Art, Mindfulness, and the Brain: A Learning Series for Pre-K to 12 Educators

Although The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) had never produced a webinar for Pre-K to 12 educators, with the onset of the global pandemic, it became clear that there was a need for a rapid pivot to digital resources and experiences. This required a rethinking of a teacher summer institute that had been successfully piloted with eight educators and non-profit leaders on site at the BMA in the summer of 2019. Entitled Art, Mindfulness, and Peacebuilding (AMP) the institute privileged educator needs and relational learning as an alternative to the hierarchical, impersonal professional development that focuses on content delivery to students so often required by their districts. The five-day institute included a two-day in-depth exploration of the brain, contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation, narratives related to human conflict, peace, and wellbeing, examination of art in the galleries, and art-making activities that explored institute themes.

The outcomes for the program exceeded expectations. Participants demonstrated basic understanding of key brain functions, articulated high levels of confidence in their ability to use the brain science, expressed that they had the ability to effectively integrate visual art and social-emotional learning within their current curriculum, and implemented significant positive changes in personal and professional contexts, informed by learning from the program. The educators reported integrating contemplative practices into their daily routines, introducing students to yoga, meditation, and breathwork, and experiencing personal revelations about their own professional goals. One principal completely transformed professional development at her school and shifted priorities in hiring decisions based upon what she gleaned from the institute.

The transition to a digital learning series required prioritizing the elements of the institute, dividing those elements into more digestible, shorter interactions, translating the experiential aspects of the institute into a digital form to actively engage the participants, and design the marketing to invite as many educators as possible to join. As much as possible, participants were given a sense of what the participants of the 2019 AMP teacher institute experienced. In addition, new elements were shared, including a panel discussion by the 2019 teacher institute participants reflecting on the ways in which the institute shifted their expectations regarding what professional development could be and a session that focused exclusively on the relationship between the brain and the arts. Ultimately, this was a five-session 2020 summer series in which educators could attend all five parts or attend only the sessions that were relevant to their needs. A reprise of the first session was offered in the winter of 2020.

The learning sessions were as follows: July 20, 2020: Brain Basics, July 22, 2020: The Social Brain, July 24, 2020: The Brain on Trauma, July 27, 2020: Rethinking Professional Learning, and July 29: The Brain and the Arts. Every session featured a welcome and introduction by Elizabeth Benskin, Director of Teaching and Learning, and a brief meditation, led by local poet and activist Akewi Karamba. The brain and behavioral science for the first three sessions was presented by Tim Phillips, Founder and CEO, and Dr. Bill Casebeer, Senior Science Technology Advisor, of Beyond Conflict, an international peacebuilding organization. Accompanying the brain and behavioral science were related presentations and activities that supported the session topic.

“Brain Basics” included an exploration by Traci Mathena, Principal and Morag Bradford, Arts Integration Specialist, at Creative City Public Charter School in Baltimore, Maryland, of the “Elephant and Rider” metaphor for the mind and how it was used as a core concept for start-of-school professional development for all teachers and staff at the school, inspired by experiences in the 2019 AMP teacher institute. (Both Ms. Mathena and Ms. Bradford were 2019 AMP teacher institute participants.) They also included their use of an illustrated self-care map activity which was the concluding activity of the 2019 AMP teacher institute. The session completed with a mindful doodling activity led by art educator David Ramos after which participants shared their experience of the process.

To help illuminate the concepts shared in “The Social Brain,” Akewi Karamba shared his personal story of how he moved from a place of violence to dedicating his time to supporting peace in his community and teaching contemplative practices. This was followed by a Q & A session with participants.

“The Brain on Trauma” was complemented by an activity in mindfulness journaling led by Ms. Laquisha Hall, City Schools Opportunity Culture Coach and 2018 Baltimore City Teacher of the Year from Baltimore City Public Schools. (Ms. Hall was also a participant in the 2019 AMP teacher institute.) Participants were invited to create the journal along with Ms. Hall and share what they found valuable about the experience, as well as how they might use the journals in the future.

“Rethinking Professional Learning” featured participants from the 2019 AMP teacher institute in discussion about what they took away from the institute and how the experience changed their perception of the potential for high-quality, relational, social-emotional professional development.

“The Brain and the Arts” featured a presentation by Dr. Susan Magsamen, Executive Director of the Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University, that explored the effect of participation in the arts on the brain. Following the Q & A session on Dr. Magsamen’s presentation, art educator David Ramos led participants in a mindful art activity in which they envisioned themselves as a tree and drew this tree as a way of representing the stages, challenges, and successes in their lives. Educators then shared their experience of the process.

Feedback was gathered through comments made by participants during and immediately following the webinars. Select evaluative comments follow.

  • Thank you so much for that series! It was wonderful! I can’t even find all of the words to express. I am inspired to do a student version of this … The culmination appeared during David’s art therapy lesson. A personal awakening! Thank you!
  • This was one of the best webinar series I had this summer.
  • I am a school nurse in a Colorado very poor rural area [sic]. I teach mindfulness & yoga to the students but this course was so encouraging for me not to give up on these kids. I don’t have much of an opportunity to see something like this so I was just blown away by it. Please keep up the great work. You are making a difference in many lives.
  • This was terrific and very empowering. Thank you!
  • So gorgeous. Love this whole project. [In response to Creative City Charter Public School presentation.]
  • Y’all are very inspiring. Energizing presentation!
  • The “take care of staff”/of yourself- great leadership.
  • This experience has been a much needed breath of fresh air… I can’t wait to take this into the classroom. GLAMi_Award_Image_Submission_EBenskin_BMA