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October 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 2

In the Arts Spotlight

Integrating the arts into daily instruction for at-risk students can unlock the doors to learning in a variety of academic subjects.

Students who don't care, never turn in homework, read far below grade level, are physically aggressive, have poor attendance—these are some of the children whom I have taught. As a new teacher, I tried many ways to reach them. Finally, I realized that if I wanted to help my students learn, I needed to understand the underlying causes of their destructive behavior.
After many hours of attending workshops and reading about at-risk students, I began to see my students from a different perspective. These were not just "tough" kids; their behavior stemmed from the cycle of poverty. They had created defense mechanisms to survive in what were often chaotic home situations. To make any improvements in their lives, they needed knowledge and a sense of direction. Above all, they needed someone who believed in them. I saw my role as a teacher change. I couldn't just teach them; I first needed to inspire them to learn. Integrating the arts into their learning provided the inspiration that they needed.

The Road to Discovery

My experience with integrating the arts into my teaching began early in my career, when I had my 5th graders role-play historical events from the social studies textbook, using costumes and props. Hidden talents within each student began to emerge, and I decided to extend this role-playing experience beyond the school day. The music teacher and I collaborated to produce a musical. The students rehearsed after school and then performed for the entire school during the day.
The experience was the first exposure to theater for many of my students. In addition to drama and music skills, they learned such life skills as punctuality, responsibility, and cooperation. They were proud of their accomplishment. The whole school was impressed, too.
The next phase of integrating the arts into my teaching came when I taught a class of extremely tough 4th graders. I decided to "soften" them with one of my favorite ballets, The Nutcracker. As a dance teacher in college, I had coproduced and performed The Nutcracker several times. I showed my students a video of my performance, brought in my ballet memorabilia, and read them the story. Soon they were eager to make The Nutcracker part of their lives.
We decided to produce a puppet show, with each student making a puppet to portray one of the characters. The media specialist helped the students design the costumes, using the Internet to find photos of actual costumes used during a performance. The students worked in groups to practice their puppets' movements to the music, sent invitations to parents and teachers, and performed to a packed house.
Afterward, I reflected on how involved the entire class had been. Students who typically had behavior problems had been focused intently on the task. Students who didn't get along had become friends. A delightful transformation had occurred.
Soon I was integrating the arts into as many lessons as possible. In reading class, for example, students had a choice of projects upon completing a book: make puppets of the characters, create a salt-dough map of the setting, write a diary from the main character's point of view, or make a board game using vocabulary words from the book. The students created rubrics for each project and agreed on a deadline. They presented their projects in front of the class and answered questions from their classmates.

The Arts, Movement, and Emotion

My students were engaged in their learning, but I didn't quite understand why. Through my reading, I began to see why the arts—and the related elements of movement and emotion—were having such a strong impact. To overcome the barriers to learning that poverty may create, students need to have a talent or skill that takes them to a new environment and a mentor who takes an interest in them and provides emotional support while they are still learning (Payne, 1998). In my classroom, students uncovered new talents and skills and were exposed to a world that they had never known before—the world of the arts. I acted as a mentor to provide them with a safe and supportive atmosphere.
In Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen (1998) discusses the power of movement as an element in learning: "Give a school daily dance, music, drama, and visual art instruction where there is considerable movement, and you might get a miracle" (p. 87). Jensen says that movement is a pleasure link to the brain. Children who lack stimulation from touch and physical movement seek other ways to satisfy their brain, usually through aggression and violence. These children need daily physical activity in their learning.
The school where I currently teach is a good example of successful arts integration and use of movement. Arts specialists (dance, drama, music, visual art, literary arts) and classroom teachers collaborate to make the arts a part of daily academic learning, usually through thematic instruction. Area artists also work with students, and the school holds weekly "gatherings" at which all students share their learning through performance.
I have found that the more movement that I include in daily lessons, the more attentive the learners are. I was surprised, for example, by the results of combining a simple game of tag with science vocabulary. My 2nd graders were studying basic cloud types. I adapted a tag game so that each of them had to be a cumulus, stratus, or cirrus cloud. They could run only when the person who was "it" called out their cloud type. By playing this game, every student learned these terms, which they then applied to their weather studies.
Brain research also tells us that emotions play an important role in learning. According to Jensen (1998), the most significant learning occurs when emotions are integrated with instruction because all body systems are united. The arts are strongly linked to emotions, enhancing the likelihood that students will remember something.
To prove these theories, I wanted to measure how the arts, movement, and emotion affected my students. I collected data from a group of 20 2nd graders in an after-school program that I taught. Each student was identified as being at least one year below grade level in achievement, and all could be considered at risk. Many of the students had troubled home lives, and some spoke a primary language other than English. Some would be considered average kids with caring parents, but they were struggling with school.
I collected information about reading comprehension by reading a story to them a few times, discussing and pointing out things as I read, and then asking them to rewrite the story in their own words, using picture cues. Only one student successfully retold the whole story. It was difficult to get the others motivated to finish. I also conducted a reading attitude survey that asked the students to answer yes, no, or OK to the following questions: "I really like to read," "I think I am a good reader," and "I wish I could be a better reader."
One month later, I read the same story, but this time I assigned each student a character, and the students had to act out the various parts. They performed the whole story easily. Then they switched parts and acted out one another's characters. They cut and pasted labels that identified events of the story and placed them in sequential order next to the correct drawing of that event. The room was nearly silent as they wrote the story in their own words again—this time with ease and confidence. Every student successfully retold the story; further, they could all read the book. Their decoding skills improved because they understood what was happening in the story. I also repeated the reading attitude survey and found that more students responded positively to the questions.
By integrating the arts into the curriculum, I have seen students master concepts that I thought were beyond their abilities. For example, the math curriculum for 2nd graders required them to identify two- and three-dimensional shapes by name and features (sides, angles, edges, vertices, faces). My students created a shape museum of actual objects that they brought from home. We examined and compared the shapes. The dance teacher and I collaborated to integrate these math concepts into dance class. I provided her with the geometry information and vocabulary so that she could use the same names and shapes in her dance lessons. These lessons had a remarkable impact. On the unit test, all but four students earned passing scores.

Arts for Everyone

Integrating the arts in academics is one of the best ways to reach every child. Middle-class families can offer the arts to their children through music lessons, dance classes, and many other experiences. But students living in poverty also need these enriched environments. Budget cuts have caused many schools to reduce or even eliminate instruction in the arts. This makes it even more important for teachers to integrate the arts into daily classroom instruction.
A strong arts foundation builds creativity, concentration, problem solving, self-efficacy, coordination, attention, and self-discipline (Weinberger, 1995). Isn't that what we want for all students?

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Payne, R. (1998). A framework for understanding poverty. Baytown, TX: RFT.

Weinberger, N. M. (1995). The nonmusical outcomes of music education. MuSICA Research Notes, 2(2), 6. Available:

Rebecca Hotvedt has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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