Teachers all across San Mateo County are championing the arts at their schools. Learn about two of these teacher leaders: Jonathan Silverman at Los Cerritos Elementary School and Melissa Brown at Costaño School of the Arts.
Los Cerritos Elementary School, South San Francisco Unified School District
Every morning, first grade students at Los Cerritos Elementary School are enthusiastically greeted by teacher Jonathan Silverman, known as Mr. J, who has spent the last ten years at the school creating a caring classroom community through the arts.
“I love my students. They have so much potential,” shared Mr J. “For young kids who don’t read, don’t write, even don’t know English all that well, art is a vehicle for expression and a way to integrate into the classroom. It is incredible to see how they can tell a story and express what they feel by working with shapes and colors.”
Los Cerritos is a Title I school in South San Francisco where nearly half of the students (44.6 percent) are multilingual learners, and more than 60 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch. Many do not have access to the same extracurricular activities as families with higher incomes. To bridge this gap, Mr. J helped the school adopt Art in Action, which provides multifaceted lessons to develop students’ critical-thinking skills, creative confidence, hands-on skills, visual literacy, self-esteem, and an appreciation of other cultures through the arts. More recently, Mr. J has invited the whole school community to participate in music and wellness activities every morning to start their day on a positive note.
“The kids have experienced a lot of trauma over the last few years. They need to feel comforted, welcomed, and safe. I believe in teaching to their hearts and giving them a sense of security so that they can be successful in their learning.”
Mr. J’s approach to teaching prioritizes relationship-building and social-emotional learning. Throughout the day, he embeds opportunities for students to reflect and set goals, share about themselves, and celebrate their creativity and achievements.
“I am always reaching out and getting to know my students: what are their passions, strengths, areas they want to grow. We have Genius Hour every week, where students create projects on their own interests. It allows me to celebrate their creativity and learn what is culturally relevant to them.”
Additionally, Mr. J uses every opportunity to integrate the arts into core subjects in his classroom, whether it is drawing and labeling plant parts during botany lessons, creating illustrations and diagrams when practicing nonfiction writing, or using digital art tools to design characters.
Mr. J has attended several County Office of Education events to learn new strategies to engage his students. Most recently, he attended the county’s Creativity Residencies, which provides teachers with tools to elevate their creativity and infuse the arts into classroom instruction. He and his class also attended this year’s Arts as LIFE! event, where teachers and their class tune in to virtual workshops in spoken word poetry, storytelling, singing, and other art forms.
“This year’s Arts as LIFE event was empowering,” shared Mr. J. “The students truly enjoyed the opportunity to be with other schools, learn new things, and see their work shared with others at the event…Every event I have attended through the County Office of Education has inspired me to apply what I learn immediately and bring what I learn back to my classroom.”
Costaño School of the Arts, Ravenswood City School District
Along the southeast edge of San Mateo County, Ravenswood City School District arts lead Melissa Brown teaches her visual arts class at Costaño School of the Arts – a full arts integration school that offers more art forms than any other public elementary school in the county.
Ms. Brown has been the district’s art lead for four years, when the visual and performing arts teachers realized they needed a voice. After talking to the Ravenswood Education Foundation, the district was able to create an arts lead position to connect art teachers across the district, work with funding sources, and bring arts-related professional development to Ravenswood teachers.
“The Ravenswood Education Foundation has been a huge support from the very beginning,” shared Ms. Brown. “We were seeing how much the arts were being forgotten, and the foundation realized how important it is to our kids. They are always making sure we have what we need to make really robust and engaging programs.”
Ms. Brown plays a key role in creating a culturally relevant, arts-filed environment at Costaño. The school is partially funded by Turnaround Arts, which builds teachers’ capacity for arts integration, funds arts supplies and materials, and connects schools to arts education experts. A key part of this partnership is access to coaches and teaching artists who help educators integrate the arts throughout the school day.
In addition, Ms. Brown helps the school organize family events that incorporate the arts while celebrating the whole school community. Popular events are the school’s family art nights, where the school provides food, entertainment, and art projects around a particular theme, such as Latinx heritage, Asian/ Pacific Islander, and Black History Month. The events create space for students to celebrate and learn about each other’s culture.
“The family art nights have been huge in bringing people together,” enthused Ms. Brown. “They are a great opportunity for us to meet our district goal in being more culturally relevant and uplifting the students and families in our community.”
Students also participate in Stanford Live events, where students can attend local performances showcasing many different art forms. Through this partnership, Stanford Live pays for buses, tickets, and teaching artists who lead workshops before the performance so that students can connect more deeply with the performance.
Ms. Brown is thankful for her leadership's support for the arts, particularly Costaño's principal, Ms. Woods, who was a dance teacher and has a clear vision of making the school a true school of the arts. This support is more important than ever, as students, teachers, and families are still healing from the pandemic. Currently, Ms. Brown and the district’s leadership team are helping teachers meet students’ needs by using the arts to engage in social-emotional learning, culturally responsive teaching, restorative justice.
“Right now we’re seeing a lot of trauma in the classroom, and it’s coming out in extreme behaviors in every classroom, not just in Ravenswood,” she explained. “Kids are withdrawing from others and having a hard time relating to each other, let alone the teachers. I really believe that the arts provide a place for them to feel comfortable, a place where they can express themselves safely.”
Ms. Brown encourages her fellow teachers to step up and champion the arts at their school.
“Make sure you have a voice,” she advised. “Teachers should branch out and connect with other districts, people, and their community because there are so many resources and support to bring the arts to their school and it is so needed.”
This article was included in the March 2023 Spotlight community newsletter.