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Arts Integration or Arts and Crafts?

Susan Barber

High School English Teacher & English Department Chair
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Research shows that one of the best ways to engage students in content learning is to incorporate the arts. Because of students' openness to the arts, their motivation remains high, their attention spans tend to be longer, and their learning increases -- yet teachers sometimes struggle with how to incorporate the arts while maintaining academic integrity. No matter what type of the arts you desire to bring into the classroom -- music, visual art, creative writing, dance, etc. -- here are five guidelines to help prevent arts integration in the content classroom from simply becoming arts-and-crafts time.

1. Arts integration should be connected to a standard.

Common Core standards lend themselves beautifully to arts integration. Whether the arts are used as an entry point to a lesson to pique student interest or as a culminating project to assess student knowledge, standard alignment is essential. Several museums, centers, and education sites offer detailed lessons, across the disciplines and for various grade levels, which are aligned to standards and maintain an academic focus. For example, the Getty, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Kennedy Center are great places to begin exploring ideas of how the arts can tie to standards.

2. Arts integration projects should reflect learning.

In addition to alignment with standards, teachers should clearly identify and state the desired learning outcomes before students begin creating. Wording such as "students will understand" and "students will demonstrate" narrows the focus and outlines clear learning goals. Using arts in the classroom will free students to look at content from different perspectives while clear communication from the teacher in the beginning and continued dialogue through the process will ensure student focus on learning goals.

3. Arts integration should involve student choice.

Just as students have different learning styles or multiple intelligences, they gravitate toward different forms of the arts. Some will prefer visual art, while others prefer dance. Music will be some students' forte, while others are natural performers. Allowing them to create and express themselves through their choice of the arts makes learning personal and relevant. Offer options for self-expression through visual arts by painting, sculpting, graffiti, photography, or drawing; or through music by composing or performing in different genres. Those who love the spotlight may want to perform monologues, vignettes, dance pieces, or direct their classmates' performances, while others may be more inclined to write poetry or short stories. Some projects can cross the lines of different learning styles, such as film, graphic novels or comics, or musical theater. Instead of offering students a choice of two or three options, invite them to propose their own projects so that they're free to dream, create, and fully own their learning. For culminating or extended projects, students may collaborate and construct projects showcasing a variety of the arts. The sky is truly the limit.

4. Arts integration projects should have specific grading rubrics.

Developing a specific rubric can alleviate fears and uncertainty for both teachers and students. While your specific rubric may have more categories, projects involving the arts should include three basic categories for assessment:

  • Content: Content assessment includes how well the project reflects the standard and mastery of the content.
  • Process: The process evaluation includes the use of higher-order thinking skills, planning and organization, and overall student effort.
  • Product: The product assessment is where many teachers feel unqualified to offer feedback because of their lack of knowledge or experience in a particular discipline of the arts. Focus on whether the content is clearly reflected in the finished product and the quality of the product or performance when assessing the product.

A student reflection, whether written or spoken, can serve as a valuable tool when assessing what the student learned and how well the product ties to the content. Art, theater, and music teachers can be a great resource for content teachers feeling uncertain about assessment or arts integration in general.

5. Arts integration projects should be shared with others.

Learning best occurs when the student becomes the teacher, and while sharing a project doesn't seem like formal teaching, the experience offers a chance to showcase learned information. Exhibit projects not just in the classroom but throughout the school, especially for open house or other special events, or host a gallery walk to display the visual arts. Dance or small theater performances can be held for younger classes or during lunch. The local theater, coffee shops, county offices, or civic-minded businesses are often willing to display work or host school-sponsored readings of original works or dramatic interpretations. Allow students to shine in front of some type of audience.

Arts integration in the modern classroom serves as a gateway for student engagement, motivation, and creativity. Not only will students benefit, but teachers also reap the rewards of having students use critical thinking skills and flourish in learning content through relevant and individualized projects.

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Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

Susan,
I love this post!
What are some of the model texts that you have used in your class to connect the arts to your main curriculum?

Susan Barber's picture
Susan Barber
High School English Teacher & English Department Chair

We just used "Wandered Above the Fog" (Friedrich) to connect with Frankenstein. Students use it to discuss Romanticism and see the characteristics of Romanticism in the novel as the same as in the visual art giving them a broader view of the movement as a whole. This can be done with about any text and time period since music, visual art, and literature all share the same characteristics. Other times my students will flip the assignment and create a piece of art characteristic of a passage or a novel as a whole. Their project cannot simply be painting a picture from the work but reflective of the time period. This especially works well with modern pieces.

Stephen Missal's picture

My experience in the arts (40 plus years college level teaching and artist/illustrator/forensic artist), plus my sister's (40 years public school music/drama teacher) have led me to understand that it is not necessary to adopt a 'program', as in the Kennedy Center version, for example, to get the synthetic results that proponents argue are the product of integration. Although, from time to time, some of the exercises can be valuable or entertaining, they do not in any way replace in depth art/drama/music/dance instruction, and, sadly, become an excuse to reduce or eliminate such programs. Spontaneous usage of the arts, as outlined in the Friedrich piece used to reinforce the novel Frankenstein certainly are valid, but codifying this practice into academia requires, I am forced to say, a diluting of the information such that it only becomes a brief adjunct and/or reinforcer rather than something of real depth. I have seen people vigorously argue that this is not true, but anyone who has taught in the arts and academia, and who has participated in symphony orchestra concerts, plays, etc....knows that there is a profound difference between a tableau and George Balanchine. I am very worried that programs that have gained financial traction are being touted as something they are not. I am familiar with the Kennedy Center training/program, and it is limited in its value. The training necessary for the teachers is impossible to sustain and keep throughout the staff without losing valuable time and concentration on academic issues. The human mind automatically synthesizes the information obtained in different settings. We know that singing will help memory, yes...I am not ignorant of these studies, but it also has limited time/place/value within the enormous realm of academic knowledge that must be covered, in depth, and with, as they say these days, fidelity. I hate that buzzword, but you all know what I mean. Before we assume that magically we can institute a program that literally, from the ground up, restructures instruction at all developmental levels, in all areas (math...?hmmmm) we should explore having robust arts programs in our schools instead, with naturally occurring arts nuances in the classroom. I will be willing to bet the result will be better and far more in depth than the arts integration model.

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Susan Barber's picture
Susan Barber
High School English Teacher & English Department Chair

I completely understand where you're coming from and see your concerns. Most content teachers like myself are not able to adopt full programs like the ones mentioned in the article but can use them as a resource to tie content to the arts. As you have mentioned, many arts programs have been cut so arts integration offers exposure for students, but I agree in no way replaces an arts education. When I use arts integration projects in the classroom, my desire is to whet the students appetite hopefully causing them to pursue the arts further.

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Abigail Pollak's picture
Abigail Pollak
Marketing Assistant

Naturally, the arts drive creativity. What is not widely known is that the arts drive creative inquiry, and creative inquiry is the driver of all disciplines. It is through creative inquiry that we unlock questions, solve problems, and discover new possibilities.

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