I took a college course on integrating the arts in the classroom. The challenge? It was in Swedish. Although I was initially overwhelmed studying abroad, I still relish my class notes from that semester. I gained so much by learning through the arts as it transcends all languages and cultures. I was able to feel successful because the activities required active participation by doing. And the research supports this as well. According to a large scale research report by Fiske, compiling seven major studies, students with high involvement in the arts, across the socio-economic strata, performed better in school and stayed in school longer than students with low involvement (p. 6). The arts truly support the content, and my personal experience verifies that as well.

In essence, tapping into the arts is not a supplement, but a viable ally for learning and motivating across the curriculum. Here are a couple of ways I have or will integrate the arts in our classroom this year:

Developing and Broadening Vocabulary through Photography and Crayon Colors
Resource: Color Me A Rhyme by Jane Yolen, crayons, and paint chips at your local hardware store.

I highly recommend this beautiful picture book by Jane Yolen. Each page is dedicated to one color of nature. With beautiful photography by her son, Yolen writes poetry around a particular color found in nature. She moves past terms such as white and blue, and opts for descriptive colors such as: cerulean, sapphire, azure, turquoise, chalk, alabaster, and bone. The photography is just gorgeous.

With a book like this, you can easily connect the art with the content areas. Using a digital camera and sample paint chips, students can observe and record some of the beautiful colors around your school and community. Another option would be to have students try capturing different elementally colors found around the school through paint, crayons, or markers. The paint chips can really narrow down the descriptions of what is being viewed outdoors and can be used to describe what is being seen.

Put together with class written poetry, this work can be turned into a book or digital PowerPoint presentation. It can also be used to help students understand the significance in selecting words to describe what we see and feel around us. It's a real challenge to put what we are experiencing into words this way.

This art activity, although simple, strongly supports two concepts pushed in writing quite a lot. One being, that writers look at the world differently. While a student might see a blue flower, this book models the way artists/writers view that same flower with rich text. A second benefit is that students learn the importance of digging deep for true description. When a writer describes a bird of cerulean, it not only sounds better, but helps the reader better "see" what is being viewed.

 Understanding Plot through Music
Resource: Book and In the Hall of Mountain King music download

Take a wordless book, like Tuesday by David Weisner, and practice "reading" it using "In the Hall of Mountain King" as the background. Downloaded versions usually last 2:30 seconds and the music meshes well with the progression of a wordless storybook (setting, plot, climax, conclusion). Once you have mastered this, share the musical combination with your classroom and consider having your students create an accompanying collage or mural of the story as you talk about the setting, plot, climax, and conclusion. This will then pull in the progression of a fiction story using music and visuals. Using "In the Hall of Mountain King", you can merge the music and drawings together through a digital presentation of the story read in class. The music helps dictates the pace, and naturally teaches the organization of fiction stories.

Vocal Impressions: Writing Inspired by Voices of the Past
Resource: NPR link Vocal Impressions: Hearing Voices, Round Five by Brian McConnachie

NPR posted various voices of the past, and asked listeners to close their eyes and jot down what the music made them think about. Voices and music snippets are usually 30 seconds in length and include Elvis Presley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Luciano Pavarotti, and Bobby Short, to name a few.

Taking this challenge into the classroom was not only fun, but a great springboard to inspired writing as well. When completing this assignment with my class, I asked them to listen to the clip with their eyes closed. After that students were given 30 seconds to write down anything that came to mind while listening to the music or voice of the past. At first, I shared listener comments posted on NPR:

  • Eleanor Roosevelt — sounds like an upright broom, ready to clean house; a swimming pool in late October
  • Luciano Pavarotti — like humanity taking a victory lap; the universe vibrating inside your body; a new baby's taste of air.

After that, we started to share each other's experiences:

  • Bob Dylan — flowers and wind; going down the road-wind in my hair-screaming loudly; the color blue and green; dancing wind

From here, many students were inspired to write poetry or short stories based on the music clips and simultaneously learn a little bit about famous voices from the past. What a wonderful way to merge music, history, and writing. I highly recommend you try this with your class. It can be completed in less than five minutes.

Swimming at Night (PDF): Student work inspired by the music of Bobby Short.

Thinking Past Crayons and Colored Pencils when Publishing Writing
Resources: Magazines and your school art teacher

For the classroom teacher, art is often restricted to drawing with crayons and colored pencils when publishing student writing (or anything else for that matter). Every year I have a small handful of students that cry out, "But I can't draw." That is when I pull out a personal story I had written many years back. The illustrations were completed with magazine cut-outs. I really enjoyed the effects of using this art form to support my story and showed some other artists who use a similar method. It allowed me to express my story much more effectively than if I had used crayons or colored pencils, and helps model the concept that art takes many forms.

So, one of the elements I included in my last student publications was a short illustrator study. Working with the art teacher, students were presented with various art forms an author can use to bring their story to life. This could include writing a play and acting it out, using magazine cut-outs, or using abstract colors.

Balanced Planning

Whether it's using musical instruments to demonstrate different punctuation marks or drawing out vocabulary words instead of copying them from the dictionary, the arts should be an integral component in classroom instruction. My school requires us to color-code our lesson plans to make sure there is a balance of technology, writing, and higher-order thinking skills. With this in mind, I am adding my own simple acronym to my planning plate. DADS= Drawing, acting, doing, singing. My goal is to add meaningful integration of the arts to our learning schedule each week, because the arts matter and bring learning to life.

Related Links: