When I was in elementary school more than fifty years ago, I struggled with geography. I found it very hard to keep all those place names and locations straight. The only thing I could do was start memorizing. I tried to picture the fifty states in relation to each other, but they insisted on getting mixed up (still do). “Is Tennessee on top of Arkansas?” I’m likely to ask.
Then one day, when I had only about half the states correct, my fifth grade teacher announced that we were now going to study the land forms of our continent—how the mountains and valleys and plains configured themselves from New York to California. Oh, groan!
She continued, “Everyone will have the chance to show us the landforms, but each person can decide how.” The magic words—“decide how”! My “how” was a papier-mâché relief map that I made with two other students. We shaped the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, long chunky progressions from north to south, one each near the east and west coasts. We made the Rockies rough and pointy and high—new mountains. We made the Appalachians rounded to show their age. We painted the map brown, green, and blue—we wanted it to be beautiful as well as accurate. It took up four desk tops on its huge piece of cardboard.
When I had an opportunity to incorporate an art form into my learning, the subject of geography came alive for me. Now, if I shut my eyes, I can see clearly the topography of the United States, two long strands of brown bumps enclosing a big plain of green with a bright blue ribbon of a river running through it. That colorful, visual image still provides the context for all the details I have learned since about the geography of North America.
My experience is not unique. Children learn eagerly and well in an arts-enriched learning environment. Visual arts, storytelling, singing, theater, and movement are naturally appealing to children, and incorporating these art forms into daily curriculum work sweetens the exploration of just about any subject.
The arts allow children to lead with their strengths
In Lively Learning: Using the Arts to Teach the K–8 Curriculum, I present six reasons to integrate the arts into learning (see box below). One of the most powerful of these reasons is that the arts make content accessible to students across the spectrum of learning styles.
When I was a student, geography was something I clearly did not learn well just by reading or listening to facts and then memorizing them. I needed to make something that I could look at and feel in order to really understand and remember content. Over the years when I’ve asked teachers how they learn most effectively, a few have said they learn by listening to new information. But far more have said they learn best if they see something or get a chance to try it out.
Many of us learn best by looking, talking, making, or moving, or by teaching someone else, and so do the children in our classrooms. If we integrate the arts into lessons in as many forms as possible, all students will have opportunities to lead with their strengths.
Some students’ first love and first talent is talking rather than writing. Teachers can help these students practice writing skills by channeling the talking into oral storytelling, which then leads to writing down the stories and editing the written versions.
For students who are visual learners, drawing might provide a doorway to writing. I sometimes ask first graders to draw a picture to represent a special word they are thinking about when they come into the classroom in the morning. If the word is “stomachache,” for example, and the picture of a sad face appears on the page, a sentence such as “I threw up” may follow quickly. The sequence of idea-to-picture-to-words is a natural one.
Visual learners might also use drawing to work out story problems in math: “If Corey buys six packages of potato chips, gives one each to three of his friends, and eats one at lunch, how many will he have left?” Amanda can draw the six packages of chips, use arrows to show the transfer of three of them, cross out the fourth, and then count how many are left.
Some children learn best when they engage their whole bodies. These kinesthetic learners might want to act out a story before writing it down, or use their bodies to form geometric shapes or demonstrate the movement of planets.
I watched Michael, a second grader with language-processing problems, working on an alphabet book. The book was to include an action word for each letter of the alphabet. As Michael thought of each word, he would break from his seat and move his body to act out the word he was about to write. When he came to the letter “m,” he hunched over, curled his arms under, and did a bouncy monkey walk for a moment. He then popped back into his chair and started writing “monkey.” I helped him convert the noun to a verb phrase, “monkeying around.”
Later, in a sharing circle, Michael stood up and led his peers in a short conversation about the letter “m”: “In my alphabet book, I wrote an action word for ‘m’—monkeying around. Do you have another different word for ‘m’?” A couple of children raised their hands and offered other “m” action words. Michael’s willingness to take the risk of teaching his peers came, I think, from the confidence he gathered from acting out his words and then slowly spelling them into his alphabet book. He was sure in his mind and his body that he was right.
But don’t I have to be artistic to teach through the arts?
The answer is no. For over twenty-five years I have helped teachers integrate arts media into classrooms and learning. I have found that, given the desire, the proper tools, and some guidance, even those who have little experience with art forms can use the arts to teach more effectively. The only prerequisite is that the teachers be willing to learn alongside their students.
If you’re drawn to arts-integration but hesitate because you think you can’t draw or sing or dance or tell stories, consider converting “I can’t” to a statement of possibility:
“I’m learning to draw.”
“I’m learning to sing.”
“I’m learning to tell stories.”
This shift in attitude is a step towards feeling more comfortable introducing an art form or two to your students, even though you’re not an expert. And there’s an additional benefit: such declarations will help your students understand that learning a skill is a process that takes time and practice, a matter of evolving know-how. When their teacher walks into new and scary territory to stretch her skills, children who secretly believe that they cannot read or write a story or do multiplication may gather their courage and go for it.
Move at your own pace
It’s also important that you proceed with arts integration at your own pace. Start slowly, focusing on one or two familiar art forms. Learn and teach some basic skills in an art form before integrating the art form into daily lessons. And ask for help from other teachers and adult community members.
In Lively Learning I present some of the skills involved in drawing, singing, movement, theater, and poetry, and I give suggestions for how to practice these skills with students.
I know that teachers are pressed for time. It’s a challenge to figure out a way to include arts-related experiences in schedules already packed with required curriculum. But it can be done: The idea is not to teach more but to teach differently, to link up what we want to teach each day with how we teach it so that the learning will shine.
Six Reasons to Teach Through the Arts
- The arts make content more accessible.
The arts offer children multiple, effective ways to explore and understand concepts, master content, memorize facts, and solve problems.
- The arts encourage joyful, active learning.
“Play is children’s work,” Piaget tells us. When we use the arts to get the work of the curriculum done, we soften the hard line that is so often drawn between play and work and increase the possibility of joyful learning.
- The arts help students make and express personal connections to content.
Children are more likely to care about learning new things when they can make a connection between what they’re learning and life outside of school or other things they’ve already experienced and learned. For most children, the arts provide a natural route for connecting with the curriculum in a personally meaningful way. The arts also allow a diverse group of children to express their thoughts and feelings, and in the process to share something vital about who they are.
- The arts help children understand and express abstract concepts. Effective learning moves from the known to the unknown, from the familiar and personal to abstract understandings. The arts help students to make these leaps with confidence.
- The arts stimulate higher-level thinking.
The arts provide the tools to help students pay careful attention, record accurately, and analyze from multiple points of view. And they offer one of the few reliable routes to understanding the world not only as it is, but as we might imagine it to be.
- The arts build community and help children develop collaborative work skills.
Doing creative things together creates and sustains community. Children learn collaboration by practicing it in arts-integrated projects that they love. And through continued practice of collaboration, they deepen their sense of connection to each other.
An adapted excerpt from NEFC’s book, Lively Learning: Using the Arts to Teach the K–8 Curriculum
Linda Crawford is the founder of Origins, a twenty-five-year-old nonprofit educational organization based in Minneapolis. She has taught high school English, been an artist-in-residence in elementary and middle schools, taught multicultural understanding through the arts at all levels, and served as the principal of a K–5 elementary school.Tags: Academic Choice, Engaging Academics, Language Arts, Special Areas