Educators need to do more than teach; they need to create experiences for their students. Experiences are what make learning come alive. Let’s face it, experiences are what life is made of and what we need to emphasize in our classrooms if we are to teach the whole child. The arts provide a wonderful way to bring experiences into your teaching.

Creating, acting, playing, listening, performing, molding, dancing: these are all ways to bring the arts into your teaching and when you take the time to stop and really focus on these, you are allowing your students to share in an experience and amazing things can happen in your classroom.

There are two main ways to allow for experiences in your teaching: teacher-led and student-led. Both are effective, both are important, and both need to live in harmony with one another to truly have a well-rounded curriculum.

Teacher-Led Experiences

It’s important for teachers to lead students through the creative process through art making. This is one way students learn: FROM us. We may assign a project, teach a process or skill, or create a time for students to share in collaborative creation.

When I was a novice teacher, experimenting with art integration, I focused on what I loved—music. I allowed time during our day to listen to music together. This method of music integration through listening experiences is something I still do with my students every day. It’s an enjoyable time for us to share ideas about the music and discuss our interpretations of it. I ask my students guiding questions that will help them to listen more carefully and enjoy the experience more with each listening. From time to time, these shared experiences are used to enrich other parts of our curriculum. For example, if we are about to write some poetry or a narrative, we could use the music we are listening to as inspiration.

Another example of a teacher-led experience would be to accompany a book review with a piece of artwork. This artwork should not just be a simple picture that is tagged on at the end of the paper, but a well thought-out illustration. A clear purpose would be given to the assignment, for example, “The main character in the story has conflicting feelings. You are going to draw an illustration of how the character feels at some point in the story. You may use any medium you desire as long as your illustration is flat and fits on this size paper.” Then ample time needs to be given so that students can really work on and edit their work. There is also the opportunity to draw attention to students’ use of color, design, and setting and to emphasize the importance of details in their work.

With teacher-led experiences, you are exposing students to new things and rounding them out as individuals. My students become well-versed in Beethoven and Glenn Miller, they also become comfortable splattering a little paint. This may mean that some of them are working out of their comfort zone. That’s OK! Allowing for this time and giving students these experiences is what students will remember and take with them for years to come.

Student-Led Experiences

Think of the times when students are asked to express their learning through a medium they choose. Maybe they want to create a paper-mache relief map for geography, perform a skit to retell a story, or write a song about erosion. These types of experiences are student-led, giving students a chance to explore something they choose.

I have had students come up to me and express an interest in putting on a play about Martin Luther King Jr. The topic and the art form were interests for this group of girls. My job wasn’t to provide them with a script and a plan, instead it was to give them the space, time, and encouragement they needed.

Sometimes it can be hard to allow students to take the reigns or to give that extra attention or time to stop and listen to their ideas, but we have to do it. Our job is to foster their curiosity and creativity and allowing them to take the lead on their learning every so often is a must!

Student-led experiences allow the students to explore what they know, learn what they are comfortable with, and give them a chance to challenge themselves as creative beings. We can’t possibly be experts on all our students. We need to empower them with the trust that they will do what is right for them from time to time.

It’s with a balance of teacher- and student-led experiences that a students’ whole self is nourished. In what ways do you create these experiences for your students?

This post was originally submitted to the ASCD Whole Child blog by Elizabeth M. Peterson in 2010.  To read the archived post, please click this link: Creating Experiences Through the Arts