In her profound book Emotional Sobriety, Dr. Tian Dayton shares research on how learning is “double coded” for children – cognitively and emotionally. In addition, there is a section dedicated to the “emotional body” and how learning and life experiences are deeply embedded not only in the mind but in the body. Even though the book was originally written to understand how to recover and become resilient from emotional trauma, it has deep implications for how we educate children and the power of arts integration.
Teaching for Understanding
The real power of arts integration is that it fully capitalizes on “double coded” learning by intertwining fact gathering, hypothesizing and synthesizing with hands-on, active and emotional learning. In a virtuous cycle, knowledge is deeply embedded through personal experience and creativity and creativity brings learning to life and breathes significance into what otherwise remain only fact-based (aka boring) assignments.
In arts integration, the learner is no longer removed from the subject, they are fully engaged with it. The first week of April, I was Artist-in-Residence at Annapolis Middle School working with two excellent 7th grade social studies teachers, Ms. Cooper and Ms. Millstein. The students were immersed in their South Asia unit.
The objective was to “teach for understanding” so that students knew the differences between Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism and how these differences may lead to conflict. As a team, we decided to create three simple pieces of art to represent each religion. That way the students would not only fulfill the traditional learning objectives of compare/contrast but they would also, experience, with their own hands, what the creative act may feel like from a particular cultural perspective. The students would receive both cognitive learning (fact gathering, hypothesizing and reasoning about the three religions and cultures) and emotional learning (creating with their hands, designing, wondering, imagining and pride of ownership in their work).
1. Show colorful and evocative examples of art from each culture/religion.
Using the See/Think/Wonder thinking routine, allow students to gather facts (See – Cognitive), hypothesize on what they see (Think – Cognitive) and use their imaginations and connections to go deeper into the art (Wonder – Emotional and Cognitive fusion).
2. Select simple materials to create art based on the examples shown. In our project, we decided to create one piece of art per day.
- Day 1 – Hindu art: Make statues from Model Magic that described our best personal qualities. Embody these qualities in animals or objects. We made it very clear to the students not to make gods but we wanted them to understand how polytheism developed based on basic human needs and expressions like gratitude, fear and love. By creating sculptures from a very simple and readily available material, students could focus on bringing their ideas to life rather than getting bogged down in a hard to manipulate or messy material like clay. Both Ms. Cooper and Ms. Millstein made Ganesha (the multi-limbed elephant) and students were able to draw parallels to the teachers by saying things like “teachers have to multi-task” and “teachers reach out to us.” During class, the music of India was playing in the background.
- Day 2 – Islamic Art: Teachers cut up sheets of colored construction paper and students were charged with making art that reflected the complex geometric patterns in Islamic art. Several students made the connection to the fact that Islam forbids personified representations of divinity and that Islamic thinkers had a historical “golden age” where they advanced the study of mathematics. During class, the music of Turkey was playing in the background.
- Day 3 – Buddhist Art: Students created Enso or circles and learned to value simplicity, creating with single strokes, leaving details out and noticing space. They also saw and touched an authentic Japanese teapot and set of mugs and observed their circular shape and simplicity and made the connection to the Enso. During class, the music of Japan was playing in the background.
3. Allow student art to become the basis for assessed student reflection.
How amazingly powerful is it for students to base their reflections on their own creations rather than something external (a picture of a piece of art shown on a screen)? Students have been given the opportunity to step into another culture and way of creating, so it makes sense that their reflections should come from this experience also. Students have the opportunity to assess their own understanding of religion and culture based on what they created rather than on what they merely viewed. Students produced Brief Constructed Responses, based on their own art, that could be assessed by the teachers as to whether the understood the fundamental tenets of each religion.
In closing, as educators, we need to continually create opportunities for our students to do and to make, right in the classroom, to tap into the emotional power of learning. Student engagement is a big deal these days and by engaging students with evocative examples and simple projects where creative success is easily attainable, students accomplish the goals of the curriculum (cognitive) and building understanding and empathy (emotional) by investing their own personal and creative energy.
Photo credit: Paul Gillespie/The Capital To see the Capital Gazette’s article on this project click here.
Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and artist and 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, has created award-winning innovative “Life-Skills Through The Arts” programs for adults with mental illness, the homeless, adults in drug and alcohol recovery, youth in domestic/sexual abuse counseling, foster children, hospital patients, veterans and many more. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families and patients. Email Rob.