A Guide to Arts Integration

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Explore the basics of arts integration. You’ll learn what arts integration is, examples of the approach in action, and a clear sequence for using it in schools.

Arts Integration allows us to build chefs who make choices — not cooks who merely follow the recipe.  I wrote that for an Edutopia feature in 2012 and at my core, I still feel like this captures the magic of what arts integration can do for our students. 

For a long time, education has felt like a pressure cooker. As a basic biological element, humans have a need to compare.  This is obvious when we look at the use of social media and in how we’ve always had this underlying feeling of “keeping up with the Jones’”. 

This need to compare and measure up gets captured in schools through testing, pacing guides, evaluations tied to test scores and public opinion. All of which puts on more and more pressure with no release valve. None of which actually focuses on the natural teaching and learning process. 

So our students learn that their worth is tied to a test score. Their ability is measured by whether they excel in one of the tested areas. And their opportunities are limited to what adults have decided leads to a successful career. 

Is it any wonder that we’re seeing more teachers leaving the profession, student social and emotional difficulties on the rise and communities that are frustrated with the state of education? 

Here’s the good news: arts integration can cut through the mess. Which is ironic because the arts in and of themselves are messy.  The arts act as an access point for students to explore all of the complex skills and processes we’re trying to teach. 

You know, one of my favorite reminders about the arts comes from Elizabeth Gilbert who shares that based on historical evidence, we’ve been making art longer than we’ve known how to feed ourselves on a regular basis.  So the arts aren’t nice to have. They aren’t an extra or a special or a way to build in prep time. They are essential to human life. They are the way that we make sense of the world around us. 

Why would we cut that out of our students’ learning experience?  Research shows time and time again that when we use arts integration with integrity, students succeed. They learn information more deeply, they enjoy the process and they become comfortable with the messiness and risk of innovation.   

Teachers are happier too. Because teaching through the arts integrated process allows them to step into their true role as an educator. They can guide the learning process instead of feeling like they have to be on a certain page in their curriculum by a certain date. 

And because of all that, test scores rise as well.  But in schools where arts integration flourishes, test scores are merely a secondary benefit. The true emphasis is on the learning process. And once students learn how to think – which is what arts integration really helps them do – they are prepared to work through any problem. 

There are lots of definitions out there for arts integration. Just like many things in education, everyone seems to have a definition that works for them. In my own experience, I have found many of these definitions too long with too many components in an effort to make sure we cover all the bases.  

So I like to keep this simple: Arts integration is an approach to teaching and learning through which content standards are taught and assessed equitably in and through the arts.  

Now, let’s look at a few key components here. First, this is an approach. It’s not a curriculum. This isn’t a prescription for teaching. As an approach, you use arts integration when it’s the best fit. You don’t use it all the time. Sometimes, we see schools who are so used to traditional curriculum that when they want to shift to arts integration, administrators say they want to see each lesson using arts integration. That’s not realistic. You use arts integration as an application of learning.  

Second, this is a standards-based approach. In order for something to be an arts integrated lesson, there’s really only three criteria I’m looking for: you’ve connected a content standard (ELA, math, science, social studies) with an arts standard that make a natural fit. Both of those chosen standards are taught equitably throughout the lesson. And both standards are assessed. That sounds easy, but think about this: when was the last time you looked up another set of standards different from your own content area? It’s not enough to just USE another content or arts area. You have to have a lesson connected back to standards. My litmus test when walking into any classroom who is teaching an arts integrated lesson is to ask, “what standards are you teaching here?”. If the teacher can tell me both the content and the arts standard being taught, I know this is a solid arts integrated lesson. Third, this approach is about teaching and assessing both the content and the arts standards equitably. Not equally – not the same. Equitably – both are addressed based on the requirements of the standard selected. It’s about connecting these standards and assessing them intentionally, not as an afterthought.  

Now while these 3 components seem simple, this takes a lot of practice. Many times, we’ll see something and think “that’s a fun lesson!” but it’s not really arts integration because there’s a lack of standard-connection or a lack of intention.  

For example, I once had a second grade teacher ask me if I would teach her students the song 50 Nifty United States for an arts integrated lesson on learning the names of all 50 states. I said no. First of all, the song is rhythmically and melodically inappropriate for 2nd graders’ singing ranges. Secondly, the song was being used IN SERVICE of the true intent of the lesson: learning the 50 state names. The lesson wasn’t intentionally teaching any music standards at all. The music was a means to an end. The same could be said of creating shadow boxes to show the order of the planets or creating Pinwheels for Peace as a community project. The arts are being used in service of something else, rather than being taught and assessed as an equal partner in the lesson.  

Now, arts integration generally happens over time as people truly understand what the process looks like. I like to think of this as a continuum. Keep in mind – none of these stages of the continuum are “wrong”. They are just the stages people go through on the road to implementing high-quality arts integration.  

Let’s take a look: Enhancement is when you’re using one area to support or service another in a lesson. This can happen no matter where you are. If you’re an arts teacher, you can easily use a science or math concept to enhance your lesson, just like the 2nd grade teacher was using music to enhance her social studies lesson on the 50 states. Again…this is where many people start out and that’s okay. It’s just not arts integration. We’ve got to call it what it is: enhancement. There’s also little to no discussion between content and fine arts area teachers in the enhancement stage.  

Theme-based instruction is a lesson based upon a theme that is common in two areas. There may be some discussion surrounding the theme alignment between the content and fine arts teachers about the lesson. This is really a stepping stone towards looking at a common thread. Inquiry-driven instruction is a lesson where a concept is addressed between a content and arts area and both center around an essential question. There is discussion and planning surrounding the essential questions between the content and fine arts teachers about the lesson and maybe even some lesson collaboration. This can take on a lot of different looks based on the scheduling and flexibility available in a school. 

Next up is a co-taught lesson. This is when a lesson is co-taught by teachers in two or more areas. The planning occurs between the content and fine arts teachers about the lesson. Again, this can take on a lot of different possibilities. It may look like a project where one part is taught in the ELA classroom and the arts component is taught in the arts classroom. Or, it could be that the ELA and arts teacher teach the lesson together in the same room. Finally, we get to arts integration. This is when the lesson is co-planned by two content teachers and is grounded in equitably teaching and assessing standards in both areas. The planning occurs between the content and fine arts teachers about the lesson. The lesson can either be co-taught or individually taught within a single classroom. This happens after each standard being addressed has already been explicitly taught on its own and an arts integration lesson is being used as a way to apply their learning in an expanded context to provide a meaningful learning experience. This continuum is something I really want you to dig into before moving on. We’ve included this in your workbook for this lesson. Take some time to consider where you are on this continuum and where your school or colleagues are. Keep in mind – it may change depending on the lesson, the class or even the day. Wherever you are, just acknowledge it and look at the steps you need to get to arts integration.  

 Sometimes, teachers question what their individual roles are in the arts integration approach. What are they responsible for? So it’s important to be clear on who does what and why before jumping in. This way, everyone has a clear picture of where they fit into this approach. The role of the arts teachers is to teach their arts content first. They need to teach the skills and processes of their art form if our students have any chance of using them as an application of learning. This is a huge advocacy tool for arts teachers. Arts integration requires MORE dedicated arts instruction – not less. Many arts teachers worry that they will be replaced by classroom teachers teaching arts content. But that’s not how this works.  

Arts teachers are the only ones who have the experience and training to provide the best possible skills and processes in their respective art forms. So they need to focus on teaching those things during dedicated arts times. They are also a collaborator in the approach. They can definitely co-teach arts integrated lessons, and should be a partner in collaborative planning efforts. They can also model arts techniques for teachers and students.  

And finally, they are arts advocates. They are the folks who design and put on gallery shows, arts nights and can share arts strategies and techniques at PD events. These teachers are able to help document and share the arts with all stakeholders in the community. The role of the classroom teacher is to teach their content directly first and then work in collaboration with the arts teacher to create and implement an arts integrated lesson that helps students apply their learning. Classroom teachers also need to teach the skills and processes of the content areas first. Which is why arts integration is an approach – it’s meant as a way to provide relevance, context and creation into the learning process. Classroom teachers are also collaborators. They can also co-teach lessons, work in collaborative planning with arts teachers and can model content strategies and skills. Finally, they can also support in arts advocacy by participating and even contributing to gallery shows, coming to arts nights – maybe even offering to help coordinate them – and in sharing arts integration strategies and lessons during PD events. Each teacher is a valuable partner in this approach and each teacher has something extraordinary to offer the other. It is a true collaborative effort.  

One thing to always remember about arts integration is that it’s backed by over 30 years of research. If you go to artsedsearch.org you’ll find all of the published research studies on the arts integration methodology. And if you cull through all of them, you’ll find that research consistently supports that integrating the arts is a high-leverage strategy in improving student understanding, application and presentation of knowledge, as well as increasing attendance and removing behavior barriers.  

Here’s what all that research shares on typical results from using arts integration:  

  • 10-15% higher on standardized achievements for all students. 
  • 15-20% higher on standardized achievements for minority groups. 
  • 20%+ higher on standardized achievement tests for special education populations. • 5% or more increased attendance rate. 
  • 20% or more reduction in documented classroom disruptions (including detention, suspension and expulsion rates). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

There are so many reasons for using arts integration and everyone has a different one that stands out. For me, I find that arts integration provides an access point for all learners. Your reasons (and those of your school community) may be different. That’s why it’s important to dive into the research and find out all of the benefits to this approach. Then, it’s time to take that research and use it to craft your vision for what this looks like in your classroom, school or district.  

As educators, it’s not our job to get all students to score well on a specific test – even if that’s what it feels like.  It’s our job to find the access points our students connect with and use that as an avenue to explore ideas, share perceptions and to make sense of the world. Arts integration is an approach that not only embraces our humanity but allows us to experience humanity together. 

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This groundbreaking learning experience explores arts-integrated ideas both in isolation and as part of the whole school community.  Each session includes a video, article and resources designed to help passionate educators go deeply into a cutting-edge concept. New sessions added each month.

TOPIC: FOUNDATIONS OF ARTS INTEGRATION

4 CHAPTERS

Foundations of AI video viewing

VIDEO

Arts Integration at the Core

Explore the basics of arts integration. This video shares what arts integration is, examples of the approach in action, and a clear sequence for using it in schools.

What is Arts Integration?

ARTICLE

What is Arts Integration? A Comprehensive Overview for Schools.

This in-depth overview will help you understand the components to a successful arts integration effort.

Wayne Thiebaud Cakes Lesson math and art

LESSON IDEAS

Cakes! A Math and Visual Art Lesson

Explore 3-dimensional shapes and angles, and perpendicular and parallel lines connecting to perspective.

PBL resource guide

RESOURCE

The Arts Integration Continuum Card

Download the Continuum Card referenced in the video overview.