Susan Riley | September 2013

What Does Authentic Really Mean?

It was one of those days.

Everything was due by 3PM: a board presentation, a space reservation, 3 meetings, and a technology help session.  My head was spinning and at just that moment, I received one of many phone calls I typically receive. The one involving someone asking for more information about Arts Integration.  While I usually try to schedule these into my day, this phone call was impromptu and I was caught off-guard.  Though I was happy to answer some questions, I found myself going on autopilot. I found myself answering the familiar questions with the answers I know so well.  Questions like:

“What is Arts Integration?”

“Why is this effective?”

“Is there any data to support this approach?”

“Why can’t the arts stand alone?”

…these are all inquiries that are familiar to me.  One of my “standard” answers is Arts Integration provides authentic connections between the fine arts and other content areas.  I must have responded with this word many times during that conversation because the person finally asked me,

“What does authentic really mean?” 

…which stopped me in my tracks.

The person on the other end was right – too often we use this word in a backhanded way. Implying something of significance, but truly only skimming the surface.  In terms of Arts Integration, I believe it to be a word of great importance to holding onto the fidelity of the Art form we are integrating while at the same time using that Art as the avenue to building meaningful, personal connections to learning with our students.  But if we constantly use that word throughout a conversation, does it still hold its power? Or, does it become just another flowery term without substance?

Authenticity’s Name-Brand

One of the reasons people become skeptical of Arts Integration is because the authentic connections are missing in a lesson.  By simply pairing a cute song with math facts, we’re just enhancing the ability of our students to retain rote information.  Or by forcing our students to use dance as a medium to learning to read more fluently without an explicit understanding and application of a dance standard, the lesson feels awkward and contrived.

Authenticity in Arts Integration means that you are making intentional and natural connections between the arts standard and the content standard.  This requires dialogue between the arts specialist in your school and the content area teacher – we can’t expect our teachers to find and describe those connections by themselves.  Additionally, an Arts Integrated lesson moves seamlessly between using the skill of the art form and applying it to the content area standard to create and learn something new in a deeper and more intentional way.

Arts Integration: An Authentic Education

Arts Integration is a strategy that can have a significant impact on the way our students learn, access and apply knowledge, concepts and skills if it is done with this definition of authenticity.  Without it, we are merely providing a cheap experience disguised in a name-brand package.  Let’s aim to always provide an intentional and meaningful connective experience for our students that maintains the integrity of both standards.  Only then can we start being “real” with what the arts can do for our students.

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About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan