1. The art project must connect to the child's life experience or point of view.
2. It should be connected to core content to reinforce learning and understanding.
When projects do this, students succeed.
Art teachers know, when we grid, measure, and draw—we use geometry. When we make sculptures—we use engineering. When we mix colors—we reveal information about physics. When we create illustrations for stories—we learn about literature. When we review the styles of art from da Vinci to Bansky—we teach history. When we write about art—we strengthen these skills. When we create works of art, we solve complex visual problems in creative ways. Art is the meeting place of all subjects.
Art can be a great means for students to get a deeper grasp on their subjects and the connections between courses. Research shows that students who take art succeed at higher rates than those who do not. In the U.S., art students score, on average, 100 points higher on their SATs. In my own district, using our methods, our students scored 155 points higher on average than students who did not take art in 2013.
Does this "connected-ness" makes the projects any less "artful" or less expressive?
No. It means there will be a level of depth built upon the work of your colleagues and reinforced by the art teacher. More knowledge is always better. We already do this, it's a matter of making these connections more overt, for the sake of our children, ourselves, our department, and our schools.
Does this mean crafts are not of value?
No. Crafts have connections to cultures, social studies, and history. They can be a rich source of learning IF we make these connections in a meaningful way by incorporating reading and writing skills, and teaching about the cultures and history of the crafts we expose our students to.
So everything is okay in the art room?
No. There are still thousands of classrooms across the country doing "art" that minimizes our profession, reinforce the idea that art is frivolous, expendable, filler. These programs waste opportunities for learning and problem solving. The hallmark to poor programs are large amounts of "cookie-cutter projects."
When projects line a hallway that look like little reproductions of a teaching sample I cringe at the lost opportunity. No matter how cute, how appreciated, how loved they may be, they come at the expense of our profession. Leave these for classroom teachers looking for filler. Help them if you like, but such projects have no place in a valid art program. I don't care if the child is two or twenty, art must be personal, expressive, and connected.
To those who say these cookie-cutter projects build the skills to be used later, my reply is do it NOW, while they are under your professional direction. It need not be dramatic, or profound, but the element of student choice, and connections to core content must be present in all projects to be valid art experiences.
Sure but how about an example?
Paper Plate Fish: Cut a pie slice from a paper plate, re-attach it to the opposite side of the plate, and you have a fish. Paint, decorate, etc. If you limit paint to a few choices, which you should anyway for the very young, you end up with a hallway full of delightful, but vapid fish. Each like the other, little distinction or expression.
Solution: Have students reflect on their personality. Are they loud or quiet? Are they active, still, or lazy? Cut the mouth of your fish to show what a big mouth you have. Make a tail to show how active you are. This tiny alteration has changed the cookie-cutter fish into an expressive, albeit simple, work of art.
How about those Core Connections?
A: Before making fish, show different kids of fish and organize them by type, air breathing, and water filtering perhaps.
B: They can write about being loud or quiet, fast or slow, energetic or lazy.
C: They can make a list of all the water animals they know for a few minutes, organize them by order.
D: Vocabulary: vertebrates and invertebrates
Speak with your colleagues and coordinate a little. They will respect you more, students will learn more deeply, and succeed at higher rates.
...And how about the Common Core?!?
I feel "Common Core" has become a buzz word that incites a lot of division. I am not a fan of tons of testing that takes up so much time that we, as teachers, are less able to get to as much material or cover it as deeply as we once had. BUT I do believe we do need some national standards so an "A" in New Jersey, is also an "A" in Mississippi or Washington State...
My approach is to create more overt connections to core content with vocab, writing, reading, interpreting, observation, recording, etc. When I do a unit on gridded portraits, we discuss scale. Before we make art, we write about our ideas, creating lists, assimilating information, and include some expository writing. When we talk about da Vinci, we cover the Renaissance, the 1400s, and the history of that time. When we illustrate stories, we talk about the work, the author, and the literature. My "approach" does all the things common core is meant to do, but goes beyond, and is more successful. So though I am required as a New Jersey teacher to follow Common Core, and I do, evidence shows my department exceeds expectations because of our "STEAM-like" approach.
As I said before, in 2013 our students did 155 points HIGHER on average on their SATs... and we don't get a lot of "AP" kids that might artificially skew our numbers. It's a proof of concept that's hard to argue with.
LINK HERE for STEAM Approach Studies