By Sarah Day
Sen. Mark Begich fairly towered above a classroom of attentive, excited first-graders at Glacier Valley Elementary School as he picked up a violin and was shown how to play it by those who have been learning the instrument since kindergarten.
Begich listened to them play two songs -- "Twinkle, Twinkle" and "Boil "Dem Cabbage Down." He was invited to play the "A' Concerto, as music teacher Lorrie Heagy placed a violin in his hands.
Begich stood with the class and held it in front of his waist, like you would a guitar.
"You don't hold it like this?" he asked. "Who's going to show me where my fingers should go?"
First-grader Talita Toutaiolepo helped him properly hold the instrument and placed his fingers on the bow and showed him which string was "A.'
Before each song the students go through a disciplined step process for proper posture and readiness to play the instrument.
Begich followed along and once they were ready, violin instructor Xia GuoHua led them through the song.
Begich said he has never played the violin before, and his only actual musical experience is with piano.
His visit to Glacier Valley was to take a look at how the school integrates the arts to boost up core academic skills. As he and his staff were escorted down the hallway by student ambassadors Vaipuna Toutaiolepo (who dressed in traditional Tongan clothing) and Maddie Cordle, they stopped by projects posted next to classroom doors as students involved in the project explained what they did. One project included drawings of a forest and its different layers. The topic was "What do trees in the Northeast do?" Students not only completed colorful drawings of those trees and their benefits, but also wrote paragraphs explaining their significance. Another project put together books of snowmen, writing their own stories. Yet another showed students had made water color paintings and used poetry involving a winter walk. In the midst of the hallway tour, several classrooms of students walked out two by two -- young men linking arms with young women -- down to the ballroom dancing class. He stopped in the first-grade class playing violin first, and then watched the ballroom dancing class. The fourth- and fifth-grade students were in a large circle and doing the dance steps their teacher called out. A variety of different types of dances were done, including salsa, swing and the hustle.
"You see everything from using art in regards to geography, designing pieces -- really it was a mathematical piece they were doing with squares and fractions," he said. "Mixing the two are pretty powerful in ensuring kids have a pretty good STEM education, or STEAM education. That's a pretty impressive program up there. Just to watch fourth-grade boys dancing, actually holding hands with girls dancing, is a miracle -- and enjoying it. Also watching everything in the ballroom dancing, the steps and procedures it's not just dancing for fun. They had a process and structure they were following. They had to respect each other, they had to communicate."
Begich said the dance program actually has a strong tie-in with Gov. Sean Parnell's Choose Respect campaign regarding the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault in the state.
"A portion of that is learned behavior," Begich explained. "If we have fourth-graders already respecting girls and communicating, that will transition as they get older."
Begich's visit was just a glimpse at all of the different arts integration programs in the school.
Nancy Peel, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, said that the integration is what gives the students focus.
"It's all great to have everyone come in and look at the arts and its wonderful to see, but its not about the art," she said. "It's about the focus, it's about the engagement. Watch those kids in ballroom dancing -- they're focused they're engaged. When they're in their (classroom) lesson they're focused, they're listening."
Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Florence McFarlin said it's also about motivation.
"It's not all about motivation but it's a way to get kids motivated, it gives them a purpose to be here," she said.
Peel said the JAMM (Juneau, Alaska Music Matters -- the violin program) students have been doing very well academically. McFarlin said she's seen some of the students who have struggled with academics and purpose in school thrive when they get involved in the different arts options in the school.
She said they start to excel in the classroom because they have found something they love -- and have learned to listen and focus.
Begich learned of the district's budget issues and that JAMM could be lost at Glacier Valley with the reduction in specialist positions. He said to cut JAMM would be a mistake.
Begich has been working on efforts to include the arts into the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiative, making it STEAM.
"I've actually believed this before I saw what was going on there (Glacier Valley), adding arts is an important part," he said.
Begich said his son has been playing the piano and didn't really care for it until he saw the mathematical connection. Now, the thing he wants to do the most when he comes home is play the piano. He's even memorized a song that starts as a classical piece and transitions into a song by Lady Gaga.
Begich said Alaska needs to step up to the plate with STEAM. He also spoke about improving education and what he's working on at the federal level to achieve that. Begich strongly recommends the state file for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind regulations.
"I think NCLB is a disaster for Alaska," he said.
Begich said the national model does not work for a system like Heagy's JAMM.
"Really, a program like hers is the new core," he said. "It's hard to reflect that on a test. Ballroom dancing, how does that fit in? Well it does on the larger picture."
Begich said that he's helped introduce a bill that is expected to be in the re-write of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (commonly referred to as NCLB). This bill addresses the need for flexibility in teacher preparation and getting resources to teachers.
The second bill that's also making it to the re-write, Begich said, is called "I3." It's an innovation piece that could help get federal funds to programs like JAMM. Begich said they want to have a way to say "that's great" and give additional funding to keep the program going -- but without telling that program how they need to operate it in the future.
Begich also spoke strongly toward boosting pre-school in the state. He said Alaska ranks 38th of 40 states who offer pre-school, and that pre-school returns $16 for every dollar spent.