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Connecting with the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

Creating a Culture — The Story Begins

Sixth-graders develop their own cultures, complete with language, clothing, artwork, and rituals. Weeks of hard work culminate in a surprising twist. This program is the first of two parts.



FAIR School (Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School)


Crystal, MN




Visual Art
Social Studies
Language Arts


Students develop their own island cultures.

The Integrated Instruction

Rick Wright, 6th-Grade Teacher
We are working on a unit that we call “Island Cultures.” We’re trying to explore the concept of culture, what the different components are that go into establishing a culture. We start by studying Canadian, Native American, pre-Columbian, and American history. Then students devise a culture as they would like to see it, within the limitations of a tropical island.

Lisa Kindall, Theatre Teacher
The sixth-graders came to me with ideas of things that were important to their culture, and we worked on creating a ceremony or ritual to celebrate those things. The most important thing is to get the students engaged and excited and coming up with different ideas.


Melissa Brunkan, Music Teacher
We looked at the elements of music as they relate to various cultures around the world. We explored the concept of modality – the students did a hands-on experiment with jars of water to find out what sounds good to them. What I want to show them is that music was created by someone.  They have to have some idea to base their culture’s music on – a mathematical concept, a scientific concept, or an aesthetic concept.

Rachael Hoffman-Dachelet, Visual Art Teacher
The students are looking at how artifacts are influenced by the elements of a culture – things like methods of finding food, political systems, beliefs about the unknown. But they have to take it a step further. I want them to think about things like, “Is this culture more free, and how would that make the art look more free? Is this culture more structured, more formal? How would that make the art look?” Those considerations have to influence the artistic decisions they make

Watching the Video

Students making batik clothBefore You Watch
Respond to the following questions.

  • What is culture? How do you define culture?
  • How do you make abstract cultural concepts more concrete for children?
  • What role could the arts play in a unit about a past culture?
  • How do the arts affect a culture? How does culture affect the arts?

Watch the Program

As you watch note how the arts are used to help students understand an abstract concept like culture. Write down what you find interesting, surprising, or especially important about the teaching and learning you see in this unit.

Reflect on the Program

  • How did each art form serve to deepen students understanding of culture?
  • What kinds of preparation do you think preceded the lessons seen in the video to make these activities successful for students?
  • How do the culture and resources of this particular school help support the type of instruction shown?
  • Which components of the study – social studies, visual art, theatre, or music – would be most challenging for you and your colleagues to incorporate in an integrated unit?
  • What evidence, if any, did you see of the ways students benefited from this unit of study?

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice

  • Are integrated thematic units commonly taught in your school?
  • What obstacles exist at your school for planning integrated arts units? How might they be overcome?
  • Thinking about the personnel and resources in your school, which art forms would you be most excited about integrating into a social studies unit on culture?
  • How do you judge students’ success at understanding and assimilating new information and material?

Adaptations / Extensions to Consider

Scale it back: Choose one or two colleagues or art forms to work with. For example, have students create a culture that communicates only through music or visual art.

Compare two cultures: Have students derive their own list of ‘cultural universals’ by comparing and contrasting two cultures they have studied and know fairly well.

Connect to today: As a way to get students to think about the elements of culture, have them choose artifacts for a time capsule that will tell archeologists 500 years in the future what life was like for adolescents.

Additional Resources

Selected Unit Materials

Island Cultures: A simple overview of the Island Cultures unit (PDF)

Universals of Culture: A list of the 10 cultural universals used during this unit (PDF)

Our Culture [student worksheet]: Worksheets for students to use in defining and describing their created cultures (PDF)

Print Resources

Day, Nancy. Your Travel Guide to Ancient Mayan Civilization. Minneapolis, M.N.: Runestone Press, 2000. ISBN: 0822530775

Grady, Sharon. Drama and Diversity: A Pluralistic Perspective for Educational Drama. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2000.
ISBN: 0325002622

Gerwin, David, & Zevin, Jack. Teaching U.S. History as Mystery.Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003. ISBN: 032500398X

Lipetzky, Jerry. DIG Curriculum. Fort Atkinson, Wisc.: Interaction Publishers, Inc., dba Interact, 1998. ISBN: 1573360376

Macaulay, David. Motel of the Mysteries. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books, 1979. ISBN: 0395284252

McIntosh, Jane R. Eyewitness: Archeology. New York: DK Publishing, 2000. ISBN: 0789458640

Selwyn, Douglas, & Maher, Jan. History in the Present Tense: Engaging Students Through Inquiry and Action. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003. ISBN: 0325005702

Web Sites

Trekking to Timbuktu
An integrated curriculum unit featuring the culture and geography of Mali and their early flourishing trade networks

The Dig: Adventures in Archaeology
An award winning Think Quest site teaching upper elementary school children about the relevance of archaeology and the methods used by archaeologists in their search to understand the past

FOSS Full Option Science System: Landforms

Investigations that introduce students to fundamental concepts in earth science

Resource Center of the Americas
Dedicated to informing, educating and organizing to promote human rights, democratic participation, economic justice, and cross-cultural understanding in the context of globalization in the Americas

About the School

FAIR School, Crystal, Minn.

The Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource (FAIR) School is a grades four-to-eight magnet school located in Crystal, Minn. that provides intercultural learning opportunities to 558 students from Minneapolis and the surrounding suburban school districts. The mission of FAIR School is tri-fold: intercultural learning, fine arts performance, and academic excellence.

FAIR School was created by the West Metro Educational Program (WMEP), a voluntary consortium of 10 urban and suburban school districts in the Minneapolis metropolitan area that was formed in 1989 to cooperatively address integration issues. WMEP’s mission is to promote student success and community acceptance of differences by providing opportunities for students, families, and staff from diverse backgrounds to learn from and with each other.

Student admission for the FAIR School is based on an enrollment lottery held in each district. While there is no formal audition, it is important that students enjoy some level of success and interest in at least one area of the fine arts. Fine arts offerings include dance, vocal and instrumental music, theatre, visual art, and media arts.

School information compiled from the FAIR School Web site:

Q&A With Teachers

Jennifer Hanzak,
6th-Grade Teacher and Unit Organizer

Where did the ideas and lesson plans for the Island Cultures unit come from?

The unit began with simulations called “Looking for a Life” and “Conquest and Consequences” from the Resource Center of the Americas, and an archeology simulation called “DIG” published by Interact.

How long have you been doing this unit?
How has it evolved over the years?

I started using these curricula the first year that FAIR opened. Two years later was the first year all the units were combined and the entire sixth grade was involved. Having all the teachers working on creating artifacts allowed us to collaborate with the arts teachers and the quality of artifacts improved. Last year, for the first time, we were able to put together a museum display for our Learning Fair. I had put together a museum the first year, but it was on a much smaller scale.

How long does the Island Cultures unit last?

The creation of the cultures, the artifacts, and the museum display takes about three-and-a-half months. But I begin to talk about cultural universals earlier in the year.

Did classrooms take different approaches to creating the cultures?

The team talked a great deal, and although our teaching styles differ, I think our approach to creating the cultures was similar. Each classroom, however, had a different number of cultures being created in their room. I had four groups while Rick just had two. In the past I have had two groups of 14 students but I found that there were students who were not participating. This year I lowered the group size to seven students. The students appeared to be overwhelmed, so I plan on trying nine-ten in a group this coming year.

How often do the teachers get together to plan?

The sixth-grade team has a common prep period. The arts staff has a common lunch with us and many times we talk informally to the arts staff about our process. As a team we also delegate who contacts a particular arts teacher.


Rick Wright, 6th-Grade Teacher

What preparation did the sixth-graders have before they began creating their island cultures?

Sixth-graders begin the year with a literary unit on world folklore and mythology in which we examine various creation myths, legends, and fables. In social studies, we study the American Indian cultures of both North and Central America. One of our science units deals with topography and mapping.

In the program we learn a lot about the student-created culture of Erutan where does the name Erutan come from?

Erutan, as my students delightedly pointed out, is “nature” written backwards. They based much of their culture on the idea of respect for nature.

How did students create the maps of their islands?

Students were told to imagine and draw the islands upon which they’d landed. There were discussions about natural resources needed to sustain human life, about climate, and topography. We looked at physical and resource maps in world atlases to see what kinds of vegetation and minerals one might expect to find in the region where each team landed. Groups worked together to draw resource maps of their islands. Then, after a mini-session where we looked at topographic maps, students outlined and mapped out the hills, valleys, rivers, lakes, and plains they imagined on their islands, using contour lines to indicate elevation.

How did the students share the information they got from the arts mini-lessons with others in the class?

Students who had been to one of the arts mini-lessons were responsible for reporting back to the rest of their group. In most cases, they gave a general overview of the session and explained how the craft or art form related to culture. They taught the skill learned to a smaller group of teammates who would be responsible for making the required artifacts.