George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Two Rivers Public Charter School

Grades pre-K to 8 | Washington, DC

Using the Arts to Synthesize Student Understanding

Arts integration is more than an afterthought. You can use the arts to both meet your arts standards and deepen academic learning.
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Tonia: Let's keep that good concentration going.

Girl: They cleared land by cutting down forests.

Tonia: All four turn out, one big chop. Good job!

Tonia: Because our students use the arts to deepen their understanding they remember content for a longer period of time, and they're able to use their voice, their body, their art skills to demonstrate knowledge in a way that is fun.

Teacher: Here we go. [drumming]

Jessica: Having the arts as a core part of our academic program was critical to our founders. We've seen the arts as important for two reasons. One is because they are beautiful and joyful in and of themselves. But the other reason is we think that kids can arrive at new understandings about other content areas through their work in art.

Leah: You want to be thinking about colors--

Tonia: Students are either integrating social studies content with an arts discipline, or science content with an arts discipline. The art staff and classroom teachers look at the guiding questions, what the big ideas are. So there's just a lot of discussion, a lot of collaboration.

Sharanya: The four forces help an airplane to fly.

Sharanya: This semester our expedition is about the physics of flight. The goal is for students to learn about how airplanes fly in the air.

Stuart: Our problem is people at the National Airport don't understand the physics of fight, even though they're about to get on planes.

Paz: We're going to put up art at the airport so people can know what the four forces of flight are like lift, gravity, thrust, and drag.

Leah: Thinking about using our four forces, we can use paintbrushes, we can even do a little bit of pouring.

Leah: So we begin with Jackson Pollock and some of his artwork, and kids realize pretty quickly that he's using the four forces. They see him using gravity and thrust in his really active style of painting. And they start trying it out.

Leah: And what force will you be using as you're pouring?

Girl: Gravity.

Leah: So yeah, when you poured it, it didn't just go out into the air.

Girl: Gravity pulled it down.

Leah: That was gravity.

Ethan: Jackson Pollock used forces like drag because when there was a big puddle of paint, and some paint went through the big blob of paint, it slowed down, because that blob of paint was bigger.

Boy: That is so cool!

Leah: All right! Good job!

Leah: It's really just about making those abstract concepts concrete.

Leah: What if we do a little bit of this?

Ethan: I like art and science, so I'm doing two things I like to learn how something works.

Leah: You guys had a great contribution. I'm loving it.

Sharanya: With these art experiments, it's something they could hold onto and point to and say, "Here's how a force works, and I was able to do that myself."

Leah: Great job today, guys!

Tonia: All right! Here we go, action.

Class: There is a river that tells a story.

Alex: So this semester, we're learning about the Anacostia River, and all of like the problems and things going wrong with it, like all the pollution.

Alex: It is a story of the community's efforts to save it.

Tonia: They were using an anchor text in their classroom called, "A River Ran Wild," which is a true story about the Nashua River in Massachusetts. And they were using that to help build students' background knowledge. And we decided to let that be their drama piece.

Tonia: Step back upstage, high five. Natives come downstage and--

Tonia: We just started acting it out, playing around with the characters, and it just kind of just started gelling together.

Tonia: Shoot!

Tonia: And so we put all of our ideas from playing with it in class into one organized script.

Boy: This is a story about people who made a difference!

Tonia: Good!

Bryn: It's teaching you through something more fun, so you can like learn more through something like active.

Tonia: Pose like you're overcome with grief and sadness. Crying.

Tonia: When you put movement to text, it helps you have to think about it much more deeply. Kids have to make intentional choices about how they're going to use their voice, how they're going to use their body, how they're going to depend on one another to relate the story.

Bryn: And slowly the Nashua's fish grew sick from the pollution.

Tonia: Let's do that again, Wilson. That might just be the showstopper right there.

Bryn: Through the play we were showing that if they can clean up the Nashua River, then we can clean up the Anacostia, so people know you can make a difference.

Tonia: Give Wilson a hand! [clapping]

Leah: When they recognize something they've been studying in their classroom in this new environment, their faces just really light up, and you know that's going to stick with them.

Leah: Arm created.

Leah: They're not going to forget that, that's an experience that is going deep.

Class: New York!

Tonia: Whoo-hoo! Yes! [claps]

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Sharanya Sharma’s second-grade class at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, surveyed people at Reagan National Airport to find out what they knew about how airplanes fly. They discovered that most people don’t know how planes stay in the air.

“Our problem,” says Stuart, one of the students, “is people at the national airport don’t understand the physics of flight, even though they’re about to get on planes.”

“We’re trying to teach people how to learn the physics of flight,” adds Paz, another student.

Sharma partnered with Leah Quinter, an elementary visual arts teacher, to teach the physics of flight. Their final product: a large, whole-class acrylic painting that shows the four forces of flight—thrust, lift, gravity, and drag. The painting will be displayed at Reagan National Airport to solve their problem in science: teaching people at the airport how airplanes stay in the sky.

Three young students and a teacher are kneeling on a blue tarp in class pouring paint onto a large canvas.
Leah Quinter and her students

“Particularly in the elementary school, we have a heavy focus on arts integration as it relates to our expeditions—[in depth, content-specific, problem-based learning explorations that are a part of expeditionary learning],” explains Tonia Vines, a dramatic arts teacher. “Twice a year, we integrate social studies or science content with drama or visual arts.” Students have 45-minute visual arts classes twice a week for half the year, and then take drama classes for the rest of the year.

“Arts integration is about reaching as many students as you can,” explains Sharma. “Being able to have that tactile experience of flinging paint at the paper, or pouring paint down a paper to see how gravity works, it connects what they’ve learned in art to their everyday experiences, instead of just that one classroom experience.”

How It's Done

Start With Research

If you’re uncomfortable with your partner's academic or arts subject, try studying the content. “Through researching, you can start to think about ways to integrate,” explains Quinter. She suggests that you ask yourself:

  • Where does this match my subject?
  • Where does this match my content areas?
  • What are my goals for my students, and how can we reach those in both subjects?

Plan Together

Share with each other what your standards and learning targets are, look for common goals, and brainstorm topics, guiding questions, and a final art product that can both deepen the academic learning and teach the art content. At Two Rivers Public Charter School, during the three-week orientation each summer, teachers have two 2-hour sessions to co-plan, and when school starts, they have two or three 1-hour sessions during professional development. They continue to plan after school, over email, and via Google Docs. Here is the visual art unit map (PDF) Sharma and Quinter created connecting the four forces of flight to art.

Test Your Plan

Once you’ve decided on a final art product, make a model. “We believe in testing it first ourselves,” says Sharma. “If we’re having fun and learning from it, then it might work with our kids. If we’re bored, then we go back and start again.” Creating a model not only gives you experience with the process but also shows your students an example of what great work looks like and what they’re striving for.

Build on Your Strengths and Weaknesses

If you discover a product that resonates with your students, repeat it. “Sharanya and I would discuss the content and what was strong about what we’ve done in the past, and then where we’d like to push that thinking further,” remembers Quinter. “What we were missing was cementing the two classes together and a lot of debrief time.” With shorter visual art classes, students spent more time on making art and less time discussing the connection to their science. To reinforce what the students have just learned in art or academics, Sharma and Quinter:

  • Use common vocabulary.
  • Use the same reference materials.
  • Ask their students what they learned that day in the other class.

“She’s asking them what they did in art, and I’m asking them what they did in science. That’s been helpful,” reflects Quinter.

Outside of reflecting with each other, Sharma and Quinter also get feedback on their instructional planning from a group of teachers who analyze their students’ work—discussing where their students are in their understanding, what’s being assessed, and what next steps Sharma and Quinter can take to better reach their learning targets. (See Analyze Student Work to Inform Instruction and The Power of Vulnerability in Professional Development.)

Integrate the Arts Through Experiments

A common challenge with arts integration is ensuring that you’re meeting your arts standards. “It’s not just an add-on or something fun at the end,” emphasizes Quinter. “It’s something that truly deepens their understanding of that content, and also the arts.”

“This year, they used the forces themselves to make the art,” says Sharma, “where in past years they would draw a picture of that force at work and incorporate that into their final product, which was a booklet incorporating illustrations of the physics.”

Along with their collaborative acrylic painting this year, Quinter’s class did three experiments:

Three Experiment Ideas

Marble Experiment: Quinter’s students started with a copier paper box lid. They put paper, two to three drops of tempera paint, and a marble inside. Students grouped into pairs, moved the lid around, and watched how the marble interacted with the paint.

“We rolled the marble around, and it made the lines of thrust to go forward because thrust means to go forward,” explains Paz.

Salad Spinner Experiment: “They placed circle-shaped paper at the bottom of the salad spinner,” explains Quinter. “Dripped six to eight drops of liquid watercolor inside, closed the lid, and spun it—their arms demonstrating thrust to power the spinner, and the paper conveying drag lines visible as the paint was pulled. They could go fast. They could go slow. When they opened the lid, they observed what happened.”

Waterfall Experiment: In pairs, Quinter’s students poured watered-down tempera paint onto paper attached to a clipboard. “They would manipulate the board to see if it would change the reaction of the paint,” says Quinter. “What they would often discover is that it did not, that gravity was always pulling the paint down, no matter how they spun the board.”

During your experiments, ask your students guiding questions. Ask them what they’re seeing and have them explain why. Challenge them -- say, “Is it this? Is it not that?” advises Quinter.

“Before they start doing this in art, they just think, ‘Physics has to do with planes,’” explains Sharma. “It doesn’t occur to them that physics is actually all around us, and science is all around us. Anyone can be a scientist. It’s not just someone who studies science.”

Use Artist Statements for Assessment

Have your students show their understanding through an artist statement. “Artist statements are a great way for artists to share what they’ve done in their artwork, why they’ve done it, the materials they’ve used, and how it has changed their thinking or deepened their understanding,” explains Quinter. “It’s a way for students to present their artwork and their understanding through the artwork.”

A second-grade student's typed artist statement glued against blue construction paper explaining the four forces of flight -- lift, gravity, drag, and thrust -- and how making art with a salad spinner used two of the forces.
A second-grade student's artist statement.

To create an artist statement:

Step One: Begin by showing your students real artists statements. Have them analyze what does and does not make a good artist statement, and ask them what they should include in theirs.

Step Two: Have your students critique each other’s artist statements: What word choices did they use? How did they make their artist statement come alive? In what ways did they describe their artwork?

“The whole point is for the teachers to facilitate rather than direct,” says Sharma. “It would be easy for us to say, ‘A good artist statement has three sentences that describe the art, and they say something like this….’ But in order for them to have ownership over their own learning, we say, ‘What makes this artist statement good? What do you think?’”

For each art experiment, every student writes their own artist statement, and they use those critiques to inform their collaborative artist statement for their final product.

“The learning objectives for the artist statement are twofold,” explains Sharma. “The first one is a content-based learning target, explaining how the the forces work together to make an airplane fly. And the second is our literacy learning target, using descriptive words and strong adjectives to describe their art.”

Jessica Wodatch, Two Rivers’ executive director, believes, “It’s exciting to see kids who have been stuck on a concept, and all of a sudden they get it. The arts are another avenue to help kids understand something, and they make the classroom much richer.”

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