Teacher Retreat: Fostering Collaboration to Build Arts-Centered and Equitable Schools

“It is a great experience to share and reflect with fellow supporters of the arts. The professional development is inspiring, and you walk away with a wealth of strategies. It motivates us to be advocates for the arts.”
– Attending Teacher

Turnaround Arts: California’s annual Arts Leadership Team Lead Retreat brings teacher leaders from our 24 partner schools across the state together for two days of immersive arts learning and peer sharing. This annual retreat is aimed at building teacher leadership and fostering a collaborative approach to strengthening our public schools through the arts. Following are highlights from our time together.

Our wonderful hosts at Nickelodeon helped us kick off the retreat with a tour of their studios and a drawing activity with one of their animators. An attending teacher shared, “Drawing with Nickelodeon was an awesome experience, especially since I’m currently doing animation with my students.”

Our partners at P.S. ARTS then led attendees through an arts integration workshop where we learned theater games to use in the classroom, as well as strategies for incorporating creative movement and theater into social studies lessons. One participant shared, “I LOVED the drama activities! I’m already planning on sharing them with my students starting tomorrow! I love that there are different entry levels for engagement and the opportunity for student voice and choice.”

We ended day one with a review of schools’ strategic arts plans to assess progress and identify areas for further support.

We started day two with a soul line dancing workshop with J&J Soulful Steps. We discussed how the arts help us learn persistence as we try new things and how we can create environments where students feel safe to explore.

Mackie Saylor from the Turnaround Arts program in New York shared her work with NYC public schools developing community arts projects that foster more equitable shared spaces for students and teachers.

Program Manager Chelsey Brunelle supported teachers in exploring strategies for developing strong collaborative arts leadership teams at their school sites.

We wrapped up the retreat by exploring student impact evaluation and sharing key takeaways from our two days of learning.

“The arts strategies shared were so engaging, and the safe space provided helped us all feel comfortable to take risks and experience joy.”
-Attending Teacher

Annual Arts Leadership Team Lead Retreat

In March 2023 we were back in person bringing together teacher leaders from our 22 partner schools across California for hands-on arts learning, leadership development, and peer exchange at beautiful Loyola Marymount University.

This retreat supports teachers to further develop in their roles as arts leaders at each of their schools. It provides an opportunity for them to connect with their peers around challenges and successes and exchange ideas and promising practices. Following are some photos from our time together.

After getting to know each other, our partners at Collaborations: Teachers and Artists (CoTA) led attendees through a collaborative arts integration project. Inspired by photograph, Boy with June Bug, by Gordon Parks, we created a collaborative poetry piece.

Participants then created their own personal interpretations of the poem inspire by Illuminated Manuscripts.

This workshop provided a tangible example of arts integration to our teachers – meeting learning goals in English Language Arts and visual arts simultaneously. The uniqueness of the creative process was beautifully captured by the diversity of the finished products.

On Day 2, attendees had the opportunity to engage in in-depth peer exchange around their experiences as they have implemented arts-based strategies at their schools.

We closed out the retreat with a reflection on key learnings and next steps.

Impact Spotlight: Using the Arts to Build Student Engagement in Remote Learning

Barbara Bowman is a 6th grade Social Studies teacher at Zamboni Middle School in Paramount, CA, one of our partner schools along the LA River as part of the river revitalization project. In the years since Zamboni first became a Turnaround Arts: California (TACA) partner school, Barbara has demonstrated her commitment to exploring new ways of teaching with the arts at the center. She serves on the school’s Arts Leadership Team, responsible for developing and implementing their school-wide strategies around the arts.

Barbara admits she is a technological dinosaur, so when school moved to a virtual environment in March 2020 she was feeling daunted. Thanks to her school’s support she was able to quickly get the hang of the new technology. However, Barbara was not prepared for the challenge of student engagement. She shared, “My classes were poorly attended. I struggled with identifying the reasons and was determined to do everything in my power to reach my students.” 

With the support of TACA Regional Coach Partner, P.S. ARTS, Barbara collaborated with her fellow social studies teachers and developed lesson plans for remote learning that integrated the arts. Teachers were immediately excited by the results. “The word was out—students loved incorporating the arts, and online attendance grew! Additionally, teacher confidence in integrating the arts into class lessons improved. As a group, we all felt inspired to pursue professional development in this area in the coming year.”

Responding to the call from our partner schools requesting more support to integrate the arts into remote learning, TACA rapidly developed a series of virtual professional development trainings in the Spring of 2020. Barbara was excited to attend the first one, Building Community in a Social Distancing Era. She shared, “I was determined to take advantage of opportunities to bolster my professional development in utilizing the arts to enhance my online teaching, and I was excited by what I learned from this workshop.” Barbara utilized the Visual Thinking Strategies* techniques from the workshop with her students in an English Language Arts lesson on the Titanic. “During the lesson, many students again attended and participated (both verbally and via chat), and all were highly engaged!” Barbara continued to attend subsequent workshops and has been excitedly trying out the new arts integration strategies with her students.

“When social distancing began, I felt very unsure how to best reach my students. Learning to infuse my online teaching with art using strategies from Turnaround Arts: California has helped me overcome my fears of technology and enhanced my teaching, as well as increased student attendance and engagement. I want to thank TACA for providing these enriching opportunities. I have no doubt I am a better educator as a result.”

Cultural Symbols created by Ms. Bowman’s students during an arts integrated social studies lesson

*Visual Thinking Strategies is a long-time partner of Turnaround Arts: California. The technique supports teachers in facilitating discussions of visual art that significantly increase student engagement, performance, and enjoyment of learning.

Results From Our Annual Teacher Survey

Annually we survey teachers at our 24 partner schools across the state to understand the impacts of the Turnaround Arts program on their work as teachers, their school as a whole, and the impact they are seeing on their students. We also collect data to inform our progress toward our four Priorities for Improvement Through the Arts (PITA):

  1. Cultivate shared vision and collaborative school leadership in and through the arts.
  2. Improve teacher capacity to integrate the arts into classroom instruction to provide multiple, culturally and linguistically responsive entry points for learning.
  3. Through the arts, build a positive culture and climate that embraces equity and growth mindset, in order to support risk-taking, collaboration, and empathy, and to honor student voice and agency. 
  4. Engage family and community members as participants, advocates, volunteers, and equitable partners in learning.

We received 587 anonymous responses from faculty across our 24 partner schools and found the following results:

Shared leadership in and through the arts

86% of respondents agree or strongly agree that their school uses a shared leadership approach to the arts.

“Turnaround Arts has allowed for me to have a lot of leadership within the school. I have loved learning new teaching practices, learning how to partner with teaching artists and how to truly integrate arts into not only my classroom, but my school.”

Teacher capacity to integrate the arts into the classroom

82% of respondents agree or strongly agree that support and training for teachers in the arts is ongoing and embedded at their school. Additionally, 88% of respondents integrated the arts into classroom instruction at least once a month, and 52% integrated at least once a week. 

I am a veteran teacher. The Arts have completely changed the way I teach. I have moved from lecturer to facilitator. My students are expected to use communication, creativity and collaboration to learn from each other. I model what is expected and give them the opportunity to develop their learning from each other and from group cooperation. I am excited to tell you that I have been reborn to teaching. I feel great growing critical 21st century thinkers.”

Additionally, 98% of teachers reported that the arts had a positive or very positive impact on students this year at their school. In particular, teachers reported improved learning, including comprehension, retention, and critical thinking skills; social emotional learning, including self-confidence, collaboration skills, community-building, and willingness to take risks; and excitement, joy and fun. About a third of teachers wrote specifically about how the arts benefit specific student populations for whom school is not traditionally designed:

Students who have trouble demonstrating their understanding through words found it easier to show what they knew by using art strategies. For instance, a student who couldn’t write a paragraph to describe how a character felt, used shadow puppets to display their thinking.

The arts have given my students a voice and a platform in which they feel equal to their peers and are able to express themselves.

Culture and Climate

90% of respondents agree or strongly agree that their school’s atmosphere and culture celebrates creativity and artistic achievement.

“[Turnaround Arts: CA has] changed everything for the better! It’s a new lens of support that is meant to strengthen everything from students’ social emotional needs, academic, and community engagement. As a school we integrate the arts in our school and community culture. I have learned so many tools from my mentor. When I applied these strategies in my own classroom I saw tremendous bounds in my students abilities in every area. This partnership has also helped strengthen our bond with our community who love to come onto campus and see our beautiful art!!”

Family and Community Engagement

88.5% of respondents agree or strongly agree that their school regularly engages families through the arts. This question was asked for the first time this year.

“I know with distance learning the arts provided a way to engage the whole family and to bring joy to my students during a stressful time.

We thank our partner schools for their participation in this survey! It is a good indicator that our partnerships with schools is shifting culture, leadership, and instruction in a positive direction. Teachers are teaching in new ways, and as a result, see their students engaging in new ways. The arts are creating school cultures that welcomes families, celebrates creativity and builds community.

Arts Leadership Team Trainings 2018

Together with the Kennedy Center, local arts organizations, and our coach partners, Turnaround Arts: California gathers Arts Leadership Teams from partner schools across the state annually to develop and deepen arts-rich action plans for school change.

A special thank you to our 2018 venue partners: The Broad Stage, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and Sunset Center.

Video: Sandra Selva
Music: www.bensound.com

School Spotlight: Barton Elementary

In 2014, Barton Elementary School in San Bernardino partnered with Turnaround Arts: California to use the arts as a tool for school change. This is their story.

Music: www.bensound.com
Video: Sandra Selva

“I used to think Turnaround Arts was…”

This summer, Turnaround Arts teams from across the nation gathered at Airlie in Warrenton, Virginia to explore the question: How can we leverage the arts to increase equity for our students and community?

In their final retreat hour, new and veteran members of our #TAcalifornia team shared a reflective performance piece. Watch their performance below:

I used to think Turnaround Arts was a grant…
But, now I think it’s instructional strategies that will help our school.

I used to think Turnaround Arts was a prescribed curriculum…
But, now I think it’s a lot of freedom.

I used to think Turnaround Arts sent specialists to our school to teach our kids…
But, now I think we are the specialists.

I used to think Turnaround Arts was one more thing on my plate…
But, now I think it will enhance my plate.

I used to think Turnaround Arts was more work…
But, now I think it will make work more fun.

We used to think Turnaround Arts was far off…
But, now we think it’s family.

Science and Poetry

by Laura Compton, Science teacher at Willard Intermediate School (Santa Ana, CA)

Though one will be hard-pressed to deny the importance of the arts in a school’s curriculum, its place in the worlds of science, math, technology, and engineering may be more difficult to pinpoint. Volcano projects, habitat dioramas, jello mold cells… is that all that arts integration within a science curriculum is? While these projects do bring an art component to the curriculum, they fall short of showing mastery of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

How can art be integrated into science curriculum to effectively show understanding of the NGSS performance expectations?

The answer lies in collaboration.

As a middle school science teacher, I need STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to manifest into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math): in which art must work side-by-side with one or more of the disciplines in the acronym. As arts integration educators, we incorporate art within math and technology, just as we do with science.

While planning my Evolution and Extinction curriculum, I wanted to make science and art work together to enhance the students’ learning experiences. I began to research, scour the internet, and seek advice from my coworkers for ideas on how to effectively integrate art into science.

I found my answer on one of my Facebook group pages: a fellow science teacher posted her students’ poetry that she had them create to show their knowledge of space. They were beautiful and truly showed her students’ knowledge of the content. They were called Blackout Poems.

“Blackout Poetry uses the pages of an existing text to isolate, then piece together single words or short phrases from these texts to create lyrical masterpieces. Creating a blackout poem involves steps that are all about deconstruction then reconstruction.”

– John DePasquale’s Blackout Poetry


I needed to incorporate Next Generation Science Standard MS-LS4-4 into my lesson. According to NGSS, students who demonstrate understanding in this standard can “construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment.”

The students needed to understand natural selection before they could explain it, and if they were able to do so successfully, then they could construct a piece of poetry to showcase this knowledge.

With a high population of English Language Learners (ELL) and low lexile readers, I began the lesson with a whole group reading strategy using Naturally Selected to Survive an article found on Readworks.com.

Using a reading comprehension strategy similar to Marking, we were able to:

  • Review important vocabulary words.
  • Highlight the author’s claims.
  • Annotate these highlights.
  • Connect highlights to our Next Generation Science Standard, MS-LS4-4.

Using this strategy ensured that the students were familiar with the text. In addition, by asking the students to isolate the key words and themes from the reading, and then piecing them together, I could assess the student’s knowledge of natural selection!

I instructed the students using these steps:

  1. Scan the text for anchor words, one word on the page that stands out because of its meaning or significance. Select three to four anchor words that convey understanding of natural selection.
  2. Read the article in its entirety. Circling words that relate to the anchor words chosen.
  3. Using a new blank piece of paper, write the words in the same place they appear on the text.
  4. Here’s where the creativity begins: select words, without changing their order, so they can be pieced together to create a poem.
  5. When the poem is completed, return to the original text. Erase the circled words that are not used for the poem and emphasize the words that are going to be highlighted.
  6. Draw over “blacked out” words with an illustration that emphasizes the meaning of the poem.

My students couldn’t get enough of this project. Some of them made two, three, even four pieces of poetry! The best part? Students had to read the text three to five times. They were reading it, learning about science concepts, and loving using art and science together!

See below for students’ written statements about their Blackout Poetry, where they reflect on their science and art learning from the project, and articulate how the arts deepened their motivation and interest levels.

I would love to share and collaborate.

Twitter/instagram: @Compton1206, @WillardInt