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The Arts In Every Classroom: A Video Library K-5

Borrowing From the Arts To Enhance Learning

To add vitality and context to day–to–day learning experiences, three teachers use techniques drawn from the arts that engage their students' minds, bodies, and emotions. In Denver, a teacher uses rhythm, color, movement, and hands–on projects to engage her class of fourth– and fifth–grade boys. In White Plains, New York, third–grade students create short skits that help them understand the concept of cause and effect. In Lithonia, Georgia, a fifth–grade social studies unit on family history culminates with students using favorite objects to make visual representations of their lives.

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Fifth-grade students designed visual representations of their own personal histories at Browns Mill Elementary School in Lithonia, Georgia.

Teachers use arts-based techniques to engage their students’ minds, bodies, and emotions, adding vitality and context to day-to-day learning experiences:

  • At Maria Mitchell Elementary School in Denver, Colorado, Penny Suazo raises achievement in her class of active fourth- and fifth-grade boys, who have a variety of special needs. Some have limited English proficiency, some have cognitive delays, and some are identified by their teacher as gifted. To engage all her students, she fills her lessons with color, rhythm, movement, drama, and other sensory experiences.
  • At Ridgeway Elementary School in White Plains, New York, third-grade teacher Monica Bermiss has her students act out skits to help them better understand the concept of cause and effect.
  • At Browns Mill Elementary School in Lithonia, Georgia, Hazel Lucas integrates visual art into her fifth-grade social studies classes with projectsthat invite students to reflect on their personal histories.

Featured People

Who’s Who
(In order of appearance)

  • Penny Suazo, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, Maria Mitchell Elementary School, Denver, Colorado (Interview)
  • Monica Bermiss, third-grade teacher, Ridgeway Elementary School, White Plains, New York
  • Hazel Lucas, fifth-grade social studies teacher, Browns Mill Elementary School, Lithonia, Georgia (Interview)

Featured Schools

Maria Mitchell Elementary School

  • Location: Denver, Colorado
  • Web site:
  • Principal: Reginald Robinson
  • Featured teacher: Penny Suazo, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher
  • Grades: PreK–5
  • Number of students: 544
  • Number of faculty: 85
  • Demographic information: More than 93 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Almost 51 percent are English-language learners. The student population is 75.2 percent Hispanic, 23.3 percent African-American, 0.7 percent Native American, 0.6 percent Caucasian, and 0.2 percent Asian.

In the center of the Cole section of Denver, Maria Mitchell Elementary opened its doors as a newly configured neighborhood school in the fall of 1996. The school is named after the 19th-century scientist, educator, and advocate who became the first recognized female astronomer in the United States.

Mitchell teachers work collaboratively through Critical Friends Groups, which provide a supportive environment for educators to share challenges, expertise, and constructive criticism. The school’s instructional program includes native-language, mainstream, and traditional options for children. Students also receive daily instruction in enrichment classes, which include music, science, wellness, and technology and library skills.

Mitchell is innovative in promoting school success. To assist children with transitioning into their teen years, Mitchell offers gender-separate classrooms for fourth- and fifth-grade students. Also, to give children a “head start,” the school year begins in late July, and all kindergarten classes offer a full 6.5-hour day of developmentally appropriate activities.

Information provided by Maria Mitchell Elementary School. Current as of February 2002.


Ridgeway Elementary School

  • Location: White Plains, New York
  • Principal: Sandi Cangialosi
  • Grades: K–5
  • Featured teachers: Monica Bermiss, third-grade teacher; MaryFrancis Perkins, visual arts teacher
  • Number of students: 600
  • Demographic information: The student population is 33 percent Caucasian, 33 percent African-American, and 33 percent Hispanic.

Ridgeway School is located about 30 miles northwest of New York City. Ridgeway is a Child Development Project school that emphasizes children’s intellectual, moral, and ethical development. The school’s theme of “global understanding” addresses issues relating to diversity and the environment.

Educators support students’ roles as producers of their own knowledge in this caring community of learners. The school uses a “thinking curriculum” in which knowledge and thinking are intertwined. Teachers use the Balanced Literacy approach to teach reading and writing and offer students hands-on experiences in mathematics and science. Classroom activities are designed to foster creativity, a sense of community, mutual respect among children, and an understanding of the world in which they live. Hallways and classrooms are organized and decorated to celebrate students’ work in the arts and academic subjects.

Information provided by Ridgeway Elementary School. Current as of May 2002.


Browns Mill Elementary School

  • Location: Lithonia, Georgia
  • Web site:
  • Principal: Yvonne Sanders-Butler
  • Featured teacher: Hazel Lucas, fifth-grade social studies teacher
  • Grades: K–6
  • Number of students: 937
  • Number of faculty: 81
  • Demographic information: Almost 44 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The student population is 95.6 percent African-American, 1.3 percent Caucasian, and 3.1 percent other.

Browns Mill Elementary School opened in suburban south DeKalb County, Georgia, in the fall of 1990. Most students are neighborhood children in kindergarten through grade five. Nearly a quarter of the school’s students come from schools throughout DeKalb County, enrolled in a magnet program for high-achieving students in grades four, five, and six.

Browns Mill provides a curricular and instructional program that promotes incremental success in achievement for each student and enables all students to master basic knowledge and skills. The school also offers a wide range of opportunities for students to enrich and extend the curriculum through appreciation of the fine arts, creative problem-solving, independent inquiry and research, organization and communication skills, and knowledge of human behavior and other cultures.

Browns Mill emphasizes the arts and other subjects. As a National Education Partner School in the Transforming Education Through the Arts Challenge, the school models comprehensive arts education and school reform by raising academic achievement in all subject areas through discipline-based music, dance, theatre, and visual art education. This approach incorporates art history, criticism, aesthetics, and production of the arts.

Information provided by Browns Mill Elementary School. Current as of February 2002.

Featured Approaches

Penny Suazo’s Lessons

Penny Suazo says that her challenge is to see that “the gifted kids learn as much as they can, and the kids with cognitive delays are not left behind.” Here are some of her strategies:

  • She has the boys create a photo collage that represents each U.S. state in the shape of that state, fitting the finished collages onto a giant map. Each collage consists of pictures the students found in magazines that depict a state’s industry, economy, ecology, and population. They learn about the state — and also about shapes and proportions.
  • In a daily spelling exercise, the class and teacher call out letters in a rhythmic chant, clapping their hands in time. They stop frequently to engage in discussion about a word, its form, or its meaning. Suazo calls this exercise “Word Tap.”
  • The class explores math and science concepts and develops spatial and problem-solving skills by using a set of classroom building materials called Zomes to construct bridges and other structures. While Zomes may not be in your school budget, the same concepts can be tackled with similar, commonly available materials, such as dry spaghetti or plastic straws and marshmallows.
  • To test understanding of reading materials, Suazo has the class read a page backwards. This exercise tells her whether students know the actual meanings of words or are using context clues to help them discern specific words. She also acts out certain concepts to help her students understand the meaning of idiomatic words or phrases.


Monica Bermiss’ Skits

Monica Bermiss believes acting out skits is an improved teaching practice from the previous year, when the children simply read about cause and effect and discussed it. “It is a reading skill presented in a different way to get them to have a different understanding,” she says. “The children I had last year looked to me for a response about their work. Children this year get positive reinforcement from each other more, because we’re listening to each other, looking at each other, saying, ‘You really did a great job.’”


Hazel Lucas’ Projects

In Hazel Lucas’ class, social studies lessons become opportunities for personal self-expression:

  • As a culminating project for a unit on family history, students create personal “quilts” consisting of images and items that are important to them — a favorite compact disk, a photo of a pet, or a trading card of a favorite baseball player, for example. To lay out their quilts, students refer to principles of art and design they have learned, such as repetition and composition. Individual student collages are assembled into a class “quilt” that hangs at the front of the room.
  • Lucas concludes by having students reflect on the project, asking why it was important to do it, how it illustrated their personalities, and how an artist might approach the project. When she asks the children if they feel that they are artists, their answer is an enthusiastic “yes.”



Who Should Watch This Program

Arts-based techniques can be particularly effective in classrooms where some or all of the students have special needs. Teachers of special education students, English-language learners, and mixed student populations all can benefit from seeing this program in a professional development setting.

Other audiences for this program might include:

  • mixed groups of classroom teachers and arts specialist teachers, arts specialists, and special education teachers, to explore opportunities for collaboration and team building, and
  • parents, school administrators, and government officials, to build support for arts-based programming or funding.

Before Watching

This program presents several approaches to using arts-based learning in general classrooms.

Look for specific strategies used by each teacher to engage students and encourage their independent thinking:

  • Are there situations in which one approach would be more effective than the other?
  • Are there opportunities to use more than one strategy at the same time?
  • Which of these strategies would you classify as teaching arts subjects as core subject areas?
  • Which would you classify as integrating the arts with other subject areas?
  • How are these approaches different?


Penny Suazo

Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, Maria Mitchell Elementary School, Denver, Colorado

Penny Suazo graduated from Kansas State University with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a minor in science and special education. After receiving her degree, she went to work in Fort Worth, Texas, where she was trained to be an applied learning teacher.

Q. Why are there only boys in your class?

A. Separating the boys and girls is being tried to promote more active participation from the girls within the Hispanic population. Many of these girls were not actively participating or appreciating the classroom experience. By separating the boys and girls and working separately on all of the issues that affect each group, the teachers were able to focus on student needs and academics.

Q. Please describe some of the challenges faced by Maria Mitchell’s student population.

A. The neighborhood served by Mitchell Elementary School sits just north of downtown Denver in an area called Five Points. This area is known for high crime, gang activity, and drug abuse. Denver’s booming economy has not yet lifted this neighborhood out of impoverishment. Mobility is high (125 percent), and single-parent families are prevalent. Reflecting residential segregation patterns, 98 percent of the student population is children of color.

The community is made up of two groups: Mexicans who are newly arrived in the United States and African-Americans. These groups have a hard time getting along with each other outside of school and just tolerate each other inside the school. Many families in the area are very prejudiced and do not hide their own bias when dealing with their children, so very often racial tension will be brought within the school walls.

The average income of families is below the poverty level, and about 93 percent of students receive free lunch. Many of the children remain hungry throughout the day and will only come to eat breakfast and lunch. It also needs to be understood that these children often do not have clean clothes, a safe place to sleep, or even a bed to sleep on. These children do not have coats for the winter or shoes that fit their feet. Their families live in survival mode and do not necessarily see school as something of importance in their lives.

In part, this survival mode led the administrator to look for innovative ways to help the school population succeed.

Q. Where did you learn your approach to “whole brain” teaching?

A. Whole-brain teaching/learning is an idea developed by [education researcher] Howard Gardner. He looked into how the differences within the personality and learning styles are overlooked in current education, and he found a way to test each of nine styles. With these tests, the teacher can discover how the student learns and can then teach to his or her learning style. Many times this cannot happen in a class of 35 or more, so it is best to use centers or other ways to approach a curricular idea with multiple learning styles.

Q. Was this something you developed on your own?

A. What I developed on my own was a style that met all students’ needs and my own style of teaching. I found a balance. This balance includes multiple ways to learn ideas and formulate thinking patterns, as well as a fun learning environment.

Q. Where did the “word tap” and “backward reading” techniques come from?

A. Word tap is something that I came up with when teaching kindergarten. It was a way for students to learn to spell their names and learn their addresses and phone numbers. I found that using this technique with my son, who is dyslexic, helped him to succeed in school. So I brought it to my class at Mitchell.

Backward reading was taught to me by another teacher. She used it with her gifted students to help with vocabulary. I thought if it could help gifted students, it would definitely help language and special-needs students.

Q. Would you share any other techniques that have been particularly effective?

A. I find it best to keep the lights low, play music, and allow the students to talk. Communication is key to effective teamwork and learning in an active classroom.

Q. How do you maintain discipline in a classroom that is so active?

A. I have students take responsibility for their actions. Before I discipline a student, I make sure what he did deserves it. I treat all my students with the same respect I expect them to give me.

Q. How do you assess student achievement?

A. Multiple assessments are used. Because of high-stakes testing, the students learn to test and are assessed in this format. They also are assessed by the quality of their work, the type of answers and questions they use to come up with the product, and whether they can express what they learned from the assignment.

Q. Do you use a mix of qualitative and quantitative assessments?

A. Yes, this is a must when using multiple intelligence information.

Q. How is this reflected in children’s grades?

A. The children are graded by rubrics, outcomes, and test scores. Students understand what is expected and reflect this in their portfolio work.

Q. Where do you go for new ideas?

A. The Internet is really good, with sites like Creative Classroom. I talk to teachers, look at the community, and ask parents about things that are happening in the students’ lives.

Q. Are there resources on this kind of teaching for bilingual children or children with special needs?

A. Resources are available, but often these are expensive. It is best to figure ways to modify ideas and make them work in your classroom.

Hazel Lucas

Fifth-grade social studies teacher, Browns Mill Elementary School, Lithonia, Georgia

Hazel Lucas received her undergraduate degree and her master’s degree in middle-grades education from Georgia State University. She also earned a certificate in leadership and supervision from the State University of West Georgia. In 1992, Lucas attended a professional development institute at the Southeast Center for Education in the Arts (SCEA) in Chattanooga, Tennesee, where she completed three weeks of training in discipline-based arts education. On returning home, she immediately started the program in her school, where it continues. Since 1993, she has served as a facilitator in the SCEA program and on the National Arts Education Consortium Steering Committee.

Q. Do you have a culminating activity for each unit of study? Is it always a work of art? What other kinds of arts projects have you used as culminating activities?

A. If we’re studying artists, we always have a culminating activity. For example, if we’re studying someone like Nellie Mae Rowe, an African-American artist here in Georgia, then we would go to a museum to see her works. If we’re studying artists such as the mother-daughter team Alyson and Betty Faar — both of those ladies dealt with found objects — our culminating artwork might be a sculpture, a “found sculpture.” We might display it in the hall or outside to show what we have learned and what we can bring to the table.

Q. How did students learn the arts vocabulary (e.g., lines, patterns, repetition, and balance) that is part of the lesson in this program? Did the children receive any prior instruction in arts techniques, such as colors or composition?

A. In the first week of school — I mean the very first week they come in — I require that students have a discipline-based arts education notebook. And I give them several handouts at the very beginning. In discipline-based arts education, we study art aesthetics, criticism, history, and production. Students learn those four concepts and how they relate to each other. We talk about artists and how they fit in. We talk about all the vocabulary words they’ll use for the entire school year. That’s the first six weeks of school.

Q. Was the quilt the children made displayed elsewhere in the school? Are any of the students’ projects displayed outside the classroom?

A. The quilts were displayed in the hallway outside my classroom. We kept them up for a long time, so the students could explain the assignment to their classmates. Only one class, my homeroom class, was involved in that.

When we do projects elsewhere in the school, we hang them up on bulletin boards and in hallways. Everything the students do in our program is displayed.

Q. How do you assess the students’ work through their art?

A. We assess students through rubrics, self-assessments, and critiques. Most of the rubrics are designed by the students. I ask, “When you finish the project, what should you have learned or gotten out of it?” Then we discuss it.

They tell me that, based on the artists we have studied, they want to understand balance, composition, or other aspects of artwork. Or if we have studied a particular artist, they might say, “I want to make sure I have bold, bright colors in my work, because that artist was very interested in showing those colors.” They talk about all the qualities their work should have, and we write them down. Then, when I critique and grade their work, it’s so easy — because they know what they wanted the work to have, and we all agreed to it.

Additional Resources

Related Video Library Programs
Watch these programs for more information on ideas explored in “Borrowing From the Arts To Enhance Learning”:

Web Resources

    • The Creative Classroom

Organization Mentioned in This Program:

Recommended by Hazel Lucas:

Related Organizations and Resources:

Lesson Plans and Materials

Word Tap

Penny Suazo’s students master spelling words by experiencing them with as many of their senses as possible:

  • Words are written on a white board.
  • The teacher leads the class in spelling each word aloud in a sing-song rhythm, clapping hands as they speak each letter.
  • For emphasis, the teacher adds descriptive motions, such as clapping hands overhead to indicate an apostrophe.
  • After the class has spelled and clapped out a word several times, the teacher asks students to define the word. She gives visual examples of some words and asks students to act out the meanings of other words.

Backward Reading

When introducing new material or more difficult material than students are used to, Penny Suazo has them read backward from the bottom of a page. This removes context clues, so she can tell whether students actually know the words and their meanings.

Students then read the same text forward to see whether the context clues help them understand the meanings of the words.

If a student still does not understand a word, the teacher and students act it out.

Arts Education Standards

Maria Mitchell Elementary School

Visual Art

    • Content Standard 3 — Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

Achievement Standards for Grades K–4

    • Select and use subject matter, symbols, and ideas to communicate meaning


    • Content Standard 2 — Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music

Achievement Standards for Grades K–4

    • Echo short rhythms and melodic patterns

Ridgeway Elementary School


    • Content Standard 2 — Acting by assuming roles and interacting in improvisations

Achievement Standards for Grades K–4

    • Assume roles that exhibit concentration and contribute to the action of classroom dramatizations based on personal experience and heritage, imagination, literature, and history

Browns Mill Elementary School

Visual Art

    • Content Standard 3 — Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

Achievement Standards for Grades K–4

    • Select and use subject matter, symbols, and ideas to communicate meaning

Source: National Standards for Arts Education, published by Music Educators National Conference (MENC). Copyright © 1994 by 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, telephone: 800-336-3768.

Other Standards Addressed in This Program

Maria Mitchell Elementary School


    • Content Standard 1 — Understand the characteristics and uses of maps, globes, and other geographic tools and technologies

Achievement Standards for Grades 3–5

    • Knows the basic elements of maps and globes (e.g,, title, legend, cardinal and intermediate directions, scale, grid, principal parallels, meridians, projection)


    • Content Standard 1 — Effectively use a variety of strategies in the problem-solving process

Achievement Standards for Grades K–2

      • Represent problems using physical objects

Achievement Standards for Grades 3–5

    • Constructs physical representations for complex problems

Language Arts

    • Content Standard 5 — Demonstrate competence in the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Achievement Standards for Grades K–2

      • Create mental pictures for concrete information one has read

Achievement Standards for Grades 3–5

    • Effectively decodes unknown words using a variety of context clues

Ridgeway Elementary School

Language Arts

    • Content Standard 5 — Demonstrate competence in the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Achievement Standards for Grades K–2

    • Create mental pictures for concrete information one has read

Browns Mill Elementary School


    • Content Standard 1 – Understand family life now and in the past, and family life in various places long ago

Achievement Standards for Grades 3–4

    • Understands the ways that families long ago expressed and transmitted their beliefs and values thorugh oral tradition, literature, songs, art, religion, community celebrations, mementos, food and language

Source: Kendall, J.S., Marzano, R.J. Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K–12 Education, 3rd edition. Copyright 2000, Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. Reprinted with permission.