One audition, and Jackalynn Snow was hooked.
It was in sixth grade, and Snow got the part as Clara in "The Nutcracker." She remembers the adrenaline surging through her body as she stepped on stage. It cemented her love of theater and set her on a path to her desk today: director of SPARK! Arts Ignite Learning.
SPARK is Missoula's arm of the Kennedy Center's Any Given Child initiative, an effort to expand arts education in grades K-8. SPARK is the only Any Given Child program in Montana, and it's the smallest nationwide.
In 2013, Missoula was chosen as the 13th Any Given Child site.
Snow moved from Indonesia for the job, but she's a Montana native.
She grew up in Butte, and taught English and theater at Billings Skyview High for 10 years.
"It was a tough decision to make to leave there, actually," Snow said of leaving Indonesia. "But I found out about this job and applied, and when I got it, I decided it was too cool an opportunity to pass up. If I was ever going to come back to Montana, Missoula was where I wanted to be."
Snow completed her master's degree in arts integration in education at the University of Montana's Creative Pulse.
"It piqued my interest in (arts integration) as a more effective method of teaching, and also a way to combine my interests in art with my interests in how I taught," she said.
Karen Kaufmann, Creative Pulse's director, was on SPARK's hiring committee. She's thrilled to have Snow back in Missoula.
"She just gets it," Kaufmann said. "She is able to articulate why the arts are important for children, and she is the consummate teacher herself. ... She's also a wonderful organizer. She communicates really well with artists and also with schools. That's what we were looking for: somebody who could speak both languages."
In fact, Snow first became interested in arts integration as a child – though she didn't know that's what it was at the time.
In class, she thought, "If I were teaching this, I would have us do this." She came up with interactive, artsy, project-based activities.
"It seemed like the natural way to do things," she said.
In third grade, she won a dress-drawing contest based on a book her class read.
"When I think back and try to think about what do I remember from school, it’s always those creative projects that stick out in my mind," she said. "I never remember a worksheet or a test. But I remember in second grade, we were studying birds and we made birds out of papier mache. We had to make them as accurately as we could. Then, I didn’t know that was arts integration."
In sixth grade, she auditioned for the Nutcracker.
"There were not many theater opportunities in Butte like here, with Missoula Children's Theatre and camps," she said. "Sixth grade was when kids could get actual acting roles."
After that audition, Snow said she was "addicted."
She was finally able to put those ideas into action when she became a teacher.
"As I grew as a teacher, I started to realize those things weren't just fun, but they were what actually got students to be engaged and learn the materials better," Snow said.
It's true around the world. Snow taught at Surabaya Intercultural School in Indonesia for two years. There, she chaired the English department, started a theater program, and used arts integration to help students learn English.
"It was their second, or often third or fourth language, so for them, getting on their feet or adding visual arts or adding music to help with the rhythms of language – all those things were really helpful," she said. "Seeing that in practice ... made me feel passionate about wanting more students to have that opportunity."
Snow is taking over from Chris Neely, who Kaufmann said "cemented" SPARK in Missoula County Public Schools and engaged the local arts community in the effort. Neely left to be closer to family.
Kaufmann said Snow has been open to building on Neely's accomplishments, and facing SPARK'S challenges.
"We were challenged with how we were going to keep track of data," Kaufmann said. "What happens, what are students learning, how do we know what they're learning, what is the teacher learning, what is the artist learning. We realized that some of the other Any Given Child sites are doing this data collection a lot better than we were."
Some teachers are uncomfortable with arts integration – since they themselves are not artists.
"I don't think they need to be," Snow said. "I'm not a great visual artist. But it's a good example for a teacher to show themselves as a learner and jump into something they're not an expert at."
That's something SPARK encourages, and they're developing teacher trainings through UMArts. At the end of the month, Kennedy Center trainers are coming to Missoula to train teaching artists and K-8 teachers in arts integration.
"She herself was willing to take many risks into areas that were not her expertise," Kaufmann said of Snow's work in Creative Pulse. "She served as a great role model, because that's what we expect our students to do all the time. She just rose to the top of her class."
Snow is still getting a handle on the position, so she wants to "continue the work that's already been happening." Long-term, she wants to see SPARK expand to high schools. Any Given Child is K-8, so SPARK is looking into grants and community support for the high-school level.
"Sometimes people think, oh little kids get into that kind of thing and in high school it's time to be serious," Snow said. "But I feel like learning is more complete when it's done through the arts."
Students are affected on a personal level, too.
"I had several students in my freshman English class who were too shy to even raise their hand and answer a question," she said.
So she "scaffolded" the lesson. Everyone starts out working together doing the same thing. Then they break into group work, then people perform on their own. By their senior year, Snow said some of those painfully shy freshmen were directing plays or starring in shows.
Snow wants SPARK to be the model for Montana. She wants to see the arts in every Montana classroom. As school districts' budgets are tightened across the nation, the arts are often the first to be cut.
"As an arts teacher, as a theater teacher, it was always a fight for anything that I wanted to do," she said. "I had to prove it was important, where you don't have to do that if you're a math teacher."
That plays into SPARK's mission.
"Part of working with kids in the arts is helping them to feel confident that the arts are not a silly thing to pursue or be engaged in," Snow said.