By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service
MISSOULA – While their students enjoy a break from the classroom during summer vacation, a group of teachers spent a month at the University of Montana going back to school.
Representing a range of grades and subjects, educators traveled to UM from throughout Montana and beyond for Creative Pulse. The program allows working teachers to earn a Master of Arts by taking summer classes, plus independent coursework during the school year.
From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week for four weeks, the teachers became students again, returning to their classrooms as improved instructors in the fall.
Housed in UM’s College of the Arts and Media, the program is unique to UM. While prioritizing convenience by working around teachers’ schedules, Creative Pulse facilitates upward mobility for educators through salary increases triggered by earning a master’s degree. It also reinvigorates instructors’ approach to education by infusing creativity into the classroom, stimulating more positive and effective learning experiences for teachers and students alike.
“A lot of people who come into our program have been educators for a while and they’re looking for inspiration,” said Creative Pulse Director Faith Morrison, who also teaches dance at UM. “Many of them have felt that spark in the past but may have become disconnected from it or disillusioned by some of the hardships teachers are facing.”
Rekindling that spark is why Creative Pulse was launched in 1990 by James Kriley, former Dean of the UM School of Fine Arts, and Dr. Randy Bolton, Emeritus Professor of theater.
“The two of them set out to create a program that would be enlivening to classroom teachers, because so many teachers were finding that the curriculum in K-12 was killing their love for teaching,” said Karen Kaufmann, who served as interim Creative Pulse director while Morrison was on maternity leave. “The need that the Creative Pulse is filling is to bring humanity, life, creativity and joy back into classrooms.”
Kaufmann, a UM Emeritus Professor, began teaching Creative Pulse classes when it first launched and served as director from 2012 until retiring in 2020. In that time, Creative Pulse became a landmark arts education program, advancing hundreds of educators.
New technology, learning standards and COVID-19 changed classrooms in the 30-plus years since Creative Pulse was founded, but the frustrations and burnout felt by educators have not, Kaufmann said. When teachers go looking for a remedy, they find Creative Pulse.
Creative Pulse has adjusted to modern day education benchmarks, but Kaufmann said its philosophy remains. The program teaches instructors to imbue classrooms with personalized, artistic approaches that help them better understand student needs.
Foundational to Creative Pulse is arts integration, meaning traditional subjects like math and science are taught in harmony with the arts, and the concept that students can display multiple forms of intelligence. Its philosophy follows that many talented students don’t display their intelligence through standardized tests or homogenized learning standards.
“As standardized testing comes into classrooms and there’s a lot of pressure on teachers to get through set curriculum, I think many of them have been discouraged by not having as much creative freedom,” Morrison said. “This program is special because it gives people new ideas.”
Exemplifying that uniqueness are the program’s summer courses. Offerings included Creative Placemaking, Integrated Indigenous Arts in Education, Site Specific Art and Visual and Acoustic Thinking. The interdisciplinary catalog exposes Creative Pulse students to all art forms while teaching them to synthesize the lessons into their classrooms come next school year.
“They all leave with inspiration and ideas for their classroom throughout the year,” Morrison said. “I’ve heard from a lot of parents and other teachers at schools who say, ‘What that Creative Pulse teacher is doing in their class is so special. How did they get those ideas?’”
Participants also take an asynchronous writing class during the school year and complete a field project between the first and second summer. The last step is a creative project that serves as a master’s thesis. Graduate students typically defend the following summer.
Having completed his second summer on campus, Creative Pulse student Rob Harcharik is about to begin his thesis research while entering his 10th year as a kindergarten teacher at Hellgate Elementary School District. He first applied to Creative Pulse on the recommendation of colleagues who graduated from the program – advice he now passes on to any teacher who’s yet to pursue a master’s.
“They had nothing but amazing things to say,” Harcharik said. “Even after the first day, it was perfect. It’s really great to collaborate with like-minded people, and everything is so applicable to the classroom.”
Harcharik integrated mindfulness, meditation and grounding practices into his energetic kindergarten classroom. Despite their young age, Harcharik found that his students, much like himself, both loved and benefited from it.
“In teaching, we always say we want to make it fun for students – that is exactly what we’re doing, we’re having fun in this program,” Harcharik said. “You really tap into the perspective of your students.”
By putting themselves in their students’ place, educators better grasp their needs and the best tools available to address them.
Harcharik hopes to better address those needs through his research, which will involve his students. The project will study the relationship between children’s books and student behavior, and tie the findings to social and emotional learning.
Creative Pulse projects vary widely depending on the field of study educators are interested in. Past research included the impact of play in early childhood education, integrating social and emotional learning into music class, transforming classrooms into unconventional spaces and the effects of student-family book clubs on literacy and reading comprehension.
Throughout all those projects, the common thread is a commitment to fostering a more fun and effective class time for students – and teachers – of all kinds.
“Discovering new possibilities for education is an essential element of our program, and students benefit from those new ways of learning,” Morrison said. “Graduates feel really grateful to have the space to grow, try new ideas and think outside the box.”
Contact: Karen Kaufmann, Creative Pulse interim director, 406-243-4971, firstname.lastname@example.org.