Integrating the arts into elementary education

Karen Gallas, a teacher at the Lawrence School in Brookline, Massachusetts, uses the arts extensively in her first grade class. Drawing, painting, music, drama, poetry and storytelling all play major roles in the curriculum she has developed. Gallas believes that young students learn more when they are encouraged to express themselves in a variety of ways.

Gallas’s report, a chronicle of her experience teaching a unit on insects, illustrates her ideas and her method. No less than four languages are spoken in her class, which is made up of students from diverse socioeconomic, racial and cultural backgrounds. Over several months, the class studied all kinds of insects paying particular attention to their life cycles. Students were encouraged to express their understanding of the material in any way they chose. Gallas reports that integrating the arts into the curriculum added to their enjoyment of the material. As a result of this increased enjoyment, students are more deeply immersed in their study of the material and emerge with a better understanding of the concepts presented.

Drawings reveal what child doesn’t understand

For example, in his response to the unit, the insect drawings of a non-English-speaking child revealed how much information he had acquired and what he had yet to understand. These drawings also provided material from which the student and Gallas built an English reading and speaking vocabulary.

This experience underscored for Gallas her belief that children, given the opportunity, show us not only what they know, but the precise way in which they learn best. Gallas writes:

“Because I am a teacher, my unspoken agenda is shaped by academic expectations; I am supposed to present concepts and skills, and the children are supposed to ‘master’ those skills and concepts. Unfortunately, the journey towards mastery of a subject is often inextricably tied to instruments of assessment, presentation and communication that are designed by and for teachers. Tests, workbook pages, teacher-led discussions, textbooks, charts – each of these assumes a commonality of experience that the children in a classroom may not share. Each artificially separates the process of mastery from that of individual expression. Each of these excludes the full participation of some portion of the population I teach.”

Gallas’s unit on insect study began with “brainstorming” sessions in which the children discussed what they already knew about insects and what they wanted to know. Next, the children began observing insects on display in their classroom; after that, books on insects (both fiction and nonfiction) were made available.

Poetry suited to thinking of children

Gallas believes that for many students, poetry offers a means of gaining insight that is in some ways more effective than even the best nonfiction resources. Poetic form, she suggests, is better suited than prose to the thinking and writing of children because it is spare yet rich in sense impressions. She believes it is a “medium in which the images of wonder, curiosity and analogic thinking, which so often characterize children’s language, can flourish.”

Subsequently, students began an outdoor study of insect habitats. Each day, drawings and information were shared and discussed. Working alone or in small groups, children sketched from life, studied books and photographs or wrote poems and stories. Following their particular interests, students discovered and developed their expressive strengths by creating work that reflected their new knowledge of insects’ habitats and life cycles. some students even chose to act out their knowledge. Gallas notes that it was through one such performance on the life cycle of an insect that she first came to recognize that a highly distractible and overactive child was, in fact, very observant, having gained much information about the insects he had studied. Previously, his knowledge and skills had almost always been obscured by his behavior problems.

Gallas reports that one of her most difficult tasks as a teacher has been helping students move beyond the mere acquisition of new information toward a true assimilation and assessment of their learning. She has come to believe that a curriculum that integrates the arts into all learning helps students achieve this goal. She concludes that it is a continuing challenge to provide a range of arts experiences broad enough to ensure that each child will discover a “voice” to express his or her ideas. She feels that one of the important reasons for incorporating the arts into curricula is that the arts transcend culture and language barriers. Through the arts, all children have a more equal opportunity to become fully involved in learning.

“Arts as Epistemology: Enabling Children to Know What They Know” Harvard Educational Review Volume 61, Number 1, pp. 40-50.

Published in ERN September/October 1991 Volume 4 Number 4

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