“In this moment of pandemic and protests, the arts have never been more important for students, for teachers, for all of us.”
story by Claire Miller
As a teacher, Associate Professor Michelle Zoss has seen how students in English language arts classes can benefit from incorporating different art forms into the curriculum.
In a recently-published collection of papers entitled, “A Symphony of Possibilities: A Handbook for Arts Integration in Secondary English Language Arts,” Zoss and other educators explain how incorporating the arts in their English language arts classrooms can help high school students better connect with the material they’re learning.
In this Q&A, Zoss gives examples of how students benefit from the arts and what she hopes teachers, administrators and community members can learn from this approach to teaching.
Q: How do you define “the arts” in the context of this handbook?
A: “In this edited book, we present multiple arts: music, poetry, spoken word, drama and visual art. Each of these art forms offers different prompts for student expression and the writers provide examples of how secondary English students across the U.S. have taken up these arts to learn more about literature and themselves. While there is a wealth of literature about teaching with the arts for young kids in elementary and even middle schools, this is the first book that focuses on high school and the possibilities for older students.”
Q: How do students benefit from English teachers using the arts in their classrooms?
A: “When English teachers use the arts in their classrooms, they have the opportunity to expand the ways in which students learn and express their ideas. One thing I have learned is that language is not always enough to capture or encompass the whole of what can be learned or taught. For example, when high school students have the opportunity to explore images and literature together, they can learn subtleties that might be missed if they just read the text. Students in my classes read origin stories from three different cultures and then drew images based on historical artwork within those communities. They could follow the lines of artists who created faces using chisels and stone and then examine the qualities of particular story lines using metered language. Both lines, visual and literary, gave my students more insight.
Right now, young people across the country are showing up at protests to physically support the Black community. At these protests, songs are sung, signs and images are held up high for all to see, and people gather at murals that have been made overnight to memorialize the lives that have been lost – including George Floyd – to the centuries-long, systemic racism in the U.S. These protests are just one way that the arts are integral to the ways that we grapple with the extraordinary things we experience. In our book, we have chapters about writing protest songs and creating public art, both of which help to capture and process current events and historical literature. When the arts that we discuss in the book are part of the experience in English language arts classes, youth have the opportunity to find meaning and communicate what is important to them.”
Q: What are some of the main takeaways you hope readers remember after reading this handbook?
A: “I hope that readers explore this book with a sense of adventure. There is so much that is possible when the arts become integral components of English classes. The arts offer multiple ways of knowing and they extend the learning that young people can express. We wrote the book for the teachers who want to know more about arts integration for high school students, for the teachers who have one art form that they already use in their classes and want to add another, and for the parents, administrators and members of the public who want to know the ways to create expansive learning opportunities for adolescents. In this moment of pandemic and protests, the arts have never been more important for students, for teachers, for all of us.”