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Bringing the Arts Into Core Instruction

By Rachel Losch — February 11, 2014 4 min read
Visual arts teacher Rachel Losch uses masterpieces like Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" as part of interdisciplinary units.
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Sneak peeks are fun, especially when you get to have a say in the final product.

Maybe that’s why, as an elementary visual arts specialist, I am enjoying the chance to approach the language arts standards using the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. I look forward to February 14, when public commentary on the new draft will open.

The NCCAS calls for arts teachers to collaborate more closely than ever with their colleagues in other disciplines. Some may shudder at this, preferring to remain safely siloed as teachers of electives. To be honest, teaching art for art’s sake is my first priority, too. I want to expose my students to as many forms of the visual arts as possible before they move onto middle school.

But I am thrilled at the prospect of the endangered arts’ legitimate inclusion in schools’ efforts to prepare students to succeed in the 21st century.

Critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration are at the heart of what I teach, and it only makes sense to integrate the arts with students’ other educational experiences whenever possible.

Artistic Masterworks as Connection Points

What will the standards look like in practice? Examination of artistic masterworks will play a significant role, helping students sharpen critical thinking and research skills while building connections to other academic disciplines.

Close study of carefully selected works can activate students’ background knowledge, accelerate further learning, deepen understanding, and facilitate the transfer and application of knowledge. Using a masterwork as the focal point of integrated units has the potential to develop more well-rounded, critical thinkers who can accelerate their learning.

I collaborate with classroom teachers to link unit content to robust, age-level appropriate masterworks. Each masterwork should have an intrinsic interest, represent its genre well, and take students to higher levels of learning and understanding. When selecting a masterwork, it’s important to keep your own interests and passions in mind; your students will “catch” your enthusiasm.

Here are examples of robust masterworks with cross-curricular connections:

The 1st grade teachers in my school were developing a unit on traditions—and I suggested we link learning to contemporary artist Carmen Lomas Garza’s painting Empanadas (1991). After discussing the piece, students created a tableau. Each student copied the position of a person or animal in the masterwork and froze like a statue in the same position. When I tapped each student’s shoulder, they said what they imagined their character might have said. After reenacting the masterwork, students then sketched out a family tradition of their own, also writing about their experiences.

I’ve also introduced students to Diego Rivera’s La Piñata (1953) for units that deal with bullying. This brightly colored painting reminds us of happy times, but when we take a closer look, we can identify the bully in the party and examine how he is busting his way through the group of children to get more candy. Students can identify with the image and it is an easy one to use as a springboard for discussion and activities that support their mastery of language arts standards.

One 4th grade, arts-integrated unit focused on patterns in art and music that included two masterworks: Vincent Van Gogh’s The Mulberry Tree (1889) and composer Antonio Vivaldi’s musical work “The Four Seasons” (1723). While from different eras, both pieces were innovative for their time, blowing away people’s notions of what art and music were supposed to be. (Students appreciated this intersection of innovation. One sighed and said, “Ahhh, I see what makes the artwork by Vincent Van Gogh even more beautiful; it is music. I have never heard Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” before and it makes the artwork come alive!”)

Recently, 5th graders were studying the masterwork Catlin Painting the Portrait of Mah-to-tah-pa—Mandan (1861-9) in conjunction with a cross-curricular unit about the relationships that formed within different cultural groups in 19th-century America. One of my students gasped when he saw the painting and exclaimed, “I know this one! We studied the George Catlin painting in social studies.” Granted—this particular connection was a happy accident—but it’s exactly the kind of cross-curricular experience I’m committed to creating. After examining the painting, students selected a 19th-century identity to explore, used iPads to research their clothing and environment, then rendered their own self-portraits as if they were individuals living in 19th-century America.

Two of the other rich masterworks I’ve used when developing units with colleagues are Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884) and Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom (~1833). As an art teacher, it’s a thrill to use Seurat’s timeless painting (the first created entirely in pointillism) to address relational prepositions, pointillism, juxtaposition, proportion, perspective, brush strokes, color mixing, characters, and Hicks’ painting offers rich fodder for students to observe, think critically, and provide evidence for claims.

Using a masterwork as the focal point of integrated units develops well-rounded, critical thinkers who can accelerate their learning through natural content connections. Visual arts specialists play a critical role in the customized selection of age-appropriate masterworks that connect to content—and that also expose students to significant pieces of art. My public comment on the core arts standards is simple: Two paint-stained thumbs up.

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