December 1997

The Kidsmuse Project

The Kidsmuse Project

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Using arts and technology to teach numeracy and literacy in Grades 1 to 3

By Dwight Klassen

What surprised me was how many people were there during their summer holidays," says Lori McBrien Ralph.

"Very exciting," Olga Kobylansky reports. "It was a dynamic group of people."

These two were among the 500 elementary teachers from the Greater Toronto Area who spent time this summer cooped up inside the Art Gallery of Ontario.

This three-day session was part of their commitment to a new three-year project called Kidsmuse. The teachers have all committed to 10 days of training each year, a combination of personal and school time. At the end of the three years, the Grade 1, 2, and 3 students and teachers in the 94 schools involved in Kidsmuse will have created a children’s museum on the Internet.

The Learning Partnership, the not-for-profit organization that started Kidsmuse, describes the project as a "digital exploration of the creative arts for the purpose of enhancing literacy and numeracy."

The integration of art in the curriculum and in technology, which is the basis of the Kidsmuse project, was also the basis of the summer’s professional development program. Fran Marcos, Grade 1 teacher at Norway Public School in Toronto, remarks that the leaders "didn’t forget about incorporating all the different strands into all the workshops." They kept stressing the importance of the arts and linking the activities the teachers were doing and learning into all areas of the curriculum.

Spectacular Workshop

The most spectacular of the workshops was the one on visual arts, created by the Art Gallery of Ontario. In this session, participants went into the gallery to study Skaters on the Amstel by Arent Arentsz. They discussed the painting, then went to the computers, where they saw it as it would appear in a virtual children’s museum.

Olga Kobylansky, a Kindergarten teacher at James S. Bell in Etobicoke, describes it: "You could see this painting changing on the screen. It was a winter painting, but children could see it as a spring scene with trees with blossoms. The river had melted. You could hear birds singing. Young children would be able to see seasons change – winter into spring, then summer into fall – in front of their eyes."

The on-screen picture was full of buttons incorporating activities in language, science, math and art. A participant described it this way, "The painting showed a couple skating along a frozen river.

"By clicking on a cloud, you could go into a science experiment that talked about wind and the speed of wind. If you clicked your mouse on ‘light breeze,’ the leaves on the tree started to quiver. As you clicked for the wind to become stronger, the trees started to bend, the sound of the wind got louder and the hats started to fly off. If you clicked on the couple walking, you got into a study of social interaction."

Other workshops had the teachers building a web page and surfing the Internet, no matter what their previous level of computer experience. "There was always someone you could learn from and someone you could teach," remarked Kobylansky, whose computer knowledge is basic.

Besides adding to their computer skills, the teachers expanded their knowledge of music, dance and drama.

Judy Lewis, Grade 1 teacher at James S. Bell, also praises the dance and drama class. "We learned to become more aware of space and of our bodies and to work in groups to create different patterns."

Lori McBrien Ralph, who teaches Grade 2 at Heritage Glen in Oakville, says the importance of the arts was stressed throughout the training, that "kids need to be creative within themselves before they can put it in the computer."

She was impressed by the focus on music and drama and how all the music and arts activities related to the curriculum. "With every little ditty," she says, "with every little game we played, we were shown how we could relate this to a child having a problem reading or patterning or phrasing."

Each of the schools involved in the project also sent a teacher, designated the "techie", who spent all three days in a separate workshop learning about the project’s software and hardware, the Silicon Graphics O2. This teacher will provide support to teachers and students of the Kidsmuse project.

The Children’s Museum

At the end of the Kidsmuse project, anyone with access to the Internet will be able to visit the children’s museum.

This is virtual reality without the headset. Virtually, you walk up to the front doors of the museum and open it up by using the mouse on your computer. Then you can decide whether to go left and turn your mouse in that direction.

The scene shifts – as if you were driving a car. Now you’re facing a door and at the top of the door it might say "Children’s Art." Then you go through that door and hanging on the wall are pictures that were produced by children. You can walk up in front of a picture that takes your fancy and have a closer look or you can step back from it and take a look, just as you would in a gallery. And that’s only the start of your journey.

For the children and teachers in the Kidsmuse project, the journey to build the museum starts now. The demonstration created by the Art Gallery of Ontario for the visual arts workshop was an incomplete example of what a room in the children’s museum might look like. Over the next three years, the children and teachers in Kidsmuse will be creating this type of package.

The Kidsmuse project is already under way at Heritage Glen Public School in Oakville, which showed its work-in-progress at the summer workshop. Its art gallery is a maze, through which you can fly and click on a child’s piece of art. Behind it you will find activities, perhaps a story. Although Kidsmuse is designed for children in Grades 1 to 3, Heritage Glen got older students involved, too. "The older children have become technology coaches," reports principal Dorothy Fowler. "We use the younger children’s art and the older children for technology."

According to The Learning Partnership, research shows that young students in programs that emphasize the arts do better in reading, math and science than their counterparts enrolled in the normal curriculum and that this advantage lasts. This principle underlies the Kidsmuse project, just as it underlies the three-day workshop.

Generous Donation

The involvement of Silicon Graphics has made this project possible. Silicon Graphics supplies high-performance, interactive systems and software to government and the manufacturing, science, telecommunications and entertainment industries.

As a result of its relationship with The Learning Partnership, Silicon Graphics is donating 102 workstations, software and technical resources, amounting to an in-kind donation of $16 million.

Silicon Graphics wants to produce more programs for the elementary level. With Kidsmuse, the company will be able to see whether their machine can be used by teachers and students and what kinds of programs would benefit this level.

The workstations for Kidsmuse are being installed in 94 schools throughout the Greater Toronto Area. The schools will be linked together by an intranet, which will allow them to communicate with each other and collaborate on building the virtual children’s museum. Once the museum is up and running, it will be accessible through the Internet.

The 17 school boards taking part in the project have agreed to provide support, including wiring the schools to connect the Silicon Graphics machines to other terminals within the school. This will allow children to create their art or scan it at a Macintosh or IBM machine and transfer it through the school’s link to the Silicon Graphics computer.

The Technology Incentive Partnership Program of the Ministry of Education and Training has allocated $2 million to the project.

Teachers know they can use the arts to improve numeracy and literacy and do it without technology. But the technology makes sharing among students, teachers and schools easy. The technology allows collaboration by both teachers and students.

The teachers participating in Kidsmuse are clearly very enthusiastic about the program. They were excited at the idea of collaborating with colleagues from so many schools and at the possibilities for creating interesting ways of using the arts to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.

Dorothy Fowler is only one of the teachers who finds the ongoing nature of the project exciting. "There’s no standing still with technology," she says.

The Learning Partnership is a not-for-profit organization whose mandate is nurturing the growth of partnerships among schools, businesses and communities devoted to constantly strengthening publicly-funded school systems. Dwight Klassen is a computer resources teacher with the Etobicoke board’s Technology Across the Curriculum Department. He can be reached at