Michelle Simmons | April 2018

Nature of the Beast: Looming Assessments

If you are in a school this time of year, you will undoubtedly hear testing terms swirling around. It’s the nature of the beast. Like death and taxes, we know that state testing is inevitable. We have to get ready for these assessments… But who says that has to be through the old school “drill and kill” tactics?  I find that this time of year is the perfect time to incorporate STEAM lessons.

When I first started teaching, I would reteach the standard using the same delivery method as the initial instruction. This was usually done through lecturing and possibly incorporating a video. After two years of this, I could clearly see that this was not working. The data did not support my efforts and the kids started to hate coming to my class. Thankfully, this is about the time I was introduced to Arts Integration.  

The year after I attended my first Arts Integration conference, I was sitting down with my data. And I was facing the same dilemma I had in years past. There were students who clearly hadn’t understood the topic the first time. And then there were others who were not able to apply the skills. My driving question became: how can I reteach these standards and have them really stick?

Testing the Waters

One of the first lessons I did was a science, literature, and sculpture mix. With a unit about constellations, students were immersed in text features, inferencing, greek mythology, and summarizing. The students chose a constellation that they found interesting.

After researching their story of “How they got in the sky,” they wrote summaries of the story.  Summarizing is an extremely hard skill and heavily tested for third grade. They then had to build a model of their constellation out of toothpicks and marshmallows. The marshmallows represented the main stars of the constellations. Students then used pictures of the constellations in the sky, as well as drawings of the constellation, to build these sculptures.

If you have spent any time looking at the stars, you know that constellations are a tricky thing to find.  This is especially so for little ones! So, this took a lot of complex thinking on their part. When their sculpture was finished, they used it to make a spread of text features. Each sculpture had to have an interesting title, a caption, and a “map” of it in the sky.

The way kids will immerse themselves in topics is truly amazing. I’ve done this same lesson a couple of times and find that the kids love the process of this unit. Sculpture is a great tactile way for the little ones to show their understanding. (An added plus is that they get to eat a few marshmallows!)

Diving in Deeper

After a couple of years of “dabbling” with Arts Integration, I was finally feeling confident in its place in my classroom. When reviewing, I want to use a lesson that is going to give me the most bang for my buck. In other words, I want to review a lot of my standards in a short amount of time.


By using Chinese culture and stories in my fifth grade classroom, I blended a variety of ELA and art standards. This lesson was truly mind blowing in the way the students responded.

“Reading art” was the way we began the lesson. To read art, the children used critical thinking to find the theme in various Chinese art prints. They had to use evidence from the art to prove what their theme was. For instance, while looking at the image of the cherry blossoms, one student brought out the theme “life”. The justification he gave was that the jagged branches show the ups and downs of life, the flowers symbolize the good moments, and the darkness of the branches symbolize the “dark” moments in our life.  

This discussion allowed for me to bring in various Speaking and Listening Standards. We were able to debate as a class about the theme, mood, and tone. I was awed by the way the students talked and “disagreed” with each other. So often, I feel like kids don’t know how to disagree without an argument starting, so we thoroughly discussed debate rules before we started. It was very powerful to see them acknowledge one person’s idea and then say “but this is what I see”. More often than not, they would both agree that the evidence for both themes was present in the art.

Next, the children chose a theme to represent based on a Chinese symbol. After choosing their symbol, they illustrated that theme on 4 panels of parchment paper to create a lantern. Afterwards, they had to write a reflection and prove how their art represented their chosen theme.

There were so many standards that we covered throughout this lesson that I did not even plan on teaching. Which is one of the reasons that I love Arts Integration! The kids take you in so many directions through their creativity that you could never plan for.

Take Away

  • I think one of the easiest starting points in designing a review unit is to look at cultures – Asian, South American, African, etc. I find children are truly fascinated by different cultures and different ways of life. The culture can be your door to numerous standards.
  • Reading Art is a fast and quick way to incorporate Reading, Language, Speaking and Listening and visual art standards in the classroom. It is also a wonderful way to teach proper debate skills in older children.

I strongly suggest you to use the Arts to review your standards. Not only does it allow you to go deep with your standards; it also keeps your students engaged when spring fever hits!

About the Author

Michelle is a 5th grade ELA teacher in Pensacola, Florida. Originally from Mississippi, she has over seven years of experience in grades 2nd - 5th. She holds a Education Specialist Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Delta State University. Michelle is an avid lover of the arts and believes in using them as a gateway to broaden her students' understanding and compassion.