OGDEN — Every student at Taylor Canyon Elementary paraded through the school Wednesday, proudly displaying masks they’d made representing their cultures.

What might have seemed like just a fun activity — what child would turn down a second chance at a Halloween parade? — actually represented student’s new understanding of the concept of “culture,” which is part of the social studies curriculum.

This approach of using art projects to support core curriculum is central to the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program, which places art specialists in 400 elementary schools across Utah. Taylor Canyon’s visual arts specialist, Rebecca Ory-Hernandez, had the idea for the project, which was inspired by the culture of her home state, Louisiana.

Children worked on their masks with the guidance of one prompt: “What is your culture?”

“Some of (the students) didn’t even know what culture meant,” Ory-Hernandez said. “They said, ‘I don’t have a culture.’”

Through working on the project, every student realized that they did have a culture, though they all interpreted the term differently. Masks inspired by mountains, camping and even French fries made an appearance.

The student who made the French fry mask chose that because he loves the food, and his family eats it together, Ory-Hernandez said.

Many students also drew upon their heritage, learning about other countries or regions of the U.S. where their grandparents, parents, or the students themselves were born — a personal lesson in geography. Ory-Hernandez estimated that 16-18 countries were represented among the school’s masks.

Students didn’t have to choose one country, either — one mask blended the city flag of Rio de Janeiro with colors representing Ireland.

While the project was designed to support the social studies curriculum, it hit other subjects as well, including geometry.

All of the masks started out symmetrical, so students could cut out the holes for eyes. After that task was done, they could make the masks asymmetrical if they wanted. To understand that option, though, they had to know what “symmetry” and “asymmetry” meant.

This effort to use arts to support learning is coordinated throughout the school.

“We try to create the schedule so that (Ory-Hernandez) has time to meet with the teachers when they’re planning their curriculum, so that she can support what’s happening in the classroom in her art class,” said Donald Mendenhall, Taylor Canyon’s principal.

Art can help kids see their subjects from a different perspective than traditional worksheets or textbook work, reinforcing their learning, Ory-Hernandez said. It also plays a role in improving students’ stress and emotional regulation, which affects their behavior and performance in school.

“Art is way for them to use a different side of their brain,” she said. “By doing that, research shows that they’re able to relax in an environment that’s not as stressful as having their math book and their problems right next to them.”

The program is a pivotal part of elementary arts instruction in Utah, which was cut by the Utah legislature in the early 2000s, Ory-Hernandez said. That was reversed when the legislature invested in the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Program, which funds 80% of Ory-Hernandez’s salary, while the district funds 20%, she said.

For those who want to see more art instruction in elementary schools, now is the time to make that known, she said, since the Utah legislature is in session, and those funding decisions are in the process of being made.

“I think that people need to seriously think about what’s important in their child’s education and lobby for those things,” she said. “So if they think art’s important, they should become a friend of the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Program, and let their representatives know that it’s important for their child’s life.”

The program helps fund four art specialists in Ogden district, four in Weber and one at Syracuse Arts Academy, a charter school, according to the program’s online directory. Davis has one specialist at Stewart Elementary but also has two district coaches and one district art coordinator affiliated with the program.

Many specialists split their time between schools, as do all four of Ogden’s specialists. All are certified educators focused on teaching music, dance, theater or visual arts in elementary schools.

Contact reporter Megan Olsen at molsen@standard.net or 801-625-4227. Follow her on Twitter at @MeganAOlsen.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!