Arts Integration

Common Core in Action: Using the Arts to Spark Learning

January 7, 2014
Photo credit: nics_events via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the 21st century, we are living in a creative society and economy rather than an industrial one, which begs the questions:

  • What skills do young people need in this new world?
  • How can they gain creative skills for innovation in the work place?

An Arts-Based Approach

While attending the Conference of the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE), I participated in a session about the Common Core State Standards, where it was suggested that meeting English language and math standards begins with students' passion for learning. The question is: what are the most effective methods to ignite that passion? The arts, of course! I believe that the performing arts can inspire all learners to invest in their own learning, and it is hugely important that teachers build opportunities for creative learning to model these important skills for their students.

I believe that students work best when they learn kinesthetically, which lends itself indelibly to striving towards the Common Core State Standards. In my work at the New Victory Theater, we create ready-to-implement activities that show which anchor standard they are fulfilling. This lets classroom teachers easily incorporate theater techniques into academic units, like English language arts. With these activities, teachers can hook students into creative learning, which enables them to deepen understanding.

For third-to-fifth grade educators who teach a fairytale unit or a book-of-the-month focus, here are some activities where theater can enliven literature. The example we’ll use is the Brothers Grimm's Sleeping Beauty.

Briar Rose Meets the Common Core

Objectives and Goals

  • To explore the text Sleeping Beauty through different theater techniques of storytelling
  • To build imagination and point-of-view skills through the theatrical convention "River of Dreams"
  • To make artistic choices to complete the final scenes of Sleeping Beauty using the theater skills explored


  • Flashlights
  • Lighting gels or different colors of cellophane
  • Overhead projector
  • Classroom objects (stapler, folder, chair, etc.)
  • Instruments/sound makers
  • Sleeping Beauty plot points (pre-determined by teacher)

Prior Knowledge

  • Ask students:
    • How do you tell stories?
    • What techniques do you use when telling stories in your classrooms?
  • Students will be asked to keep their responses to these questions in mind throughout the session as they activate and adapt text by using different theatrical and design techniques.
  • Activity 1: Story Whoosh!

    Immersed Story Whoosh: Students will embark on a flocking activity where they follow the teacher (who serves as narrator) to different stations placed around the classroom.

    • Lead students through the Whoosh by narrating or telling sections of the story. At each station, students will be asked to create the mood of a particular plot point using the art form or materials provided.
    • In addition, students can use sound design (Foley, instruments, objects and voice) to create the sonic mood of these plot points, characters, etc. at each station. The stations are as follows:
      • Moving Image or Tableau: Direct students to physically create the setting, characters, etc. of the plot point.
      • Toy or Object Theater: Encourage students to use objects found in a classroom to activate a plot point or create the mood for that scene.
      • Lighting Design: Invite students to use gels with clip lights, flashlight or an overhead projector to create the mood of a plot point of the story.

    Teachers can also choose other art forms -- such as music, songs, puppetry, etc. -- for the students to tell the story.

    Activity 2: River/Corridor of Dreams

    • Ask students, "What do you think Sleeping Beauty (or Briar Rose) dreams about during 100 years of sleep?"
    • For the River of Dreams, students will reflect deeply to create a visual timeline of Sleeping Beauty’s dreams while she sleeps in her tower.
    • Using a large piece of butcher block paper, students will draw and create the character's dreams over the course of her 100-year sleep. One end of the paper represents Year 1 and the other end represents Year 100.
    • Encourage students to add illustrations or images that they recall from the Story Whoosh, as well as moments in her life and dreams that they imagine.
    • Once completed, invite students to walk the river to see what stands out for them.
    • For the Corridor of Dreams, invite students to arrange themselves in two rows facing each other. Give them a moment with the person in the opposite row to create a soundscape of Briar Rose’s dreams over the course of the 100 years she is asleep in her tower.
    • Reflection:
      • What do you notice about Sleeping Beauty's dreams?
      • How do they change over time?
      • What do you think it would be like to be asleep for 100 years?

    Activity 3: Finale of Sleeping Beauty

    • Remind students of the different ways of storytelling they have explored during the Story Whoosh activity.
    • Invite them to select one of the art forms they explored to create the final scenes of Sleeping Beauty.
    • Once in small groups, direct them to create final scenes of Sleeping Beauty by activating the scene through their chosen art form.
    • In addition to reviewing the text, the group must decide how they would like to collaborate to build the scene.
    • Also instruct the groups that, just you narrated the first activity, there must be a narrator for each scene.
    • Once groups have completed the task and rehearsed, have each group share their scenes in narrative order.

    Assessment and Follow-Up

    Once completed, reflect as a large group. Return to the initial questions to see if anything has changed for them, if anything new stands out, etc.

    • What techniques did we use to bring this story to life?
    • What do you know about this story that you didn't know before?

    Imagination in Action

    At the NCTE conference, Sir Ken Robinson said in his keynote speech about creativity in schools, "Imagination and creativity are not the same. Creativity is imagination in action."

    The activity described above meets all of the anchor Common Core standards and provides a creative learning environment for students to make deeper connections while building skills that young men and women need in this new creative economy. We encourage teachers to continue finding ways to use theater techniques and incorporate other art forms in their English Language Arts units. We encourage them to continue igniting students' passion for their own learning.

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    Filed Under

    • Arts Integration
    • Student Engagement
    • Arts
    • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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