Curiosity and Meaning: Using Arts in Teaching

by Claire Miller 

Can exposure to theatre, music, dance and other art forms help students better understand the texts they read in class?

College of Education & Human Development Assistant Professor Teri Holbrook certainly thinks so.

Teri HolbrookWe asked her to shed some light on how incorporating the arts and digital technologies in the classroom can be beneficial for teachers and students.

Q: How do you think the advent of new digital technologies will make an impact on literacy education?

A: I think the impact of new digital technologies on literacy education will be – and is – transformative. After all, literacy and technology are inseparable. The pencil itself is a piece of technology, as is the alphabet. So when technologies undergo periods of profound development, as is the current case, literacy education can’t help but be transformed.

New digital technologies have made apparent what writers themselves have long known: there is no such thing as the lone or single author. All texts are multiply constructed. This notion alone begs literacy educators to think about writing practices within communities and classrooms and about some of the academic understandings of writing that we adhere to.

Q: What role can the arts play in literacy education?

A: I think there’s a renewed appreciation among many educators that the arts allow for multiple forms of expression. Much of education traditionally focuses on linguistic and mathematical ways of knowing. By being open to the arts, literacy educators recognize the arts are also ways in which students can make meaning, and for many students they’re the most apt ways.

Q: Can you tell me more about your work with the Alliance Theatre Institute for Educators and Teaching Artists? What can educators learn from theatre?

A: The Alliance Theatre Institute for Educators and Teaching Artists has been a terrific partner. For three years, Teaching Artists from the institute have led workshops with our early childhood education students, demonstrating drama/literacy integration strategies beneficial for elementary students in Atlanta-area schools. In exchange, our faculty have led workshops for the Teaching Artists to deepen their understanding of key literacy content. We also teamed up with Teaching Artists to develop a new pre-kindergarten to fourth grade drama/literacy curriculum for the Institute to use in schools.

There’s so much educators can learn from drama. Because drama relies on more than print text, it can provide access to the curriculum for a variety of learners, including students with disabilities and English learners. Beyond that, theatre and drama support students to plumb elements of literary texts, such as point of view, characterization, plot, setting, etc. Because it calls upon students to embody the text—for example, to think deeply about a character’s motivation or the role of context on situations or the impact of setting on actions—drama provides entry points into both critical thinking and critical literacy.

Q: What are some guidelines for educators who want to effectively incorporate technology into lessons on literacy?

A: Technological developments are happening quickly and expansively, and for the foreseeable future there will continue to be new technologies coming on board that affect literacy practices. So instead of worrying about what we don’t know, it’s important we remain genuinely curious and open to new technological tools available to us and to our students and to actively integrate learning them into our lives. This is also true of the arts. We’re never going to know everything about drama, the visual arts, music, dance, creative writing. However, we can devote ourselves to a deep and ongoing curiosity, exploration and valuing of them.

As educators, we already know we learn from our students. In the digital age, this is doubly apparent. Many of our students come to schools with new literacies practices we haven’t adopted yet for ourselves. By being co-learners with students, we can create classrooms where collaboration, exploration, problem solving and creativity are valued.

Q: What advice would you give teachers who want to incorporate the arts into education?

A: The first is not to see the arts as simply “fun” ways of learning – although they certainly can be – but rather as research-backed pedagogical practices that provide students with means to access the curriculum and build their knowledge. At a practical level, I would recommend careful planning and adequate time. Students of any age need time to explore artistic forms of expression. They need to experiment, to see what the medium is capable of, to see what they’re capable of with the medium.

Often, we’re so concerned with covering content that we don’t give students the opportunities they need to sink into a medium or method of inquiry. That said, time isn’t enough. Teachers need to structure that time thoughtfully. Students will be most successful if teachers break the exploration into smaller segments and then consider how to support students as they build those smaller pieces into the whole.

This story was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of IN the College of Education & Human Development, the college’s alumni magazine.