connect the content areas so that you're not siloed in science for one period and then siloed in English for another period but rather how do those topics connect and can a creative project come inside that to really deepen the learning in all areas."

What has the response been from students and teachers?

"We are actually kind of blown away by how quickly the projects expanded beyond what we expected. All of the teacher-teams in the eight schools this year have expanded their unit plans way beyond the boundaries of when the teaching artist is in the classroom. So, it's inspiring a whole new way of thinking about curriculum integration and presentation. When we take arts out of its silo and bring it into the other classrooms, it can enliven learning in a way that's unexpected and inspiring."

Last year, the teachers and students worked with visual artist Gowri Savoor and musician Evan Premo. Who is this year's artist-in-residence?

"Evelyn Glennie is the world's premiere solo percussionist and we wanted to bring Evelyn in to work with the teachers first to help inspire them around the project designs and then bring her back to perform around the state and invite the students to be onstage with her and perform with her and present excerpts from the projects they created. I don't use this word lightly - it can be transformative. To be onstage around that kind of artistry, they are bringing their work onstage on par with her work. It lifts their pride and sense of ownership in what they've created to a whole new level that wouldn't have happened otherwise. And it gives the community a chance to come out and see what this work is that 's going on inside the school."

The Vermont Community Engagement Lab Orchestra will perform with Evelyn Glennie at the St. Johnsbury School Auditorium on Saturday, April 9, Sunday, April 10 at the Barre Opera House and Monday, April 11th at the Flynn Theater in Burlington. Gambill will conduct the orchestra.