Monday, July 11, 2011

Learning with the Arts

Why and how to teach art in a general education classroom

            As teachers we know the importance of the arts (visual arts, music, drama) to a child’s development. It’s vital to create well-rounded human beings. Where would we be without Van Gogh, Mozart, Shakespeare and Da Vinci? Yet, with cutbacks to every school budget in the nation, teachers must be imaginative to ensure students get exposure to these disciplines.
In a report Studio Thinking: How Visual Arts Teaching Can Promote Disciplined Habits of Mind (opens as PDF) Ellen Winner and her Harvard team discovered “in most cases there was no demonstrated causal relationship between studying one or more art forms and non-arts cognition”. Therefore we must discover what art does offer.

Art must be taught for its intrinsic values, not because it raises test scores. How do the arts add to a child’s development? Winner and her team answered this question with a list of “Eight Studio Habits of the Mind”. Art education promotes experimentation and mistake making, or “Engage and Persist” as Winner coins it, a vital element to tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. Robert Lynch, CEO of American for the Arts argues in Creating a Brighter Workforce with the Arts that art is key to producing a brighter, competitive workforce.  Making art provides chances to practice outside the box problem-solving tasks and opportunities to be creative. Additionally art offers the opportunity to “observe”, taking a step back to pause and look. Another studio “habit” Winner’s team observed was reflection, a routine as teachers we already value. According to Lynch “The true impact of the arts far exceeds our ability to put a dollar amount on it”. 

Find ways to incorporate the arts into every lesson.  The Getty Museum has lesson plans that use art, searchable by subject. The National Gallery of Art, has resources searchable by artist, topic or subject. There are several art lesson plan resources on the web such as Incredible Art Department, KinderArt and of course TPT, but the challenge is recognizing when to incorporate art into the general education classroom. Rely on you’re the art specialists at your school or in your district for suggestions for specific lessons.

Discover ways to incorporate art at the secondary level. It is easier to incorporate art at the elementary school level but high school students need the arts to nurture their brains too. If you teach geometry, why not incorporate show The Science and Art of Perspective , one of the many interactive exhibits from  Web Exhibits. In language arts why not use Wordle to create a graphic word “cloud” that represents a poem. Teaching tessellations in math are a great opportunity to discuss Islamic art or kid favorite M.C. Escher.

Look for ways to integrate art into larger units. Some schools offer projects that combine subjects. Students can create an integrated book or portfolio. Teachers meet weekly to discuss progress. While this cross-curricular teaching can be a logistical nightmare with schedules, standards and school initiatives, it can be a fulfilling, memorable project for teachers, parents and students. And, when researching pictures to use for any project, discuss the importance of using quality images from trusted sources like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Use art to change the your classroom environment. Don’t simply read plays in language arts. Have students dress up and perform. Give a long-term art project that will offer students a chance to practice time-management and planning skills. Have students create collage “self-portraits” to get to know each other and strengthen your class community. Use visuals in chemistry to explain a formula. You will be helping the visual and kinesthetic learners as well as ELL students or students with learning disabilities, by giving them a chance to succeed and improve their self-esteem.

Model what you hope for your students.  Encourage students to go to galleries to experience art in person, not on a computer screen. Read the “Arts” sections of your city and state papers. For the latest resources and art happenings in your state check your local Department of Education website. In Oregon you can subscribe to the monthly Arts Teacher Update newsletter. And, if you create on your own time, share with your students.

by Emily Weltman


  1. I teach in an arts integrated school and I have been completely amazed at what it has done for our students. In my self-contained special education class, I have been able to move 4 students back into the regular program with only resource support! The power of the arts is amazing!

  2. I am very pleased to see this article appear on one of my favorite blogs, Teacher 2 Teacher. So pleased in fact, that I find it appropriate to share my story of the following of this blog with you. As an educator at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA, I initially stumbled upon this blog on the advice of a co-worker (my boss, actually) – the genesis of our research coming from mutual friends who read the blog. At the Frye we plan education programs for people of all ages, and it is important that our research reflect that dynamic. I am proud that Teacher 2 Teacher does not and will not succumb to the faulty trend amongst other bloggers – if they be called as such – who choose to idiotically emulate, almost unconsciously, the framework of sites like Facebook, which only offer a fraction of the conversation necessary for educators like ourselves. Please keep up the quality entries and I will continue reading them!


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