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November 1, 2010
Vol. 52
No. 11

Creating Rigorous Arts Lessons Across the Content Areas: Tips for Collaboration

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Many school superintendents and principals express concern about the diminishing presence of certified arts educators and visiting artists in their classrooms. Therefore, they would like to involve classroom and subject area teachers in a rigorous process that helps students make authentic connections between the arts and academics. This article will provide tips to assist classroom teachers in designing high-quality lessons that integrate arts education across the content areas.

What Is Arts Integration?

There are three basic strands that qualify for arts integration. They can be used alone or in combination, depending on the teachers' goals. The first strand aims to identify and connect the relationships between and among the arts disciplines and is often called "interarts." The second strand treats the arts as motivation to achieve other, nonartistic ends.
The third strand starts with study of the arts object or experience and bridges to the nonartistic experience. When it is well done, this approach, known as infusion or balanced integration, spends equal time and attention on the integrating domains. It encourages teachers and their students to recognize the native elements embedded in both the arts and other subjects that, when joined harmoniously, strengthen and deepen students' understanding.

Examples of Arts and Academic Connections

I draw from my own work with source materials to offer a few examples that touch several art forms. They represent documented, authentic experience and have been field-tested by teachers, artists, arts educators, parents, and students. Also, I found that participating administrators helped to shape and focus these examples and learned almost as much as their students in the process.
I have not generally identified age groups or ranges because it has been my experience that the content and the process of each example can easily adjust and apply to elementary, middle, or high school students.

Opera and Poetry

A professional development program for teachers linked "The Peacock Complaining to Juno," a poem by Jean de La Fontaine translated from French about Juno's scolding of the peacock who wanted a beautiful voice, to Sean O'Casey's play Juno and the Paycock, set in revolutionary Ireland, and Mark Blitzstein and Joseph Stein's Broadway show Juno, which put O'Casey's words to music.
Principals, classroom teachers, and arts teachers from six different schools worked in teams with professional musicians, playwrights, directors, and dancers to write their own librettos, music, staging, and performances based on the source material. They shared their work at the end of each day and presented final versions on the last day.


An extended, yearlong residency program allowed students and educators to explore the Greek myth about Prometheus and the gift of fire.
Four classes of students read, commented on, and improvised several written versions. They then wrote; performed; and designed props, costumes, and stage sets for four different interpretations of the myth. Teachers and visiting artists collaborated on the entire process and engaged their students in decision-making for every aspect of the project. Parents attended the three performances in a makeshift studio designed by the teachers and students.


A yearlong arts study focused on Alvin Ailey's "Sinner Man" section from his masterwork Revelations.
Kindergarten through 5th grade classroom and arts teachers, professional dance artists, and their students attended live performances and then worked with professional dancers from the Alvin Ailey troupe and coaches in their school. They chose to invent their own dance versions of "Sinner Man." Students discussed and wrote about what it was like to make serious mistakes and deal with the consequences. They also created a poster demonstration and performances for local council members, parents, and community leaders.

Visual Arts and Music Composition

Participants in a summer professional development institute studied Edward Hopper'sNighthawks,the painting of customers sitting at the counter of an all-night diner.
School teams of classroom teachers and visual and performing arts educators studied and discussed the painting, the artist, and their interpretations of the picture. With the assistance of professional visual, dance, theater, and music artists, they transformed their thoughts into papier maché sculptures and created their own stories, to which they added movement, spoken words, and music.

Strategies for Arts Integration

Classroom teachers can learn from keen observation and regular interaction with practicing arts educators and artists. If you are interested integrating high-quality arts lessons into your class, work with an arts specialist to plan rigorous lessons. Try the following tips:
Jot down a quick inventory of your own experience with the arts. What interests, talents and experience in or with the arts do you have? When you identify your current interests, it may help you find a familiar point of entry into an arts-based or arts-driven activity, lesson, unit, or course of study. Tip: If specialists or the artist will be available for professional development or consultation, I urge you to share your arts interests with them.
Locate appropriate source material. There are many sites on the web, in your school library, and in print you can refer to for lessons, units, and more. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' ArtsEdge program offers a wealth of information on arts education athttp://artsedge.kennedycenter.org.
Develop your goals and content. Confer with arts specialists and artists to study how they determine their literacy, academic, social, or other goals and learner outcomes for a specific arts project, lesson, unit, or course of study. Discuss the instructional goal and some of the content and concepts that you would like to teach. Draw a simple graphic organizer such as a T-square (a big letter T taking up the entire width and breadth of an 8.5 × 11 piece of paper) that will ultimately hold your lists of criteria such as goals, outcomes, indicators, and assessments for both the arts and the academics. On the left side of the T column, classroom teachers should list what they think they will teach and expect as outcomes; on the right side, arts teachers should list their expectations and outcomes. Tip: Make sure that equal time is devoted to the arts and the academic lessons and that the connections are smooth, not forced or far-fetched.
Engage and collaborate with your students. This is a great opportunity to engage students in the planning and decision-making process. I suggest they also be deeply involved in determining the indicators (evidence of learning that is expected of them) so that they can self-assess formatively, as you move along. Tip: Learn the art of improvisation and how, as a daily routine, to warm up your students using activities that stress fundamental techniques native to the art form(s) you have identified.
If possible, backward-map the lesson, unit, or course of study. Determine learner outcomes, a timeline, content, materials, requirements, documentation, and assessment activities. Decide how much time you as the classroom teacher will have to devote to the enterprise and how much time will be available for the arts teacher and the artist.
Engage in professional development. Meet with your arts specialists and artists as frequently as possible and over time. Continue to identify and explore together which operations and fundamentals inherent in your academic subject areas are also present in your arts studies. You will want to take advantage of every opportunity to reinforce and connect the skills, concepts, and themes that tie the disciplines together in interesting and surprising ways.

A Few Closing Thoughts

Ask your arts educators or artists whether what you propose for your students is age, intellectually, and culturally appropriate. Is what you have in mind representative of artistically high quality? Also, ask for tips for handling classroom management during activities as well as good approaches for working with children with special needs. Ask for suggestions on how to handle collaboration, pacing, transitions, and rehearsals.
You should establish clear and balanced arts and academic goals and outline specific expectations for your students in the arts as well as the academic disciplines (or other goal areas). Be sure to consult the arts and academic standards in your district or state and make sure you are aligned with local practice, policy, and regulations. It is also a good idea to build formative and summative assessments into the teaching and learning process to keep track of student growth and achievement and your own growth as a teacher.
With these general guidelines, you can begin to think about how to incorporate and validate the arts and artistry in and across selected content areas of your curriculum. I wish you an exciting journey full of surprises as you embrace the challenge of making arts integration work for you, your students, and your schools.

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