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The Art of Teaching the Arts: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Addressing the Diverse Needs of Students

Arts teachers are aware of and respond to the many differences they find among their students. In this session, participants meet a visiting theatre artist who takes advantage of the different backgrounds and learning styles of ninth-graders to help them understand and embrace the playwriting process. A visual art teacher brings together honors art students and students with disabilities, so they can learn from each other. As a music teacher works with different classes, she addresses needs common to all students. Finally, in a movement class for non-dance majors, teachers help students explore human anatomy.

In this Program


A visiting theatre artist draws on the different learning styles of ninth-graders to help them understand and embrace the playwriting process.

Visual Art

A visual art teacher brings together honors art students and students with disabilities, so they can learn from each other.



As a music teacher works with different classes, she addresses needs common to all students.


A visiting theatre artist draws on the different learning styles of ninth-graders to help them understand and embrace the playwriting process.


Arts teachers face a broad diversity of learners in their classrooms every day. Students come into the classroom with a wide range of experiences and skills in the art form. They come from different cultural and economic backgrounds. They come with different learning styles. Some come with special needs.

Culturally responsive teaching fosters understanding of and respect for students of different cultural backgrounds, and makes use of students’ culture, language, and prior experiences. Arts teachers need to develop relationships with students that honor and reflect their interests, the knowledge they already possess, and their unique talents and strengths.

Successful high school arts teachers address the diverse needs of their students by:

  • Recognizing the unique talents and skills of each student
  • Responding to different learning styles
  • Acknowledging cultural and economic diversity
  • Adapting instruction for students with special challenge

Learning Goals

The goals of this workshop are for you to:

  • Identify ways you can adapt your teaching to reach a broader range of learning styles among your students
  • Plan adjustments in your teaching to anticipate the needs of students with disabilities
  • Identify the hallmarks of culturally responsive teaching and how they can be applied in an arts context

Getting Ready

(15 minutes)

Read the following statements about diversity.

To adequately attend to cultural diversity in the classroom, teachers must look first at their own cultural background and understand how their biases affect their interactions with students. Then, teachers can examine the backgrounds and needs of the student population and understand their students’ cultural biases as well. Classroom instruction can be designed to connect the content of a course with students’ backgrounds.

Center for Adolescent and Family Studies

Focus On: Culturally Responsive Teaching

One way teachers meet the diverse needs of their students is by addressing their cultural, linguistic, and economic backgrounds.

Culturally responsive teaching uses students’ cultural experiences and background as a medium for helping them learn skills in various classes.

A culturally responsive teacher:

  • Designs instruction that affirms, draws on and extends students’ life experiences. He is knowledgeable about students’ life circumstances, and encourages them to write, research, and create artworks about topics that are close to them.
  • Chooses diverse materials that relate to who the students are.
    She makes sure to include works from other cultures that both affirm and challenge student experiences.
  • Gives students access to successful adult models who come from a variety of backgrounds, including backgrounds similar to those of the students. She draws on adult practitioners from diverse backgrounds to enrich student learning.
  • Shows sensitivity to students’ language.
    He does not, for example, over-correct lapses in language use by students who are working toward proficiency in standard English.
  • Creates learning activities that mesh with students’ styles of interaction.
    She encourages students to work alone, and with peers in pairs, and in small, self-regulating groups.

NOW: Write and Reflect

Extend these ideas to your own teaching situation. Read the following questions and answer one in light of the students and art form you teach.

Questions to write and reflect about:

  • What are the cultural backgrounds and prior experiences of the students in your school? What are some ways you are already addressing these experiences in your teaching?
  • Pop culture and mass media are a shared culture and a powerful presence for most adolescents. How do you address this in your arts teaching — whether by consciously drawing on it, avoiding it, or something in between?
  • Would Stephen’s teaching choices (material, guests, writing strategies) have worked equally well with students in your school? Which of his strategies is most relevant for your own students, and how might you incorporate this strategy into your teaching?

Watching The Program

(60 minutes)

The information sheets below provide helpful background on the schools, arts programs, and individual classes featured in each segment:

Segment 1: Theatre (PDF)
Segment 2: Visual Art (PDF)
Segment 3: Music (PDF)
Segment 4: Dance (PDF)

Consider the following questions as you watch the program. You may stop the video after each segment to discuss the questions with your colleagues.

THEATRE Stephen DiMenna Playwriting

  • What specific strategies did Stephen use to engage shy students?  Inattentive students?  Reluctant writers?
  • How do you encourage students to draw on their own experiences?

VISUAL ART Jan Wilson and Bonnie Cusack Special Needs and Honors Students

  • How did Jan construct this lesson so that both groups of students benefited from the experience?
  • How do you adapt your instruction to accommodate students’ learning styles and special needs?


MUSIC Carmen Laboy General Music Class/Intermediate Band/Concert Band

  • Across the three classes, in what ways does Carmen change her teaching approach, and in what ways does she remain consistent?
  • How does your program provide for varying levels of interest and talent among your students?

DANCE Mary Harding and Tom Kanthak Dance for Non-Majors

  • How did Mary and Tom tap into their students’ learning styles to help them understand and enjoy work in the dance studio?
  • How do you take advantage of the different learning styles in your classroom?

Activities and Discussion

(45 minutes)

Part I. Learning Styles and Teaching Methods (25 minutes)

Read the following passage about learning styles:

Students take in and process information in different ways: by seeing and hearing, reflecting and acting, reasoning logically and intuitively, analyzing and visualizing steadily and sporadically. Teaching methods also vary. Some teachers lecture, others demonstrate or lead students to self-discovery; some focus on principles and others on applications; some emphasize memory and others understanding.

The idea is not to teach each student exclusively according to his or her preferences, but rather to strive for a balance of instructional methods. If the balance is achieved, students will be taught partly in a manner they prefer, which leads to an increased comfort level and willingness to learn, and partly in a less preferred manner, which provides practice and feedback in ways of thinking and solving problems which they may not initially be comfortable with but which they will have to use to be fully effective professionals.

From Learning Styles by Richard M. Felder,

Use the Learning Styles and the Arts Worksheet (below) to chart connections between your arts curriculum and students’ different learning styles.

The worksheet has some boxes already filled in. These represent some of the most obvious fits between art forms and learning styles. Go down the list for your art form, and identify places in your curriculum where you address the less obvious learning styles — or where you might try to do so.

* Developed from “Learning Styles and Strategies” by Richard M. Felder and Barbara A. Soloman,

As a group, discuss which learning styles people think are easiest to address, and which are hardest to address. See if by sharing strategies across art forms, participants can gain a larger repertoire for addressing challenging learning styles.

Part II. Accomodating Students With Special Needs (20 minutes)

Read and discuss the following passages about the arts and disabilities:

Marcel Proust wrote: “Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees. ” When we see art as the universal language that has the ability to unite all people, we understand the importance it has in the lives of people with disabilities. For a person who cannot speak, a dance performance may clearly communicate even the most complicated message. For a person with a mental disability who cannot communicate effectively through words, a painting rich with color and life may say more than verbal sentences ever could. And, for a person who has limited mobility, a song sung with emotion and spirit may elicit movement toward a state of clarity and joy. By engaging in the arts, people with disabilities are able to contribute to our workplaces and communities, help extinguish old stereotypes regarding disability, and create a global culture truly representative of all people.

From Access and Opportunities: A Guide to Disability Awareness ? Value of the Arts to People with Disabilities, VSA arts

All students deserve access to the rich education and understanding that the arts provide, regardless of their background, talents, or disabilities. In particular, students with disabilities, who are often excluded from arts programs, can derive great benefit from them for the same reasons that studying the arts benefits students who are not disabled. As in any area of the curriculum, providing a sound education in the arts depends in great measure on creating access to opportunities and resources.

From National Standards for Arts Education. Copyright © 1994 by Music Educators National Conference (MENC). Used by permission. The complete National Arts Standards and additional materials relating to the Standards are available from MENC ? The National Association for Music Education, 1806 Robert Fulton Drive, Reston, VA 20191.

Use the Special Needs and the Arts Worksheet (below) to discuss how your arts program provides access and opportunities for students with special challenges.

* Developed from “Access and Opportunities: A Guide to Disability Awareness,” VSA arts, PDF


Homework (On Your Own)

In your journal, describe the students you are teaching right now — their life experiences, the cultural and linguistic backgrounds they draw on, the learning strengths and challenges they present, their disabilities if they have any. If it helps you think more concretely, describe three students who vary along these dimensions.

Then reflect on these questions:

How do you describe your teaching style, and what sorts of learners does it favor?
What do you do to “bend” your style toward students who learn in different ways?
If you see some of your students five years from now, what do you want them to retain from what you taught them?
Also, try the interactive

Focus On: Culturally Responsive Teaching

Using it, you can analyze how a visiting theatre artist takes account of the diverse needs of his students.

Additional Resources

On the Web

Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom
Tips for teachers on turning difficult encounters on sensitive subjects into learning opportunities

Theatre Development Fund         Select: Residency Arts Project
Information about the Theatre Development Fund’s education programs

VSA Arts
Extensive resources for educators and artists, dedicated to helping people with disabilities learn through, participate in, and enjoy the arts


Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities
Website about the school where Stephen DiMenna works with John Loonam and his class on playwriting

Stephen DiMenna
Stephen DiMenna’s Web site, including information about his directing and teaching

Nottingham High School
Web site for visual art teacher Jan Wilson’s school

Christopher Columbus High School
Web site for band teacher Carmen Laboy’s school

Arts High School Dance Department, Perpich Center for Arts Education
Information on the dance department where Mary Harding and Tom Kanthak teach

In Print


Armstrong, Thomas. Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 2nd edition. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000. ISBN: 0871203766

Information and resources to help educators at all levels apply MI theory to curriculum development, lesson planning, assessment, special education, cognitive skills, educational technology, career development, and educational policy

Silver, Harvey, Strong, Richard, & Perini, Matthew. So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000. ISBN: 0871203871

Ideas for implementing a holistic learning program that seamlessly integrates learning styles and multiple intelligences into instruction, curriculum, and assessment


Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993. ISBN: 1-55542-568-2

Classroom-tested strategies and suggestions to improve teaching practice, including responding to diversity and using technology

Wilson, August. Fences. Plume Books, 1995. ISBN: 0452264014

August Wilson’s play about an African American man and his struggle to relate to his children and the changing world around him in late 1950s America

Wlodkowski, Raymond J., & Ginsberg, Margery B. Diversity and Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching. John Wiley & Sons, 2003. ISBN: 0787967424

Real-world guidance and suggestions for successful teaching in today’s changing classroom environment


Friend, Marilyn, & Bursuck, William D. Including Students with Special Needs: A Practical Guide for Classroom Teachers, 3rd Edition. Allyn & Bacon, 2001. ISBN: 0205331920

Emphasizing best practices for teaching students with disabilities in inclusive settings


Produced by Lavine Production Group, Inc., in collaboration with EDC's Center for Children and Technology and the Southeast Center for Education in the Arts. 2005.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-769-X