By Dr. Monika Wiley

Used for teaching students the real-world connections between segmented school subjects such as art and math, STEAM initiatives are saturating the teaching landscape. Educators are tasked with inventing creative and impactful ways to engage students across subject-areas each new school year.

My background is in mathematics, and when I began teaching I taught in a school of the arts where I was required to integrate the arts into math lessons. Once I did this, I saw a change in my students, primarily in their engagement and achievement. Arts concepts, such as writing musical scales, correlate with core subjects like math in surprisingly helpful ways.

Research shows that arts-integration works because students are more engaged. It makes the core content more interesting and expressive. In Clayton County Public Schools (CCPS), an arts-infused education has been the key to our successful STEAM program, improving both student and teacher engagement.

Art + Core Curriculum

Our district is unique in that it includes typical K-12 public schools as well as schools of the arts. Being fully integrated with the arts, these schools incorporate it into everything they do, including core curriculum.

While art is infused into core content, these schools also ensure that students are interpreting the core content in a way that doesn’t take away from the actual subject or the art form.

The success of students enrolled in these schools upholds our motivation for shifting the arts to a district-wide initiative. From these schools, we have observed nearly a 100 percent graduation rate year after year, as well as higher student achievement compared to our schools without an arts focus.

One of our schools really stands out in the way it fully embraces arts-integration. The school incorporates art everywhere in its environment, inspiring a creative mindset. The principal and staff are on board to shift to an arts-integrated teaching strategy, allowing the elementary school to serve as an arts-integration model for the rest of the district.

Fidelity for this arts-integration program is upheld by passionate educators and administrators. In addition to my duties in the district’s fine arts department, it is my passion project to integrate the arts into core curriculum because I have personally witnessed the benefits it has on student engagement and achievement.

Art + Teacher PD

Integrating the arts into teaching requires a different mindset, especially if an educator works in the hard sciences. Even so, educator buy-in has not been a difficult task. I’ve found that each district always has a group of teacher leaders who are willing to take risks to pioneer inventive instructional strategies. The goal of our leadership team is to transform the overall teaching mindset and build arts-infused curriculum to shift school culture.

Forward-thinking schools within our district have begun to prioritize cross-curricular, arts-infused education through their professional development initiatives as well. Those participating in Crayola’s creatED professional learning program build teacher leadership teams who focus on pulling art into various subject areas. By bolstering curriculums with creative initiatives, we’re driving greater uptake of 21st-century skills for our students.

Many other professional training sessions fail because they stop at the workshops and do not provide resources for teachers to sustain the new practices. With the continued motivation from the leadership team and additional resources such as webinars, the number of core curriculum teachers who are embracing the arts continues to increase.

Art + ELL Students 

Arts-integration has also been integral to providing an expressive outlet for our ELL student population (72 different languages are spoken throughout CCPS). With an estimated 4.6 million ELL students enrolled in public schools in the U.S, it is more critical than ever for schools to utilize teaching practices to support these students. Because art is hands-on and visual, it provides an alternative avenue for students who learn differently to demonstrate what they know. This is why professional learning is especially important–CCPS educators are prepared to provide equity to all students.

Similar to mathematics, art is a universal language. It is perceived differently by each person, and it doesn’t matter what language you speak. Anyone speaking a different language can see and interpret that same piece of art, all it requires is an understanding and their own interpretation.

Next Steps For CCPS

A goal for our arts-integration initiative is to work toward producing quantifiable results through student assessments. We are currently in the training stage of the arts-integration process with the district’s teacher leadership team. This team is in charge of building the district-wide strategy for arts-infused classroom instruction.

In the next few years, the leadership team will work to integrate their arts-infused education plan into core curriculum throughout the district. With the help of principals, administrators and teacher-leaders, we hope to make the arts-integration plan a reality.

I strongly encourage any school or district to try arts-integration, even if you have to start small. The arts-integration process takes time, but the end result of more passionate and engaged teachers reflects onto their students, building a creative and more successful school climate.

Dr. Monika Wiley is the director of fine arts for Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia. Follow them on Twitter: @CCPSNews

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