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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Artistic to the Core: Music and Common Core

Dr. Karin Nolan

Music professor at the University of Arizona and former K-12 music teacher

I'm not a gambling person, but if I had to place a bet on one sure-fire method for engaging students, increasing test scores, reaching students who fall below standards, challenging students who exceed grade-level standards, accessing students' creativity and originality, maximizing brain connections formed, applying concepts to new situations, and making the learning process more fun for the students and teacher, I would place that bet on . . . teaching the core curriculum through the arts.

Our Common Core Standards exist to support students' future success -- namely, college and career readiness. As a former K-12 music teacher now in charge of a music career preparation program for college students, I feel confident asserting that creativity and problem-solving skills acquired through arts training have prepared my students uniquely for their future success. I am truly honored to share with you my thoughts regarding integrating arts into your curriculum.

Why is There Resistance to Integrating the Arts?

If such seemingly guaranteed improvements exist with arts integration, why aren't all teachers using arts while teaching other standards? These are the two biggest mental blocks I see:

  1. I am not a musician/singer/artist myself, so I do not feel comfortable with the art forms.
  2. There is no instructional time available to do anything "extra."

Overcoming These Mental Blocks

You certainly do not have to be an "accomplished" artist to integrate the arts into your lessons. You, as a teacher, are creative and original! Teachers must think on their feet, modify plans on the spot, approach content from different angles, support uniqueness, and inspire and foster growth.

Arts integration does not take time away from required Common Core and state standards. Think of teaching standards through the arts, not independently of the arts.

Holding onto misconceptions might prevent you from unlocking your students' creativity, originality and spark for learning. You already have the skills it takes to be a great arts integrator. It's time to dive in and have fun with your lessons.

How to Plan Arts Integration Lessons for Any Teacher

When incorporating arts into lessons, where to begin is often a daunting first step. This activity guides you through that first step -- brainstorming creative, artistic lesson plans connected to your existing standards. Start with a standard or concept you need to address. Ask yourself the following questions, and jot down all ideas you can. Your creative brainstorming will take your students beyond worksheets and unlock your creativity as a teacher and your students' enjoyment of the learning process.

Brainstorming Questions for All Grade Levels

  • What is the related historical background? What was the prominent art, music, food, dance, literature and dress?
  • Can the topic be written and acted out as a skit by the students?
  • Can we visually draw or sculpt the topic or its history?
  • How can we move to recreate or interpret the topic?
  • Can we show cause and effect through creative movement?
  • Are there any related musical pieces to hear and discuss?
  • Are there songs we can learn about the topic?
  • Can students write their own lyrics about the topic and put it to music?
  • Can you write your own song to help students remember important facts? They can help choreograph creative movements to "show" the lyrics (and thus, the facts) through their bodies.

Example Lesson Ideas for an Elementary Classroom

  • Animal Identification and Characteristics: Play Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, and for each part, have students move with the music and guess what animal the composer portrayed. Then draw their favorite animal from that piece, write a poem about that animal (using characteristics, classifications, food source, habitat, etc.) under the drawing, and set the poem to music by using sounds on classroom instruments that represent how the animal might sound/move. Perform the final pieces as your own "carnival of animals."
  • Number Awareness: Because math can be a fairly abstract concept, why not put sound and movement to number awareness and equations? Connect math to how sound changes between a musical solo, duet, quintet, 100-piece orchestra, etc. Then, have students create music (using classroom instruments, voices or body percussion) and compare how their sound and overall movement change based on number of players (volume, different instruments heard, different parts being played at the same time, motion needed to create sound, etc.). Students visually, kinesthetically and aurally become math.
  • Geometric Shape Awareness and Comparing Shape Attributes: Have students "conduct" music using shapes. Listen to music and ask them to draw shapes in the air that match the music's pattern (number of sides in the shape = groupings of the musical beat). For example:
    • A slow waltz (try "Sleeping Beauty Waltz" or "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") has groupings of three beats which could be conducted as a triangle.
    • Most pop tunes and marches can be drawn as squares or quadrilaterals because they have strong groupings of four beats (try "Anchors Aweigh" or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star").
    • Fast waltzes can be drawn as circles because they have a strong one-beat pattern (try "The Beautiful Blue Danube").
    • More advanced students could listen to music with groups of five beats and "conduct" pentagons in the air while the music plays (try "Theme from Mission: Impossible").
    It is important for students (like real conductors) to show clear, sharp vertices on the actual musical beat. Students put sound and movement to shapes, taking them beyond the typical visual representation most commonly taught.

Through arts-integrated lessons, students are engaged and focused on the content because it takes them beyond the confines of "traditional" learning. They get to hear, see, and become the content through the arts. Good luck and happy planning!

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Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

The arts are of value in their own right. They do not exist to be tools to enhance instruction in the "important" core areas. The arts define humanity and bridge divides. If, after accepting these truths, you want to use the arts to connect students to the CCSS, that is fine as far as it goes, but it is just as acceptable to use core curricular instruction as tools to connect kids to the (important) arts.

Dr. Karin Nolan's picture
Dr. Karin Nolan
Music professor at the University of Arizona and former K-12 music teacher

Becky, thank you so much! I truly do believe arts integration is a two-way street: just as the arts enhance and strengthen other curricular areas, the arts content is also strengthened and enhanced due to the increased neural networks being developed. Arts should never be forgotten in the curriculum or glossed over because I believe (as you do) they are vital to humanity. There are some teachers who feel that they cannot teach the arts because of time constraints/requirements within the day or because they might feel uncomfortable teaching a content area where they may not be an expert. I hope this article sheds light on simple things we can do as teachers to: enhance all areas of the curriculum, include the arts in as many lessons as possible, and foster the growth of our students' creativity and originality.
Wishing you the best,

@creativityassoc's picture
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

I agree that the arts are of value in their own right. I also believe that arts integration is of value in its own right. In schools that don't have the arts, I think that bringing in community artists to work with teachers to develop arts integrated lessons is a great gateway to having the arts fully present in the school. An arts-rich school has a strong cadre of certified arts teachers in all disciplines, community artists visiting the school, students visiting arts institutions and arts integration (where it works well) in the non-arts classrooms. More is better in this case.

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