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March 18, 2021

Beyond Engagement: Changing How Our Students Express Learning

As a K/1 teacher, I spent a lot of time in the hallway. You could have found me standing on a chair, helping students hang tissue paper jellyfish in our classroom ocean. Or perhaps you would have seen me crouched down, helping students attach leaf cutter ants to the forest floor of the rainforest that we constructed. For pretty much every thematic unit my K/1 colleagues and I taught, we found a way to create a corresponding installation in the hallway.

engaging students on a different level

Watching last week’s episode of Teaching Channel Presents got me thinking about teaching the arts. In this episode we see students engaging in creative projects, while simultaneously learning to collaborate, think critically, extend, and apply knowledge. Seeing these classrooms, I began to think about an arts-integrated unit that I taught on community.

Before experimenting with arts integration, I had taught about community in a more traditional way. We read books, interviewed members of our community, and wrote reports on community workers. My students came away with an understanding of their community and the roles that community workers play. But when I integrated the arts with this unit, I was amazed by how my students developed a whole new level of understanding. Through the arts, students began to apply, connect, and extend their knowledge of community.

In the arts-integrated version of the community unit, we focused on interdependency (a theme that we also explored through a unit on the rainforest). My students each studied one community member and investigated how people work together in a community. We strategically had students pick community workers that were connected with each other. For example: a farmer, a grocery store owner, and a cook.

classroom paintings

Life-size paintings from my classroom

After students researched their particular community worker, students decided on a pose that their community worker might typically be found in. With a prop (perhaps a spatula, a rake, or a test tube) in hand, they lay on a gigantic piece of butcher paper and assumed their pose. Another student or parent volunteer traced the outside of the student’s body. The next day, the students painted their outlines, ending up with life-size paintings of their community workers.

We then helped the students arrange their community workers in the hallway, with students classifying workers and grouping them based on shared jobs. By engaging in these arts-based activities, students were able to apply their knowledge about community workers in a new context. A new level of learning was apparent when the student studying archeologists lay down and thought about how an archeologist uses a shovel, or worked together with the student studying geologists to create a digging site.

As a final performance of understanding, we hosted a “community worker salon,” where students assumed the role of their community worker, answered questions in character, and gave tours of our school community. Again, it was amazing to see how learning through the arts brought my students to a new level of understanding. They were able to take all that they learned about their community worker and embody it. In character, they were asked questions on the spot and were able to explain and demonstrate the connections in their community. I can’t think of a better way for my students to have expressed their learning.

Math lesson image

I started off thinking of arts integration as an engagement strategy. But I soon realized it was so much more than that. When students learn through the arts, they are able to express their content knowledge in new ways. This reminds me of the idea that in order to teach, you need to know something extremely well. When students construct and apply knowledge through the arts, they gain deep understanding. Deep understanding is evident in this video, where students apply what they know about Greek mythology and geometry to create mythical creatures.

music in teaching ELA

I’m inspired by watching innovative teachers use art to go above and beyond traditional curriculum. In our busy classrooms, integration is a necessary skill. In this video, music teacher Genein Letford teaches about jazz while weaving in a lovely lesson about similes. Ms. Letford is able to accomplish two goals at once, teaching about both music and language arts in an authentic way.

By integrating art, we can change how our students express learning. When we teach students to learn through the arts, we are teaching them to approach the world with creativity and an appreciation of beauty. I’d love to hear how you’ve found success with arts integration!


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