Arts Integration: The Dual Focus

Arts Integration Photo Credit: Andy Hay via Flickr, CCL 2012

Yesterday I shared a visual art project. It was based on the book, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman and Rick Allen. I created that lesson for an art class and only needed art objectives. However…. as a “generalist” in education (and lover of teaching literacy) I can’t help but dream up ways to deepen these kinds of lessons and integrate other subjects.

First, let’s clarify what it means to “integrate the arts” into your teaching. (I could write 10,000 words on this topic but I will be mercifully short and sweet here today.) When you integrate an art area into your teaching, you have a dual focus. You are teaching something important about the academic content and something important about the art form. They are on equal footing. (For a great definition of arts integration, visit this page on Sean Layne’s website.)

One might worry that putting equal emphasis on the art form would distract from the academics. Actually, the opposite happens. There is a magical quality to arts-integrated lessons; instead of distracting, the arts enhance, deepen and clarify academic information.

Let’s take the spider art lesson as an example. I could go in dozens of directions on this one. First, I have a wonderful mentor text in Dark Emperor. It is the complete package- great art, great writing. If I have developed a good habit of “noticing” what artists and writers do to make their work great, I will be able to gather a lot of potential teaching material. Here are just a few of the possible teaching points I gleaned from Dark Emperor:

  • Pairing poetry with non-fiction writing is a powerful blend. Back in the 90s we used the term “book innovation” meaning that we would take an existing book and copy-cat it’s format or main idea to create a new, student-written book. (i.e.- Read Eric Carle’s Brown Bear and then make a version about the class…. “Tommy, Tommy, who do you see?”) This is still a very common practice- especially in primary grades. Dark Emperor would be a wonderful book to “innovate.” Maybe you want to have the class write their own book about nocturnal animals. Or, maybe you want to copy the format but choose a completely different topic such as insects, historical figures, habitats, etc.
  • Figurative Language paints a strong mental picture. Joyce Sidman earned her Newberry Honor! Each poem is vivid with rich figurative language. Metaphors (from the poem about the owl, “What fills the cool moons of your mesmerizing eyes?”), personification (mushrooms “shoulder up without a sound”) and similies abound (“evening unfolds like a primrose, pale and scented.”) Language doesn’t get much richer than this.
  • The ubi sunt– The book ends with an “ubi sunt,” defined in the book’s glossary as “a style of medieval poetry that laments the loss of heroic, beautiful things.” What a beautiful and easy-to-mimic poetic form.
  • Non-fiction writing: a topic sentence is backed up by examples. For instance, Sidman writes “Nocturnal animals have specially adapted senses for hunting.” That is one of her opening sentences. She then goes on to give several examples of different animals and their heightened senses. We can use her example and teach this framework to children.
  • Non-fiction writing: sometimes it’s the little details that make it interesting: Did you know that a mother and baby porcupine “sing” to each other while the mother nurses the child? Oh my goodness- how sweet! That might not seem like a critical fact to know but it’s exactly the kind of fact that makes the writing fresh and interesting.
I could go on. There is so much more. Read the book for yourself with “noticing eyes” and you’ll find writing “treasures” you can share with your students.
However, the real trick is in choosing. Could I teach all of these lessons from one text? Yes. Should I? No.
If we pull too many lessons from a book, we kill it. The kids grow weary. I have to choose my teaching point, and my choice should be based on my students’ needs, the goals I have set for them as writers, and the standards which I am responsible for teaching.
If I taught 6th grade, we might try writing an ubi sunt. If I taught 1st graders, we might try our hand at topic sentences backed up by a few interesting facts. It’s the teacher’s choice.

Now, let’s talk about how to make this an art integrated lesson (the whole point of this post!) We need to approach with a dual focus.  It’s really quite simple- we already learned about some of the art elements we can emphasize and how to create a project in the style of illustrator, Rick Allen. (See the Spider Art Project if you missed that post.) The question is- how can I marry a writing goal with that art project and get a bigger “bang” for my teaching buck?

Do the art first. 
I have a whole lot more to say about this. “Pictures first” is a very powerful (and proven) structure that empowers children as writers. I’ll share the structure here tomorrow. But trust me when I say that if you invite your children to create the art first, their writing will soar.
So- back to this project. Let’s say I teach 6th grade and I want my students to write an ubi sunt. I would:
1- Share Dark Emperor and pay special attention to the ubi sunt.
2- Find other examples of ubi sunt poetry for students to read and analyze. (You could also bring in music such as Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”)
3- “Read” Rick Allen’s artwork and notice the elements I mentioned in yesterday’s post.
4- Invite students to select a topic for their art and writing. Of course, since it’s an ubi sunt, it needs to be something beautiful or heroic that is now lost. (Could you tie this into history somehow? It would be even more powerful if so. However, don’t force it. Forced topics rarely inspire strong writing.)
5- Have kids create their artwork first. You won’t believe the kind of deep thinking they do while creating the art. It will transfer to their writing. I promise. You can select the art elements from Dark Emperor to emphasize. Borders? Visual texture? Strong focal object? Print-making? Something else?
6- With their artwork in front of them, have them brainstorm rich words they could use in their poem. It also helps to let them discuss the art in pairs or triads and “collect” words from their friends.
7- Use the art and language brainstorm as pre-writing exercises- continue with the writing process for the poems.
8- This is the step we often skip. Don’t skip it!!! Celebrate their success. Share the finished art and writing- within the class, with another class, with adults- it doesn’t matter. What matters is taking a special moment to recognize their success.

This process would be very similar if I taught 1st graders and wanted to create an innovation of Dark Emperor around the topic of night-time. First graders in our state learn about the phases of the moon. What if students were invited to create artwork of favorite night-time activities with the requirement that their picture include the moon in one of its phases? The writing could focus on opinion writing (“the best thing about night”)- a Common Core Standard for 1st grade writers. (Personal narratives of favorite night-time memories would also work well with this project.)

Once students have decided 1)What they believe is the best thing about night and 2)Which phase of them moon they want to include in their artwork, they are ready to illustrate first. Their little brains will do all sorts of deep thinking while they create their images. Once the art is done, have them discuss it with a friend and “tell” about their artwork. That step will help them to further gather their thoughts and collect words.

Finally, you can lead them through the writing process to write an opinion piece based on their artwork.

The results will be beautiful!

I hope this post helps you see how an arts integrated lesson has a dual focus. Tomorrow I’ll talk more about the “pictures first” structure for integrating visual art and writing.




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  1. I really enjoyed your post! I am all for getting more bang for our teaching buck, too. And I think “art first” would really help our visual learners, as well as get our creative juices flowing.

  2. Chrissy Greenman says:

    Love your ideas! I am most definitely going to do the moon phases with persuasive writing! I think the chalks would work great against a dark background!

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