Here's a conversation I've had multiple times with my students in response to art.
"I don't get it."
"There's no 'it' to get. It's art. You experience it."
"But what's it mean?"
"You get to decide. It meant one thing to the artist but it might mean something different to you. Let it speak."
"What's it saying?"
"Its message can't be captured in words. That's why it's art. Otherwise it would be an article or an essay."
The more our students are immersed in art, the more they come to understand that art allows us to say and understand things for which we have no words. Art supports the process of making meaning—creating connections and inviting inquiry in ways simply can't be achieved apart from art. It provides visual, auditory, kinesthetic, emotional, and, dare I say, spiritual bridges to complex academic content and concepts.
Integration, however, is one of those educational buzzwords for which we may or may not have a common understanding and criteria. Arts integrated instruction is so much more than playing music while students work or the fallback, "now make a poster..." approach to lesson planning. Not that those are bad, but true integration is not simply combining content. It requires intentional identification of naturally aligned standards that juxtapose one another to increase impact and learning for both. This strategic approach turns learning into an expansive and holistic experience.
Teachers may shy away due to a lack of confidence in their own artistic knowledge and abilities, but a few key strategies and quality resources can make arts integration accessible and successful in any classroom. Educators in the Santa Barbara Unified School District found that The Art Docent Program (for grades K-8) provides an easy to implement multicultural, historically based program that also incorporates social-emotional learning. One teacher said, "I have found that teachers often feel underprepared and uncomfortable about teaching multicultural art. I appreciate how The Art Docent Program encourages a sequential and in-depth integration of culture throughout history."
Art Docent founder, Denise Federico, emphasizes the body of research indicating that the process of creating art triggers a neurological therapeutic benefit that transfers to whatever content is connected to the experience. In other words, making art creates good feelings and supports self-esteem. If you connect art to math or science or writing, those good feelings and confidence "chain" to the academic content. Learning history through a timeline of artwork and hands-on projects is infinitely more meaningful and memorable than dates and battles on a page.
Other Strategies and Resources
Collaborate with team members and arts specialists to share naturally aligned content and objectives. Look for the stories within the content and imagine the different ways to bring it to life. For example, if students are studying Romeo and Juliet in English, work with the theater teacher and turn it into a performance. The history teacher brings in the historical context with timelines, map-making and political role-play. In math, students create set designs to scale. In speech, they perfect their soliloquies.
Ekphrasis, from Greek, is defined as a rhetorical device in which one medium of art is used to illuminate another. For example, writing a detailed description of or a poem about a painting, creating an illustration for a story, or a visual representation of music (a la Kandinsky). As an instructional strategy, it can be employed in an endless number of ways—choreographing math formulas, rapping geography, or creating historical timelines based on works of art.
Project-based or thematic learning invites integration of multiple content areas along with the arts. For example, designing an interplanetary travel brochure integrates science, technology, persuasive writing, and visual arts. Reading Alice in Wonderland could blossom to include a study of fractions as Alice grows and shrinks, cooking and chemistry with a classroom tea party, mapping Wonderland, and a poetry performance. Check out more free lesson plans from the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM.
Contests and published projects motivate kids through competition and recognition. For example, Art in a Word challenges students to take a vocabulary word and turn each letter into the representation of its meaning. Barebooks.com provides blank books, puzzles and game boards that can turn any content into a creative project. Or, if you want to go big, turn the entire classroom into a diorama. No better way to immerse yourself in the history of ancient Egypt, math, leadership, cooperation, science, and art than to build an actual pyramid, complete with mummies.
The truth is, our students are already engaged continually in art through their favorite music, TV shows, video games, and even the constant flow of memes. Weaving art into and through our content in naturally aligned ways invites critical thinking and provides relevance and increased engagement on multiple levels. Susan Riley, in her 2012 Edutopia article , said, "Arts integration allows us to build chefs who make choices--not cooks who merely follow the recipe."
Listen to the EdCuration podcast episode on Arts Integration.
Sign up for a free 1-month membership to The Art Docent Program.