Integrating the Arts as a Way of Engaging Students in Learning
Integrating the arts into learning provides numerous opportunities for kids to explore and work with concepts. By integrating the arts, I mean using the arts in learning as a form of communication and expression. This is different from teaching about art forms, such as learning to paint landscapes, play an instrument, or dance a minuet.
Learning science by drawing carefully from nature is an example of learning through the arts. Imagine a high school classroom where the goal of a curriculum unit is to learn about the local environment. In my neck of the world in southern California, the ocean is literally on many a school's doorsteps. My local high school has an award-winning surf team. An approach to the science unit on the local environment using a learning through the arts strategy could begin with students drawing a seashell they have collected from the beach. Using a method of drawing from the inside out (students literally find a place in the middle of a shell and draw every detail of the shell going outward which guides them to capture each and every detail on the shell). While they sketch, they keep two lists: 1) things they notice about their shell, and, 2) things they wonder about their shell. If you have the opportunity, try this yourself, it's a lot of fun, and you will come up with many questions.
Among the things students notice as they draw their shells, are the color variations, the small holes in shells, the patterns on the shells, the shapes, sizes, and wear and tear on their shells. Questions emerge as they begin to truly wonder about their shell: how did the shell get to the beach? Where did it come from in the ocean? Did it float? How did the lines get on the shells? How was the texture created? And what's the purpose of the colors, line and texture? How did the colors get on or in the shell? Did a creature make this shell it's home? If so, what creature? Did the shell grow? How? Are there baby shells?! How did the shell get a hole in it? How far did it come before it landed on our beach?
All these wonderful questions are inspired by a rather simple art activity, and provide the perfect starting place for an entire year's worth of learning about an aspect of oceanography. And, it is rooted in the students' own musings. Learning is much more interesting and engaging when it starts with your own questions. The teacher has created a foundation based on inspiring students' desire to find answers to their questions!
Teachers of all subjects can use art forms as a way to engage their students. For example, in history, students can create "rants" - a combination of rapping/chanting to report on 10 things that learn about a historical figure from a particular unit. In Language Arts, students can learn reading through illustrating the main idea of the opening paragraph of a novel, or acting it out. You can't illustrate or act out the main idea unless you understand what's going on. In math, students can create movements to depict fractions and then write them as they would see them on paper. Younger students can act out the life cycles of plants, trees, weather systems, evaporation or food chains. The learning comes to life, students are engaged, and you can bet they will remember the activities and concepts for a long time.
Currently, a wonderful colleague - and fellow blogger, Patti Saraniero and I are engaged in a department of Education grant we developed called DREAM - Developing reading Education through Arts Methods whereby we're training third and fourth grade teachers to utilize visual art and theater as strategies to teach reading. In order to train teachers, we ran a week-long summer institute that was full of activities that motivated and inspired the teachers. When a teacher is excited about learning, no doubt students will be too. We will be following DREAM teachers and students over the next several years and documenting the benefits and challenges of such a method for reading education.
Integrating the arts into education does at least two things. It sets the stage for a desire to learn, and it introduces the students to the arts. There is no doubt in my mind that a school that builds on a desire to learn is going to be filled with students who are eager to engage with the curriculum, and be inspired to pursue learning, no matter what the discipline. In terms of arts and learning, students join into the culture of all humanity whereby the arts' role captures who we are as people. And, if in the process, the arts themselves become a child's desire, as they did with me, you might have provided the setting for that child to move forward to pursue a career in the arts!