Making Arts Integration Work, One Classroom at a Time – Author Debbi Arseneaux

“I look at this text and I feel like I just have to get through it” sighs a frustrated third grade teacher.

“My kids love goofing around and are very creative, I just need help fuzing their experience of an activity to comprehension of the subject” says an enthusiastic fourth grade teacher.

“This is very uncomfortable for me, but I know my students respond to these types of things, so I’m trying to make it work” says a hesitant media specialist, who works with various grade levels.

These are just a few of the comments made in my initial planning conferences with teachers at Sebastian Elementary in Sebastian, Florida. These teachers and I were about to embark on a week long embedded residency process to help them better be able to incorporate theatre arts strategies into their non fiction units. I don’t think any of us anticipated what a rewarding week it would be!

It was clear to me at this point that each residency would look rather different, as the teachers had a range of comfort levels with arts strategies and their goals for the week were consequently different. This presented quite the challenge for me, but a welcome one, as I don’t believe there is a one size fits all approach to successful professional development, just like there is no one magic way to reach all our students.

So each day of the residency, we brainstormed and shaped drama activities that would engage their students and move them toward mastery of specific Florida Language Arts and Science standards. In all three classes, we had grade level appropriate space and Earth sciences related texts. We looked at each text and each grade levels’ specific literacy goals and together we extracted activities to support those goals. I spent time both modeling and supporting them leading these activities in their classrooms. I also gave the teachers tips and techniques to be able to implement the activities without me.



In the third grade class, for example, we created a space shuttle with our bodies and voices through an activity called Machine. Every student was a part of the machine. When it was done, we asked them to go to the text and see what else they could learn about rocket ships. We watched the students race to their desks and start eagerly flipping through the text. We had hooked them, and given them a reason to read. The teacher glanced at me and we shared a gleeful moment of success…look at those students wanting to read that text she had been dreading!

In the fourth grade class, the students spent time looking at images and reading text about the phases of the moon. They gave each phase a distinct personality trait and physicality. Then they got up in front of the class and gave each phase “character” a voice. The full moon held his belly and moaned, “I’m so full!” while the waning gibbous moon shrank and said “I’m melting!” Presented in sequence, the students were able to demonstrate understanding of the cycle of how we see the moon in its phases. The teacher and I were extra pleased that ALL of her students participated successfully in this activity, particularly a couple who had frozen during warm up activities.

Showing Excitement in Learning

Showing Excitement in Learning

In the fifth grade class, we had students researching the reasons why Pluto is no longer a planet. They used information in the text to replicate the discussion astronomers had to determine the definition of a planet and created a role play in which they presented their reasons for redefining Pluto. They also created tableaus to represent the history of how we learned about Pluto. It was during this tableau activity we saw students really step up into leadership roles and figure out how to work together as a team in a way the teacher said she doesn’t always see. And those students now have a strong physical connection to the way objects move through space, as they had to represent orbits and rotations with their bodies.

We saw student successes in each classroom, each day. We saw small victories in engaging students who they tell me don’t typically demonstrate such enthusiasm, and large victories in watching students who don’t generally engage at all getting up and sharing something they just learned.  The teachers asked their students if they wanted to more activities like they had been doing this week and they were met with a resounding “YES!”  In fact, each one of them told me that they had already tried out at least one activity in another class, and one of the teachers had already set up a planning meeting with the other teachers in her grade team to collaborate around how they can implement some of the strategies in the next unit.



By the end of the week,  I saw the teachers go from hesitant, but curious, to enthusiastic and excited. They saw first hand the powerful impact the arts can have on engaging and empowering their students with standards based learning, and without taking time away from mandated schedule chunks.

“It’s been eye opening. I can’t wait to try this out with the next book” says the newly energized third grade teacher.

“Before I was clueless and excited, now I’m focused and excited. I’m excited about things that weren’t really exciting to me before” gushes the thrilled fourth grade teacher.

“I just need practice. It helped to see how they responded. If you are in drama, you are using the same skills as reading” says the optimistic media specialist, making a commitment to push through her hesitation.

We as teaching artists can’t be in every classroom, but if we can keep turning the light on, one teacher at time, then we can reach more and more classrooms, slowly shifting the climate. These teachers then become the best advocates for more arts integration in their schools, and the more we can empower them, the more that light gets sparked in their colleagues. And ultimately, the more students we can all reach and more fully engage in their own learning.

This is how we change our education system…one classroom at a time, with thoughtful, passionate and caring teachers who never stop learning themselves.

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