I love arts integration and project based learning. I think, to an extent, using art as a means of learning science, history, or literature increases understanding and stimulates analytical thinking.

But badly done, arts integration and PBL cause more harm than good. As a practitioner of both, I can speak with some confidence and authority on Perfectly Awful Ways to incorporate art into your core studies (and perhaps offer a solution to the problems).

I’ll offer, in no particular order, one bad idea a week!

#1. Don’t make clear connections for the students throughout the entire unit.  

I like to make connections. I make connections where connections don’t exist and impose patterns on street numbers. Part of my insistence on arts integration springs from my impulse to synthesize: I feel a connection between a certain art form and a certain piece of literature, jump wholeheartedly into exploring that connection, and I forget to VERBALIZE that connection to students, parents, or administration. The connection exists, but almost purely in my mind and the minds of students who think like me. Everyone else gets left behind in confused bewilderment.

As an artist, that’s fine. As a teacher, that’s a failure to teach. In fact, it’s almost an exercise in solipsism. Sooooo, if you’re enthusiastically incorporating art into a subject, let students know what the purpose is at the beginning of the unit, throughout the unit, and then at the end. Also make sure they are expressing the purpose to you both verbally and in writing throughout the month or so you are studying a subject. You’ll be surprised at what they think you are intending versus what you are intending or actually doing.

Story: I had students perform short cuttings from Julius Caesar. They had over a month to prepare a two-minute selection set in any time period. When I asked the class, “What are you going to tell your parents the assignment is?”  one of the students replied, “We’re going to perform a play completely memorized on exam day.” And that, my friend, is why parents think you’re giving students WAY too much work, and why you should always ask students what the assignment and purpose of the assignment are before they go home and relay information.

How can you make connections?

  1. Clearly state your purpose verbally and in writing: during your introductions, on handouts, in emails home, on quizzes…
  2. Ask questions along the way to find out what connections students are making (this is also how you discover many new ideas to incorporate into future lessons).
  3. Have students write brief artist statements about a work clearly connecting inspiration (the text) to the artwork.
  4. Ask “WHY???” constantly.
  5. Use mind maps, Venn diagrams, and brainstorming techniques with abandon.
  6. Debrief: at the end of a day or a unit, have a circle conversation about what students have learned and how a project helped or didn’t help. If students feel awkward speaking out, have them write their observations on a note card or half sheet of paper.

I want to hear YOUR stories of arts integration and how you make connections. Please add your moments of glory or grief in the comments!