Arts Integration: It’s a Journey

Arts Integration takes time, effort, and patience!

Recently I heard from a teacher friend who has been striving to integrate the arts in her classroom. To paraphrase her question, she asked,

“Am I doing this right? Is this really arts integration? Is it good enough?”

It turns out that a well-meaning peer had pointed out that many of her visual art lessons were the “guided” type and questioned whether or not that was “real” arts integration.

It’s an interesting question, and remains an on-going debate in the arts integration community. Some feel that if an art experience isn’t a pure expression of creativity, it’s not “real” art. (i.e.- children shouldn’t be given topics or “projects” or directions to follow.) Others dismiss that notion and say that any step toward creativity is a step in the right direction.

Here is where I stand: 

First, not all “guided” projects are created equal! More on that in my next post.

Second,  learning to teach through the arts is a journey with many milestones along the way. Isn’t that the nature of the learning process in general? When a baby learns to talk, he starts with cooing and cries, followed by gibberish and nonsense talk. When he says his first word we cheer and celebrate and mark the occasion in his baby book. We don’t respond, “You didn’t say that correctly. That’s not real talking!” We know that it will take young children years to talk “correctly” so we encourage them and praise them and celebrate small victories. It’s natural!

Then why are we so hard on ourselves and our peers when we are learning a new way to teach? It is this critical spirit that keeps us from wanting to try new things in the first place. I’ve talked about this before in my post about getting over fear and trying a new best practice in your classroom.

We must embrace the journey! When you decide to try a new teaching strategy or structure, there is always going to be a learning curve. When I first started implementing Writing Workshop, I can assure you that I didn’t teach like Lucy Calkins! I messed up and had lots of miscues. I struggled to release control to my students and fumbled my way through student conferences. I structured my mini-lessons poorly and placed too much emphasis on conventions. However, those early lessons were crucial to my success. I had to “give it a go” before I could reflect on my practice and begin to refine it. Once I started, I could see where I needed more support and information. Today, I feel quite confident teaching writing in a workshop model. Am I perfect? No- just much better. I am still learning a great deal about how to refine my practice in the area of teaching writing. I embrace the learning process and enjoy it immensely!

The same is true of arts integration structures. My friend is at a crucial stage of her development in integrating visual art. She and her students are learning together how to use (and manage) a variety of art materials including paints, oil pastels, chalks, etc. At this time, it works best for her to invite her students to create guided projects with some structure. Most of her visual art projects are connected to ELA, Science, or Social Studies and have a writing component as well. For example, I have seen her her students paint original maps of their own imagined country to integrate with social studies, write stories about their painted snowmen, or label the parts of plants in an oil pastel and watercolor resist.

Is that arts integration?

Let’s look at the official Kennedy Center definition:

Arts Integration is an APPROACH to TEACHING in which students construct and demonstrate UNDERSTANDING through an ART FORM. Students engage in a CREATIVE PROCESS which CONNECTS an art form and another subject area and meets EVOLVING OBJECTIVES in both.

Do my friend’s lessons fall within that definition? I’d say absolutely, yes! Her students are learning about art (how to use new materials, color theory, how to create perspective, etc.) while also connecting to and/or reinforcing an academic subject. While the topic is assigned and the process is guided, each final piece is unique and authentic, inviting children to think while they create and construct their own understanding.

Is it the “ultimate” pinnacle on the arts integration continuum? Probably not. Ultimately, the goal would be for children to know how arts materials work, how to manage them, and to be invited to generate their own topics and products in response to a problem or invitation. However, is that goal practical for a teacher and students who are new to arts integration? I don’t think so.

Let’s celebrate our successes and put on the pom poms for each other! Every step we make toward creative and engaging teaching is a step toward victory. Celebrate them, learn from them, and continue to challenge yourself to grow.

One of the reasons teachers are so intimidated by arts integration is a fear that they won’t “do it right.”

Newsflash: you probably won’t. It’s OK. Just try it! You’ll see what works, what doesn’t, and ultimately you’ll do it better the next time. That’s the story of my life as a teacher!

My friend is such an excellent teacher. And my favorite thing about her is her passion to keep learning and refining her practice. I can’t wait to see what she is doing with her students in another year or two. I am fully confident that it will be WONDERful!

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Comments

  1. Another great post, Susan. AI is a creative act–there is no right way. Any creative work is about devising new and useful strategies to meet challenges. Creative teaching is no exception.

    Thanks for your wisdom!

    Ps: 5th edition of Creating Meaning comes out the end of January!

    • Thanks so much Claudia! I feel very affirmed knowing that you share my belief. I can’t wait to see the new edition!

  2. Love this post and I love your approach, Susan. It still baffles me how harshly (and passionately) people judge art instruction. It really shouldn’t be so over-analyzed. Every attempt to teach and make art should be valued.
    Patty recently posted..Snowman Collage ProjectMy Profile

    • Thanks Patty! I am actually planning to link to your “Open Ended Art” post in my write-up on guided art projects. I think the comment thread on that post is so interesting! And I must say that your work gives classroom teachers such GREAT support for integrating visual art. Love what you do!

  3. Thanks so much for this post! My organization, Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, partners professional teaching artists with classroom teachers all over Chicago who are all at different stages of their careers and in their arts integration journeys. One of our programs is specifically for teachers who are brand new to this type of teaching and learning, and I’m going to share this out with them in case anybody’s needing a boost of confidence as they begin their first arts integrated projects this spring after a fall semester of PD.

    • Michelle- Thanks so much for your comment. I have heard about CAPE and think you have a wonderful AI model! Thanks for sharing the post with your teachers. Hope it encourages them. :-)

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