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Virginia Journal of Education


The 'Art' of Mixing Disciplines

Incorporating art into the curriculum holds benefits for both students and teachers.


by Barbara A. Clair

Any school that maintains a rigorous, creative art program possesses the key to creating a different kind of student with a different kind of mind. This difference, I believe, comes with integrating art with the core subjects, thus enriching those core areas and simultaneously empowering students to be creative, inventive, and holistic thinkers: people who can see the "big picture."

I teach in a small magnet school in Lynchburg, Dearington Elementary School for Innovation, which serves about 200 students in grades kindergarten through five. While I mostly function as the art teacher, my position at DESI is actually referred to as “projects teacher.” I work to integrate my lessons with the school-wide curriculum, and meet with the classroom teachers each six weeks to plan an effective program. I usually focus on social studies and, depending on the lessons planned for each week, the classroom teacher and I decide if it will be more beneficial for me to see a small group from the classroom or the entire class. I have received incredible support in my school to do what I do, in large part because it is a collaborative effort and I believe all of us, teachers and students, benefit from this collaboration.

Integrating art and core academic subjects can be challenging, but I believe we’re getting results. You can see them in our standardized test scores. At DESI, the integration of art and social studies has had an appreciable impact on SOL social studies scores, with our combined third and fifth grade scores among the leading scores in our division. Being able to measure the impact of art instruction on students' progress is something not usually possible in standard art classes. In our school we have taken a team approach to teaching all of our subjects to all of our students, and I take pride in being a part of this collaborative effort.

The students get very excited about both the integrated classes and the small group work. They expect art to be a part of their social studies lessons in some form or another, and there is no creativity lost in this approach. For example, my lessons often center on the work of a known artist related to the topics or time periods being covered in their social studies classes. I incorporate technology as often as possible as well, displaying the work of an artist on the SMART Board in my classroom.

The small group work provides the opportunity for an intimate setting in which more complicated procedures can be introduced. Again, these small group lessons are integrated with the core curriculum. As an example, when my fourth grade students were studying Jamestown, I had them construct miniature models of the Jamestown dwellings. They used papier mache to emulate the “waddle and daub” process employed by the builders of Jamestown and used breakfast cereal to represent thatched roofs. Through this activity the students gained an understanding of the work that went into the building of this historical site and at the same time were able to employ their creative drive as well as learn about specific art products and techniques.  

I often hear our students say that social studies is their favorite subject. I believe this has become true because social studies includes hands-on and interactive activities. Whether we are making the Great Wall in second grade with salt dough and other building materials, or constructing gravestones for famous Civil War characters, the students are using metacognitive skills to think about their learning. Using higher level thinking skills, experiential learning, creative and innovative processes, along with memorization of facts and understanding of timelines, requires the integration of various thought processes. By using these different modes of receiving and expressing information, the students are learning to see more holistically. They are becoming inventors, artists and designers through a collaborative approach to teaching.

Another novel program engendered by this innovative school structure is what we affectionately call “DESI Mundo,” which literally means “Dearington Elementary School for Innovation World,” or the world as perceived through our school. DESI Mundo integrates our magnet program, Spanish, with a day-to-day mini-economic society and ultimately the programs of both art and science.

In the DESI Mundo program, all students have various jobs in the classroom but their most important job requirement is their responsibility for learning. Handing in their homework and class work, being adequately prepared for class, and exhibiting acceptable behavior are their jobs. Weekly, the students are paid in monetary units called “micros” for these jobs. Students who are not in school cannot do their jobs and so are not paid for those days they are absent, thus providing an incentive for good school attendance. Third through fifth grade students are encouraged to start their own businesses. They are allowed to work on their businesses during some of their art classes and also during their rainy day recess time. This can be a highly motivational experience for many students and culminates on "Market Day," near the end of the school year. 

Throughout the year all students were encouraged to do extra work for extra pay, such as reading Accelerated Reader books and accumulating AR points to receive micros. With these micros the students can shop in the school store for school supplies or other items. They may also choose to save their micros to buy larger items from the store after they have earned additional funds, thus learning to delay gratification. Upper grade students may choose to invest the micros in their businesses, which are established in the last six weeks of school in preparation for Market Day.

The lead-up to Market Day is a very exciting time in our school. The third through fifth grade students form teams, essentially business partnerships, and then plan what products to make by pooling their monies and buying stock materials from the warehouse that comes to each classroom. The warehouse is actually a large rolling shelving rack on which I have collected various items: some new, some used and some items that may appear to be useless junk. This variety of items stimulates their creativity and encourages them to be inventive. The teams must plan and use their micros wisely, keeping track of the amounts used for purchasing supplies and manufacturing their product in order to make a profit on Market Day.

As you can see, this becomes a real-life lesson in economics for the students. On Market Day, the businesses set up in the cafeteria and the older students sell their wares to the younger students. All the students take it very seriously. After the sales are completed the older students, who now have the proceeds from selling their products, participate in auctions, arranged by grade level, and buy the remainder of the items in the school store. This entire activity combines art with economics, engineering and cooperative learning and working, to enable the students to experience the business of art along with the creativity.

Integrating the arts with our curriculum provides great benefits to DESI students. They are exposed to art on many levels and are helped to utilize their brains in different ways that only enhance their learning, not just of art but of other subject areas as well. Through this integration, art becomes part of their everyday experience, as art is and should be. Art has always influenced, and been influenced by, history, science, math and reading. Students need to be encouraged to see and experience it throughout their day and teachers can make a great impact on their students' learning by enabling the experience of art and creative thinking to guide them through their learning endeavors. In this way students become open to their own creative and innovative capabilities. Not only do they learn to see and appreciate the beauty of individual pieces of art but they are enabled to see how art interacts with the rest of the world. By doing all this, they learn to see the big picture in our very interdisciplinary world.

Clair is a member of the Lynchburg Education Association.

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10 Lessons the Arts Teach

Here is some of what students learn by interacting with the arts, courtesy of the National Art Education Association:

The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevails.

The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and a willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor number exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtleties.

The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.

SOURCE: Eisner, E. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind, In Chapter 4, What the Arts Teach and How It Shows. (pp. 70-92). Yale University Press. Available from NAEA Publications.

 


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