The ‘Smart Art’ of Bridge Building
November 15, 2023
November 15, 2023
By Anne D. Smith
There are more than 14,000 bridges in Virginia, and while they don’t all look the same, they have one thing in common: they were all created to connect us and help us gain access to something different. Bridges are indispensable. We need to be designing and building bridges in our classrooms, too, because students need innovative and effective ways to connect with both their academic and social-emotional skills. I’ve found that incorporating the arts helps create some amazing bridges.
Years ago, there was a study that revealed something that came to be known as “The Mozart Effect.” Researchers found that listening to pieces written by Mozart or other classical composers stimulated spatial intelligence and helped students achieve higher test scores. The report made the influence of the arts on academics a popular theme in research and in practice, and prompted a rush to enroll students in instrumental music classes. When looking at research, we should look at why it was being conducted before we try to apply it in education. This research was about brain science, not academic achievement. But we can create a real and meaningful bridge between academics and the arts. I call it Edutainment!
Edutainment is more than throwing in an arts (visual or performing) activity, causing students to magically “get it.” Think about all the dioramas that you have seen over the years. They were often used in science or social studies to “show” what the students had learned, and were great for Back to School Night or Show and Tell. But what did students actually learn from it? Did they have to create the fish in proportion to the shoebox ocean? Did they learn the name of the indigenous tribe that lived in that area they were trying to depict? Working with the visual arts teacher, they might have learned to curate a museum exhibit. They would have had to write about their topic as well as be able to answer questions about it, creating deeper meaning as well as introducing them to a new potential career option. When we carefully build a bridge, activities are purposeful and thoughtful.
The arts can present opportunities for differentiation, helping culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students deepen their understanding by giving them additional opportunities to engage with the concepts and language. All students do not come to school with the same foundational skills.
There are also many skills, sometimes called soft skills, that are critical for academic and career success. In the arts, skills such as cooperation, listening, communication, critical thinking, empathy, respect for others, and creativity are taught and reinforced.
The demographics in our schools are changing. The language level, economic background, and physical and intellectual ability of a student all affect how they process new information. Research indicates that the “say, replay, and obey” method does not work for most students. What does work is repeated exposure to new information presented in a variety of ways, reaching young people with a variety of learning styles. Many CLD students who struggle in the general education classroom often shine in the arts. What’s important to educators is not when or how they get it, but rather that they do. Learning is the kids’ job. Ours is to prepare them to move into management—managing themselves and their lives.
One of my favorite sayings is, “Say what you mean and mean what you say,” and that’s why I love to use rubrics. To make things clear from the beginning for all stakeholders, including parents, I try to list all important items. I don’t give grades; students earn them—another reason it’s important to provide multiple ways for them to show what they know.
Many students are not great paper-and-pencil test takers. If the math skill to be assessed is to identify shapes, discuss other ways that it can be demonstrated. Can you sing a square? What would it look like if your students created and presented movement pieces that had to include a square, a triangle, and a circle? Can they show you the different shapes in their dance? According to Bloom, showing is a higher order thinking skill than telling. What is our goal for assessment? Most educators say that they do not want to teach to the test. If so, then we must allow our students to learn beyond the test.
Indoor recess can be a great time to sneak in extra skills practice. Create a shape-shifting activity, using actual shapes. Play music, any genre, while students move around the room. The teacher or student leader will call out a shape and students will have to form that shape. Differentiate by showing the shape. A game of “Where’s the Shape” is also a way to get students moving and interacting with new vocabulary, especially helpful after students have been sitting for a long time. I don’t like the term “brain break” because it can cause confusion for students, plus I don’t want them to turn their brains off. The leader will ask students to find specific shapes. If you still have an analog clock in your room, ask students what shape it is. What about your Smart Board or White Board? How about the door? As students see the shapes around the room, these concepts become more concrete to them.
Many visual artists use shapes in their work, and you can laminate or place copies of examples in sheet protectors. Have students look for and identify the shapes they see. Using Dry Erase markers, invite students to create a legend for their piece: A blue dot identifies a square, an orange dot identifies a circle and so forth. We often forget that most larger museums, not just children’s museums, have education departments. Working with them can provide resources and inspiration to shore up the foundation of your bridge and expand your students’ horizons.
Shakespeare said it, and I believe it. Let’s face it, educators are performers—and so are our students. The problem is that in school, there is often only one acceptable way to perform. Science is not an area where we would typically think of performance but remember, science is generally about two things: questions and facts. So, how can the arts be used in science? Actually, it’s easy! For the record, I am not against a good diorama. However, the information presented should be based on facts, not randomly put together for aesthetics alone. There are online versions of popular game shows that can be adapted to the classroom. However, it can be fun and interesting to create a game show on your own, using the facts you want students to know as questions or clues. Students can assist by creating their own questions if they also provide the correct answers. This will increase buy-in from students because they are creators, not just consumers. Use props such as toy microphones and buzzers to add to the fun.
I am a teacher of music; however, there are many times when I cross the bridge using other arts disciplines. I’m a terrible photographer, but looking at photos is a great way to get students writing and learning to interpret emotions. Frederick Douglass is known as a great orator, writer, and abolitionist, and he was also said to be the most photographed man, of any color, of the 19th century. There are more than 160 photos and portraits of Douglass at various ages and stages of his life. Pictures can be used as writing prompts, which can be as simple as asking students to use an adjective to describe the subject of the photo. A more intensive prompt may be asking students to discuss why the person in the picture appears to feel a certain way by relating it to the year it was taken. For example, have students compare how Douglass looked before the war as opposed to after. Differentiate by asking students why they think he did or did not look the same? Provide time for students to discuss their thoughts. It doesn’t have to be done in one day. A Thursday or Tuesday Table Talk will give students a chance to present the facts about a subject, express their opinions, and learn to separate the two. It’s important that we give students opportunities to talk, discuss and, yes, debate. Let’s be honest, they are going to do it anyway. We can use the arts to help them learn to do so in a healthy and respectful way, in a safe setting.
Although it’s helpful to work with someone else on these kinds of activities, it’s not always necessary. The first time I crossed the bridge in the classroom, I had to start building alone. I found out that my 5th grade students were studying the Harlem Renaissance, a part of the social studies curriculum not given a lot of attention in the textbook. I could see the other side of the bridge. When I mentioned it to my social studies colleagues, they agreed that it would probably be fun to learn a song by Duke Ellington in music. I had more in mind, and wrote a performance piece with songs, movement, and poems, and we started on it in class. As we continued rehearsing, other teachers began to see what was going on. Soon, we had costumes, a set, and a daytime assembly production. After the performance, students took a post-test, and the increase in factual knowledge and depth of understanding of the Harlem Renaissance since the pre-test could not be denied. In fact, it worked out so well that I was invited to present a session at the National Social Studies conference. A part of me wanted to go by myself; after all, I did the work. Instead, I invited one of the 5th grade teachers to present with me. She accepted and as a result the audience received a perspective on the project that I could not have given them. When we crossed the bridge together, we all benefited.
Some have said that 2020 was a double pandemic, both physical and emotional. It took many hands doing many things to get us back into our schools. Now that we’re back, we can see that it will take many hands to help our students recover from their academic and social losses. The distance between the arts curriculum and the core curriculum can sometimes seem as long as the 14.9-mile Chesapeake Tunnel Bridge. Yet, when we work together, we might find that the distance is closer to the Varina-Enon Bridge, which is only 4,680 feet long.
Anne D. Smith, EdD, a member of the Education Association of Alexandria, teaches General and Vocal Music at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School. She has been a presenter on integrating the arts into the general curriculum at VEA’s EPIC Conference.