Learning That Lasts: Chapter 5: Teaching in and Through the Arts

How does instruction in and through the arts challenge, engage and empower students to work toward quality and artistry in all things?

“Arts budget slashed…” is a headline that is probably all too familiar, especially in schools and districts that serve low-income students. A rich arts-infused education balances and complements deeper instruction in “high-stakes” subjects like language arts and mathematics. As one part of a comprehensive educational experience, the arts promote a well-rounded, intellectual, expressive, and profoundly human experience in the world. Chapter 5 of EL Education’s book Learning that Lasts explores how intentional integration of the arts provides a powerful framework to cultivate skills of inquiry, creativity, problem-solving, perseverance, and craftsmanship.

The arts tap into deeply cultural and expressive aspects of people's’ lives that are at the center of what it means to be human National Association of State Boards of Education, 2003, p.7

Learning Target

  • I can explain how arts integration challenges, engages, and empowers students in both the art form and other curriculum areas.    

Read and Watch: What is an Arts Integrated curriculum?  

A common debate today pits teaching art for its own sake against teaching art for the purpose of learning in the core subject areas (mathematics, reading, science, and social studies). This false dichotomy draws a hard line between doing art to learn problem solving, planning, and perseverance and doing art to express truth, beauty, and joy. In schools that teach art deeply, high quality art instruction is all of these things. It dispels the debate entirely.   

Arts integration is a deep collaboration between classroom teachers in different subject areas. Art, music, drama, dance, and core academic subject teachers plan both what and how students will learn. In schools where art is both a means and an end to understanding important things about the world, teachers design curriculum for the greatest learning leverage.

Watch the video Teaching in and through the Arts: Three School Case Studies to see how three EL Education schools approach arts instruction. Consider the following questions:

  1. How does the video demonstrate that the dichotomy between art for art’s sake and art for the sake of academics is indeed false?  
  2. What opportunities do you see to dispel this dichotomy at your school? Where would you start?

Try It: Read and Plan with the Product in Mind  

Non-art teachers can sometimes be hesitant to integrate the arts when they feel that they don’t have adequate artistic skills themselves. At the same time, art teachers are sometimes reluctant to support content-area teachers because they have so little scheduled time with each class of students already, and art takes time. 

The solution to both of these dilemmas is planning with the product in mind, well in advance, and often with deep collaboration between teaching colleagues. For the non-art teacher who is concerned about being judged a novice by his students or simply unsure of the steps to create a quality artistic product, the first question is simply, “What can students make that matches our topic, learning targets, and available resources (including time and expertise)?”

The Four T’s—Topic, Target, Text, Task—introduced in Chapter 2 of Learning That Lasts—provides a helpful framework for integrating an art project into a content area. As you begin collaborating on the project with your arts colleagues, consider together the following questions:

  1. What TOPIC provides an umbrella for my subject area standards and the art standards in my grade level?
  2. What learning TARGETS—in content, art, and character—will I focus on in my lessons and assessments?
  3. What TEXTS—about the content or the art—will help my students build background knowledge and challenge their thinking?
  4. What creative TASK will allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do?

Read pages 245-246 in chapter 5 of Learning That Lasts, which describes how 5th grade teacher Matt Newsum, immersed his students in a wetlands discovery experience as a kickoff to their study of microscopic organisms. Then consider how Newsum’s plan for leveraging students’ curiosity through the 4 T’s enabled students to demonstrate their learning in an artistic way.

As you plan your own arts-integrated project, consider the following questions:

  1. In what exciting ways will you engage your students through inquiry?
  2. Through what authentic product will students demonstrate their learning?

Review: Empower Students with Strategies to Improve Their Work

At any grade level, conducting a critique lesson using professional or student work models will result in higher-quality student work. Formal critique lessons help to establish a culture of critique in which specific feedback from teachers and peers, and revision based on that feedback, becomes the daily, ongoing, and informal modus operandi of the classroom. Teachers often lament the lack of time in their schedules for careful revision. But what we’ve noticed is that once a culture of critique is the norm, students want to show their work to teachers and peers. They ask for feedback. And they see revision as an opportunity to excel rather than a waste of effort. When both teachers and students are invested in the outcome of all that effort, the time to revise actually feels quite efficient.

Models of Excellence: The Center for HIgh Quality Student Work is an open resource featuring exemplary pre-K to 12th grade student work. Review a few of the resources and then think about these questions:

  1. How might these resources help students use models to raise questions, provoke thinking, and inspire excellence?
  2. What skills do students need to effectively describe, analyze, interpret, and evaluate each other’s work, and to provide kind, helpful and specific feedback?

Dig Deeper

Three Little Pigs—Conservatory Lab Charter School:  This video of a first- grade musical, which is referenced in Chapter 5 of Learning That Lasts, combines music, drama, and art to show how students learned about building materials.

How Integrating Arts Into Other Subjects Makes Learning Come Alive: This article describes how the arts integration experiment at Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler (IAA) in Burlington, Vermont has transformed student achievement.  

Use Arts Integration to Enhance Common Core: This article describes the shared features of arts integration and the Common Core Standards. These parallels attest to the rigors of the arts and the need for their processes in today’s global workforce.  

Kid Curators Rubric:  This rubric provides specific criteria for success and allows students to be both more confident and more capable in creating works of excellence.  


For Teachers…

  1. Watch this short, one-minute video from New London Arts. How did the teachers challenge, engage and empower first-graders to demonstrate their learning about the migration patterns of cranes through art, movement, puppetry and theatre? What topic would be exciting for you to approach with other teachers in your school to create an integrated project?
  2. Review the Who, What, and Why of Teaching in and through the Arts from Chapter 5 of Learning that Lasts. Where can you begin to change your practice in order to the get the results in column 3?
  3. Evaluate your resources. What museums, community artists, or local experts could help your students learn about a topic and its artistic expression? What arts materials could your students use that are free or easily accessible in a home workshop or technology class?
  4. Remember that an authentic audience motivates students to work toward excellence. Artwork produced only for the teacher is likely to be pedestrian and mediocre. Inspire students to learn professional techniques and to see the real-world applications of art by arranging for or encouraging students to identify a real audience for their work. Presenting and celebrating works of art empowers students to persist and transfer their learning to new environments.

For School Leaders…

  1. How ready is your school to create a culture of arts integration? Read the Case Study about a district-wide arts integration initiative on pages 269-270 in Chapter 5 of Learning that Lasts. Then discuss: what is your vision for why and how the arts will be taught and integrated into other subject areas? How will you communicate the vision?How well does your school’s schedule allow for the deep collaboration that is necessary for group development of projects, lessons that build on team members’ diverse strengths, and monitoring the progress of a project so that changes can be made to improve instruction and outcomes?
  2. Re-examine EL Education’s Models of Excellence site through the lens of leadership. How can you help teachers use this site to develop students’ skills in using models, critique, and descriptive feedback to create high-quality work?  
  3. Teachers will need professional development and coaching to learn new strategies for planning, implementing, and integrating artistic concepts, especially through content area instruction. With respect for teachers’ unfamiliarity or discomfort with teaching art, how can you provide art lessons for teachers themselves first, then reflect together on the successes and failures they can also anticipate in their students? Staff meetings and schoolwide traditions are all opportunities to do art together, modeling the deeper instructional practices described in this chapter of Learning That Lasts.