Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
May 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 8

Teaching Content Through the Arts

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Teaching Content Through the Arts- thumbnail
Middle school students channel their adolescent energy into a drumming ensemble, exploring musical theory, learning about teamwork, and serving the community in the process. Sixth graders design creative museum exhibits to answer the question, How do humans help and hurt the environment? Fifth grade art students become detectives, deploying their critical-thinking skills to evaluate the evidence and decide who rightfully owns stolen paintings. Read on to find out how these engaging, motivating programs also help students master rigorous content standards.

Bulldog Beat

Thomas R. Feller Jr. and Brian Gibbs-Griffith
Students at C. M. Eppes Middle School in Greenville, North Carolina, are like middle school students everywhere. Their bodies are processing tremendous physical and psychological changes. They struggle to find meaning in their education, try to get away with whatever they can, and assert their adolescent independence in multiple ways. Eppes serves 595 students in grades 6–8; about 70 percent are black, and 30 percent are white. More than 50 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
As the music teacher and school counselor, we developed a program called Bulldog Beat to engage students, improve achievement and morale, and teach important life skills. We work with school administrators to identify and schedule students who would benefit from the class, including students who have academic, conduct, and attendance issues or who need to work on interpersonal skills. Bulldog Beat, which meets 45 minutes a day for one semester, combines drum circles, team building and counseling, and community service. The program also provides a high-quality music curriculum that addresses the North Carolina music standards.
The Bulldog Beat class is a percussion ensemble that performs individual pieces with 4–8 parts. The basic music curriculum is World Music Drumming(www.worldmusicdrumming.com). Students learn the songs, study the songs' cultural significance and origins, and then perform them at concerts. We practice and perform while sitting in a circle, reinforcing the values of the group—shared leadership, equality, and teamwork.
Every class begins with an extended period of echo drumming that requires students to focus intensely so they can mimic and echo back demonstrated patterns perfectly. We also learn basic drumming (and musical) forms, such as question and answer, call-and-response, and rhythm complements/song composition.
  • TeePee Shuffle. Students must form a line in a given order (for instance, alphabetically by middle name or chronologically by date of birth) without talking. Students learn to problem solve and communicate using nonverbal cues. As the activity progresses, natural leaders begin to emerge.
  • Layered Rhythms. The leader plays a two- or four-beat pattern that the group echoes. While the group echoes this pattern, the leader plays the next pattern for them to echo. Because students must play a pattern and learn a new pattern at the same time, they develop and exercise key focus skills.
After each activity, we help students reflect on the process they used to complete the task. They identify character traits that helped the group achieve its goal as well as traits that inhibited the accomplishment of the goal. We emphasize character traits, not specific people. By analyzing their own behavior in our drum circle and group activities, students discover how certain behaviors can either help or hinder their performance in core classes or even in real-life situations. We also give students the opportunity, with parental permission, to meet one-on-one with the school counselor for individual sessions in which they delve deeper into issues arising out of the group sessions.
In the third key component of Bulldog Beat, community service, the group performs its music for an audience. Our most meaningful performance is for pediatric patients at the local hospital. We invite all patients who are physically able to join the drum circle and play with the students; students work alongside patients, assisting and demonstrating techniques they have mastered. This not only provides a welcome break for patients, but also widens the students' perspective and helps them develop empathy toward other children and youth experiencing serious illnesses.
The second performance activity is an evening of drumming for families. Students bring parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends—anyone who is important to them—and we all play together. We do many of the same games and ensembles the students have learned in class, but now students serve as assistant teachers and leaders instead of followers. This builds pride and self-confidence and expands our class community into a multigenerational family.
Bulldog Beat is not only about drumming but also about addressing the social, moral, and emotional skills students need. The program harnesses the immense energy of our students and directs it toward musical accomplishment, teamwork, and service to others.
In 2005–06, our students demonstrated a 47 percent drop in discipline referrals and an incredible 67 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions. We have seen improvements in students' communication skills, team-building skills, empathy, and pride. Verbal attacks against other students' character have been replaced by positive statements and encouraging remarks. Classes have fewer disruptions; students are on task, engaged, and excited about learning. Music class is no longer just a place to memorize facts about dead composers; it has become an attitude-altering place where students learn more than how to play a drum—they learn how to live.

Kids as Curators

Linda D'Acquisto
During the past two months, 6th graders in Pat Morrissey's classroom at Elmwood Elementary School in New Berlin, Wisconsin, accomplished a challenging task: They created a school museum about environmental issues to share with their community. This process engaged their intellects, piqued their interest, and developed their communication, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. At the same time, students learned important content to meet rigorous state standards.
Before students began their work, project planners (either teachers alone or teachers and students) developed a “big idea” for the upcoming exhibition. In a single sentence, they clarified what they wanted visitors (and students) to remember long after the event. The big idea for the Elmwood environment museum was Humans can hurt or help the environment.
After establishing the big idea, planners developed a set of topics and focus questions. Students formed exhibit teams of about six students each, and each group studied one focus question. One team investigated the question, How do human decisions affect the water quality of Lake Michigan? Other teams studied such topics as biodiversity, waste disposal systems, recycling, pollution, global warming, and energy conservation.
Each exhibit team then worked with an adult facilitator to develop research questions that it would investigate within its topic area. The exhibit team studying Lake Michigan water quality had many questions: Are there limits to the amount of dumping that can occur from factories and industry? Why do factories and industry continue to pollute when they know it's harmful? What could be done to stop dumping? Is water pollution in Lake Michigan getting better or worse? Can the community afford to keep Lake Michigan clean? What will happen if Lake Michigan isn't kept clean? By the end of the brainstorming session, the students were eager to begin their research.
With the help of their library-media specialist, local and distant museum professionals, and community organizations, Elmwood students collected and analyzed print material, Internet information, objects, and images to answer their research questions. They also interviewed community members and professionals by e-mail and telephone and conducted research at a local science center. The Lake Michigan exhibit team requested information from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and received a poster of the ecosystems in the Midwest, a map of Lake Michigan drainage, and a booklet titled Lake Michigan Drainage: State of the Watershed. Their museum research led students to another idea—involving Elmwood Elementary in the MMSD's water conservation program, Every Drop Counts. The MMSD delivered a rain barrel and rain gauge to the students and taught them how to collect and analyze rain water. The 6th graders presented this information to 4th graders, who plan to maintain the water barrels as part of their science program, collaborating with kindergarten students who will use the water to grow a vegetable garden.
When research was complete and all questions answered, the students wrote up their research findings, studied them, and created a list of learning goals for visitors to their exhibit. Students' research write-up and list of learning goals also helped teachers evaluate how well the students understood the topic that their display would address.
When students fully understood their exhibit topic and had clarified what they wanted their visitors to learn, they turned their attention to presentation methods. What better place to learn effective exhibit design strategies than a museum? Students visited a local museum to look for clues about what makes an exhibit interesting, engaging, informative, well-organized, and creative. They also used the district distance education laboratory to experience an interactive, live tour with staff in a museum two states away.
Keeping their research findings and their new knowledge of effective display techniques in mind, students selected objects and images to tell the story of their exhibit's theme. Their displays included artifacts, models, interactive devices, video presentations, pictures, photographs, time lines, diagrams, charts, and maps. For example, the Lake Michigan exhibit team displayed a map of the St. Lawrence Seaway showing the travel routes of ships, a model of the seaway, some of the pollutants, and invasive species that have found their way to Lake Michigan in the ballast water of ships traveling this route. Students also created text panels to explain the objects in the display, which gave them practice in writing for a specific audience (museum visitors) and for specific purposes (to interpret their objects, explain the important content in their display, and provoke interest in their topic).
When the exhibition was installed, students prepared to be museum docents. They examined their completed exhibit, reviewed its key points, and selected “hooks”—interesting questions, activities, or objects—to capture their visitors' attention. Students used their completed displays to teach classmates about their topic—which not only prepared them to interact with museum visitors, but also ensured that all student teams learned the content of the full exhibition.
Elmwood students sent opening-night invitations to all families and wrote a press release for the New Berlin newspaper. Personal invitations were sent to community collaborators—volunteers, university professors, and environmental professionals—and most of them attended. The evening opening was a single event, but student docents spent the next several days leading school groups through their classroom and hallway exhibition.
You might think that after such a rigorous project students would be ready for a break. But when Ms. Morrissey asked her class what they would like to do for the upcoming Elmwood Elementary Celebration of Learning—an evening open house at the end of each school year—students unanimously exclaimed, “Let's create another museum!”

Art Detectives

Claudia Khourey-Bowers and Cynthia B. Croley
Good schools need to promote high academic content standards, but they also need to teach students how to think and reason, be comfortable with complex cognitive demands, and be fluent in print, visual, and digital literacies. A curriculum unit created for 5th grade art classes at Northwood Elementary School in North Canton, Ohio, incorporated all these goals.
Shortly after the 2004 theft of Edvard Munch's The Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo, students in Cynthia's 5th grade art classes began questioning why someone would steal the painting and what would happen to it now. These and other student inquiries prompted Cynthia to develop a curriculum unit called Stolen Art.
As Cynthia was planning the unit, 5th grade language arts classes were beginning to read Lois Lowry's historical novel Number the Stars, a tale of the evacuation of thousands of Jews from Nazi-held Denmark during World War II. Because the Nazis were responsible for the theft of more than two million works of art during the war, this coincidence presented an opportunity to integrate art, language arts, and social studies content.
The unit introduced the concept ofprovenance—the written documentation of ownership of a work of art, from completion by the artist to the present. To understand this concept, students examined two baseballs, one signed by Babe Ruth and another signed by Earl Avril. Of course, they expected the Ruth ball to be more valuable. But when they saw a letter from a former owner of the Cleveland Indians that transferred ownership of the Avril baseball to their teacher's father, they realized that the Avril baseball's autograph had provenance proving its authenticity, whereas the Ruth baseball's autograph did not. Cynthia explained that ownership of artwork worked in the same way: A complete provenance makes a work of art more valuable because it documents that the work is not a forgery or illegally obtained.
After that introduction, the students learned that many Holocaust victims' family members had discovered paintings hanging in art museums that had allegedly been stolen from their families during the war. Many of the paintings had an incomplete provenance—there were gaps in the record of ownership. The students read various articles, matched to their individual reading levels, detailing cases in which the provenance of a work of art was in question. Cynthia then charged students to use their critical-thinking skills to solve a real-life mystery: On the basis of the article's evidence, who should be recognized as the owner? In addition, students had the option of becoming full-fledged “art detectives” by finding and reading additional articles about the same work of art to try to establish its complete provenance. Approximately 20 percent of students chose to do so.
The unit also introduced the issue of moral ownership. Students completed a studio project based on A Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a Gustav Klimt painting whose provenance had been disputed. The Portrait had been seized from the Bloch-Bauer home by the Nazis and had resided in an Austrian art gallery until, after a seven-year effort, the family recovered it. Using bridal magazine photos “touched up” with gold paint and wallpaper samples, students produced works in the artist's style. Following completion of the studio project, they engaged in a lively debate about the Klimt painting's moral ownership. Students based their judgments on the understanding that they had gained in doing research on the previous works of art. Some students thought that the painting should be displayed in the Austrian state museum; others though it should be returned to Bloch-Bauer's niece. Still other students recognized the niece's claim, but believed that she should loan the painting to a museum so that many people could enjoy it.
Students responded to the Stolen Art unit with excitement. Many chose to stay in from recess or crowded into the art classroom during lunch to continue their research. Best of all, students who typically struggled with the written word became fully engaged in the unit. Many chose to become art detectives and delved into text above their usual reading level.
The unit was prompted by authentic questions and problems in the art world, but it was bolstered by national and state content standards in art education (for example, understanding how museums document and preserve art history); language arts (for example, evaluating questions on the basis of text); and social studies (for example, analyzing group and institutional influences on people, events, and culture). This unit dissolved the barriers between the disciplines and merged a web of standards-based knowledge with personal and social awareness.
Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 107033.jpg
Educating the Whole Child
Go To Publication