“It takes a tribe to educate our kids today,” says Beth Wilbur Van Mierlo. “The more brilliant minds working together, the better, and our students benefit.”
This Portland mother of three would know. In addition to raising her own children—Matheo, Mikeal and Anneke—with her husband Jos, Wilbur Van Mierlo is actively engaged in Portland Public Schools through her non-profit organization Side x Side. “It takes a community working side-by-side to educate and support the next generation of students,” she says.
Specifically, this organization encourages school administration and teachers to work alongside teaching artists with the goal of enhancing the standard curriculum from kindergarten to high school through arts integration. The approach promotes critical thinking, creativity and innovation without changing the core curriculum. Since its founding in 2013, Side x Side has been well received by teachers, parents and especially students. During the most recent school year, 19 teaching artists worked in more than 80 classrooms reaching about 1,800 students.
“I have always been interested in the education system and in particular how the curriculum is delivered. Throughout my schooling, I consistently struggled to prove what I had learned on tests, which often left me feeling embarrassed and ashamed,” says 48-year-old Wilbur Van Mierlo. “My own educational experiences fueled my passion to shift the way children learn today.”
The concept for Side x Side began less than a decade ago while Wilbur Van Mierlo volunteered as a teaching artist at Howard C. Reiche Community School in Portland. One of the first projects she developed encouraged students to think about how they viewed themselves and how their community perceived them. Wilbur Van Mierlo asked the students to sum this up into one descriptive word, which was then stitched in red thread within each students’ self-portrait. The final pieces of Threads, the Ties that Bind Us were displayed in a downtown gallery with a continuous red thread joining each portrait to represent the interconnectedness of community.
Wilbur Van Mierlo still remembers one of the first students she worked with who slouched as she walked down the hallways of school, avoided eye contact and stayed isolated from her classmates. “She struggled so much coming up with a positive word to describe herself,” Wilbur Van Mierlo recalls. “She could come up with a million words that were negative.”
Wilbur Van Mierlo jotted down all those negative terms and then suggested a new word: unique. Her unique style, unique manner, unique learning style. The student lit up. “She changed. She started reaching out, talking to more students, she would say ‘Hi’ when I saw her in the hallway. Things she wouldn’t normally do,” says Wilbur Van Mierlo. “ It moved me so much.”
Through these early projects, Wilbur Van Mierlo also noticed that “the arts projects were engaging for all students, including those who were at the high end of academic spectrum as well as those who were struggling. This is when I began to see the opportunity to utilize my skills while fulfilling my desire to make a greater difference in my community.”
Shortly after founding Side x Side, Wilbur Van Mierlo was approached by Kelly Hrenko, art department chairs at the University of Southern Maine, seeking internship opportunities for the university’s undergraduate students.
“After we met, we realized to expand programing you need expanded funds,” says Hrenko, who had previous experience working with the Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination grant program. She helped Wilbur Van Mierlo secure the federal grant in the amount of $1.9 million to fund the implementation and assessment of arts integration in four public elementary schools. “It just spiraled from there.”
“It is pretty amazing,” says Hrenko of how the past four years have unfolded. She attributes the program’s success to the unique partnerships created. “Beth surrounds herself with people who are constructive and honest. She is really strategic in who she brings in and has put together a team of top-notch teaching artists and administration.”
The scope of Side x Side projects is equally amazing. In kindergarten, teachers promote literacy through dance and music. Second graders combine science with literacy, math, sculpture and illustration to learn about the ocean. History is brought to life for fifth-grade students through film-making, public speaking and acting. High school students explore engineering, computer technology and design in the “ARTronics” program, which highlights the intersection of art and technology.
“At any point in time, the content and medium of programs can change. That is the beauty of arts integration and our multifaceted teaching artists who can shift to meet the needs of the subject and classroom teacher,” says Wilbur Van Mierlo. “(Side x Side) is about creating different ways for students to learn and engage with academic content. Almost every kid loves participating in the Side x Side projects because the units are multi-faceted and integrate the arts with other subject matters.”
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana is impressed with the partnership Side x Side has created in the district’s schools. “Side x Side is a great resource for our teachers and helped our schools to integrate multiple media into important projects,” he says. “They have a cutting-edge vision for how to integrate arts into learning about other subjects…we know so well that students don’t just learn from books. They need opportunities to explore and express themselves.”
“A student doesn’t have to love art to engage and learn while having fun,” says Wilbur Van Mierlo. Like hiding healthy ingredients in brownies, “amidst all of the direct learning, students (participating in Side x Side programming) are also learning invaluable life skills, including, but not limited to, collaboration, teamwork, public speaking, risk taking, critical thinking, presentation of knowledge and skills.
“I started Side x Side as a way to change the landscape of education,” she says.
Her goal now is to secure sustainable funding to continue growing the programs and hopefully expand to more schools. “We would love to teach in other school districts. It is just a matter of securing funding to make that happen,” she says.
Side x Side “is not about producing artists or historians,” says Wilbur Van Mierlo, “but producing well-rounded people who can think for themselves and follow their own dreams.”
For more information about Side x Side, go to sidexsideme.com.
Emma Bouthillette authored “A Brief History of Biddeford,” about her hometown. She is a yoga instructor and a corgi mom. (emmabouthillette.com)