Visual Impact

An AACA first-grader works on a project inspired by Franz Marc’s 1913 painting, Foxes. Image credit: Alphonsus Academy & Center for the Arts. Used with permission.

Enhancing the learning experience with art

By Lori Hadacek Chaplin

Catholic schools are realizing more and more that some form of the STREAM model — which gives religion and art equal importance to STEM — is more in line with Catholic thinking. Pam Bernards, EdD, director of Professional Development at National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), told TCT, “We need to encourage our schools to think about STEM. However, because we are Catholics and we want to educate the whole child, we include the arts and the Faith, as well.”

By injecting the study and creation of art into Catholic school curriculum, we are not only educating students; we are lifting their souls and teaching them about beauty — whose true author is our Creator. By having students view and make art, we show them how to tap into potential creativity, and we offer a more exciting way to look at core subjects.

Not all students will become artists, but every student who learns to think creatively will become a better problem solver and a more well-rounded adult.

Hands-on and minds-on

Alphonsus Academy & Center for the Arts (AACA), in Chicago, Illinois, has embraced a curriculum that integrates art into the core subjects while also having separate visual art, drama, and music classes. Their arts integration program has been going strong for 10 years. For the last two years, the school hired a full-time director of arts integration that works with teachers and the arts team to collaborate and to build units.

Art integration has helped AACA’s students become more engaged in learning. Dr. Casimer Badynee, principal of AACA (, told TCT, “Arts-integrated lessons get kids to think and to be hands-on as opposed to just minds-on. We try to take the abstract and make it a little more concrete.”

For example, in one of their math classes, students make a mobile to put a face on balancing algebraic equations. “They do a two- or three-day project to really understand what you need to balance something, and then the art teacher and math teacher use that [mobile-making] experience to teach about balancing algebra equations,” Dr. Badynee explains.

He adds, “Our kids use both sides of their brains to learn.”

AACA student working on a printmaking assignment. Image credit: Alphonsus Academy & Center for the Arts. Used with permission.

Tapping into creativity and curiosity

What does art have to do with science? Susan Merten, a science teacher at AACA, says science and art are “a natural combination” because both scientists and artists rely on the foundations of creativity and curiosity.

“For example, creativity is often associated with artists, but scientists also use creativity when seeking a solution to a problem or creating a new product. Curiosity is another common trait shared among scientists and artists, who are both interested in finding answers to questions and wonder about the world around them,” Merten writes in “Enhancing Science Through Art”, published by the National Science Teachers Association (

In Merten’s middle-school science class, one of the ways she addresses the concepts of atoms and matter is by introducing a style of painting called pointillism (see below). This is done in conjunction with an art teacher.

“[S]haring your curriculum can reinforce lessons and may lead to deeper student understanding of science concepts, with tangible results that include not only better marks on science assessments, but developing science literacy as students learn to connect art to science and science to the arts,” she writes.

From dots to the big picture

By looking at a small portion of Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884), Merten’s students identified individual colors, but they couldn’t identify the subject matter of the whole piece. “When the magnified portion was revealed within the entire painting, students could see the subject and images in the painting, but not the individual colors,” she says.

Those individual dots of color were compared to atoms, which helped students to make the connection that dots of color laid side by side combine to create a whole picture just as atoms combine to create matter.

To drive home the lesson, students created pointillism paintings in art class. “In small groups, students decided what image they would create and employed pointillism for color and image development. Their collaborative work resulted in several large student pointillism paintings that are framed and displayed in our school halls,” says Merten.

The students were also asked to write a short essay comparing atoms and matter to pointillism, and they later took a field trip to view A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Merten, who says she isn’t artistically inclined, told TCT, “Not every student likes science, but if they can find that connection to something that they do like it might make it a little bit more palatable or it might trigger their interest.”

Inject some art into the core

Beyond the pointillism project, Today’s Catholic Teacher has gathered some visual-arts projects and ideas that core teachers can co-teach with art teachers or incorporate on their own.

Science and Art

Polymers and chemical reactions

Abby Schukei, a middle-school art teacher in Omaha, Nebraska, uses resin and epoxy artwork to teach her students about polymers and chemical reactions. Epoxy starts as a liquid but turns into a solid substance with a glass-like finish when a chemical hardener is added. Science teachers “can explain [that] the curing process is a result of this chemical interaction at work,” Schukei explains. She provides step-by-step instructions for making epoxy jewelry at

Grade level: Middle school or high school

Nebulae paintings

Bring the universe alive for elementary students with nebulae paintings. A nebula is a massive, colorful cloud in space made up of dust, hydrogen and helium gases, and plasma. Nebulae, where stars are born, are often referred to as “stellar nurseries.” Mosswood Connections offers a project for students to create their own nebulae paintings with watercolor and glue on canvas.
Grade level: K-5

Math and Art

Golden ratio

Twenty-five-year veteran math teacher Leslie Lewis from Wayland, Massachusetts, makes mathematics interesting and visually meaningful through 2-D and 3-D art projects.

“I use art to demonstrate the meaning of the mathematics; to emphasize the applications of mathematics to our world; to engage students of varied interests and talents, and to show respect for the varied talents of my students,” she says on her math website

Lewis told TCT that incorporating art into her math classes was a way to break up anything that seemed dry. “Kids loved it, and you gathered a different kind of kid that wasn’t so focused on the abstractness of math.”

On and, Lewis features detailed art projects that illustrate mathematical concepts such as ratios, patterns, Fibonacci numbers, and Phi.
Grade level: 6-12

For younger students, Lewis offers Fibonacci coloring printouts of the golden spiral, golden triangle, and Fibonacci lattice.
Grade level: K-5

Cake! 3-D shapes and angles

Lauren Hodson, a middle-school visual and computer art educator in Plymouth, Massachusetts, has a passion for arts integration. She’s created an exciting project called “Wayne Thiebaud: Cakes! Math and Visual Arts Integration” to teach grade-schoolers about math and visual-art concepts. Students learn about angles (45-degree and 90-degree), 3-D shapes, perpendicular and parallel lines, and measuring- while being exposed to still-life art and art concepts such as form, texture, value, and color theory.

In this well-laid-out project, students are introduced to artist Wayne Thiebaud’s cake paintings, and they learn how to draw a cylinder as a foundation for their own Thiebaud-inspired cake with a 45-degree slice taken out of the middle.
Grade level: 2-6

Example of Lauren Hodson’s Wayne Thiebaud cake project. Image credit: Lori Hadacek Chaplin. Used with permission.

History and English with Art

Incorporating art history in other history classes and in English classes is easily done, and it feels natural. Two interesting assignments are Medieval and Renaissance Art: Botanical Symbolism and Van Gogh’s Self-Portraits, which are appropriate projects for both history and English.

Medieval and Renaissance art: botanical symbolism

The Kennedy Center Arts Edge has a Medieval and Renaissance Art: Botanical Symbolism lesson plan where students learn how botanical illustrations add meaning to 12th-, 13th-, and 14th-century religious painting. Every object in Renaissance paintings is placed there to tell a story. In this lesson, students learn about the symbolism of flowers and examine plants represented in illuminated manuscripts, Books of Hours, and miniatures. They also learn about Mary Gardens and their significance in medieval history and Renaissance art.
Grade level: 6-8

Van Gogh’s self-portraits

The National Gallery of Art’s Van Gogh’s Self-Portraits lesson plan includes examining Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits and letters to learn about the life of the most recognizable artist in the world. Afterward, the students paint two van Gogh-style self-portraits to reveal two aspects of their personalities. They also write a letter describing the self-portrait that best shows their true character. The lesson plan includes a downloadable high-resolution image of one of van Gogh’s self-portraits.
Grade level: 5-8

Art and Religion

When it comes to our Catholic faith, art and religion are inseparable. From teaching about devotions such as the rosary to theology on the Blessed Trinity, there’s a piece of artwork — easily found in Google Images — that will tickle students’ imaginations and put a form to what religion teachers are trying to convey to their students.

What is pointillism?

Pointillism painting by students at AACA. Image credit: Alphonsus Academy & Center for the Arts. Used with permission.

Made popular by French artist Georges Seurat, pointillism is a painting technique where the artist dabs tiny dots of paint on the canvas to form the subject matter. The dots of color are placed side by side, creating a new hue. For example, a yellow dot next to a blue dot of pigment creates the color green. This is because individual colors reflect light differently. The eye is tricked by those two dots of adjacent colors when they’re viewed from afar because the eye combines them into one color.

What is the golden ratio?

Master artists such as Leonardo da Vinci used the golden ratio to lay out compositions that are universally pleasing to the eye. The golden ratio is a number equal to approximately 1.618 (Phi), and it shows up frequently in geometry, art, and architecture. “The golden ratio is found when a line is divided into two parts such that the whole length of the line divided by the long part of the line is also equal to the long part of the line divided by the short part of the line,” according to the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts. Visit to find out how the golden ratio is laid out in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and other masterpieces.

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Creating a memorable learning experience

Infusing art into core curriculum is a subject close to my heart. I teach two art courses for grades one through eight: Art and Literature and Animal Art.

In the Art and Literature class (grades four through eight), students create artwork based on “good books.” For example, after reading excerpts from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, students used colored pencils to draw a still life inspired by the book.

Food is a predominant theme of Farmer Boy. Almanzo Wilder was always eating thick slices of pie or freshly fried donuts, so I set up a still life with a plate of donuts to teach a lesson about drawing cylinders.

Student drawing of donuts for Arts & Literature class. Image credit: Lori Hadacek Chaplin. Used with permission.

In Animal Art (grades one through three), I designed units where students study animals and then do art projects that reflect the unit. The first unit was on the brown bear. After students learned about the brown bear and its habitat, they tackled an assignment on how to draw the bear using circles, which helped them to get the approximate form of the bear before putting on details such as hair.

By combining the art with literature and science, students have a more memorable learning experience — and teachers have fun, too.

Lori Hadacek Chaplin is a senior writer and columnist for Catholic Digest magazine. Her articles appear regularly in Today’s Catholic Teacher, National Catholic Register, Celebrate Life magazine, and OSV Weekly. She lives in Idaho with her husband, David, and their four children.

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