The Power of the Arts


Catalyst and integrator across the curriculum

By Wayne W. Sheridan

“The importance of the arts in the classroom cannot be over emphasized,” observes Amy MacDonald, award-winning children’s author, teacher, and Creative Writing fellow and workshop leader for grades one through five at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

“It is not just an ‘add on.’ This is especially true for kids who learn, who take in information differently, and who may not respond to more traditional methods of teaching.”

Amy adds, “As a teaching artist visiting schools, when I use movement or drama to teach writing, I see kids spring out of their chairs to participate. It is not uncommon for the classroom teacher to confide afterwards that these are the kids who seldom volunteer or speak in class.”

Today’s Catholic Teacher interviewed teachers and other educational professionals in schools across the country to see how the broad spectrum of the arts are being used and could be further implemented as educational catalysts and integrators in grammar and high schools.

The arts “energize and encourage” students

St. Genevieve Elementary and High Schools in Panorama City, California (SGPS.org), have a commitment to the arts to help their students in all grades find their individual voices, acknowledge who they are, and discover how they can present themselves to the world.
“We have no formal written policy. However, we do strongly encourage all our students to participate in the arts in all forms,” says Amanda Allen, executive director of the St. Genevieve schools. “We use the arts to energize our students and encourage them in all their schoolwork and self-development. We consistently encourage all our teachers to use the arts as integral to their teaching, no matter what the subject or the grade level. Music, dance, visual arts, drawing, and creative writing are all parts of the resources used by our teachers in kindergarten through second grade. A more formal approach to the arts starts in the second and third grades where students begin to use instruments and are encouraged to participate in the many arts activities outside the formal classroom.”

Marilyn Tran, assistant executive director at St. Genevieve, has experienced the power of the arts not only as an educator, but as a parent as well: “I was a bit worried when my daughter started school at St. Genevieve as a kindergartner. She was not a natural joiner and a bit shy. I thought she might resist going. But then she quickly took a liking to all the arts integrated into the teaching in the early grades at St. Genevieve. They seemed to be the prime motivators for her to get up and go to school, and often were the joyous subjects of her talk of what happened during the school day. In the upper grades she joined the choir, took dance, and became a cheerleader. Her enthusiasm for going to school each day has never waned. Her grades across the board remained high. I attribute this to her early introduction to and embracing of the arts in the classroom and in after school activities,” Tran affirms.

The arts can “enrich and enliven” any subject

There has been much professional talk and some debate about putting more emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) in curricula from grade school through high school and on into college. A counter-movement is STEAM – with the “A” standing for the arts. Recent studies, along with the personal experience of teachers at all levels, support the notion that the teaching of any subject can be enriched and enlivened — with better student achievements — when the arts are used as a catalyst and integrator.
Sr. Lauretta Linsalata, IHM, music teacher at Archbishop Ryan High School (ArchbishopRyan.com) and Chair of Music and Performing Arts for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, emphasizes, “The arts enhance the learning of any subject. They are not there to merely serve the other subjects, but to show another side of the subject.”

“Neuroscience research supports that musicians and artists integrate both hemispheres of the brain, thus enhancing the learning capacity for any subject,” observes Beth Vilsmeier, music teacher at Holy Ghost Preparatory School, Bensalem, Pennsylvania (HolyGhostPrep.org).

Ms. Marty Rust, who recently retired after more than 35 years of teaching at St. Andrew Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, has used the arts as a catalyst and integrator at every elementary- and middle-school level. Marty has taught every subject and continues to assist at the school as a regular substitute. She notes, “In my Social Studies classes, I often used period music to help the students understand different parts of history. Often I would have them sing and dance. This total involvement helped them absorb and recall the important points of the historical lesson. I recall using the old song ‘1814,’ which begins, ‘In 1814 I took a little trip …,’ when teaching about the War of 1812. Older students, my eighth-graders, watched the musical 1776, and that spurred their interest in learning more about the founding fathers and also helped deepen their understanding of the enormous challenges people faced during the early history of our country.”

Lee Ann Hosking’s fifth-grade students at St. Agnes School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, sing two songs about the 50 states: “Wakkos America” and “Fifty Nifty United States.” Photo courtesy of St. Agnes School. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

LeeAnne Hosking, music teacher at Saint Agnes School, West Chester, Pennsylvania (SaintAgnesSchoolWC.org), comments, “Classroom teachers often ask me to teach songs pertaining to the context they are teaching. I taught the preposition song to the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’ to the fourth and fifth grades. Every year I teach ‘Wakkos America’ and ‘50 Nifty United States’ to the fifth-grade students because they learn about the fifty states and their capitals. I’ve also taught Civil War songs to go with the eighth-grade curriculum.”

Hector Ramirez, music and Spanish teacher and band director at Cardinal O’Hara High School, Springfield, Pennsylvania (COHS.com), also teaches the school’s RCIA theology course. “While the focus of the theology course is Scripture, I incorporate various depictions of biblical passages in sacred art and architecture. In addition, I utilize various elements of sacred music as often as I can. This helps not only to foster a better appreciation of the scriptural texts themselves, but sacred art and music serves to further nourish the students’ spiritual development,” Ramirez adds.

Teaching the power of the arts as catalyst and integrator

Although STEM has received much media and academic attention in recent years, many colleges and institutions that educate teachers have not neglected the seminal importance of the arts as a catalyst and integrator across all areas of curriculum.

Gary Dale Burns graduated last spring from the Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. He currently teaches English at Gilboa-Conesville Central School in Gilboa, New York. He deeply values the encouragement to be creative and innovative in the use of the broad spectrum of the arts he received during his M.A.T. studies and describes how he applies such innovations in his classroom.

“I’m teaching a difficult work, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to my 11th graders,” Burns explains. “I needed to prep the students to handle and understand what Conrad was exploring before getting into the work itself. I created a ‘gallery walk’ of prints of famous artwork on the ‘darker side’ of the palette and the psyche, including works by Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake. The students walked around the classroom and spent time looking at each print. A print was displayed on all four walls of the classroom. Then, in their writer’s notebooks, they divided a page into thirds and wrote down what came to mind when they saw the artwork; what exactly they did see, and then what single words they associated with the image. I then went to each image and set up a dry-erase board to record the words associated with each image. I had students who chose those images to share what they wrote about them from any of the three categories. The associations with the words and the images were meant to reinforce the practice of connecting their background knowledge with what they encounter that’s new and unfamiliar, especially in reading a difficult work such as Conrad’s.”

Elementary and high schools can also choose to formalize and teach the use of the arts as a catalyst and integrator.

Jean Broden teaches art at St. Hubert’s High School for Girls in Philadelphia (Huberts.org). The school has had a unique tradition for decades. Each year the junior class gathers together with Ms. Broden or another facilitator to choose a woman who has made a significant contribution to society to honor her. The junior class paints an image of the chosen woman on the large mural of all such honorees, which is proudly displayed in the school. The latest addition to the mural was Katherine Johnson, an African-American woman, mathematician, and civil rights pioneer whose work for the National Space and Atmospheric Association (NASA) is credited with setting the background for the successful space explorations of that organization.

The students choose many possible honorees from all different fields, including religion, science, the arts, and politics. Past honorees include, among scores of others, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, St. Katherine Drexel, and Flannery O’Connor. Student-led research and considerable debate take place before the finalist is chosen. It is a lively and energizing educational process.

The Mural of Famous Women at St. Hubert’s Catholic High School for Girls, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of St. Hubert’s Catholic High School for Girls. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Ms. Broden said, “The Mural of Famous Women is one highly visible example of how we at St. Hubert’s strive to implement our policy of using the arts as a catalyst and integrator across the spectrum of all that we teach. But next year we are going a big step further. We are opening St. Hubert’s Art Academy right on our campus and hiring a director for it. The director will be tasked with helping all our teachers integrate the arts across the curriculum. The center will also have performance areas, galleries, and classrooms for specific projects and programs.”


Find out more: The educational division of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts offers excellent resources for learning how to use the power of the arts as a catalyst and integrator across the curriculum. Visit todayct.us/2zcRQw3.


Wayne Sheridan is a freelance journalist, poet, and communications consultant to nonprofits. He lives with his wife, Sandra Dutton, a professor, writer, and artist, in Catskill, New York.

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