Public elementary schools that integrate dance, music, and art

Eduvidelemmm Carl Bidleman of OpenRoad.TV is now producing videos for the George Lucas Educational Foundation's Edutopia. Here's a delightful piece about public elementary schools in Tucson, Arizona where arts are integrated into every "academic" subject, from math to social studies. For example, first graders write their own operas and fourth graders learn science by playing the violin.
Music and Dance Drive Academic Achievement


  1. Okay, at first blush this all seems great. Then I remember that if i had to use a violin (or any musical instrument for that matter)in science class I probably would have never liked science again. I understand that there are many different ways to learn the same thing but it’s just a bit too much. There is such a PC push to incorporate music and art back into schools again. Why not just just get funding for a music and or art class? I love music and art, really I do, but I don’t have an aptitude for either. It seems to me that a kid should like or dislike a subject on its own merits not not due to some crazy cross disciplinary teaching method.

  2. What does “political correctness” have to do with anything Helsbelle?

    Why would a student being exposed to art and music along with his/her “regular” school studies, have been so disastrous? Perhaps I would have been a big better at science and math (and less shy about my lack of aptitude in both) if it had been more interestingly presented.

    Your famine is my feast, I guess.

  3. I’m currently in the last year of an early year (K-4) education program. Integration of subjects across the curriculum is a giant part of our education as teacher candidates, and it’s a more realistic and efficient way of teaching. I can incorporate math and art into a lesson from my social studies cluster, and reach more of my curriculum goals. Plus, the students get a chance to express themselves in multiple ways. There’s just not that much time in a day to try and reach all the curriculum goals if you’re not incorporating subjects.

    And Helsbelle, you may have hated using music in a science lesson, but what about the students who express themselves through music, who have music as their “first language”? In a traditional classroom, that student’s skills would be undervalued. To me, it’s all about giving opportunities for the varied skills of all the learners in a classroom (yes, including writing, reading, and speaking, as well as art and music), and increasing the confidence of the students to express themselves in multiple ways, including the ones they don’t feel confident in.

    Plus, art and music are the first to go when things are getting cut. Your music teacher will get cut to half time, the division will question why they need an art specialist – if it doesn’t happen in the classroom, it may not happen at all.

    I see how my classmates react in art and music classes – we’re all so unsure of our skills, we’ve been taught that we’re not creative, we don’t have an innate talent, so we’ve assumed that we’ll never be able to develop it. We just have shut off that side of us, and our profs have had pushed us really hard to see ourselves as creative individuals. I just don’t want my students to grow up and not value art and music and drama as valid methods of expression. Putting art and music in the classroom on a daily basis gives such a powerful message about the value of those subjects, and that’s so important to do.

  4. David thanks for the post – something very much on my mind for my kids too.
    @Helsbelle – there’s a staggering number of schools in the US that have NO Art or Music education at all, hence organizations like this in the private sector that are trying to keep this alive.

    Aptitude? many people say they can’t do art or music, yet never do kids get out of math claiming they have no aptitude for it…

    Studies have proven again and again, that for objective thought and true maturation on cognitive and emotional levels to be reached, the arts must be included in an education.

    Good work George!

  5. As a teacher I agree with Abbey. No Child Left Behind has crippled art and music programs across this nation, especially in California where I teach. These kind of cross-curricular activities reach the kids who are the hardest to teach (the ones who don’t enjoy reading, writing and math) and gives them a chance to look at learning through a whole different lens. As a high school teacher it is very frustrating that the curriculum is so divided, and it is very frowned upon to go outside your curriculum for a lesson. Life is made up of thousands of facets, so why should our teaching not reflect that, rather than some arbitrary line of where one subject ends and another begins?

  6. I hope these kids will have the opportunity to dance, play, and sing their ways though their real-world careers.

    At the interview: “Math? I’m great at math. As long as I can do it to interpretive dance.”

  7. i also think this is a step in the wrong direction. i love the arts, but they should stay in arts classes. mixing the arts into a science lesson can only detract from the teaching of science; the consequence of which will be a more scientifically ignorant population. that is not what the united states needs. most people have an appreciation of the arts, sadly you can’t say the same for science. that is partly a failure of education.

  8. Pyota, I’m not going to claim to be a scientific expert (I most certainly am not!) but I have an interest in science beyond what (probably – this is deeply unscientific of me!) most people have because I grew up reading SF.

    Of course, the fiction part is important – I wouldn’t take most SF as being textbook…but I have since cultivated an (admittedly diletanttish) interest in biology (especially evolutionary theory – beautiful, astounding stuff) and some of the more “wowee” aspects of physics. This is not exactly the same as the post above, but SF is part of the arts and it has led me to explore real world scientific theory. Much science teaching *is* probably too dry. Those that are interested in it for its own sake will get hooked in regardless.

    The people that we need to engage are those who will never grow up to work in the sciences, but will form that vast mass of people that believe things like evolution is a massively flawed theory (depending who you believe up to 75% of them here in the UK! Madness!)

    I think what I’m trying to say is that whilst, yeah, what we’re seeing in the post above may not be the greatest idea ever, we may just have to accept forcing kids into rote learning just is not going to work.

  9. @Airship – The idea behind integration of topics isn’t that you just ignore the actual content of a subject area – but you tie it to other subjects areas, and make stronger ties by discussing it in different ways and putting it into practice in multiple ways.

    This is an example from a lesson I did in my last student teaching block in a kindergarten class. We were working on the science cluster of “paper”. It was December, so we were talking about Christmas. I designed a lesson that integrated math and art into my science lesson. We investigated different types of paper, testing which would make the best wrapping paper, and once we decided on construction paper, we used potato stamps to create an A-B-B pattern on the wrapping paper. Ta da! I covered skills from 3 curriculum areas in one lesson.

    In one of my courses I’m working with another teacher candidate and a group of third graders. We’re exploring medieval society, particularly fairs and feasts, through small group research, tying in music. We’re creating a “news report” from a fair, as a way of presenting their research, and they have to think about what sort of background noises they would hear, and the presenting group has to create a soundscape and lead the other students on creating those noises.

    Art and music are an amazing way to enhance topics like science, math, and social studies, and get kids to connect to them in a meaningful way. It still means learning the concepts, it just gets away from rote learning, which is a really unnatural way to learn.

  10. “most people have an appreciation of the arts, sadly you can’t say the same for science. that is partly a failure of education.”

    Really? From where I’m standing, most people seem to have serious contempt for the arts — they’re not as “useful” or “practical” as science or maths; they don’t improve society in a practical, material way; they don’t produce stable jobs with high-paying salaries. This is why art and music classes are always cut first — they’re regarded as a frill next to more serious pursuits.

    When I graduated from high school, I was quite *literally* the only kid who was willing to publicly announce that my major was going to be classical studies. Everyone else: engineering, medicine, life sciences, or accountancy.

  11. What Pyota said.

    I am all for insisting that art and music classes be fully restored, as well as some sort of non-competitive physical fitness (ie more dancing/aerobics and less dodgeball/varsity sports bs).

    However, I want these things clearly divided. It’s not fair to make a kid have to be good at EVERYTHING in order to pass a class. Also, it dilutes the material being taught. I remember being forced to do a mini-play of a scene from Moliere’s “The Miser” in 7th grade and being graded on my acting skills. Did we talk at all about the book’s historical context? No. Socioeconomic commentary? No. But I had an actress-wannabee-English teacher who decided that someone who otherwise got an A+ in her class deserved a B- because I wasn’t Cate Fucking Blanchard.

    Not everything has to be fun fun fun all the time. In this world you spend your time doing some stuff that you like and some stuff that you don’t, unless you win the lottery and hell, even then there’s paperwork involved.

  12. Brought to you by the same people who believe that you can teach creative writing without giving students a sound grammatical foundation.

  13. I think that, just as many kids get the idea at some point that they can’t learn math, they can also come to think they don’t have an “aptitude” for art. These are skills that can be learned and taught. While it’s not necessary to integrate art and science, it can certainly be helpful. In the end, creativity and curiosity are vital, not “art” or “science”. (I say this as a Ph.D. candidate in ecology.) That said, I hope this program is optional. Otherwise, what do you do with a kid who has a physical disability that makes it impossible for them to, say, play a violin or do anything meaningful with a paintbrush?

  14. Let me also add that the mentality of “everyone can be good at anything” means that mediocrity becomes a new standard.

    It’s OK for people to be good at different things.

  15. This discussion: Once again, contention actually manages to elbow out an evolving idea. Our expectations shouldn’t get in the way on either side, here. Don’t make final priorities out of them. The more possibiliies, the better the kids’ chances.

  16. @ Glossolalia Black

    by Political Correctness I mean the idea of just bunching everything together out of fear that someone might be left out.

    I’m sorry but my struggle to “like” or “appreciate” art and music in school is what ultimately lead me to understand that I don’t gave to be a good painter to enjoy a painting. I think a student SHOULD struggle with a subject (or two) in school. In life you will never be great, or even good, at everything. But to me sticking through something difficult is just as important a lesson as the actual lesson itself.

    @ Jenonymous, pyota, and Ilovechocolatemilk,

    thank you for understanding what I was getting at.

    I’d just rather live in a world that doesn’t look on adversity as something to avoid at all costs but something to be overcome. I can but dream.
    Perhaps I prize the qualities of self-reliance and perseverance more highly than most.

  17. A class of 8 & 9 year olds visited our house last week.

    They were learning about simple machines. Each one tried to lift a five gallon bucket of water, to see how heavy it felt, then lifted the same bucket with an overhead block and tackle rigged to disadvantage.

    Afterwards each child used hammer & wedge to split a hardwood log… when they left, all those kids understood levers, inclined planes, pulleys and wheels.

    No pencils or papers were used or necessary.

    Nobody got left behind.

  18. Great conversation. I don’t know how many responders watched all of the video but what impressed me about the program when I filmed it was the fact that it drove the school’s academic test scores went off the charts! We’re talking Arizona state standard tests in reading, math, science, social studies. And attendance is way up, too. And this is a regular neighborhood public school in a low-income section of town. Also note that this program is based on scientific research about how kids brains develop up to the age of 12. It’s a right brain-left brain wiring thing. People can knock it but it sure looks like it’s working to me. And by the way, many of the 4th graders don’t play the violin so well. That’s not the objective. But they sure as hell know a lot about the science of weather now and can tell anyone who asks about humidity and how it affects wood.

  19. @16 Helsbelle, and the thread in general

    I’m all about the value in overcoming a challenge, but much of the time something is challenging for no good reason. I’d much rather spend countless hours struggling to do something that is genuinely difficult, rather than struggling because something is poorly taught.

    A lot of things that kids have trouble with in school is difficult for them, but could be much easier if approached from a different angle. This program looks to provide a bunch of different angles on things.

    Looking back at the time I spent in K-12, I’d guess 60-90% of it was spent bored out of my mind, with the schools serving as babysitting more than anything else. Yeah, I was a bright kid. However, even the people that had trouble with things were bored out of their mind for pretty much the same ratio, because none of us actually liked the material, or even found it the least bit engaging. It wasn’t the difficulty of the material, it was the dullness and ineffectiveness of the presentation. I think the whole concept of “it’s hard and boring because that’s just the way it is, now suck it up and memorize this!” is completely bogus. For any topic out there, there’s someone who knows how to make it fascinating. These people are doing it with the arts.

    Not to mention the value of tangential learning. I know a lot of my world geography (not to mention the relative sizes of different aircraft) because of a couple airline-management games for the Super Nintendo. If someone is an enthusiast for something, they’ll learn it on their own, and they’ll pick up a lot about vaguely-related topics. Most of the stuff I’ve learned over the years didn’t come from being directly taught it. I would read ahead or lag behind in most classes, making sure to keep in a position to pass the tests but otherwise going at my own pace, or doing things from one class in another.

    Having facts told at me from a book, unless I’m enthralled by the book or subject matter, is a sure-fire way for me to not learn them. On the other hand, in a music theory class where we were learning the basics of different tuning systems, I was fascinated in the back row, deriving the mathematical basis for them myself and seeing that the numbers we were given did, in fact, check out. Half hour of math in the back of a music class, and nobody was any the wiser.

    If I learned anything from having challenges, it was how to work on my side projects in class without raising the teacher’s suspicion. I wrote a saxophone trio in one of my programming classes, and have written programs in history classes.

  20. @redrichie, i didn’t say teach science by rote learning. science is enthralling, and its true that the science curriculum has to do a better job of communicating that. i have no quarrel with science fiction, and i like the genre myself.

    @gloria, sorry but i think you have the facts upside down: there is a shortage of people entering scientific career paths (which are admittedly difficult). meanwhile, the humanities departments of universities are teeming with applicants, which is why we are in a situation where people with masters degrees in fields which have little practical application such as english are forced to accept unskilled jobs at low wages. i also take exception with your claim that the arts do not improve society in a practical, material way.

  21. Ito,

    We did almost the exact same thing with wedges (on ice blocks not wood) and buckets of water with science class in school. You can do multimedia interactive teaching without making everything a game or coating it in what sounds like a lot of hippy dippy feelgood BS.

    Technique is as important as content when learning new subject matter.

    There’s a fine line between creative teaching and turning everything into a game to make it “fun.”

    I would rather see low-income schools get better labs, music programs, etc and make that a focus before pushing this kind of program. You may be surprised how well kids respond to just THAT.

    Case in point: My Mom is a retired science teacher who taught “below level” kids in a BAD district. They didn’t have a single microscope for her classes to use–there was ONE that the advance-placement kids could use under supervision.

    So Mom hauled out her old mirror-lit, almost cartoonishly retrograde microscope. From when she got HER Master’s. And an ancient box of glass slides and ultra-delicate glass slipcovers. And iodine and Q-tips from our medicine cabinet. The last few items considered Dangerous Scary Stuff because it all might break/cut someone/poison someone.

    And she had each and every kid line up and did a cheek swab, stained it, and let them look at their own cells under a microscope. Most had never even seen a microscope before.

    She spent the rest of the school year hauling her microscope back and forth (she was told by the super that it may walk if left at the school) and every time she took it out, the kids suddenly perked up and wondered what she’s put under it next for them to see. Onions? Bacteria? Planaria? Algae? (we had a goldfish pond out back that was an endless supply of microscopic fun).

    After much wrangling she finally also got the department to give her ONE frog from the advanced class to dissect in front of the class, and a scary scary kit complete with scalpel to do it.

    It ENGAGED a lot of those kids. Even the ones who were still bad at science, who never studied, who came from bad homes, who took drugs, at least stopped cutting class and maybe learned something.

    That didn’t take interperative dances about economics or any BS like that; all it took was some kind of equal access (such as it was) to the right learning materials that the district should have been providing ANYWAY. Let’s work on economic parity for schools before we start sprinkling unicorn dandruff on everything.

  22. @20 Pyota:

    I think part of the problem is that the people going into elementary education are by and large humanities people. Get some more mathematicians and scientists teaching, and I think you’ll find more students liking math and science. The teachers grew up with teachers who said “math and science are hard”, and continue to perpetuate the attitude, or at least never got to like it themselves and therefore are quite lousy at teaching it.

  23. Keep it up, the results are speaking for themselves.
    In this as in so many things there are good ways and bad ways to go about the task.
    What differentiates the two is the outcome: which one works best at getting to where you are trying to go, in this case, getting those test scores up.
    Define the goal, deploy the techniques, measure and evaluate the results. Then, evaluate and modify techniques as necessary, in order to attempt to closer approach that goal. Re-deploy and repeat if necessary.
    Once goal is achieved using technique with regularity, modify goal to increase difficulty/degree of challenge.
    Or switch to a new goal.
    Upon reflection, IMO learning how to do anything (including teaching others) is analagous to navigating a boat to a destination. Or perhaps hunting.

  24. I think many in this discussion merely read the words “dance in the classroom” and imagined the dance-therapy scene from “Girl, Interrupted”. That must be where all this talk of “hippy-dippy feel-good unicorn dandruff” is coming from, because the video I watched featured super-engaged kids learning actual classroom concepts, not *just* expressing themselves but expanding vocabularies, recognizing and naming spatial and rhythmic patterns, and other real important school-type stuff. Another thing I learned by watching the video is that the artists only come into the classroom twice a week–not exactly a replacement for more traditional school activities.

    What I extrapolate from Ito, Alex and Jenonymous’s stories is that kids (and growns too) learn better when they are engaged in what they are supposed to be learning. This arts integration is simply another way of getting at that goal.

  25. I’m surprised at people who thing that music and science are orthogonal. At the college level, the classes I teach involve physics, maths, perception and cognition — as well as history and aesthetics. It is the division of the world into pigeonholed fields that I question.

  26. What I extrapolate from Ito, Alex and Jenonymous’s stories is that kids (and growns too) learn better when they are engaged in what they are supposed to be learning. This arts integration is simply another way of getting at that goal.

    Agreed! As long as it works it’s great. I suspect the teacher’s enthusiasm counts more than the method, though; if the teacher is engaged the kids will be drawn in.

  27. Linwood A+ Elementary school in St. Paul has been doing this for the better part of a decade. My daughter started at the school in kindergarten, and she’s in the 6th grade now. This school has been merged with a nearby school that now goes to junior high. My daughter dances, paints, performs on stage, writes her own music, and does quite well with academics as well. The school does a fourth grade opera every year, and Emily’s was quite good, two years ago now. The A+ curriculum is a good idea, and I think she’ll do well in her live because of the grounding she’s gotten here.

  28. Lindsay:
    It’s the exact opposite. It’s called “Openings.”

    Oh, great. That sounds like another one of those gradeless, structureless, new age feel-gooderies.

  29. @Pyota: That is actually not my own claim; I was summing up the sentiments of many people I’ve met or read.

    But I would take umbrage with the idea that many people entering a particular field indicates its esteem among the general populace.

    The intensity and difficulty of sciences- and maths-centred careers — as we both acknowledge — mean many people may be prevented from training for them not by desire but by skill and ability.

    (And cost! Engineering and commerce at my alma mater had fees four, five times over for my arts agree.)

    It’s an old stereotype that those who take arts are ones who failed at something “better.”

  30. Isn’t this what Steiner/Waldorf schools have been doing for nearly half a century? Or did I read it wrong?
    All of the negative commenters here seem to suggest that this schooling method does not work. Is this really their opinion? I know that I’ve met some extremely well rounded and well educated people who have been through these schools.

  31. Great programme.
    Creativity and arts are sidelined in our schools. This is so misguided and short sited.

    Flowerchild- Steiner waldorf schools are pseudo religious. They are based on anthroposophy; their “creativity” is about awakening the children to spirit worlds; rote learning is rife.
    Try reading the articles here:

  32. I think just about everyone makes a good argument here based on what they think. As an art/music student who can write her ass off but hates “busy work” and has no patience for mathmatical processes, i feel that integrating the subjects into one another can be very productive and even enlightening to some students.
    One of my best friends infuriated me during our junior year because she asked me “When are you going to take real classes and stop playing around in art?”
    Since when is art not a real class?
    The problem is that a school, especially a public high school, would never take a skill like that seriously. The arts are so undermined that they were considered only electives at my high school. This is ridiculously unfair to students like myself who take these classes very seriously and are forced to struggle through classes that are required but have little value towards my own educational aspirations. What’s worse is when an art student has to take standardized tests.
    For those who believe they should have art/music courses but just keep the subjects separated, try getting the higher-ups to treat the arts with the same importance as teh sciences, because to many students, it’s much more important.

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