At Browne Academy, A Is for Adapting

Since September 2020, Browne Academy, a private school in Alexandria, has held in-person classes five days a week on campus.

Art and innovation at Browne Academy through combining subjects

A student of Browne Academy learning to re-create a nature documentary soundtrack for music and science.
(All photos: Polly Beam & Lucia Schaefer, Browne Academy)

Alexandria, VA – Since September 2020, Browne Academy, a private school in Alexandria, has held in-person classes five days a week on campus. It was a major undertaking for the teachers and staff, and their efforts have been nothing short of extraordinary. As the academy educators quickly adapted to new health protocols, they discovered how to effectively present their curriculum, improve communications among themselves, and improve their curriculum coordination.

Due to the pandemic, special courses like music and art at Browne are given over two weeks to lower health risks for students and teachers alike. The abbreviated time frame for each course encouraged the teachers to collaborate with their peers and innovatively offer fun, engaging classes. They accomplished this by integrating the arts throughout their curriculum, spanning multiple subjects taught within the campus.

Music specialist Lucia Schaefer described the integration as “a fluid combination of what students are doing in classes such as music and art, and what they are doing in more standard classes, like math and science.”

Schaefer explained the catalyst for the integration was the online sessions. At the start of the lockdown, she had more opportunities to pop into online sessions her fellow teachers were conducting. This, in turn, allowed her to discuss the curriculum and line up music lessons to correspond with the history or math being taught.

A pastel drawing of an axolotl, made by a student when learning about endangered species, radios and proportion, and pastel art.

“That’s how it started, and it went so well at the beginning of the year that it had kind of this snowball effect where core classroom teachers started coming to the art and music teachers asking, “Hey, this is coming up in our class soon, is there any natural connection to it?” said Schaefer.

An example of this was Schaefer’s unit on line dancing. She and the school’s math teachers planned lessons to take place when students learned about angles and rotation. Schaefer described how she incorporated math into her course by using math vocabulary and having students compose line dances on the coordinate plane, thereby increasing students’ understanding of both musical composition and mathematics.

“If there’s a natural and logical connection, and nothing is forced, we try to line our units up to match with each other,” Schaefer added.

Polly Beam, a visual arts specialist, said, “By integrating the arts into the standard classes, the excitement that many students have for their special courses spills into the history and science classes. Students can make connections that they didn’t before.

“I’ve gotten to know my colleagues a lot better, and I feel like it’s easier to work as a team because we see each other more often,” Beam added. “It’s been neat to see people come to us with ideas. This has been such a difficult year for teachers everywhere. I feel that in some ways, this year pushed many of us to take risks we would otherwise have taken a lot more time to try. And if we could handle it through these rough times, I’m sure this integration will only be stronger in the future.”

Likewise, students have enjoyed their expanded courses. Sam B., a fifth-grade student, said it was really fun to mix his classes and discussed how it affected his dedication to getting his work done.

Clay Sarcophagus created by students at Browne while learning about the culture of Ancient Egyptians.

“It’s very rewarding,” he said, “because when we combine multiple classes, we have much bigger assignments that count as grades toward multiple classes. They are much larger and long-term, but once you finish one of these assignments, you’re able to look back at it and see both all the work that you accomplished and also how the courses all connect to each other.”

Browne’s educators agreed that while the lockdown pushed them to take risks, they hope that they will continue to connect their courses in innovative ways in the years to come.

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