Susan Riley | September 2013

Who Exactly Does the Integrating?

Walk into any fine arts classroom, and I can guarantee you that there will be certain items present: the artistic tools they use in their craft, a behavior system of some sort, organizational tools for students, and a large quantity of vocabulary, posters, and items that demonstrate they are connecting to other content areas.  Right now, many fine arts teachers are making sure they are including Common Core standards and “I Can” statements in their plan books and on their boards.  But how often do you see fine arts concepts, vocabulary, or standards peppering any content area classroom?

A high-quality, authentic arts integration lesson is one where the content and fine arts standards are being taught and assessed equitably and seamlessly together.  But, WHO exactly does the integrating?  

Is the expectation that the fine arts teacher is embedding and integrating other content standards in and through their lessons?  Or, should the integration be happening in the general education classroom through the intentional integration of the fine arts?

This is an essential question for anyone looking to use arts integration as a strategy for improvement and equity for all students.  And while many different interpretations exist for the arts integration approach, I always advocate for the purest implementation that holds true to the integrity of integration itself.  In my definition of arts integration, the fine arts teachers are spending their time teaching the essential skills and processes of the arts themselves.  The integration of these skills and processes occur within the general education classroom as an avenue to access, interpret and apply other content areas.

Integrating the Why

Why should you consider using this interpretation?  First, you can’t have any semblance of an arts integration initiative if you are limiting the fine arts themselves.  Classroom teachers do not have the capacity to explicitly teach the intricate skills and processes of the fine arts themselves, nor should they!  Classroom teachers need to focus their energy of using what students already know in these areas to make meaningful and deep connections through their own curriculum.  Fine arts teachers are highly-qualified to teach and assess students in these essential knowledge and artistic processes and this must be their main focus.

This does not mean, however, that arts teachers should not have an understanding of other curriculum initiatives, practices, or standards. Instead, they should be able to use the knowledge of these items to inform their own teaching practice and make connections when appropriate.  But to be clear – arts teachers need to focus on teaching their art to students and spend their time committed to this process.  Without this, any arts integration initiative will fail.

The other factor to consider in using this approach is the data that supports the importance of bringing the integration into the general education classroom.  When students have time to devote to art for arts sake, and can then take their knowledge and skills of the arts and apply them intentionally in and through other curriculum areas, they flourish.  This is because they have the foundational abilities to exercise their creative brain and then allow those muscles to work across contents.

Moving the Shift

How do you know when this critical shift has happened?  You can be confident that arts integration is happening with integrity when you begin to see

  • a more equitable use of arts terminology and standards being included in the general classroom
  • when classroom teachers are actively seeking out arts teachers to learn more about their scope and sequence for the year
  • when collaborative planning includes the fine arts teachers, if not regularly, then at least when it’s possible.

Once these actions begin to rise to the surface, you’ll also see another trend: students who are more passionate, committed, and have more stamina for their work.  Because in the end, the people who do the best integrating are the students themselves.

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