If a community member visited Brentwood Elementary School in Central Austin, he or she would likely notice art on the walls, student-painted murals and music in the hallways.  Upon walking into a classroom like teacher Theresa Wood’s second grade, he or she would witness a lesson being taught using Creative Learning Initiative techniques.

Created as a partnership among Austin ISD, teaching company Mindpop and the city of Austin, CLI encourages educators to use techniques that forward learning through creativity and community engagement while building “arts-rich” campuses, Mindpop Executive Director Brent Hasty said. Through CLI—currently being implemented in 63 AISD campuses—teachers are trained to use flexible strategies to teach many different subjects, he said.

CLI Coordinator John Green-Otero said strategies utilize aspects of the arts—like song writing, acting or visual projects—to connect the content being taught with experiences students are more likely to remember compared to traditional lesson plans. The results are increased attendance rates, student engagement and test scores, he said.

In Wood’s class, students work in groups to create a pose or action that will exemplify that morning’s vocabulary word. After demonstrating what they have created, the class “acts out” the other words taught earlier that week as a review. Plot review and inference skills are taught in similar ways after reading a new story. Students role play as characters to remember plot and explore how a character feels.

“Unless learning is grounded in relatable experience, [a student] is not going to retain it,” Green-Otero said.  “If it's visual or aesthetic, it's going to be a better learning experience.”

Hasty said teachers can use strategies at varying rates depending on their teaching style. However, most use it at least once a week, while many do multiple times a day. 

“We’ve often found that once [teachers] start using it, they start finding [other places to implement the techniques],” Green-Otero said. “It can be a powerful tool to get kids to understand.”

He said CLI techniques vary depending on grade level but are rooted in the same theory—using the arts to provide students a stronger understanding of history, language, math and sciences.

However, the initiative’s teaching strategies are only one of the program’s priorities. By partnering with different local businesses, organizations and community members, the initiative provides greater access to the arts, Hasty said.

This spring at Brentwood Elementary, a different musician from the community will be performing each day to help expose students to instruments and genres, he said. Last spring the district partnered with Allison Lash, owner of Awesome Art Austin, who helped students at Davis Elementary School in Northwest Austin paint murals on the outside of portable classrooms. The murals were themed after recent lessons the students were taught.

“I feel that if you walk onto a campus you get the sense that this is different, that this place values its creatives in a different way,” Green-Otero said. “That's what we want and why it requires these kinds of partnerships.”