What is True Arts Integration?

When I hear that teachers are integrating the arts into their teaching, I am excited for them and their students. What a wonderful opportunity they have to learn the required curriculum AND learn more about an art form. However, this is not always the case.

I must warn you now that I’m going to be brutally honest here, but stick with me, please. 🙂

Arts integration doesn’t mean you ask students to draw their favorite part of a story and hang it on the wall. Arts integration doesn’t mean students learn the names of the states and capitals by singing and memorizing a song. (I know, I know, many of you probably do this… please, stay with me!)

What TRUE integration is, is when you put an equal amount of weight into your preparation, work with and use of the art.

True Arts Integration is when you keep to the integrity of the art.

Earlier this week, Rachel Evans reminded us that the arts don’t provide us with a “free ride” and that we need to think about how to assess students in the arts. Assessment is something we think about after a project, yes, but we also should keep the end in mind.

So, I ask you, “Why do you want to integrate the arts into your teaching?” “What are you trying to accomplish?” If it’s just a nice thing to do or something to take up a little time, then you are not truly integrating.

Instead, teaching with the arts and through the arts should be something that has meaning for you and your students.

Here’s an example: When I integrate music into my classroom, I am teaching students as much about the music and its meaning to us as I am using music to help us write great poems and stories. Students first experience the music (one song for one week), then they are ready to use those experiences to develop their writing skills. (For more information, see Inspired by Listening.)

On a personal note, you must know that I do those things mentioned above too. I’m not saying those ideas are bad. I’m saying they are not a means of true arts integration. It takes effort to truly integrate the arts into your teaching and your students’ learning. And, in the classroom there are always the limitations and pressures of time, space and, let’s face it, testing. But it is possible to start small, make it more of a habit, and work your way into more and more integration so that it becomes part of the culture of your classroom.

Let’s take the drawing idea. This is something very basic that so many teachers do – and that’s ok! But to make it true integration you must put a purpose to the visual and use it in follow up:

  • Before assigning the illustration to be made, explain your purpose. Example: “The main character in the story has conflicting feelings. You are going to draw an illustration of how the character feels at this point in the story. You may use any medium you desire as long as your illustration is flat and fits on this size paper…” You may want to explain due dates, other parameters and any other timelines or available resources.
  • Students are given ample time to work on this illustration. They are not rushed or asked to do it only when they are done with other work. Rather, the illustration is expected to be worked on, thought-through and edited.
  • When students have completed their work, it is given attention. Students might share their work with others in small groups. They may write an accompanying reflection about their work, their thought process and their experience.
  • These pieces may then be displayed in the room or in the school. You may want to scan them or take pictures of them to include in a classroom or school newsletter or website.
  • Other students may be invited to respond to the students’ artwork, creating a community of thoughtful, collaborative peers.

In this example, students are really focusing not only on their interpretations of the story and main character but are making clear decisions in the art process – a LEARNING process. It’s not about drawing a quick picture to accompany a story, but it is about a learner making connections with what he or she is learning!

This is an idea that nearly ANY teacher can utilize. There are so many ideas and ways to integrate other art forms into your teaching. The arts include poetry, music, movement, dance, drama, storytelling, visual and media. Keep in mind that collaborating with other teachers, other arts teachers or specialist teachers, and artists is a great way to develop meaningful and wonderful integration experiences for you and your students.


Are you ready to give the same amount of time to the artform you will give the other content area? Are you willing to let your students experience the art in order to deepen their understanding of both the art and the content area? If yes, then great! You’re on your way to true integration!


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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of www.theinspiredclassroom.com. She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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  1. Victoria riehle says:

    I agree with you. I am an advocate for the arts and an art and music teacher. I am an older generation teacher, or shall I say well seasoned, and still struggle with teachers who rule their classroom by the bell. I would and have stated so, be more than willing to come into classrooms and come up with diverse ways of presentation, participation, and assessment. The schedule and the bell win every time. I have learned that until teachers understand that learning is not linear and on a time restraint, integration if even used will only exist for a short amount of time. Open the doors, forget about the bell, let multiple subjects happen at one time and watch the light bulbs go off!

  2. Great examples! In our district’s general education curriculum, there are lots of “arts integration” activities that leave much to be desired. In a lot of cases, there are bad examples of drawing activities such as the ones you mentioned. The music integration activities are songs with lyrics about the subject (e.g. life cycle of a butterfly)set to tunes like Old McDonald. The lyrics don’t fit, the words are usually WAY above the reading level of the kids… and that’s it! Ugh.

    Thanks for sharing your examples!

  3. Dawn says:

    Great article! I am excited to know there is dialogue happening about truly integrating arts into the curriculum. I might suggest the possibility of taking this lesson even a little further. There is so much more that could be done by truly integrating the art. This is a perfect opportunity to introduce the elements of art and perhaps discussing the connection between color and meaning, which could most definitely be emphasized in a lesson such as this. This way the students are making sound decisions based on artistic principles which, in turn, are easily assessable. It also gives the students new information not only on how to look at art but how and why it art is made. Lets keep the dialogue going!!

  4. Thank you for your comments, ladies!

    Victoria – I understand your frustration. Time, space, assessments, they do seem to always win out. It will only be when we have the guts to follow our hearts with what we KNOW as right, that true integrated learning will occur. Collaboration is key. We cannot all be experts at everything and we have to allow other teachers into our spaces. Sounds like you have tried and felt the push back… sad, but true the bell often wins out. We must stay strong in our efforts, though! 😉

    I know what you are talking about, Michelle. I see it all the time. I try to look at it as a first step toward integration: the desire is there, but the skills may be lacking. Again, the concept of collaborating and seeking out the expertise of another person can be the key.

    Dawn, you present the perfect example of how working together you can only improve your ideas. Mine only went so far, but you brought to my attention the focus of color and design. Often those ideas will not come to me at first, but then evolve as the lesson progresses. Many times, a student will bring up those perspectives: a great example of a community of learners.

    I agree – let’s keep this conversation going!

  5. Kebby says:

    Thank you for yet another great article. I have shared many of them with others. I am the owner of a private children’s art studio and I volunteer whenever possible to coordinate and brainstorm curriculum enhancement with art techniques and ideas to all of our local schools. I feel that it is the least I can do to share the importance of art education and keeping the creative process alive in our schools. Thanks again for a great topic.

  6. Wow, Kebby, that is very cool. What state/district are you in? I’m curious how you have been given that opportunity to work with your schools so closely. Do you also work in the system as a teaching artist?

    Kudos to you for the work you are doing! 🙂

  7. David Helton says:

    I am looking for any information on how some are using the related arts, such as art, music and physical education to help raise test scores? Teachers that are trying to support core curriculum through related arts. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

    • Well, you have come to the right place! That is what we are all about here at The Inspired Classroom. For starters you may want to check out the Resources tab on this website. There are articles and books that may be helpful. I am always looking to be in contact with teachers who are interested in arts integration and need a direction. You may email me anytime. (Look under the About tab.)

  8. David Helton says:

    Mrs. Peterson, I am a high school teacher and really trying to get related arts involved in increasing student achievement. I see the need as a physical education teacher to do what I can to try and assist the core classes in student achievement. I understand the idea of bringing music in to help with student achievement.
    Are you aware of what others might be doing, ideas that might help me. I am thinking of having a focus friday where all the related arts teachers have their students write a persuasive writing. I would provide a rubric and some basic information on how they should guide the writings.
    What do you think? I would like to incorporate some math into the focus fridays as well. I am trying to help drive home some important concepts that students need to master and also need to know for life and the state test.
    Any ideas?

    David Helton
    Sale Creek High School
    Sale Creek, Tn

  9. Wow, David, Sounds like you are really working hard to do some great integration at your school!

    Are you choosing persuasive writing because that is what they need to do in their testing? How many persuasive pieces would a student be expected to write on the Focus Friday? Would they have enough time?

    Here is a brainstorm of ideas for you:
    ~Students could write persuasives on why (or why not) they should be allowed to have arts classes in school.
    ~write about their thoughts on a particular piece of art/music, why it should be in a museum/allowed in school/listened to by all, etc.
    ~Maybe they could just plan a persuasive during their time with you and then discuss their plans.
    ~Or they could discuss them a little bit as a whole class or in small groups and then plan one.

    I think it’s great that you are willing to give a some of your class time to work towards a school goal. I like the idea of giving students a rubric. Does it align with how your state grades the essays? You may want to proved students with a planning outline as well. Maybe there is already one that they use in their LA classes.

    And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the work you already do in your related arts classes is ultra important for prepping your students for testing. The release of stress, movement activities they can do when they need a stretching break but can’t get up, motivating music that will get their minds pumping, the use of visual aids to help them illustrate their thoughts and plans as they work. The list could go on.

    I hope this was somewhat helpful. Please write back and let me know how things go!

  10. Susan Riley says:

    I know this is a bit late in coming, but David – sometimes related arts teachers are more hesitant to try arts integration than the general ed teachers out of fear. They fear that arts integration will take over their positions when in fact, they become more valuable. So whenever I work with related arts teachers (and I am one by training), I always come from the vantage point that they are invaluable to the whole arts integration process and we couldn’t do it without them.

    Elizabeth – I am in love with this website! As you know, arts integration is a crucial component to our goal for 21st century learning. The resources you provide here are tremendous! I am planning on linking to you from my blog (http://educationcloset.com) that I write on how to start arts integration programs within schools. Together, we can make this process really take hold for our students!

  11. Susan Riley says:

    Sean – we have used so many of your ideas in our classrooms at my school! In fact, your DVD and workbooks on using drama – tableau, the actor’s toolbox, etc – were essential to our teachers when they first started in AI. THANK YOU for your work! Your article posted above is just scratching the surface of what you can teach us all!

  12. Stacey Fijalkowski says:

    Working in a middle school can present a number of challenges on any given day, just like settings for all levels of education! But, one of the major challenges I face each day is my schedule. I typically see nearly 100 students a day for an hour of language arts instruction. Gone are the days of the reading block or the writing block- it’s all lumped together in one “literacy” block as I’ve come to call it. The Workshop model fits the kind of appreciation and time on learning the art form that this article highlights so well. I have to be run by a bell- but I don’t let it beat me! If I stick to 10-15 minutes of direct instruction and let the students “get messy” with trying, failing, succeeding, and discussing )practice) the work they are being immersed in, allowing the last 10-15 minutes to debrief, students really get an opportunity to be fully engaged with what they are doing while understanding WHY they are doing it! I feel that the Workshop model will be key in learning how to delve deeper in the teaching of the art forms. If anyone else has any magical tricks they use for one hour classes, I’d love to hear!

    • Stacey, I remember when I first started teaching MS music (going from 2nd grade classroom), one of my biggest challenges was fitting everything into the 45 minutes I had with each class. I think you are right on target with how you split up your time. I LOVE that you say you “let the kids get ‘messy’ “. That is a huge key to their learning, isn’t it? I can tell you provide a great learning atmosphere for your kids. Arts integration surely will (as it may already) surely fit right in!

  13. Mary Linda Krikorian says:

    Stacey, I totally understand the challenge of seeing so many kiddos in one day. My classes are 40 minutes long, one right after the other. I could use some helpful hints as well. By the end of the day, I am exhausted…reflecting on the day’s lessons and hoping that tomorrow I’ll do better.

    I am my worst critic. So, it sure helps to collaborate in this way. I would love to have the opportunity to observe other teachers and see how they manage their time.
    I know I wasn’t helpful here, but if you pick up any tips, send ’em over my way. I would surely appreciate it. And I will do the same.

  14. Kenzi Kelly says:

    Hello! I love your website! I am currently in my last semester to become a teacher and I was curious if I could use your picture for my arts integration senior thesis project. It would greatly help! Thanks.

  15. Stacie says:

    The drawing lesson described here reminds me of an art project I learned about when student teaching that I practiced with my reading groups called an Open Mind Portrait. I have a pic of one, maybe I could post it on our fb page? It usually involves a side-view portrait of a book character that is drawn in, with a mirror reflection on the other side of the paper that is an outline filled in with all the words that character might have been thinking at the moment in the story.
    I agree that these kinds of lessons develop and become more rich over time and with experience, and that this growth can come from ourselves, colleagues and students.

  16. Becky says:

    I guess I have a little bit different take on this article. I am all for true arts integration, but because I started out a few years back not really knowing what it meant and probably being one of those teachers using it in a more superficial way, I have understanding and sympathy for teachers who overcome whatever obstacles/fear they have about using the arts in the classroom. I took an AI class with Elizabeth a few years back and have since been trying to integrate the different arts in my teaching. I know that I have made many mistakes and not used true arts integration at points, but I think it is important to try. Isn’t that how we learn? I know my teaching has definitely evolved because of my attempts at arts integration.

  17. MaryLinda Krikorian says:

    Reading through these articles and the comments by all of you teachers really helps me realize that I am soooo not alone. It is one of my promises to myself to tap in here on a more regular basis to keep my planning fresh and my spirits high! Thank You!!

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