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Teachers enter the profession with a passion to inspire students. Along with that passion, we bring our own interests. Maybe we love to cook. Perhaps we enjoy traveling, hiking, and camping. Maybe we have a passion for taking care of the environment. Regardless of what it is, that interest is what inspires us -- and many times, we want to share it. Yet with all the pressures of teaching what we have to teach (close reading, number talks, mathematical practice, etc.), it can be difficult to fit in what we enjoy and share what inspires us.

Two years ago, our school participated in a three-year project with the Getty, Los Angeles' world-renowned art museum. Our goal was to look at ways of integrating the arts with the Common Core. We learned a tremendous amount about the museum's art collection and, along with teaching artists and museum educators, we learned innovative ways to integrate the arts with ELA, science, and social science. We were excited to find that we could incorporate the arts within what we had to teach. Here are some tips that helped us innovate and succeed.

1. Finding a Theme and/or Focus

When we began working with the Getty's teaching artists, the first thing we did was look at what we were already teaching. Since we wanted to integrate the language arts, our starting point was looking at our basal readers and the themes that were already there. The reader themes ranged from Taking a Stand to Using Your Wits to Teamwork. Currently, we are exploring essential questions to further integrate our curriculum.

There is a multitude of ways to focus. Ultimately, finding and deciding on a focus and theme is helpful.

2. Finding the Art

The next step we took in our arts integration was finding artwork that fit with our theme. Working with the Getty, we were fortunate to have the museum educators, who knew the museum collection and could find and present us with possible artwork that would fit in with our theme.

Once we began working more independently, we were able to go to the Getty museum website ourselves and type in our theme. This brought up a search showing many different art pieces related to that theme. The hardest part was deciding which art piece to work with.

3. Close Reading of the Artwork

After we chose the artwork, we did a close reading of that piece. This means focusing on an element of art and a principle of design. We also looked at the art through the lens of our theme.

In our work with the Getty, we used two strategies to discuss the art -- See Think Wonder and VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) -- to look closely at the artwork. Through these strategies, we integrated ELA by guiding student discussion on the artwork and how the artwork enhanced our learning on the theme.

4. Creating an Art Project for the Theme

After closely looking at the art, we developed the hands-on art lesson that connected the theme and the artwork. We worked with the Getty's teaching artists to develop art lessons. For each lesson, we focused on elements of art and principles of design. So many different art lessons are possible.

My advice for this step is to start small if you're just beginning to integrate the arts. Use pencils, paper, and crayons. There are a multitude of creative art lessons that students can do with these simple tools. After your class establishes a routine with the art materials, then you can move to other media. Ultimately, when you get into messier materials, make sure that you plan every aspect. Think about tubs for students to store all of the materials. That way, when they're finished, everything is returned to one place, and you can have helpers collect the tubs. When we first work with students making art, we always use paper and pencil activities. We also introduce routines that help set up materials and prepare lessons.

5. Writing and Discussion

Reflection is essential when going through this process. Letting students think and write about what they learned, how they learned it, and how it connects back to the theme helps them see how "the arts" is not simply a subject in and of itself. As you ask students to respond to prompts, you can help them discover how reflection is part of a big learning process -- and another opportunity for integrating ELA.

6. Reflect and Try Again

Ultimately, you as a teacher need to reflect. Reflect on the process -- what worked and what didn't -- and then do it again. But this time, do it better. It's important, however, not to give up and stop the art. Students need to be persistent, and so do you.

Integrating visual arts into your full curriculum can feel impossible, but as long as you make the attempt and know that it is a process, then it is possible.

In the comments below, please share your own experiences and tips for arts integration.

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Deb Stahl's picture

I'm surprised that the simplest solution isn't listed here: consult with your school's art and music specialists. That's one reason they're THERE.

As a music teacher, I for one LOVED being consulted when the science unit on sound, where kids created their own instruments, came up, because I could expand (a great deal, as it turned out) on the prepackaged lesson the district's science teachers had created (and it was apparent that n music teachers had been involved). It was also rewarding to be able to build on the 4th-grade poetry unit when kids were writing limericks: again, no music teachers had been involved in the creation of the plans o teach limericks, involving not just a particular rhyme scheme but one set to a specific 6/8 meter, and not all the classroom teachers were comfortable creating their own, let alone teaching students to do it successfully. If your art teacher isn't stuck with a pre-packaged curriculum of his/her own, it's possible to use art class - and the art classroom! - for messier projects; the art room is generally specifically set up for just such things. It goes without saying that collaboration is key; it shouldn't be a matter of "handing off" projects to art and music specialists while classroom teachers step back, but we know stuff, we have tricks and ideas, and by and large we LIKE to feel that we're a full part of kids' school at least some of the time, not just planning time for classroom teachers.

It's great if you have access to out-of-school specialists, don't get me wrong, but using specialists you already have costs nothing and can really foster a sense of school community. The majority of schools aren't going to have access to something like your project with The Getty - but most DO have art & music teachers.

Jennie Fitzkee's picture

This is a great pathway to introducing art, and getting children involved and also reflective. I introduce art in a similar way in my classroom. We learn about the style of art in depth. We practice doing the style of the artist. Children decide what art they want to do, based on the artist and the theme. I have to tell you that Franz Marc, Kandinsky, Monet, and Matisse have been the artists children like the most. Then, the best part for children is validating their work. I refer to each child's art as a 'masterpiece', and allow them to work on it, over and over again. After all, masterpieces weren't created in a day. This flow, this validation, gives my children a continuous and positive experience of hard work. Art is hard work. Our finale is an Art Show for the community. I post a guest book alongside the art, and read it to the children. It gives another validation to their hard work.

On a side note, I often combine music with art as the children work. Recently I played Vivaldi's Four Seasons. As we began to work on our art each day, I asked, "Do you want to hear Spring, Winter, Summer, or Autumn?" The children knew each piece, and they decided which one they wanted to hear. Music is powerful. So is art.

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