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

Making Connections

Teachers of music, visual art, and theatre build thoughtful connections to topics their seventh-graders are working on in social studies and language arts.



Hand Middle School


Columbia, SC




Visual Art
Social Studies
Language Arts


Creative connections between arts and non-arts subjects

The Integrated Instruction

Mary Lou Schweickert, Band Teacher
I try to make a lot of connections for my kids. The seventh-graders have been studying World War II, and in band we wanted to tie in with that. I’m trying to get the kids to understand the importance of bands in military music, and how they can inspire enthusiasm as people go off to war.

Mary Ann Odom, 7th-Grade Social Studies Teacher
The biggest tie we have with arts people is working on the World War II unit. One lesson I do about World War II involves reading letters from a young woman on the homefront to her sweetheart. Most of the time when our students learn about World War II, they’re thinking the people were old, but we’re talking about very young people – the lady in the letters was 22.

Sharlyn Turlington, Visual Art Teacher
I talked to Mary Ann Odom about how to connect some of my work to what she does in geography. So I had my students go to the computer lab and do research on countries that they were interested in visiting. Back in the art room, they’re interpreting what they learned on a big piece of paper using chalk pastels and scratchboard. I think that makes geography come alive.

June Kirkland, Chorus Teacher
The all-state junior high choral committee selected a piece called “Come Travel With Me,” and when I saw that it was inspired by Walt Whitman I just had to have it. In language arts the students are working on Whitman right now, and one of the teachers wanted to know what I was doing with this piece, and she even gave me some background information to help out in chorus.

Karen Shull, 7th-Grade Language Arts Teacher
We have been analyzing a Walt Whitman poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” We have also been doing a unit called “The 1940’s, Decade of Change.” Through that unit, we study art, literature, music, and drama. Many of the students are also in a drama class, where they have been doing a production of Fiddler on the Roof. So we try to make connections with some of the things that they’ve been studying in drama.

Jennifer Larson, Theatre Teacher
Fiddler on the Roof gave students a lot of context for the history of Jews prior to World War II. It was a multi-level process of learning. The first was academic. The students were asked to choose a topic related to Fiddler, research it, and give a formal presentation. Step two was rehearsal, where you’re not only rehearsing a play, you’re also teaching the skills of theatre. Finally comes production, where backstage etiquette actually counts more than memorization.

Watching the Video

Before You Watch
Respond to the following questions.

  • What themes speak to middle school students? Why?
  • How does a theme provide opportunities for connections with other teachers?
  • Why does studying a single subject from multiple angles help students grasp it better – for example, learning about the Civil War through the visual art and music of the time?


Watch the Program

As you watch, note the topic that teachers use to help students make connections across their different classes. How does the instruction connect social studies and band, chorus and language arts, and language arts and theatre?


Reflect on the Program

  • Which teachers in this program do you feel made the strongest impact with students? How and why?
  • Do you feel that the topics teachers used helped reinforce concepts across disciplines? Why or why not?
  • What are some ways these teachers assessed student understanding?

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice

  • Have you ever taught an interdisciplinary unit, using a theme to provide connections for your students? What is an example? What were some strengths, and weaknesses, of the unit?
  • Have you observed differences in how your students respond to theme-based instruction vs. more topic-driven instruction? What are the pros and cons of each?
  • How do you use photographs, artifacts, primary documents, musical recordings, or films to help your students get a more vivid sense of a distant time or place?


Adaptations / Extensions to Consider

Focus your study: Once you have chosen a theme, identify important concepts within it that students can encounter through different disciplines. For example, WWII might include the concepts of patriotism, racism and resistance – which offer opportunities for looking at visual art, music, literature, theatre, dance, and artifacts.

Leverage technology: Go online to find archives of primary source materials that help you bring an earlier era to life, such as audio recordings, films, photographs, speeches, and documents. A good place to start is the Library of Congress’ American Memory collections, available at


Additional Resources

Selected Unit Materials

Music of the 1940’s: An overview for an interdisciplinary band unit on music, politics, culture and arts during the WWII era (PDF)

Come Travel With Me and Song of the Open Road: A seventh-grade chorus lesson plan relating poetry concepts and a choral octavo (PDF)

Print Resources

Chertok, Bobbi, Hirshfield, Goody, & Rosh, Marilyn. Teaching the Middle Ages With Magnificent Art Masterpieces (Grades 4-8). New York: Scholastic Professional Books, 2000. ISBN: 0590644351

Chertok, Bobbi, Hirshfield, Goody, & Rosh, Marilyn. Teaching American History With Art Masterpieces (Grades 4-8). New York: Scholastic Professional Books, 1999. ISBN: 059096402X

Gutloff, Karen. Integrated Thematic Teaching (Teacher-to-Teacher Series). Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1996. ISBN: 0810629097

Parker, Steve, & Hayes, Malcolm. 20th Century Music. Milwaukee, Wisc.: Gareth Stevens, 2002. ISBN: 083683030X

Post, Thomas, Ellis, Arthur, Humphreys, Alan, & Buggery, JoAnne. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Curriculum:  Themes for Teaching. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996. ISBN: 0132277786

Oliver, Clare & Gaff, Jackie. 20th Century Art, (illustrated edition). Milwaukee, Wisc.: Gareth Stevens, 2001. ISBN: 083682847X

Reynolds, Nancy, & McCormick, Malcolm. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN: 0300093667

Sternlicht, Sanford V. A Reader’s Guide to Modern American Drama. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2002. ISBN: 0815629397

Web Sites

The South Carolina Band Link
Local information about South Carolina band activities

The Library of Congress
A rich online collection of resources, documents, and digital artifacts

Music Theatre International
Information about licensing musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof“Broadway Junior” package

American Experience
PBS’s long-running history series, American Experience, brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that helped form this nation

PBS Teacher Source
Standards-based curriculum materials, which weave together PBS video and online resources into an instructional strategy

About the School

Hand Middle School,
Columbia, S.C.

Hand Middle School, located in Colombia, SC., serves a diverse group of sixth-to-eighth graders. The school has received a host of awards for its academic programs, most notably, Time magazine’s Middle School of the Year. The school attributes much of its academic success to its commitment to the arts throughout its curriculum.

The fine arts mission statement at Hand Middle School reads, “At Hand Middle School, all students should be enriched by exposure to the fine arts through high quality, comprehensive fine arts courses and the integration of fine arts into every subject.”

Arts Integration at Hand Middle School exists on three levels:

  • Teachers design integrated lesson plans on their own.
  • Grade level team teachers share a common planning period, and plan integrated units together throughout the year.
  • A team of teachers, dubbed the “the Renaissance Team,” guides the planning of a school-wide culminating arts festival.

Through these three levels of arts integration the school ensures not only that 85% of its students are enrolled in fine arts classes, but also that art reaches every child at Hand.

School information compiled from the Hand School Web site:

Q&A With Teachers

Mary Lou SchweickertMary Lou Schweickert, Band Teacher

Why do you think the teachers at Hand Middle School feel so committed to teaching in a connected manner?

In 1997 we applied for and received a planning grant from the South Carolina Arts Commission to become an Arts in Basic Curriculum (ABC) model site. We put a great deal of this money toward our first big arts-integrated event – a Renaissance Faire. The excitement generated that day was the catalyst for all of the connections and collaborations that now happen so naturally at Hand. We’ve applied for and received an ABC grant each year since then. The amount of money supplied by these grants isn’t large, but the grant provides a focus for us, and makes us closely examine our practices each year.

Also, our student body is extremely diverse; students come from a very wide range of economic backgrounds, parental education levels, travel experiences, and so on. The teachers here who integrate the arts have found integration to be the most effective way to pull more children in emotionally and physically to the subject matter. Once teachers have experienced a successful collaboration or art integration, they become hooked!

What kinds of special events do you put on that blend arts and non-arts subjects?

Each year, the seventh-grade students become immersed in a study of the 1940s and World War II. The culminating event is a USO style show that includes swing music by our jazz band, swing dancing led by a guest artist, radio skits and commercials, military music, and visits by WW II veterans.

We try to make our themes broad and encompassing. A recent festival was focused on the theme “Revolutions.” The band students and seventh-grade history students explored the Industrial Revolution and the origins of the brass band. The orchestra and dance students explored the Technological Revolution by composing music with computer-manipulated sounds and choreographing the compositions with Lifeforms software. Art and science students used a totally different meaning of revolution and created Rube Goldberg type inventions with revolving parts, while language arts students explored revolutionary writers throughout history.

How does being a performer enhance your teaching?

Being a performer allows me to see what it is like on the other end of the baton. I can appreciate conductors who have a well-organized plan for a rehearsal, and I feel frustrated when a conductor spends too much time talking. I also believe being a performer keeps my standards higher. Finally, my students are fascinated that there are opportunities to get paid for playing your instrument! Some of my former students have even gone on to performance careers and we have performed together in the South Carolina Philharmonic.

Mary Ann Odom,
7th-Grade Social Studies Teacher

In the program, we see you teach a lesson using letters written by a local woman during World War II. After students analyzed the letters, what else did you do?

We tried to summarize what we had learned from the letters about life at home in Columbia during World War II. We decided we had learned about clothing/fashions, home life, recreation, places in the city, and rationing. On large sheets of colored paper labeled as above, students listed specific information from their letter pertaining to each topic. Then they brought or created maps, posters, documents, etc. The displays became very elaborate.

Next the students brought in family photographs from World War II that we carefully added to the appropriate bulletin board. We also scanned these to make large pictures for decoration of a wall in the gym and scanned them into PowerPoint for showing on a large screen as the background for our USO Day. The photographs open up new avenues of interest and learning since students tried to find out more information to share. After picking out information from the letters, students found it easy to transfer this ability to gleaning information from other primary sources, like photographs.

What are other ways you bring the arts into your social studies classroom?

This year in teaching South Carolina history I have lined up a group of local high school students to bring in old instruments and share their ideas about what an evening’s musical recreation would have been like in Colonial times. I use early American paintings as primary sources to glean more information about the times. I see art as an integral part of culture that is tied into everyday activities, so I am looking for ways to underline differences between earlier times between today.