George Lucas Educational Foundation

Bates Middle School

Grades 6-8 | Annapolis, MD

How the Arts Unlock the Door to Learning

Student achievement was down. Teachers were demoralized. Until a bold strategy -- integrating the arts into curricula -- helped students embrace their learning and retain their knowledge. Today the faculty, staff, and students of Maryland's Bates Middle School are crafting a whole new vision of school transformation.
Mariko Nobori
Former Managing Editor and Producer, Edutopia
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Boy squinting, holding and looking through a cutout in a cardboard frame
Students at Bates Middle School learn about art concepts such as photo composition (above) that are integrated into other curricula like math.

What do Mars and modern dance have to do with each other? How do you connect fractions with Andy Warhol? At Wiley H. Bates Middle School, in Annapolis, Maryland, the answer is arts integration. Every teacher there is committed to weaving the arts and standard curricula together to create a richer and more lasting learning experience for their students.

Arts integration goes beyond including art projects in class; it is a teaching strategy that seamlessly merges arts standards with core curricula to build connections and provide engaging context. For example, in a science classroom you might see students choreographing a dance using locomotor and nonlocomotor movements to demonstrate their understanding of rotation versus revolution of the planets (PDF). In a math class, you might see students learning fractions by examining composition in Warhol's Campbell's soup paintings.

(See more arts-integrated lesson plans from Bates.)

What we also saw in these classrooms were students who were enthusiastically participating in the learning process, and having fun. It's not revelatory to say that the arts can engage kids. But that that engagement can also be leveraged to boost academic growth and improve discipline seems like a secret that really needs to be revealed. When you see how the kids embrace these lessons, hear them tell how art helps them remember concepts better, and learn about the improvements teachers have noted in student understanding and retention, it makes you wonder why more schools aren't integrating the arts in every class.

A Whole-School Reform

Bates decided to become a fully arts-integrated school in 2007 as the primary initiative in a whole-school reform effort. Other initiatives in their school improvement plan (PDF) included Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an operational framework for implementing practices and interventions to improve academic and behavioral outcomes, and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college readiness system with research-based methods for elementary through postsecondary students. Their principal at the time, Diane Bragdon, had brought the school back from the brink of failure and now was ready to aim its trajectory squarely toward greater success. Bragdon got the support of Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, long a proponent of schools of choice, who knew well the impact arts integration had had in other Maryland schools. The district applied for a four-year grant called Supporting Arts Integrated Learning for Student Success (SAILSS) from the U.S. Department of Education and was one of 15 districts and schools to receive it.

Since they started implementing arts integration schoolwide in 2009, Bates has seen a 23 percent drop in the average number of referrals and suspensions per student. The school’s percentage of students proficient or advanced in math has grown four times more than the state's over the same period, and five times more in reading. Not all lessons are taught with arts integration, but Bates takes pains to diligently track those that have been in a regular log (PDF), and they report substantial improvements in student comprehension and retention.

Why Does Arts Integration Work?

Why does it work? Arts integration uses teaching practices that have been shown in brain-based research to improve comprehension and long-term retention. For example, when students create stories, pictures, or other nonverbal expressions of the content they are learning -- a process researchers call elaboration -- they are also helping to better embed the information. In one eighth-grade math class, students prepared for a test on linear equations by creating photo stories of the steps involved. This required that teacher Laura Casciato spend nearly a full class period teaching about basic principles of design (PDF). She explained the trade-off: "It was an easy decision to spend time on the art because we know that they retain that information better. They're going to look at that test and say, 'Oh yeah, I remember that information from my photo.'"

As with any new initiative, there are a number of factors that must be in place for it to succeed. With arts integration, high-quality professional development is essential. Teachers don't need to be "artistic" to be able to use arts integration; they just need to learn some of the fundamentals so they will be better able to think of ways to merge art concepts with other content. For example, knowing the basic elements of design, such as emphasis, balance, contrast, and repetition, enabled Casciato to teach her students how to create more informative photo compositions to illustrate each step in solving a linear equation (PDF).

(Read tips for administrators and teachers for getting started with arts integration.)

Bates used the bulk of their grant money for professional development, which they started in the 2007-08 school year. They have PD Thursdays every other week, and at least one per month is on arts integration. Last year (2011-12) was the final year of their grant funding. Teachers report they are now well versed in arts standards and know how to create arts-integrated lessons. Many now train their colleagues and new teachers entering the school.

Beyond engagement and retention, adults and students at Bates cite numerous other benefits of arts integration: It encourages healthy risk taking, helps kids recognize new skills in themselves and others, provides a way to differentiate instruction, builds collaboration among both students and teachers, bridges differences, and draws in parents and the community. Plus it's just plain fun.

Lastly, there's equity. If we agree that the arts can provide all kinds of benefits for kids, from intellectual to creative to social-emotional, then shouldn't all kids have the opportunity to learn about and experience them? But far too few schools have either the funding or the bureaucratic support to make this a priority, a lack often born out of fear of sacrificing academic achievement. What Bates and many other arts-integrated schools across the country are showing is that by creating a richer, more memorable learning experience through the arts, they unleash not only a rising tide of academic achievement but they lay the foundation for what it means to be a truly creative community.

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Douglas D. Fox's picture
Douglas D. Fox
Theater, Media, Journalism, English teacher: St. Pauls High School, NC

"But far too few schools have either the funding or the bureaucratic support to make this a priority, a lack often born out of fear of sacrificing academic achievement. "

And there is the crux of the matter. However much integration will enrich the learning, as things stand in all too many schools, the arts for arts sake will be sidelined.

And I do NOT buy the argument that not all will be an artist, an actor (tho' do remember, "All the world's a stage....), an....... That is a cop out. Learning and exploring the arts as a form of creative self-expression IS a valuable activity in and of itself.

We ARE all actors on the stage of life in the many roles we play. We are all artists with every choice we make as to clothes, furnishings, landscaping, gardening and a multitude of other aesthetic choices we make as we shape the environment we we live in. We are all musicians when we hum a melody or whistle a tune or even beat out a rhythm. We are all dancers, some more graceful than others, with ever move make "dancing through life."

While I support and promote integration, I do not do so at the expense of art for its own sake.

Possibly I have a very different view of "art" as theatre is the ONLY art that integrates from the get-go ALL the arts into one form. Further it is the most heavily STEM oriented art their is (just try to take our computer based control systems from us -- over your dead body!).

An example I love to use comes from Wicked. Solve this problem: the producer and director want the act to end with Elphaba soaring 40 feet above the stage. You have 5 bars of music to get her from stage deck to 40 feet. You may NOT use the traditional method of attaching wires to fly her as that can not easily be taken on tour. Also, she must travel in true vertical line, no arc allowed. Further, it must be seamless to the action and have a very high WOW factor as it is the act ender. And of course, we must keep OSHA happy and the actor confident in the effect so she can concentrate on "Defying Gravity."

The answer includes: hydraulics, computer based control systems, the Pythagorean Theorem, calculations of rate, speed, increase of length, yards upon yards of fabric, lighting effects (another group of computers), and much more.

I have taught more 21st century skills, more creative thinking, more problem solving, more creativity to many student in my 38 years of teaching through putting on drama productions than I have ever been able to do in a classroom.

Yet sadly, at most schools, these very art programs are the first to be cut in the name of focusing on STEM, common core, and "the budget."

Randy Barron's picture
Randy Barron
Teaching Artist, Choreographer, and Dancer

This is a long-term debate, and it is very complex. The dubious choices of administrators who are dealing with legislators, parents, and business leaders as they figure out how to spend their shrinking budgets are only meaningful in that they create a climate of uncertainty, distrust, and marginalization for the arts and arts specialists. No wonder that some arts teachers feel arts integration will eliminate their jobs.

But the truth is that arts integration elevates the role of the arts specialist in the school. Instead of working in obscurity and struggling to deliver meaningful arts experiences to every child as the only artists in the building, specialists now become collaborators, experts, and role models for students who are discovering the arts in their classrooms as well as in the art rooms.

As for the students, now they are learning that everything in the world can be an inspiration to create art, that an artist is not a "gifted" or "talented" person but someone who pursues an art form with discipline, persistence, and passion. Once they can compose a dance to illustrate the Water Cycle, create a work of visual art with mathematical underpinnings, write a play about Native Americans in the 21st century, or create a musical score for a poem, they can use those skills in any way that moves them.

In the land of arts integration, students are inspired to mastery through their explorations, and in the quest for mastery they seek teachers who can help them develop their skills: the arts specialists. The entire school becomes an evolving arts community, engaged in discovery and celebration, all centered on the arts experiences that bring knowledge to life.

Be of good cheer: there is a sea change among administrators and school boards. The school mentioned in this article is only one of dozens that have successfully initiated and applied the arts integration model. The forces of obstruction and obfuscation are in retreat. Stay the course, and welcome the arts integration approach as one that will only widen and deepen the presence of the arts in everyone's daily life.

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

What promise is on the horizon. I loved your last two sentences: The forces of obstruction and obfuscation are in retreat. Stay the course, and welcome the arts integration approach as one that will only widen and deepen the presence of the arts in everyone's daily life. The powers that be are finally realizing they do not have to choose between arts and core curriculum. All that's needed is for creativity to be allowed to flourish.

Hal Portner's picture

The Kids Like Blues Band Program is about using blues music in a thematic teaching method. They use the lyrics and music as a springboard for teaching academic content standards in reading, writing, listening, speech, social studies, and the visual and performing arts. As they're mining the song for opportunities to teach the academic content standards, students choreograph dance moves to the song, learn how to phrase the words correctly and modulate their pitch, tone, intonation, and pronunciation, and work together in an authentic community learning environment to bring each member along as a fully functioning member of their "gigging" band. Their goal is to take their work to completion by performing it onstage and recording it together in digital multitrack audio and video editing programs. The students even learn how to operate programs like iMovie, Photoshop, and Garage Band, and so far they've played at a street fair, for a large audience of staff and students at the Cal State San Marcos College of Education, and even on local TV news and KPBS TV. .(To really "feel" the program, go to to see an in depth video about their work.

Sonja's picture

I really enjoyed this article. I think that art integration is a great teaching strategy to help incorporate art in to different core classes. I think it can work with all levels of learners and with many different backgrounds. I teach English Language Learners and I think that they would struggle at first because it is different than what they are used to, but I feel that they would like it because they could express themselves in many ways. My questions is how did they get all the teachers on board with this idea? I can picture a few teachers at my school that would not be ok with this type of teaching.

Mariko Nobori's picture
Mariko Nobori
Former Managing Editor and Producer, Edutopia

That's a great question, Sonja. Diane Bragdon, who was the principal at Bates during their transition to arts integration, explained that because it was a whole-school reform, they asked the teachers to commit on paper to teaching with arts integration. At the same time, they provided plenty of PD and support so that no teacher would feel like they weren't "artistic enough." Additionally, teachers are not required to teach every lesson with arts integration, but rather to consider it one of the tools in their teaching toolkit.

Randy Barron's picture
Randy Barron
Teaching Artist, Choreographer, and Dancer

I agree, great question, Sonja. This is a major shift in approach, from one that is teacher-centered to one that is student-centered. This means that every step in the lesson plan is designed to facilitate student learning, and most often that means setting them a significant and interesting challenge and letting them go about solving it. Multiple correct pathways to a solution encourage divergent thinking. Students construct their own understanding, and then demonstrate it through their artistic creations.

Once teachers become comfortable with the role of facilitator rather than dispenser of knowledge, and once they realize that you cannot "manage" children and that part of teaching is helping students take charge of their own behavior and learning, they get to enjoy being creative as well. The arts specialists in the building are now valued colleagues and resources for ideas and principles of the arts, while the classroom teacher retains artistic control of which problems children will solve and how they connect to the required curriculum.

Schools with teams of teachers who are all using this approach have the strongest results, both in terms of student understanding and school-wide use of arts integration at appropriate times. That draws strong, flexible, creative-minded teachers, and the school culture flourishes -- I've seen it happen, more than a few times. It just takes a few crazy individuals to try it out and sell their equally crazy colleagues on the strategy, and the sky's the limit.

Joe Schwartz's picture

This article is very timely. There is a greater awareness of the integration of art and design into more academic areas than at any other time we've ever known. From PBL to Design Thinking to STEAM, the time has come for academia to fully understand that the truly 21st-century school is one that is steeped in the arts, not carts full of unused iPads.

For those who would complain that "art for art's sake" is losing meaning in this integration discussion, I have to offer a countering opinion - that art is growing beyond the art room in schools. Of course there is still a place in PK-12 schools where kids can express their creativity through visual arts, music and dance; but by integrating it into science, math and history classes, they also get to see how art influences the whole world and is applied in everyday situations. They learn to see the art in an iPad, or in a toothbrush, or a chair - they see art and design in places they were never aware of before. This greater awareness is the result of your tutelage in art, not a replacement for it.

We at the DESIGN-ED coalition welcome everyone to this discussion and are hosting the first-ever PK-12 design education conference in Philadelphia this June. Interested in learning more? Visit us at!

Ian Lubsey's picture

In going through the article I am reminded of The Mantle of the Expert and Ms Heathcoke contribution. How wonderful it would be if we just reorganise the resources to include arts integration. For too long we have focused on academics in our institutions. The plethora of information now available will cause us to take a serious look on how we teach our students and how they learn. Incidentally we now have different age groups that we have to cater to. It cannot be business as usual. Thanks again for the post.

Hal Portner's picture

We know that the arts present powerful ways to teach and learn, but we don't have to rely on opinion alone. For example, according to the College Board's Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers in1995, SAT scores for students who studied the arts more than four years were 59 points higher on the verbal and 44 points higher on the math portion than students with no coursework or experience in the arts.

A fine example of the integration of arts with academics is
Rockademix uses the performing arts a as springboards for teaching academic content standards in reading, writing, listening, speech, and social studies. In addition to engaging in academic pursuits, Rockademix students choreograph dance moves to songs, and learn how to work together in an authentic community learning environment to bring each other along as fully functioning members of the program's "gigging" band.

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