Years ago I stumbled into my first arts integration units. I was trying to figure out how to get my students interested in classic poetry and theater, and it wasn’t easy.
So during our poetry unit we studied performance artists, did choral readings of famous American poets, did a workshop with a guest writer, and eventually had our own slam. The kids shone. Quiet students became leaders. Classic poetry took on a new life.
During the theater unit I was able to bring in my cousin, a theater professional, to do theater games and warm-ups, teaching the kids to create silhouettes and themed statues, to warm up their bodies and voices, to explain the symbolic nature of movements and facial expressions. When we began to read Death of a Salesman, we started work on group performances of various scenes at the same time. Again, the kids shone. The play began to matter to them.
Student-created program for Death of a Salesman
Of course, at the time I didn’t know this was arts integration. I just wanted to find ways to engage my students and help them connect to our texts. I didn’t have a special system, or any particular training in how to do it. I began to build more units around what I called “showcase projects,” some kind of final performance, exhibition, or publication that would help motivate the class throughout our study of canonical texts.
Fast forward to now. I picked up a book last month called A Reason to Read, by Eileen Landay and Kurt Wootton, all about their incredible work founding and putting into action The Arts Literacy Project. While running the master of arts in teaching program at Brown, Eileen received a gift of funds to use to support her teachers in improving their pedagogy. She wanted to get students out of their seats and on their feet, and so began a new project to bring artists and teachers together in teaching core texts at the Brown summer lab school.
Eileen, and soon after, Kurt, watched how the teachers and artists worked together and how they were able to get students engaged and excited about their texts. Over the years they were able to identify stages in the most successful units, stages they named collectively as “the performance cycle.”
In this podcast episode, I’m talking to Eileen about their work. You’ll discover how to layer unit that help students connect to texts on a deeper level and get on their feet. You’ll learn about the performance cycle and find out where you can find activities for each part of it free online, as well as in this amazing book and in a soon-to-be-released follow-up book. You’ll find out about one of my favorite techniques from their book, literatura de cordel, and also how to create a classroom atmosphere so thick with creativity and words waiting to be written that students can’t wait to get their ideas onto paper.
I think you’re going to love what Eileen has to share about arts literacy. If you’ve ever struggled to get students excited about any of your core texts (and who hasn’t?), arts integration is a powerful tool you can start using immediately as you build your units.
How the ArtsLiteracy Project Began
After studying English at The Bread Loaf school and going on to get her PHD in education at Harvard, Eileen Landay began teaching at Brown. As part of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program, she was often out in schools, observing her teachers at work practicing their craft. Over time she noticed what a battle it was for them, no matter how hard they tried to engage her students. When her department chair ducked her head in one day and asked what she would do with some extra funding to create change in schools, she replied, “Get students out of their seat and on their feet!”
And so the ArtsLiteracy project was born.
Eileen began to invite visiting artists to Brown’s summer lab school, where Brown teaching students first begin their work in the classroom. Soon she joined forces with Kurt Wootton, and together they observed the collaborations between visiting artists and new teachers, watching how they approached teaching together and how they were able to get students up, moving, and engaged.
Over time Kurt noticed that the most successful collaborations had certain characteristics in common – a flexible pattern of main components, with a flexible set of activities inside them. Kurt and Eileen named this “the performance cycle.”
The Performance Cycle
The performance cycle has seven parts, but don’t be intimidated! You are probably doing many of these things already in any given unit, but this frame can be really helpful in rounding out what you’re already doing and adding rich additional elements. You can find activities for each part in the ArtsLiteracy Handbook online, as well as in Kurt and Eileen’s wonderful book.
The 7 Parts of the Cycle:
When students and teachers know each other and care about each other, every other part of the performance cycle becomes easier. Community building activities
like The Truth about Me
and The Human Atom
can make a real difference in the classroom environment. It’s easy to relegate icebreakers to the first two days of the year, but engaging students in understanding each other better throughout the year can bring their work to a deeper level, and help them to trust each other enough to share their gifts.
Entering text: The beginning of a unit is a great time to get students fired up for the task at hand, receptive to the new materials coming their way. Approaching the text through big essential questions that relate to students’ lives is a strong way to help them prepare to read. These questions can be brought up through the arts, through conversation, or through working with short, powerful portions of the text that’s coming.
In their book, Eileen and Kurt share the questions one teaching team developed for the entering text
portion of their study of The Outsiders
. “How is belonging to a group a good thing? A bad thing? Do we spend more time with people who are similar or different than us? Do we have a responsibility to leave a group or ‘snitch’ on them when we do something we disagree with? How far does loyalty go?”(22). Building strong connecting questions like these, as well as entering text activities
like call and response
, character journeys
, and found poetry
can help students begin to develop their interest in what’s coming when they read challenging texts.
Comprehending text: Comprehending text activities
are about showing students how to engage with the text on a deeper level. They may include an aspect of performance, giving students a chance to read and interpret a small section of text together before performing it back to the class, rather than doing a round robin read-aloud where students are reading text aloud to others that they may not understand or connect with yet. Collaborative text maps
, interpretation circles
, and alive reading
are a few interesting techniques you might like to add to your comprehending text toolkit.
In the creating text part of the cycle, students have a chance to respond to the big ideas of the text with their own stories. Eileen and Kurt lay out many possibilities for creating text in their book. “Their writing may take the form of a play script, poetry, analytical essay, personal narrative, or fiction. Writing may be personal, connecting the content of the text to students’ lives; analytical, critiquing the core text; aesthetic, using the text as a platform for inspiring artful response; or associative, comparing the central text to other texts or events occurring in the world beyond the text. Students may respond by using other symbol systems: a short film, a dance, a series of drawings or other types of visual art, or music” (25-26). By combining their own created texts with parts of the print text, students will eventually be able to create a final performance of some kind. Preparing for that performance – in whatever shape – helps to build a community with momentum throughout an arts integration unit. You can find more creating text activities here.
Students are far more likely to take the rehearsing and revising process seriously when their work will be performed or exhibited for a real audience. Rehearsing and revising activities
help students to continue developing and enriching their ideas and their work. They can be built into the process of creating text, including conversations about ideas, storyboarding of ideas, presenting prototypes for feedback, sketching artistic concepts, integrating mentor texts along the way and then improving work, etc.
The final performance aspect can take many forms. Students might perform a choral reading to their classmates. They might hang their work up on a cordel in the hallway (more on this coming below!). They might create a performance featuring many artistic interpretations of a piece and showcase it in front of the whole school. The point is, their investment along the way is all part of a crescendo leading to this final moment. Check out some of the performance ideas on the ArtsLiteracy project website
, though I bet you’ve got lots of ideas of your own already.
Reflection can take place throughout units as well as at the end. Reflection allows students to take a mindful approach toward their own learning, noticing how they are growing and approaching things in new ways. One helpful means of reflection is for students to answer questions from an audience at the time of performance, explaining how they developed their ideas and projects to their final form. But there are many more possibilities, which you can read about here
and in A Reason to Read.
Creating “Thick Air”
You know when you are just stuffed with ideas and you can’t wait to get them all down onto paper? This is what we want for our students when they begin to work on a final project. When they have explored essential questions and key parts of texts in a slew of different ways, when they have discussed and debated and shared, when they have drawn and acted and brainstormed, then the air is thick with ideas and writer’s block is a thing of the past. As Wootton and Landay put it in their book, “We must be much more creative in our teaching, because for students to create interesting work, they must be inspired. It is our job to light that initial spark by creating thick air through the range of materials, texts, and ideas we bring to the classroom environment” (123).
One of the beautiful ideas in A Reason to Read is to give kids many different ways to build up their ideas and their expression, formulating more complex ideas by experimenting with different mediums. “A layered experience is one in which the student’s work moves across expressive mediums and becomes increasingly complex. They began by drawing pictures of the characters they planned to include in their stories. Next, they chose and wrote down words to describe their images. Then they discussed their images and words in groups, modifying and revising their sketches and images as they continued” (148). When teachers build layering into the curriculum, writing takes on more depth and artistry in a natural process. It’s not about correcting a draft, it’s about enriching an idea.
Honoring all Students’ Abilities
One of the wonderful things about arts integration, is that it gives you a way to explore the talents and gifts of all students. One student may reveal her ability to draw landscapes and another his talent with wood as the class prepares a set for a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Students who struggle to sit still to take notes or who are naturally shy and loathe discussion might shine choreographing a short dance interpretation of a Hughes poem. A straight C student might end up leading the way reaching out to the community to find local exhibition spaces for a final project. Similarly, building in layering, performance, and artistic interpretation can often help English language learners to build their confidence in class.
Avoiding “Hand Turkey Art Projects”
Sometimes crafts get confused with art. Landay and Wootton remind us as educators to take care to distinguish between the two. If the project is for students to create an exact replica of the teacher-created example, then it’s not really a creative project, it’s a craft. Across the U.S., schools feature the handprint outlines of young children, decorated with eyes, mouths, and some coloring to make strings of hand turkeys in November. Can you imagine the creativity students would bring to a project like that if they were invited to use art materials to create turkeys? Or to choreograph turkey dances? Or to write short plays featuring turkeys as their characters? It’s important to remember to throw out the box when it comes to defining the characteristics of a project – let students shine.
My 2nd grader’s turkey from when he was three. Though I must admit, we’ve done hand turkeys too, and I see
I was fairly liberal with my prescriptive feather outlines.
La Literatura de Cordel
Literatura de Cordel
is a beautiful way to exhibit student work as well as to share and discuss texts.
Says Eileen of the roots of this form in Brazil, “People would write poems or short books, and they would take them to the marketplace and they would hang them on, what is in effect, a clothesline. And other people would come along and buy those. And the idea of original work kind of hanging, available for other people to see and do things with… we’ve done so much with the idea of the cordel.”
For example, Eileen was teaching a picture book called My people, by Gordon Parks, a combination of short poems and photos of people’s faces. She xeroxed the book and put up the pictures and poems on a cordel in the classroom, then invited the students to get out of their seats and circulate and look carefully at the pictures, then choose one and take it off and take it back to their seats with a partner and sit down and talk about it or write a response.
You can use the cordel to put up student work, to combine student work with other people’s work, to create an installation that leads into discussion, writing, or performance, to show thematic connections across many types of mediums. The cordel can be a permanent fixture in your classroom, and/or in your school hallways. Simply string a rope or wire between two hooks or other objects in your classroom, or create a zigzag pattern down the wall. Remember to use it to show work that draws people to interact with it (vocabulary quizzes, etc. don’t really work here!).
There are hundreds of ways you could use the cordel. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!
Ready to learn more?
Get Help bringing ArtsLiteracy to your School:
(The ArtsLiteracy Project program in Mexico)