Arts Integration is one of those buzzy education terms that crops up every few years. This time around, though, the Common Core standards may provide it with fertile ground to take hold.

The new ELA standards, for example, demand “close readings” of texts, which is exactly how art students learn to “read” paintings and other artworks, returning again and again to the work to look for clues that reveal how it was created, as well as the choices the artist made and the meaning behind them.

Integrating the arts into STEM education, “STEAM” advocates argue, will instill in tomorrow’s scientists and engineers the creativity they need to be the next Leonardo, the next Einstein.

Furthermore, says arts educator and author Eileen Prince, students—all of us, really—learn in different ways. Some won’t understand until they see it; some, until they touch it; some need to abstract it. Arts integration provides organic avenues for each student to find his or her way into a discipline.

The process “doesn’t have to be intimidating,” says Prince. Rather than treating art as ART, just “look at it as your subject.” To help, we’ve paired works of visual art with activities and lessons in the sciences, social studies, and reading and writing. If the possibilities seem limitless, it’s because we’re only recognizing the connections that are already there.

Gardening With Monet

Artwork: Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge by Claude Monet
Connection: Science

Background: For Claude Monet gardening, like painting, was a labor of love. He once said, “I perhaps owe becoming a painter to flowers.” In his garden at Giverny, Monet found his most iconic subjects, such as the water lilies he cultivated in his pond. Using his example as painter and gardener, you can introduce students to the art, and science, of interacting with the natural world.

Study the Artwork: Ask students what they see in Monet’s painting (water, flowers, a bridge, trees). Then ask what things in the painting are human-made (bridge). Mention that Monet had the pond dug, just as he had the bridge built. He planted the lilies and other flowers himself. Some were native to the region, but some were exotic.

Activity: Have students research native plants and flowers as well as exotics that would thrive in local conditions, and compile a class almanac, with scientific and common names of each type. Students can then work in teams to draw up plans for their own gardens.

Students should consider what color flowers might complement one another. They must decide if their garden will be unconstrained, as Monet preferred, or more orderly. As they plan, ask questions like “What will our plants eat and drink?” to introduce lessons on photosynthesis or root structure. A discussion of the flowers themselves might suggest a study of pollination and reproduction. To extend learning, plant a real school garden!

Carrying Culture

Artwork: Columbia River Plateau carryall
Connection: Social Studies

Background: The traditional beaded carryall bag, such as this one from 1890, is important to the cultural identity of the tribes of the Columbia River Plateau. In their design and materials, says Jennifer Ogden, an art specialist at the K–12 Victor School, a half-hour south of Missoula, Montana, a history of the people who made them begins to unfold.

The glass beads arrived via trade with Europeans, following the journey of Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s. The decorative figures in the intricate beadwork had significance to the culture and lives of the Columbia River people. Among them, the horse looms large. Ogden says horses are “a universal symbol of strength, character, beauty, wealth, nostalgia, and mobility.”

Study the Artwork: Ask the class why the artisan chose to put a horse on the bag. Discuss the central role horses played in 19th-century American life. Talk about symbols students might choose to represent their own lives.

Activity: Using canvas and cotton tote bags (available online for about a dollar apiece), paint, and freezer paper as a stencil (once the stencil has been cut, it can be ironed right onto the bag), your class can make “historic” totes of their own.

Note: Adapt the activity to reflect the customs and artifacts of local Native American groups.

Reading the Signs

Artwork: The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck
Connection: English Language Arts

Background: As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” says Eileen Prince, an arts educator at the Sycamore School in Indianapolis and author of Art Matters. Van Eyck’s portrait, chock-full of imagery associated with wealth, piety, and fertility, is perfect for exploring symbolism. Decoding its imagery primes students to recognize the symbols in other subjects, not to mention daily life.

Study the Artwork: Almost without fail, students ask whether the bride is pregnant, says Prince. She isn’t, though the way she holds her dress up may suggest the desire to start a family. The dog represents fidelity (as dogs still do). “What better symbol to put in a marriage picture than being faithful to each other, little Fido,” remarks Prince. Velvets, furs, and rugs attest to the couple’s wealth, as do the oranges on the table, a luxury at the time.

Activity: Pair the painting with an appropriate poem or short story. Third and fourth graders can dive into the rich but accessible imagery of Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Have students identify words that could be symbolic. Compile a list and discuss what the symbols might mean. Have students cut out visual symbols from magazines and newspapers. Soon, they’ll be recognizing symbols everywhere, says Prince, be it the Nike “swoosh” or the Stars and Stripes. Have them create collages from their symbols and write a poem or story about it, using symbolic language.

Seeing the Story

Artwork: Le Père Tanguy by Vincent Van Gogh
Connection: Writing

Background: Van Gogh’s canvases provide a great opportunity for kids to learn how to find the story that’s in a painting. “An artwork is not necessarily about what an artist wanted it to be about. It’s about our response to it,” says Linda Smith, who teaches at Saint George’s School in Spokane, and was named Washington state’s 2012 Elementary Art Educator of the Year.

Study the Artwork: “Every work of art has a story to tell,” says Smith. Not only that, the story is different for each viewer. Smith recommends letting kids respond to an artwork before providing any background information.

Activity: Have students engage in a “formal analysis” of the painting: 1. Describe (What do you see?); 2. Interpret (What does it mean?);  3. React (What do you think?). Have students use their analysis to write stories about the man in the picture. Then provide some background information.

“Père Tanguy was one of Van Gogh’s art suppliers in Paris,” says Smith. “Van Gogh often traded his paintings for art materials, a common practice in Paris in the late 1800s.” Van Gogh painted Tanguy against a background of Japanese prints. “Fragile cargoes such as porcelain, coming from Asia, were wrapped in these cheap prints. Though Van Gogh never traveled to Japan, he became very interested in all things Japanese.” Smith suggests having the class compare Van Gogh’s life in Europe with Japanese culture at the time.

Patterns Everywhere

Artwork: Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Connections: History, Geography, Geometry, Writing

Background: The mosaics of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, for centuries the home of the Ottoman sultans, illustrate the dazzling possibilities of motif, pattern, and repetition. Patterns (like symbols) are ubiquitous, in math and music, poetry and history, art and the natural world.

Study the Artwork: With her students at Nancy Moseley Elementary School, in Dallas, art teacher Sabrina Ogle uses a variety of artworks to show how various visual elements—such as shape or color—can be used to create a motif, and how through repetition, motifs can be used to form patterns. “They could be very organized,” says Ogle, as with these mosaics,
“or random, like in Matisse’s artwork or in nature.”

Activity: Ogle provides real-world connections by having her class look for patterns and motifs in contemporary fashion. Using examples of some of the most stunningly misguided fashions of the 1970s and 1980s as inspiration, she has the class design horrible outfits of their own—and write the stories behind them. The students designed a T-shirt and pants (on paper), with the goal of using patterns to make the clothing look as bad as possible. “I told them to think about pattern and how it could go very, very wrong,” Ogle says. The students had to make inferences on how the patterns and outfits came to be. “I made a point to my students that the more specific and creative their inferences were, the funnier their stories would become.”