Arts integration can be an amazing instructional strategy, however implementation must be planned to not have an adverse impact on students’ appreciation and respect for the arts. For over fifteen years, I have utilized an arts integration instructional approach with PreK-12 students as well as – preservice and practicing teachers. I have observed amazing arts integration lessons but more often than not I have observed ineffective arts integration teaching episodes. Students and in-service teachers have asked me “Why didn’t this lesson work?” and/or “The lesson worked in my other class but why not with this group?” My first question is always “Do you know your students?”
Arts integration is not a novel approach! I have observed arts integration strategies for many years. In most lessons observed, not all art forms were integrated during instruction however; some aspects of the fine arts were evident. The four major art forms used in arts integration are art, music, dance/movement, and theatre/drama. These art forms when planned and implemented appropriately according to needs and demographics of students can have positive impacts on their academic, social, and emotional growth and development. I will highlight common instructional obstacles to effective arts integration instruction.
Having students illustrate or complete an art project to demonstrate their knowledge of a content area can be a great pre/post activity. Art becomes problematic when there is too little guidance or too much guidance. The focus must be on the purpose of the art assignments, which should reflect the objectives and standards for the lesson, not the art form. I often ask my students when they have an issue with arts integration, “What are the outcomes and overall goals you are having the students achieve by completing the art assignment?” Remember the art activity is not art-for art sake, it is to extend and enhance the content/concept of the instruction. You should not care if the art activity was “pretty” but that they understood the content and were engaged in the content.
Example: A former student, now a biology teacher wrote me concerned that her students were not receptive anymore to drawing for activities. She explained how they liked to draw in the beginning of the quarter but now not so much. They moaned and groaned when she mentioned drawing.
How often do you have them engage in art activities?
As with any activity, if it is overused it becomes boring and redundant. Switch it up! If you having them illustrate for every assignment that can become boring. There are other art activities (i.e. mobiles, shadow boxes, clay sculptures, etc.) don’t make them draw for every assignment, use other arts integration strategies.
How do you evaluate the illustrations and what feedback are you providing the students?
Often teachers will assess the assignment visual elements, on how “pretty/good” the art work turns out. That is not the goal of arts integration. If students start to feel or observe that they are earning lower scores and/or negative feedback on their art assignments based on the art and not the objective of the assignment the students will have a negative response. Remember this is NOT an art class.
The evaluation criteria should be whether the objective was met.
What are the directions for the assignment(s)?
Often there is an issue with too many directions or not enough directions. Providing students specific step-by-step directions with little to no latitude can stifle and limit their creativity. Again, if they are completing the assignment and still meeting the objective there should be room for some creative license. Not enough directions can lead to students not completing the assignment. Very specific directions can be frustrating to students who are not linear.
Though dance/movement is a great way to get students active and mobile, it can be challenging to implement. Some of the major concerns I have heard and observed are related to space, student willingness to participate, classroom management, and/or the teachers’ comfortability.
You can always make or find space. Yes, this may take time but account for the time in the lesson. Know your students and your schedule! I would facilitate movement activities either right after lunch, the end of the day and/or end of the period. I had time to move desks and chairs to make space and time to reorganize the space. Also don’t be afraid to use other spaces than your classroom. I loved taking my students outside. The cafeteria was another place that I commonly used at the end of the day after the staff had cleared the space. I also used the gym during hours that were not dedicated to instruction.
Students willingness to participate/Students getting out of control
Of course you are going to have students who do not want to expose themselves for fear of being uncomfortable. Of course you are going to have students that can’t handle a lot of movement in a larger group. Know your class! If majority of your class have reservations with movement activities for either reason then create movement activities that can be controlled to still meet your lesson’s objective. For example, I have used “Dance Across the Room”. If the question applies to the student they would dance in whatever style of movement I stated when I instructed. I had a class that I knew this would not work. So instead I created movements that could be done sitting and standing at their desk.
There’s a part of me that wants to say, “Get over it!” But I do understand that some teachers have insecurities when it comes to movement. Doesn’t make you a bad teacher but trust me your students don’t care. Actually I have discovered through my observations, those teachers who own their lack of rhythm and/or coordination receive positive responses from students. The students often will let down their guard because they observed their teachers’ willingness to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
I love theatre! I’ve been involved in it most of my life and even majored in theatre education. I say all this to say I have to check my own biases when using theatre for arts integration. As I explained with art, the goal in arts integration is not to be the best actor but demonstrate the understanding of the content. Similar to art and dance, teachers have concerns when using theatre about not enough guidance, students’ willingness to participate and management of students.
These challenges typically have the same solution. KNOW YOUR STUDENTS! There are some classes where I could literally say read this passage from this novel and create a skit that demonstrates the theme but that was rare. You have to establish the climate with hands on guidance more often than not. Usually, I organize the students into smaller groups and strategically place students by personality, behavior, academic levels, and/or leadership. I try to make every group diverse so that students have the opportunity to work as supportive teams. My shy student might be more willing to participate if it has a confident student in the group. This also permits the teacher the ability to assist each group, identifying where there may be issues and managing behaviors. I also direct and provide directions in a step by step process to avoid students becoming overwhelmed and /or confused.
Let’s take my example from before the “skit” about the passage from the novel. Instead of giving that as a whole assignment I break it into manageable parts.
1st: With the group discuss the details of the passage. (I would provide some guided questions to discuss.)
2nd: (I would usually provide some type of Venn diagram) Who are the characters? Identify their qualities and characteristics. Identify and write the major points of the passage.
3rd: How can your group retell the passage? (Depending on the students I select or I let them select the character roles)
4th: Using the Venn diagram present the passage to the class.
Not every class needs this much instruction and you may have students who need more. After implementing this process a couple times your students may not need as much guidance. This also helps with managing classroom behaviors and students who are not comfortable /willing to participate. You can assign non-speaking roles to applicable students and evaluate the students’ understanding through their written assignments, i.e. Venn diagram. Also another way to use theatre is non-verbal theatrical strategies like tableau and pantomime.
Music is a great tool to engage students. An issue I have observed in the classroom is appropriate use of music for the grade level and student demographics. My early childhood and primary grades teachers have more options because there is a plethora of music for those grade levels. I often hear teachers complain, “My student won’t learn the song. They think it is for babies!” My solution is often addressing how the music is used. I use to play nursery rhymes for my high school students and I would say, “This is corny but it will help you remember.” Usually they would moan but more often than not they used it! You can also find age appropriate songs. YouTube is my go to source. They have a rap or song for every subject. Also you can have the students create their own songs/raps. You may need to break it into steps similar the examples for theatre but students usually are successful with creating songs and raps.
Arts integration is a wonderful and effective strategy but you must use the fine arts appropriately for the success across content areas.
Dr. Janna Chevon Thompson is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Studies Department at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, teaching courses on arts integration, language acquisition, and instructional methods. She taught early childhood, elementary education, and secondary education majors in arts integration and diversity at Towson University as an adjunct professor. Previously Dr. Thompson taught acting, playwriting, stage make-up and design at Coppin State University as an adjunct professor. She has been teaching and implementing arts integration for over 15 years.