Establishing your classroom as an arts-infused learning environment to encourage students to demonstrate their understanding of core academic content.

by Catherine Davis Hayes

Grades K-2, Grades 3-5


If you’ve ever seen a four-year-old move, it’s pure artistic expression. They are exploring and experiencing space through movement.  I believe it is critical that as children become students, they are allowed to continue to express themselves artistically. It’s intuitive and a natural way for them to explore areas of interest and express what they have discovered.

I like to design art-infused classroom environments as a way for students to delve deeper into core content areas. The creative processes used in the arts and design insure that students are critically thinking about the content as they apply what they know to their work of art or performance.  Higher order thinking happens naturally through the creating process.

Demonstrating understanding through the arts gives alternate options for all types of learners, from the reluctant and at risk to the gifted, to showcase what they know in highly personalized ways.

Two manifestations result from an arts-infused classroom:

-You have the arts piece – a performance, a picture, some music, and

-You have the knowledge or content piece.

A teacher will need to know something about the differences between those two evidences and be able to evaluate each on their own merits.

It’s important as well to understand how particular art forms match up with content. For example, math goes well with music or theater or visual arts go well with language arts.

One thing is clear: When you have students who are producing an artwork or a performance piece, they are actively engaged. Their learning is almost visible through the process.


What I did well…

My goal was to create an example of using simple theater and visual image making processes to support student learning in any context. I chose a role playing activity in which (I hoped) participants could draw from their own personal experience as a younger student and as the current teacher they are now. I chose activities that were easy to teach and did not use complicated, messy materials but could generate visual images for discussion. I was pleased listening to the conversations participants had during the activity and the reflections they gave when we analyzed it. I heard evidence that they were actively discussing choices made regarding both the process and the product for the purpose of reaching the desired learning outcome during the role play. Afterwards, they were successfully identifying key components of how the arts activities helped them reach broader understandings about themselves as learners, how arts infused activities can assist in formative assessment of student learning, and possible applications of this kind of activity back in their classrooms. In this regard, the choice of activity for this presentation was appropriate.

What I would do more of, better, or differently…

Aside from hiring an actor to play me on camera (seriously I am so visibly nervous)… I would emphasize that this is not a one size fits all enterprise. This particular presentation was a snapshot of one possible approach to integrating arts into a learning activity. I developed it as I would any classroom lesson, first and foremost with my audience/students in mind, then with the logistics of the learning environment, and my access to materials. This is the activity I felt would deliver all of the objectives and meet the goal for this setting. If given a “redo” I would spend more time (either up front or in closing), sharing a broader variety of easily accessible activities that illustrate real world classroom applications. This is also true for the “See it in Action” video. I found it difficult to design just one example lesson that might showcase these strategies in action and wonder if the one I chose ended up being too conceptual.

I still want to grow this practice by…

I want to continue collaborating with my colleagues in developing successful arts infused approaches to teaching and learning in a variety of content areas…because, quite frankly, it’s so much fun to teach this way! But also, as we experiment and our “toolkit” for arts integration strategies expands, I want carefully assess our work to examine, reflect, and identify how it is specifically helping students access and take ownership of content and demonstrate their understanding in both the arts and the other core content areas. Additionally I want to continue to refine the practice so that it becomes comfortable, not just accessible for all of my colleagues to employ.

About Catherine Davis Hayes

Catherine Davis Hayes, 2007 RI State Teacher of the Year, has been teaching visual art and design to students K-12 for over 20 years and currently ...

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