Building a Foundation for Interdisciplinary K-12 Arts Education: A Teacher Educator’s Perspective

By Karenanna Boyle Creps

Arts integration is often framed as a panacea of curriculum integration, a highly effective means of instructional differentiation, and a strong argument for supporting arts education in K-12 schooling.  What is less discussed is how complex and challenging this approach to teaching, learning, and curriculum development can be to implement, let alone master.

As a teacher educator at Michigan State University, I have spent the better part of the last decade teaching arts integration courses to elementary generalist education majors during the single semester they are required to take an arts education course.  To clarify, arts-integrated instruction works towards student learning in both an art form (say, dance) and in a non-arts school subject (say,science) in a way that blends the subject areas together to achieve content learning in both areas (like learning about levels and movement qualities in dance to embody learning about habitats and animal/plant life in the rainforest).

Arts-enhanced instruction leverages the workings of an art form (like music) for content learning in a non-arts school subject (like social studies) for learning more about the non-arts subject area (learning the Fifty Nifty United States song to memorize the names of all the U.S. states without learning anything about notes, pitch, or other concepts covered in music classes).  Enhancement often gets confused for integration and for good reason: true arts integration is very challenging to achieve without subject-area-specific curricular and instructional expertise.

My students are training to be elementary generalist educators, which means they will be their students’ primary (or homeroom) teacher.  So, they may specialize in social studies, English language arts, math, or science, but they must take courses in all school subjects, regardless of their major.  This means that there is usually time in their course load for just one required arts education course.  Students with a robust background in one or more art forms tend to comprehend the structure of arts integration much more quickly than their peers. In my courses, students learn that when implementing an arts integration approach it is important to have sufficient subject area knowledge to support student learning of specific State of Michigan Academic Standards in either dance, music, theatre, or the visual arts.  These content standards require educators to teach their students to perform, create, analyze, and understand the context of each art form.  One semester of a 3-credit arts integration course is enough to introduce future elementary teachers to the possibilities of arts integration and enhancement in the classroom and the impact it could have on their future students.  It is entirely insufficient to send them out in the world as fully-fledged multidisciplinary arts educators.  Fortunately, we have certified arts educators in schools and arts education specialists, like teaching artists and arts education organizations, that exist outside of the K-12 system to work with classroom teachers, individual schools, and school districts.

In the undergraduate arts integration courses I teach, I focus on teaching my students about the educative potential and value of arts integration, arts enhancement, and arts as curriculum in K-12 schooling.  I encourage them to connect with certified arts educators in their school/district and arts education specialists outside of the K-12 system to support interdisciplinary student learning and to collaborate on arts-enhanced or arts-integrated lessons and units, as time and resources allow.  Through MSU, I also work directly with K-12 visual arts teachers and see the passion they have for the work they do, along with their eagerness to collaborate with colleagues in other subject areas, though, of course, these collaborations take time and energy to build.  These efforts, however, are clearly worth it when they flower into dynamic learning opportunities that excite and inspire students. The preservice teachers in my classes also research providers of supplemental arts instruction that regularly work with K-12 educators, and I am continually amazed and delighted to learn more about the broad spectrum of arts education opportunities for K-12 students that exist across the State of Michigan.

The arts integration courses emphasize the artistic expertise, skill, teaching experience, and training that build the foundation of certified arts educators’ and external arts education specialists’ professional practice.  I work to educate future teachers to learn from and with these experts in the field, grounded in respect for arts education professionals and the unique and deeply important work they do in schools.  It is my hope that arts education practices, like arts integration and enhancement, become commonplace in K-12 education, combining interdisciplinary curricula with differentiated instructional practices to make content learning accessible to many more students and, ultimately, giving all of Michigan’s students access to a more robust and well-rounded K-12 arts education.

Note: MAEIA Founding Contributor Debra Henning has compiled a helpful list of MAEIA performance assessments that lend themselves to interdisciplinary connections. Contact us if you have questions or want additional support. 

Karenanna Boyle Creps, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. She is the Subject Area Leader of Arts Integration and the Licensure Area Leader for K-12 Visual Arts Education. Her research interests are in arts education, experiential learning, intercultural education abroad, the ethics of education research, and arts-based research methodologies. 

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