I’m happy to bring you this article from a dear colleague of mine who works hard to always bring wonderful arts integrated lessons into her classroom.  This is a great reflection of her journey this year and hopes for the next.  ~EMP

“Mrs. Mitchell, what colors should I use?”   I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  A beautiful, blank project awaiting embellishment and choice lay before them and they needed direction on exactly what paint colors to use and where.  At this moment, I felt panicked, guilty and reawakened, again.

I have pondered this powerful moment many times in my mind since it has happened and while I am not grateful that this interaction took place, it has brought forth to light once more how important arts integration is in our classrooms.   My Third Grade classroom is not unlike many others.  We start off the year with the best of intentions and all too soon, the reality of what is before us blocks our paths and prohibits freedom of choice, freedom of thinking and truly prevents  critical 21st Century Skills on a consistent, ongoing basis.    When our Arts Integration group (PLaiC) met at the beginning of the year, these were ideas that were weighing on all of our minds collectively.    Again, not that I am grateful that everyone is experiencing the same, but, I was happy to also know that I was not alone in my thinking.

My Third Grade class learned the multiplication tables this year and as a way to extend this learning, they learned how to draw multiplication fact stars.   These stars are quite intricate and call upon the students to be exact in their work or as referred to in the Common Core State Math Standards, “precision”.    I have found that these stars provide a new motivator for learning multiplication facts – if a student misses a math fact or does not do one correctly, their star will not be produced in the way the student hopes it will.      I have witnessed my most reluctant students persevere and try again and again to perfect their creations.    I have used the visual arts in my classroom in the development of these stars and we have also created these stars as a whole class using string so that a kinesthetic component is involved as well.

The arts are more than just window dressing and making the classroom look pretty.    There are powerful learning objectives and messages behind each artistic activity that is done.    This is the place where it is acceptable for students to take risks, think outside the box and try something new that they didn’t think they could do before.   It is an opportunity for students to make their thinking visible and appreciated by their peers in all new ways.  It breaks down barriers between students.  Even those students who are most challenged by academic expectations become truly a part of the classroom experience alongside their peers.

Artistic experiences are not instant.    Working on an art project is a process that takes time and in our society of ever increasing instant gratification, this experience provides students with a unique opportunity to sustain focus for a prolonged period of time which will (hopefully!) carry over to other areas of the curriculum.   A colleague of mine emerges her students in “Studio Days” – these are whole days completely devoted to the artistic process from start to finish.   What a satisfying, valuable life lesson these students are learning during this experience.  It is one that I am committing to making more time for in the years to come.

What often strikes me as I watch my students work on an artistic piece or project is their attention to, or lack of attention to, detail.   This is a unique opportunity for me to observe their thinking in new ways.    This is also a time when I can push students further by asking them to add more detail or, ensuring that there is a background.   Integrating the arts is the perfect place for our students to go deeper with their thinking and many times, surprise themselves with what they are able to do!    For those reluctant students, the arts is a place where they can gain renewed interest in the academic experience.

Many times as teachers, we often will think to ourselves that we do not have time to tackle an art project.    However, with the innovation, collaboration and forward thinking our students will be faced with, we cannot afford not to take this time.   Perhaps then, my students will look at a blank project needing embellishment and will go forth with confidence, skill and take it into directions that we never dreamed possible.

Amy Mitchell is an inspired Third Grade teacher and mother of two.