Arts Education Seen as Common-Core Partner

December 11, 2012 10 min read
Michelle Grohe, the director of school and teacher programs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, leads students from the Edward M. Kennedy Academy in discussions about the works of art. In partnership with four Boston schools, the museum uses its extensive collection to help teach some of the common standards in English/language arts.
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At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the painting “El Jaleo”—a canvas spanning 11 feet that features a flamenco dancer—is a popular starting point for getting students to spend time with a work of art.

But viewing and discussing the 1882 piece by the American artist John Singer Sargent isn’t just a cultural experience. It also presents a powerful opportunity to tap into some of the same skills asked of students under the Common Core State Standards, said Michelle A. Grohe, the director of school and teacher programs at the museum, which has a close partnership with four Boston public schools.

“When one of our schools is focusing on ‘close’ readings, to read an excerpt of text and describe the main idea and provide supporting evidence or details, that is very similar to what we do with the visual arts,” she said.

As educators nationwide seek to help students meet the demands of the common core in English/language arts and mathematics, many arts education advocates are making the case that the arts can be a valuable partner. And in some cases, they’re identifying ways to make the links explicit.

“There are a lot of natural connections,” said Susan M. Riley, a curriculum specialist with the 77,000-student Anne Arundel County district in Maryland, where part of her job is to work with teams across all academic departments on implementing the new standards. “I see the common core as a great platform for the arts to really rise and share their importance in the educational fabric of a school.”

Seeing Connections

Ms. Riley, who has a background in arts integration, said her district is developing resources to help teachers make classroom connections between the common core and other disciplines, including the arts. One lesson she created on her own asks students to read a passage from Robinson Crusoe and examine illustrations for the book by the artist N.C. Wyeth.

In New York City, the school system is developing a set of arts-focused instructional units that “will be very explicit” in their alignment with the common core, said Paul King, the executive director for the arts in the 1.1 million-student district. He cites an elementary dance unit on the Underground Railroad and a high school theater lesson that involves producing an original monologue.

“We’re working very deeply with arts teachers” on the common core, Mr. King said. “How do they engage in good discussion? What are good inquiry questions? What is good writing in the arts? And how do you do that without sacrificing the artmaking?”

One regular cultural partner with the New York City schools, the nonprofit ArtsConnection, got a $1.1 million federal grant in 2010 to connect theater and dance with the new English/language arts standards, with a focus on developing and documenting interdisciplinary units of study and formative-assessment practices.

The ‘Great News’

The new standards are also getting significant attention at arts education conferences and workshops.

“It’s very much on the radar screen” of the arts education community, said Sandra S. Ruppert, the director of the Washington-based Arts Education Partnership. “The common core clearly is the big education reform game-changer right now.”

In September, the advocacy group Americans for the Arts hosted a weeklong “blog salon,” where about a dozen experts explored and debated the standards, and in some cases, offered ideas on how to connect them with the arts.

Ninth graders from the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers tour the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The museum, housed in a Venetian-style palace with three stories of galleries, helps students tap into the common standards.

Embracing the common core may be something of a survival strategy for the arts in schools, some experts suggest, given how much time, energy, and resources districts and schools are devoting to the standards.

“A lot of people in the arts have been worried, ‘Oh gosh, we’re just going to get lost in the sea of the common core,’ ” said Kristen Engebretsen, an arts education program coordinator at Americans for the Arts, based in Washington. “But if you walk into the principal’s office and say, ‘Hey, I can connect this to the common core,’ you’re going to get their ear.”

Meanwhile, a new set of voluntary national standards for arts education is being developed by leaders in the field. Organizers say they’re working to ensure strong and clear alignment between that document and the common core.

The common standards, adopted by all but four states in English/language arts and all but five in math, embody some potentially big changes to instruction in many public schools. Although arts educators say the standards in both subjects have strong potential for arts infusion, the ELA standards appear to be drawing more attention so far.

After the weeklong Americans for the Arts blog salon wrapped up, David Coleman, a lead writer of the English/language arts standards, wrote a response on how the arts fit in.

He started by outlining some of the critical components of the English/language arts standards: building knowledge through reading, writing, listening, and speaking, with a focus on “high-quality source material"; engaging in careful observation in reading; and basing analysis of a text or work of art on evidence.

“The great news is that the standards call on so many things the arts do well,” wrote Mr. Coleman, who this fall became the president of the College Board. “The tradition of careful observation, attention to evidence and artists’ choices, the love of taking an artist’s work seriously lies at the heart of these standards.”

Mr. Coleman said curricular materials in the arts that seek to align with the common core “need to shift to embrace these core shifts” in the standards. He suggests that the “next generation of arts materials” should examine fewer works of art more closely, look for and share “the most magnificent things written about the arts at higher levels of text complexity,” and pay “special attention to the choices artists make when students are observing or making art.”

Careful analysis of specific scenes in drama, he added, provides a “particularly promising opportunity to explore at once textual evidence and visual interpretation.”

The ELA standards make explicit reference to disciplines across the curriculum, suggesting that literacy should be a schoolwide endeavor. A separate section for grades 6-12 even outlines standards for literacy in science, social studies/history, and technical subjects.

Some arts experts lament that the section did not specify the arts. But the standards do touch on the arts, including drama, illustrations, and drawing.


A variety of resources have been developed to help schools and teachers connect the arts with the Common Core State Standards.

The Arts and the Common Core Curriculum Mapping Project
This 55-page document from the nonprofit group Common Core suggests many arts-infused lessons, with references to specific English/language arts standards.

Center for Student Work
Developed by the nonprofit Expeditionary Learning and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, this website has collected a large set of exemplary project-based student work, much with a strong arts dimension. For each, it indicates relevant common-core math and English/language arts standards (as well as other state standards).

Americans for the Arts Blog Salon
This weeklong “blog salon,” hosted in September by Americans for the Arts, brought together about a dozen experts to weigh in on the common core and the arts. They explore the new standards and, in some cases, offer both conceptual and practical advice on how to bring them together.

For instance, an 8th grade reading standard says students should analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or strays from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors. A 2nd grade writing standard says to use “a combination of drawing, writing, and dictating” to compose informative or explanatory texts.

A 3rd grade standard says to “explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting).”

An appendix to the standards that features suggested “text exemplars” includes ample examples of drama, but also a volume on art history and The Illustrated Book of Great Composers.

Robinson Crusoe

The use of illustrations alongside text is part of the lesson from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe that Ms. Riley of Anne Arundel County developed.

“After reading the text and having a rich, deep discussion” about its meaning, “then you take a look at the traditional illustrations,” she said. “What techniques were used? Shadings of light and dark. What does that mean? Really delving into that artwork.”

She added, “You’re looking at whether or not they are able to closely read a piece of text, but also a piece of art, and whether or not they can understand perspective and how it changes, based on how it is written or portrayed.”

The district also has produced materials to help teachers integrate the arts with common-core math concepts. A one-pager for 4th grade—featuring hyperlinks to math standards and state arts standards—serves up many examples. For instance, it suggests for operations and algebraic thinking that students “compose and analyze melodic and rhythmic patterns” or “create a movement pattern and then depict it through drawing.”

At the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler, a magnet school in Burlington, Vt., a 4th grade unit brings together study of the painter Wassily Kandinsky and his abstract work with geometric concepts. Students identify various angles in the Russian’s work, then create their own art inspired by his approach and label the types of angles they use.

At Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, N.Y., which has long embraced arts integration, teachers find natural fits with the common core.

“Using art as text, we’re teaching children to look at art or movement or listen to music and derive meaning from it,” whether a “famous painting or through watching ‘Swan Lake’ or singing Erie Canal [folk] songs,” said Principal Lisa A. Wing. The school also looks at “using the arts as a vehicle of expression, the communication side of the common core, and knowing how to create artwork that creates a message and that conveys details,” she said.

The nonprofit organization Common Core includes more than 100 arts-infused activities in a set of detailed “curriculum maps” for the English/language arts standards that it created to help educators, said Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of the Washington-based group. It developed a separate, 55-page document that pulls out those examples to show where English/language arts instruction “could be enhanced” by the arts.

The lesson ideas are intended for use either by English teachers or arts teachers, or in collaboration. They draw on a vast array of material, including paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, and the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, and music as diverse as that of Mozart, Bob Dylan, and a Duke Ellington-Irving Mills collaboration.

‘Not Just Any Painting’

Writing for the Americans for the Arts blog salon, Ms. Munson said that “works of art can, indeed should, be ‘read’ in a very similar way to a poem by Shakespeare or a speech by Winston Churchill.”

But she cautioned that any such activities should be done “in addition to (not instead of) teaching the arts for their own sake.”

The key to such close reading is “in selecting works of art that are of sufficient quality to serve as a basis for asking the kind of text-dependent questions called for by the [common core],” Ms. Munson, a deputy chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President George W. Bush, said in an email. “Not just any painting, photo, film, or piece of music will do.”

She also highlights the potential of the arts in grappling with the standards for speaking and listening.

Ms. Riley said high-quality arts-infused lessons require careful planning and collaboration between arts educators and regular classroom teachers. “This is the only way to ensure integrity in both aligning the standards and in their execution and application,” she said.

In Boston, the Gardner Museum’s school partnership program brings students to the facility twice a year to view and discuss art. Teachers also get professional development so they can facilitate further lessons on their own at school.

Ms. Grohe says the painting “El Jaleo” is a great starting place for students.

“There’s so much to talk about,” she said. “The movement. How characters are interacting, the lighting.”

The museum’s approach is guided by a teaching method called Visual Thinking Strategies, which aims to provide an open-ended group discussion that invites students to share what they’re observing.

When students first encounter a piece of art, they are asked to spend a few minutes looking silently at the image, Ms. Grohe said. Their guide begins by asking what’s going on in the artwork. As students share impressions, they are asked, “What makes you say that?"—a question that directly ties to multiple common-core standards for evidentiary reasoning in both English/language arts and math, she said.

A third question, Ms. Grohe said, is “What more can we find?”

By spending 15 to 20 minutes at a time with one work of art, “the students learn to slow down and look carefully, attention skills that also are used when grappling with new or unfamiliar text, math equations, or problems,” she said.

“Instead of sharing what we have learned with students, we basically flip it,” Ms. Grohe explained. “We take a very open-ended approach and ask students what they see and what meanings and connections they can come up with.”

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Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts education is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Common Core Taught Through the Arts


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