Creating a Life with Arts Integration

The Power of Arts Integration: Series Overview
The Power of Arts Integration: Series Overview

Today’s guest blogger is Tracy from Wild Child’s Mossy Oak Musings. Tracy is sharing her insight on how integrating arts into general education makes for more rigorous, long-lasting learning. Enjoy!

Many moons ago, in a teacher’s lounge far, far away, I sat around a lunch table with my colleagues eating a tuna fish sandwich, while trying not reach for the sleeve of thin mints seducing me from the center of the table. I was half-listening to the conversation going on around me, when a colleague sitting next to me asked me, “How do you find time for the fluff you were doing with your kids this morning?” I have to be honest. I almost choked on my Chicken of the Sea. The “fluff” she was referring to was me introducing the “Sketch-to-Stretch” strategy with my students during reader’s workshop.

That was almost 20 years ago. Since then, we know so much more about what best helps our students learn. I had the privilege of visiting the Salk Institute in the early 1990s, just as they were publishing their ground-breaking research about movement’s impact on learning. Just recently, MINDShift published an intriguing article on how playing music changes the brain. Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences fame gives credence to visual-spatial, musical, and bodily-kinesthetic learning. All of this research stands behind the best practice of arts integration into the general education curriculum. I could go on and on citing research. We, as 21st century educators, know the importance of arts integration. In the face of politicians and mandated standards, it’s the how that is daunting.

This summer, I’m embarking on a series of blog posts describing my “HOW.”

Movement (I am the Martha Graham of public education!)

My fourth graders and I had been reading about Langston Hughes, and we’d just finished reading “Daybreak in Alabama.” I’d facilitated a close read of the poem, and my students zeroed in on these lines:

“I’m gonna write me some music about

Daybreak in Alabama

And I’m gonna put the purtiest songs in it

Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist

And falling out of heaven like soft dew.

I’m gonna put some tall tall trees in it

And the scent of pine needles

And the smell of red clay after rain…”

I asked, “How would you move to these lines? How would you show what these lines mean to you using movement?” I primed the pump by modeling how I might move using two other lines from the poem. It’s true: I felt self-conscious at first. But I quickly discovered that my kids didn’t really care. In fact, they seemed to appreciate my risk-taking.

Students worked in small groups, with each group choosing two lines. They created choreography for their chosen lines. Imagine fourth grade boys creeping up from my carpeted classroom floor trying to mimic the mysterious swamp mist one might see in some old-timey horror movie. They acted out their visualizations. In doing so, they communicated their understandings of the poem. From there we reflected about our movement choices, with students articulating their thinking.

Then there’s my student-teaching example from 25 years ago. My first graders balled their bodies up and sank to the floor. I held a giant cardboard sun. As I rose and traveled across the “sky,” they slowly opened up their bodies, staying rooted in place, turned their bodies to follow my movement. We were studying plants in first grade. After our simulation, they were able to explain how plants move.

Musical Muscles (It makes my heart sing every time I flex them!)

Try singing this to the tune of “It’s a Small World!”

It’s a world of solids,

a world of shapes.

It’s a world of lines,

angles of all kinds.

It’s congruency.

It’s symmetry.

It’s ge-o-o-ometry!

I wrote this piggyback song to introduce my geometry unit in math workshop. It actually turned into a geometry musical! Piggyback songs are a fantastic way to introduce and cement concepts in all content areas. It’s not as hard as it might seem. Choose a simple melody like “The Eency Weency Spider” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Make a list of words and concepts about your topic to help you focus on your learning target. And then, begin. After you get the hang of it using simple ditties, try some more complex tunes. I’ve used melodies like “The Addam’s Family” and “Rockin’ Robin.” Kids love it, and I’ve actually witnessed students singing under their breath during classroom assessments. Here’s an example of a song for long division with a video to help with learning it. Snag it for free here:

If you play an instrument, even if you played way back in high school, consider dusting it off! Seriously. Do it. I’m a pianist. I managed to finagle a beat up old piano for my classroom that was tagged for the trash in my school district. After much pleading and cajoling, my principal acquiesced. My fourth and fifth graders and I were discussing mood in poetry and our mentor text. I played a few examples of movie soundtracks (Harry Potter and The Invention of Hugo Cabret) for them, asking them to describe what they think was happening in the movie storyline. Then, I brought out my piano music and played four pieces of varying moods, dynamics, and tempos for them. I asked them to match the song excerpts I played with various parts of our mentor text-novel that I’d copied for them to reread. I sort of gave them a musical multiple choice. The conversations exploded.

Bring your clarinet, your tuba, your bassoon, or kazoo to school, and play a couple of excerpts from your solo and ensemble days. Or, access CDs or youtube. I’ve also used this approach to pair music with primary documents in social studies. We discussed Civil War photos. It worked well with novels like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, both by Brian Selznick. Chris Van Allsburg books work splendidly, too!

Visual Arts (I got a B- in art in elementary school, and it doesn’t stop me!)

Students began estimating and defending their estimates (insert wicked smug math teacher smile here). They began talking about their own questions, as well. We discussed ways we could figure this out together. I expected that tons of conversation would be needed around this problem, but I was pleasantly surprised. Two of my students brought up using a 100s grid: “It’s too bad we couldn’t find a way to use a 100s grid and put it on top of the paintings.” Yes, this math teacher swallowed the canary that morning. This turned into a two-week math and art investigation that you can read more about here by clicking on the photograph:

An award-winning Michigan teacher, Tracy Willis writes about the wild ride classroom creativity can be! In her 24 years of teaching, she has taught general music (K-8th grade), general classrooms, and a newcomers ELL program (2nd-8th grades). She has also worked with teacher leaders as a literacy coach. A presenter at local and state conferences, as well as a teacher-author and poet, Tracy currently teaches fifth grade. At Wild Child Designs, you will find resources for upper elementary that are inspired by music, art, creative problem-solving, and interdisciplinary connections. You can connect with Tracy at Wild Child’s Mossy Oak Musings, Facebook, or Pinterest.

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