Arts Integration: Radical Then, Still Radical Today

arts integration
Art time? Or Math Time?

“An attempt is to be made to relate the subject matter of each department to work in art, music, and dramatics.” Thus wrote journalist Amy McMaster in 1929 about the new Vineyard Shore School for Working Girls, founded by the dean of Bryn Mawr, Hilda Worthington Smith. The Vineyard Shore School was a residency college for women factory and farm workers, who received tuition-free instruction in exchange for paid room, board and work around the campus.

I first ran across the Vineyard Shore School while doing research on the life of North Carolina playwright Paul Green. A mention of the school, and Green’s correspondence with Smith, caught my eye. What was this school and why was a playwright involved with it? I’m not entirely certain the answer to that question, although my best guess is that Smith asked Green for a donation or, as “he went to battle many many times for racial equality, prison reform, abolishment of capital punishment, for labor unions, for the United Nations, for equal and good education,” he just wanted to lend his emotional support.

But the comment about integrating arts into all lessons immediately piqued my curiosity. Arts integration today is still seen as extraneous or luxurious in classrooms overstretched to fulfill all testing and preparation requirements. Here was an academy talking about arts integration at the beginning of the Great Depression! And for the “working class” no less! How very ahead of the times!

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So many benefits of arts integration!

The many benefits of arts integration has been and still is being researched. From occupying students with different learning styles to enhancing neural pathways by engaging different parts of the brain to helping students use movement to embody theoretical principles, using the arts in every facet of instruction pays dividends. How prescient of a dean and faculty in 1929 to trust their intuition to integrate arts without the benefit of our standardized research methods.

I volunteer in my daughter’s elementary school arts classroom every week. The teacher often talks about her requirement to include appropriate grade-level mastery skills or topics in her art lesson plans. For example, she has to include a North Carolina artist or project as the 4th grade here is dedicated to NC governance and history. Why not turn that around and ask the core subject matter teachers to include arts in their lesson planning? (My daughter’s awesome teacher does this of her own volition. Scores of teachers do, too.)

Arts integration also brings professional artists into non-arts classrooms. I know many practicing artists who truly enjoy their visits to classrooms to share how the students can use their work to illuminate a particular topic or social matter. While there is usually some back-end vetting to get artists into schools (some of our local arts councils provide this service), it’s not hard to start offering workshops or residencies. These services are especially critical for rural students, who may or may not regularly see working artists in their everyday lives. Upon watching a video of an oil painter, one boy exclaimed, “I didn’t know anyone did that as a job.”

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Maybe you’re a teacher, wondering how to start integrating more arts into your lesson plans. Or you’re a parent, wanting to help in your kid’s school? Or you’re an artist and would love to give back to your community in a different way? Here are five sites to check out:

Edutopia’s List of Arts Integration Resources: Edutopia is a fantastic source for all manner of innovative school and teaching practices. This list contains everything from research on benefits to examples in classrooms to Common Core-linked project planning.

Arts Integration Solution: “The mission of Arts Integration Solution is to guide pre-k to 12 grade teachers to use arts integration and Embody Learning strategies to engage students fully in the joy of academic content learning, while exploring and discovering, creating and innovating, collaborating… and succeeding in their daily learning experiences.” This AZ-based company does teacher training programs across the country. They also have a free webinar series to help explain their practices. Check with your local arts council to see if there are similar resources in your area (or for grants to bring in a trainer).

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The Kennedy Center’s ARTSEDGE: Arts Integration: With a commitment to helping schools and teachers, the Kennedy Center proves again how valuable they are to the arts field as a whole. Their website offers a plethora of useful information, including articles and videos on practices they’ve pioneered.

The United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County (NC) Artists in Schools: if you’re interested in how a local arts council sets up the program vetting and disseminating artists for school performances, workshops and residencies, check out how this NC council does it. Call your local school system and arts council to set up a meeting on how you could create something similar in your town.

The Arts Education Partnership brochure “What School Leaders Can Do To Increase the Arts“: This is a great piece to print out and take with you if you’re a teacher or parent and want to start integrating arts into your student’s class or school. Topics cover “Establish a School-Wide Commitment to Arts Learning,” “Create an Arts-Rich Learning Environment” and “Rethink the Use of Time and Resources.”

Share your favorite arts integration story or resource below in the comments. Perhaps in another hundred years, your story will inspire another generation of artists and teachers.