SHIRLEY -- Arts education fosters creativity, teaches effective communication and can improve the general learning environment for all students, but since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002, much of the emphasis nationwide has been on reading, English Language Arts and mathematics.

That, however, is starting to change. In addition to the new PARCC standardized test for students, which is gradually being implemented across Massachusetts, teachers are now being evaluated via the Massachusetts Model System for Teacher Evaluation. Both of these new forms of assessment place more emphasis on thinking, effective communication and problem-solving than the assessments of the past.

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SONY DSC

For some, these recent changes could seem intimidating, but the arts teachers from the Ayer Shirley Regional School District decided to take the new teacher evaluation system's call for attention to "coherence, connection, collaboration and conversation" seriously.

Earlier in the school year, they began planning the First Annual Ayer Shirley Regional School District Arts Fair, which was held in March at Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School.

Pulling it together

"The music and art teachers began meeting in vertical groups to talk about professional development and the district's goals," explained Lura A. White Elementary School art teacher Kelly Fitzsimmons the night of the event.

The new teacher evaluation system calls for a "SMART" Goal framework that is specific and strategic; measurable; action-oriented; rigorous-, realistic-, and results-focused; and, timed and tracked.

The art teachers read the arts standards calling for "two-way communication, display quality, effort of work, bringing the community together, and shared collaboration," said Fitzsimmons, and decided that the arts fair would be the perfect vehicle for all of those things.

Fitzsimmons said that the teachers planned for showcasing a little bit of everything they had done, but that selecting individual artwork to display was not easy. Her final decision, she said, was determined by what was memorable to her.

Page Hilltop art teacher Heidi Cowley agreed that it was difficult to select only a sampling of her students' work. Planning the arts fair, too, turned out to be much more difficult than the teachers had expected.

"It was a challenge to collaborate with two different departments at four different schools with three different schedules, but what can I say? We're good at what we do!" she exclaimed, half-jokingly.

Music and drama

The arts fair, which was held from 6-8 p.m., also showcased music and drama. Page Hilltop Elementary School music teacher Abby Brigadoi decided to showcase her student chorus.

Lura A. White Elementary School music teacher Marla Farrow's students presented songs from their kindergarten through grade three concerts.

Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School band and music teacher Rachael Fletcher had many students playing solos and small ensembles that they orchestrated and organized themselves.

"Most of my band students helped out at the instrument petting zoo, as well," she said.

Her students also served as the sole stage, stage set-up, sound, and lights crews.

Fletcher's drama students performed a preview of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," the show they presented last month.

Chorus

"This is the second year (the middle school) has had a chorus," said choral director Marianne Cooper. "It's an after-school program, and has about 10 sixth- to eighth-grade students.

The chorus, which performs at many community events, sang several songs, including "May It Be (from Lord of the Rings)," and "Cherry Blossoms," a partner song in Japanese and English. Ayer resident Mick Paré accompanied the latter on guitar.

Also from the middle school was a group of young guitarists who participate in social studies teacher Kevin Langford's after-school guitar club.

From the High School

Besides his and fellow art teacher Michael Seguin's other student art and ceramics projects, Ayer Shirley Regional High School visual arts and video teacher Jim Ryan displayed his students' videos in the middle school lobby. 

The videos, produced by his Video Production and Introduction to Animation students, included animations of original characters the students developed in class.

High school performing arts director Matt Burwell showcased his band students' performance of "Eighties Flashback," senior Kyle Levensailor on alto saxophone.

The high school choir sang "The Water Is Wide," an a cappella piece in three-part harmony, and Burwell's drama students performed "Footloose/On Any Sunday" from the musical Footloose.

The band/choir spring concert will be at the middle school on Thursday, May 22, at 7 p.m.

The wealth of talent on display at the arts fair was inspiring, but perhaps most inspiring were the connections made between students and schools.

The elementary school students had the opportunity to see what lies in store for them in middle school, including trying their hands at using a potter's wheel with art teacher Elaine Noguiera's students. Middle school students got to learn about expanded arts opportunities.

Elliot Eisner, an emeritus professor of Art and Education at Stanford University who died just last January, once told an audience, "In the arts, imagination is a primary virtue. So it should be in the teaching of mathematics, in all of the sciences, in history, and indeed, in virtually all that humans create."

"To help students treat their work as a work of art is no small achievement," he later added. "Given this conception, we can ask, 'How much time should be devoted to the arts in school?' The answer is clear: All of it."