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January 10, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 14

How to Overcome the Challenges of Arts Integration

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"Music is too important to only be in music class." These are the wise words of an undergraduate music major I know. She became an ESL teacher so that she could bring the power of music to English class. The arts—whether we're talking about music, dance, theater, sculpture, or printmaking—are too important to students' learning to stay in their respective areas. It's far better to integrate them with content.
Arts advocates have been saying for years that arts integration can improve social-emotional learning and attitudes toward the arts. A recent meta-analysis of arts integration research as seen through ESSA found that the arts have a statistically significant effect on student achievement (Ludwig, et al., 2017). So, we know arts integration works. But how best to do it?
For years, the school district I worked in (I retired last year) prioritized the arts on a small scale: We have a performing arts middle school where students create productions that combine social studies with writing, dance, art, and theater. But I always wondered why integration was limited to the lucky students at one school. As an ESL teacher, I knew integrating English into all the content areas helped English language learners (ELLs) successfully acquire both language and skills. I had a similar hunch that integrating the arts into content would benefit all students.
That's why I worked with several other teachers to apply for arts-in-education grants from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs so that we could get the necessary expertise and funding to integrate the arts more fully. Many other states (Florida, Texas, and Illinois, to name a few) offer similar initiatives that can jump-start efforts to bring the arts into content areas.
With the extra funding, we were able to support five residencies over three years. Our 4th graders worked with the Michigan Opera Theater to put on a science opera about states of matter and a social studies opera about U.S. geography. A 2nd and 3rd grade class dramatized an Arab folk tale with Wild Swan Theater. Our 2nd and 3rd graders teamed up with the PuppetART Theater to create puppet shows about topics ranging from the benefits of diversity to plant life. Teachers were reluctant at first to participate but became eager volunteers when they saw how engaged the students were and how easily they learned the content.

The Obstacles of Arts Integration—and How to Overcome Them

Integrating arts into general education settings has its obvious challenges. At my elementary school, for example, our music and art teachers taught at multiple schools and were frequently transferred throughout our large district. This situation wasn't intentional, but it made it harder to do arts-integrated projects that require teamwork and planning time. Bringing in outside experts through grant funding helped, but school staff also need to have the willpower and mindset to make integration across all subjects successful. We faced a set of common issues as we started this work that we had to overcome. Here's how we overcame them.
A perceived lack of expertise. "I don't know anything about making an opera," teachers protested. But our music teacher did. We just had to connect them together. The teacher who agreed to have her class be the core group for the first opera residency said she'd "do it again in a heartbeat." She later volunteered her class for the puppet opera residency the following year. And after the experts came, a 3rd and 4th grade teacher who had participated in a previous PuppetART residency independently worked with ESL, art, and music teachers to help her students create a puppet adaptation of Shrek. As a student narrator in this video put it: "They taught us to do it by ourselves!" The grants set up our school to sustainably continue integration, even after the professionals were gone.
Fears of the unknown. Some of our 4th grade teachers understood in the abstract how an arts-integrated residency could improve student achievement, but still they hesitated. Would it hurt test scores? Would students lose valuable class time? Fortunately, our standardized assessment results were encouraging. On the WIDA, Michigan's annual test of English language proficiency, 75 percent of the ELL students in the core class participating our school's first opera residency met or exceeded expected growth, compared to 57 percent of our school's other ELLs. This finding is similar to other studies where the relationship between arts integration and student achievement was found to be even more powerful for at-risk students (Greenfader & Brouillette, 2013). In addition, our 4th graders—the "opera grade"—had a 57 percent pass rate on the M-STEP, Michigan's annual reading test, compared to a 49 percent pass rate for grades not fully arts-integrated at our school. 
Worries about covering content. What does creating an opera have to do with science? Quite a lot, we discovered. The science opera created during our first residency was based on concepts the students were studying in science. In fact, it taught everyone about the three states of matter, not just the 4th grade performers. After the performance, a verbal survey administered to a random sample of the student audience showed that 75 percent of the students had learned the three main scientific concepts presented. Four years later, a video of the opera is still used in science classes to teach this concept.
A lack of support from administration. My school was lucky in that our principal understood the value of integrating arts with content. My colleagues and I didn't have to spend time convincing him of the benefits. However, we can only imagine the way time and energy spent on the project would take its toll if we hadn't had help. A supportive administration is key when trying anything new.
No funding. Surprisingly, getting the money we needed to implement our arts-infused projects was the easiest part. The arts in education residency grants that benefited my school are most likely also offered in your state; take advantage of them! Applying for our first grant presented a steep learning curve, but successive applications got easier. The arts organizations who did residencies at our school were eager to continue partnering with us once we had established a reputation for working well with them. Other local arts organizations such as Wayne State University's dance department and our local symphony orchestra were also open to funding partnerships. Reach out to such organizations in your community.
Grant-funded residencies gave us the structure and motivation to work together and showed all of us—administrators, teachers, students, and parents—that outsiders believed in what we were doing. In fact, they were financially supporting it! In the same way my friend thought music was too important for just music class, we thought arts-integrated experiences were too important for only the students in our district's performing arts middle school. Thanks to grant-funded residencies, all kinds of students at my school, including special education students and ELLs, benefitted. Your students can, too.

Greenfader, C.M. and Brouillette, L. (2013). Boosting language skills of english learners through dramatization and movement [article]. International Reading Association. Retrieved from

Ludwig, M. J., Boyle, A., and Lindsay, J. (2017, November 7). Review of evidence: Arts integration research through the lens of the every student succeeds act [report]. Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

Barbara Gottschalk, as a full-time, in-the-trenches educator, taught English language learners from first graders to graduate students in five states in three very different parts of the United States. After teaching English in Japan early in her career, she earned an M.A. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) as well as an MBA.

She was an invited speaker on ELL issues for the 30th Annual High Schools That Work Development Conference and has presented numerous times at the International TESOL conference and at conferences for state affiliates MITESOL, Ohio TESOL, and Kansas TESOL. A two-year stint representing English language learner interests as one of 160 fellows in America Achieves, a national educator organization, elevated her voice further. Gottschalk wrote and implemented many successful grants for her school and has served as a grant reviewer for TESOL, her professional organization, as well as for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition. Her first book, Get Money for Your Classroom: Easy Grant Writing Ideas that Work, was published by Routledge in 2017.

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