More than reading: Integrating art into your curriculum
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance." — Aristotle
Overwhelming evidence undergirds the need for integrated curriculum based in multiple intelligences and learning styles. However, too often, curricula are not integrated, relying instead on artificially compartmentalized courses — usually categorized as reading-writing and listening-speaking, with grammar awkwardly given its own class based in content disconnected from anything else students are doing.
Dr. Howard Gardner, the master of multiple intelligences (MI), observed, "Kids go to school and college and they get through, but they don't seem to really care about using their minds. School doesn't have the kind of long-term positive impact that it should."
What, then, can a teacher do to integrate compartmentalized classes with positive, purposeful activities while fulfilling the requirements of the curriculum?
No doubt, like many other teachers, I found myself facing this challenge. I was teaching a reading course in the anachronistic program, INTO CSU. Among many examples, one of the practice exams (there is a hefty amount of "teaching to the test" in the program) referred to Czechoslovakia, a country that ceased to exist on Dec. 31, 1992.
I knew I had to make a meaningful change — no matter how small — to bring quality and researched-based exercises to my students. I wanted exercises that, as Gardner noted, would have a positive (and hopefully long-term) impact. I based the activity in critical thinking, critical analysis and critical reflection as well as art and public speaking, thereby integrating MI and the skills students were learning in their unfortunately separate and unrelated listening and speaking class.
When I introduced the activity, my students and I were about halfway through reading the required text (one term it was "Hatchet," and the next, it was "The Giver"). I brought to class plenty of sheets of butcher paper, a voluminous number of colored markers in a spectrum of colors and a few rulers.
"Today," I said, "I'd like you to think about what you believe is the most important scene in the book. What is it? Why do you think it's the most important scene?"
I explained that students would use the class to review the chapters we'd read, choose the scene, illustrate it and be prepared to share their work with the class. Their presentation, I noted, must not only show their illustration, but also must express why they believe it is the most important scene, and their explanations must be based in the textual evidence from the chapters.
I evaluated students' work based on the completeness of their work and on the analysis and explanation they provided. Because I am not an artist and students were not learning the skills of artistic expression, I did not evaluate students on their artistic talents or skills.
Students embraced the activity. They attentively dug deeply into the chapters, reviewing them carefully before they put markers to paper. Their illustrations captured fine details in "Hatchet," such as the L-shaped lake, the fish in the lake, the hovering bear and Brian's (the main character) disinterest in interacting with his mother during their car ride.
Even students who did little to nothing else all term thrust themselves into the work. Students' explanations were thoughtful and often erudite, and we decorated the room with their artwork.
Here is a look at some of the artwork done by the students.
A couple terms later, when my colleague and friend, Moriah, was teaching "Hatchet," she asked me for teaching and learning suggestions that would engage her students. I offered this activity, and she eagerly tried it in class.
No sooner had her class ended for the day than I received her excited texts with pictures of her students' work, "How amazing!" "These are fantastic!" She extolled her students' magnificent creations and delighted in how meaningful her students and she found the exercise. She was thrilled with the depth of students' explanations, and, even though she was not assessing students' artistic handiwork, she was dazzled by it.
You can incorporate writing and note-taking into this assignment to integrate even more skills. For example, you can have students write their reflections and explanations for their choice of scene. The writing genre could be the essay, thereby having students practice their essay-writing skills.
Likewise, you can integrate listening and note-taking skills by having the audience listen carefully and take notes during each student's presentation after which you can administer an assessment to ascertain whether students correctly understood their classmate's presentations.
If you're eager to infuse your class with a researched-based MI activity that students will enjoy and from which they will learn — an exercise beyond the static curriculum or one in addition to what is already used in a best practices-based curriculum — here's one you can try. Moriah and I bet you'll be as dazzled as we have been.
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