Teaching Opinion

Arts for Everyone

By David B. Cohen — August 08, 2016 3 min read
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Before there were teachers or students, humans made music and danced. Before there were schools, humans painted and sculpted. There’s something fundamental about human existence that calls us to create, and to be audience to the creativity of others.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve marginalized the arts in many contemporary American schools. In some schools, the arts are virtually absent, and in others, even if there is instruction in art or music, it exists as an extra, something less important, irrelevant to the real curriculum. The reaction in some corners as been to add an “A” to STEM education and fit arts into STEAM education. (To be inclusive we could add history, English, languages, and P.E. while we’re at it: STEAMHELP! Or, call it “school”).

Including the arts in education should require no justification. Arts are fundamental to the human experience, and always have been. Period.

If you teach something other than a class in the arts, I invite you to spend some planning time investigating ways to integrate the arts into your curriculum, because arts belong in education. That should be enough of a rationale. The fact that arts integration will help students learn other subjects is just a bonus. Whatever you teach, there is a way arts integration can be done with fidelity to both the core curriculum and the arts. You will find new ways of thinking about and understanding the material and the ways that students learn, and your students will thank you for it.

Now, to some extent, as a high school English teacher, I already have a chance to bridge the gap. I teach a “core” academic subject in which we focus on literary arts. Novels, plays, and poems are artistic, though we should make sure to give students opportunities to create and not just read in these genres. I try to go beyond these literary arts to incorporate other arts as well. However, for teachers of other subjects, incorporating poetry or other literature might be a fine approach to arts integration.

In my high school English classes, I’ve been most effective using paintings, photography, film, and music. Almost any connection you can think of has probably been thought of already, so do a search, ask a librarian for help, or just go to the website of any major museum and look for education links like these: Smithsonian, J. Paul Getty Museum, New York Museum of Modern Art, British Museum. My favorite lessons involving paintings involves the work of Samuel Bak, a Holocaust survivor whose surrealistic style invites all sorts of student reflections about survival, memory, loss, persistence, futility. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and what’s most fascinating is that each viewer might come up with a different thousand words. Facing History and Ourselves offers robust resources for the study of Bak’s work.

The study of photography can lead to some similarly profound discussions about life as other people experience it, or have in other times and places. I think many English and history teachers make use of photography when teaching about the Depression, though of course there are many other possibilities. Consider the power of The Places We Live, or the discussions that might follow from seeing “What a Week of Groceries Looks Like Around the World.” These collections make a point through their content and juxtaposition. If you want to do justice to photography as an art form, look for resources like these from the Museum of Photographic Arts. It’s important to look at pictures not only to see what’s in them, but to help students understand how the image was conceived, captured, and presented, along with the effects of those artistic choices.

Similarly, we need to help students think and talk about music when we use music in the classroom. A teacher might want to use some songs from “Hamilton” (currently in heavy rotation in my family - kids included) as part of an engaging lesson in history, and the lyrics offer interesting perspectives on figures and events American history. There’s value in simply using the music as a vehicle to bring the text into focus. However, stronger arts integration would go beyond the lyrics. Why does it matter what styles of music are used? How do tone, arrangement, and musical motifs help shape our understanding of a certain idea or character?

I have to admit, dance is the one art form I’m most hesitant about. Maybe that’s an area where I have more potential to add to my teaching toolkit. If anyone has favorite lessons or resources to offer, for dance or any other arts integration, add them in the comments below.

Photo: Palo Alto High School students lead a discussion about a Samuel Bak painting; by David B. Cohen.

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.