To me, integrating the arts in education, using the arts as a vehicle for learning, is one of the most important educational goals for our time. The arts demonstrate, on one hand, the shared experience of humanity, and, on the other hand, the intricate, subtle traditions and arts human beings use to express their experiences. The arts will never be frills, except to those who have blinded themselves to the richness and variety of human life. Teaching through the arts means challenging children to use their learning in a creative context. It is more than asking them to glue goldfish they have colored onto a piece of paper to demonstrate the number five. I am embarrassed to admit that at one time I used to do this type of activity. I have since learned otherwise.
My arts expertise is in music, having spent many grueling hours in theory class. Usually, preschool has music/movement pull-outs. Either the music teacher comes in and gives a “lesson”, usually singing children’s songs; sometimes using children’s instruments. Or, in tonier settings, the children troop to the music room for a lesson. I was a teacher in both types of settings. Nothing is intrinsically wrong with these, except for those programs where only children whose parents pay extra get music class (I kid you not!). Children enjoy these opportunities, and get a taste of making music. Always a good thing! But if this is all that is offered in a program, everyone is missing out. Here is the definition of arts integration by the Kennedy Center’s CETA program, Changing Education through the Arts.
Take a close look at this language! “…students construct and demonstrate UNDERSTANDING through an art form. Students engage in a CREATIVE PROCESS which CONNECTS an art form and another subject area and meets EVOLVING OBJECTIVES in both.” I love the phrase EVOLVING OBJECTIVES. Nothing is static in the real world. People everywhere know this. Children and teachers need to be involved in passionate work that progresses and evolves. As a friend says, change is the only constant in life. Objectives may need to be met, but they don’t have to be the stopping point.
While working with brilliant young children (they are brilliant, you know), I would supply instruments to explore. I noticed that the children tried every way possible to make sound and silence with an instrument, say, a drum. Thoughtfully rotating a drum to explore its many surfaces, a child might try beating the side, the top, and even inside the drum to make different sounds. I would ask how the sounds were the same or different. How can you change the sound? Describe the sounds involved. With a small group of young children, there will be a lively debate! Oral language integrated! Make instruments available on a regular basis. Find those that reflect different traditions. Be available for support, and children will maintain interest. What matters is that a child is learning to think, to develop hypotheses, and to test those hypotheses.
Provide cans, oatmeal containers, and other objects. Even paper plates and toilet paper tubes can be made into shakers. Use these as an art activity. Let children choose what they want to make and provide the adhesives, rubber bands and the like for them to make it. Ask them questions about how they want it to sound You may hear, “I wanted it LOUD!” That is an excellent intention! Timpanists have the same desire. Length of a tone demonstrates vibration. I have a Tibetan Singing Bowl which rings into eternity. Children count as the tone continues, to “measure” the sound. Math integrated! Ringing it for them, I encouraged them to try “stoppring the vibration”. They learn that a firm hand hold stops it, and that vibration can be felt. Science integrated! When children begin to recognize different pitches as associated with length or size of the part of the instrument (eg. different bars on a xylophone) they are learning even more science.
Then, during centers, we put out instruments, both child-made and manufactured, in a designated music area and encouraged them to bring their own creations to the center! Perhaps we would play something lively, such as Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer. My advice is to ditch the kiddie songs, and give them more interesting sounds to play along with. Children organize themselves, and cooperate like pros when playing music. Exuberant musicians; exemplary behavior. It’s worth it to cooperate when you are making music.
Administrators and the public do not always see the value in this type of work (don’t get me started!). So referring to standards in documentation is imperative! The above activities address standards in Virginia’s Foundation Blocks for Early Learning, a document that advises standards for children four years old. I, and other teachers, would document projects, and used pictures of children doing every phase of the work. Then we would write teacher reflections, including observational notes and quotes from the children as they were playing with the instruments. This gives the children a voice, and demonstrates the amazing variety of their responses. Parents love to read these and see the children they know and love being who they are in school (“That sounds like her!”). Documentation isn’t just advertising. Displaying documentation gives children a sense of where they have been, and suggests possible paths forward, providing a powerful motivator for children’s further creativity.
Integrating music, in particular, into your curriculum, and teaching through the arts in general, takes some time and effort. Be patient with yourself. Try these ideas out tiny piece by piece. Take some arts integration workshops for your Professional Development hours. Here in the DC area, the Kennedy Center workshops are ridiculously inexpensive. There are other programs, all over the country. I’ve referenced a few here, and here. Finding support is crucial to making change. Meet with like minds in your area, or find a social media group that supports teachers learning to integrate the arts. This path will make your work infinitely more satisfying, and the children will reap the benefits.