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So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Can art help students learn science and other subjects? A look at an unusual teaching method

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Los Angeles Unified School District is looking to expand a teaching method called "arts integration," which mixes arts instruction with teaching in other subjects and is often used as a way to make the most of arts instruction time with students.

District administrators have outlined a plan that will invest nearly $9 million in arts integration in the next three years.

The method, which has been around for decades but has yet to become mainstream, teaches students multiple subjects at once: a history lesson centered around a famous composer, for example, as students study a piece of music.

In some ways, the plan is a bit of a gamble. Many critics fear the strategy signals a move away from dedicated arts instruction in which students can master an instrument or discover their love for singing in a choir.

District administrators said they want to maintain strong arts efforts in both areas, but struggled to implement that strategy during the first year of a new arts plan that sought to vastly increase arts instruction for the district's 650,000 students — many of whom currently get no arts instruction at all. 

New educator will oversee arts efforts

A new hire from Washington — well-known arts educator Rory Pullens — will oversee the district's arts branch next school year. 

One proponent of arts integration instruction is teacher Carol Tanzman, who said she teaches 2,500 students per year as a traveling drama teacher for the district.

She juggles her time among 10 different elementary schools — teaching so many students she can't remember all of their names and doesn't always get informed when students with disabilities need more individualized instruction time. 

"The classroom teacher is key," Tanzman said, describing the partnership she forms to help guide her limited time at each school site. 

Recently, Tanzman's group of sixth graders at Eagle Rock Elementary learned a science lesson mixing vinegar and water to create fog for a spin-off production of "Macbeth." 

Classroom teacher Marvilla Bonilla led that experiment. She said she loved working with Tanzman to give her students the experience of putting on a play — she said it was something she couldn't have done on her own.

"I can't dance, I can't sing, I can't act, I can't play an instrument, but I can definitely back up what the experts can do," she said, adding that the process did require a big time commitment. "It does take a lot of extra work because that's not something that's in our teacher's guides."

As for arts integration, some researchers say further study is needed to know more about its effectiveness at teaching multiple subjects. But according to Lynn Tuttle, the director of arts education at Arizona's Department of Education, one area that's well established is its ability to get students interested in learning and encourage school attendance. 

"Students are more highly engaged in their learning environment when arts integration is present," she said. 

To learn more about arts integration:

What do you think about this teaching strategy? How important is dedicated arts time for elementary students?

Let us know and share your experiences in the comments below. 

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