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OC high school teacher mixes arts into government lessons

by Mary Plummer | The Frame

Sunshine Cavalluzzi, standing, with her students, (from left) Justin Tran, Delaney Ashe and Veronica Flores, in a social science class at El Dorado High School in Placentia. Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

A few weeks into the school year, high school teacher Sunshine Cavalluzzi bustled around her classroom, preparing for the lessons she’d planned for the day.

She flipped through a packet of songs she’d compiled about California. And then she walked across the room to her iPad and tested her playlist on the classroom’s speaker system.

“We’ll talk today about how music is poetry as well,” she said.

Cavalluzzi’s approach is anything but typical. She’s not an art teacher — in fact, she admits her art skills top out at stick figures. There were two years of flute that she played in junior high — badly, she says.

Cavalluzzi is a social science teacher at El Dorado High School in the Orange County town of Placentia. On this day, she’s preparing for a U.S. government class. Over the past six years, she’s infused the arts into her curriculum to engage her students and help them find the subject more relatable.

“Once you’ve reached them you can teach them anything,” she said. “What we need to do is teach them how to think, how to be creative, how to express an idea. And a lot of kids haven’t had practice with that.”

Cavalluzzi has presented lessons on the economics of the music industry, assigned students to make movie trailers for political campaigns – even guided students through puppet show projects on government.

She first began using the arts as a way to become more approachable to her high schoolers.  She was worried she wasn’t connecting with those who didn’t share her passion for learning about government. Utilizing the arts allowed her to no longer be the one in the classroom holding all the knowledge. Cavalluzzi saw the arts as boundary breaker.

“It’s very intimidating for me, because it’s not my field, but I’ve been able I think to flip that mentally into a [process] that gives my kids the chance to be the experts,” she said.

Encouraged by her colleagues and the response of her students, she believed it was worth the extra time to figure out how to mix the arts into her social science lessons.

Her creativity during the school day paid off: in the past two years she’s been honored twice by the Grammy Museum for outstanding use of music as a teaching tool.

El Dorado Principal Carey Cecil is a big force behind the push for arts across all subjects at the high school.  She estimates that more than 50 percent of the school’s teachers integrate the arts into other subjects.

Cecil believes the arts are key at helping prepare students for jobs in today’s work force. She wants her students to be innovative.

“In art, you learn flexibility in that you’re constantly creating, recreating, adjusting your own vision," Cecil said. "And it creates in people a willingness to have a flexibility of mind."

It’s a method that many students at the school say works. Tommy Geukens, 16, takes two classes that integrate the arts.

“It seems that the kids are a lot more focused,” he said. “My favorite kind of method is where it’s really interactive. 'cause I’m kind of a hands-on person.”

Back in Cavalluzzi’s classroom, the day’s lesson got underway.
 
She headed to her iPad to play "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas & the Papas and asked the students to think about what the song conveys about the state where they live.
 
As she hit the play button, she told the class: "Air guitar perfectly welcome.”

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