Curriculum Brokering: Integrating Authentic Visual Arts

Early in my career as a middle school art teacher, it didn’t occur to me that I was not part of an integrated team.

I was busy enough teaching my 50-minute art classes, working with students during exploratories (the archaeology dig was very popular), and meeting with the art club at lunch. I was the consultant for anything “visual” around the school—scenery for the plays, decorations for dances, pep signs, banners, and bulletin boards. I never felt left out and I knew how much everyone in the school valued art … or did they?

After several years of teaching art in isolation, I began to see opportunities to integrate my art activities with other disciplines. I saw connections among concepts, knowledge, skills, and attitudes about art that correlated with other parts of the curriculum. I knew what I was teaching had “meaning” in other disciplines.

Dissatisfied with the narrow view of the visual arts at my school, I shared my frustrations with other teachers and found that the music and physical education teachers identified with this sense of separation, also. After all, art, music, and physical education classes took place during the time that the “academic” teams were meeting to plan integrated units! The planning time for the teams was scheduled when students were in the “specials.” Well, being categorized as a “special” did not feel special at all!

Building the Foundation

The philosophy at my school encouraged collaboration and integration, but the organization of the school did not provide time for arts and physical education teachers to work collaboratively or with the other teaching teams. There was not even an integrated view of the arts curriculum.

The general music teacher and I tried several times to develop interdisciplinary lessons around common concepts, such as pattern in art and rhythm in music, but we were really tag-team teaching. We merely referred to the other’s examples during instruction since we could not schedule our students together.

Rarely did we evaluate the results of these small attempts at interdisciplinary instruction, so we continued blindly celebrating our small joys and successes … until he was transferred to the high school!

I was on my own again to build a collegial network. This time I went to the principal. She was concerned with the marginalization of the arts as part of the back to basics movement and high-stakes testing initiatives. She encouraged me to try to integrate the visual arts with other subject areas as a way of validating the importance of the arts.

I thanked her for her support of integration, vowing to do just that—but I knew better. There is a peril in art integration if it is done for the wrong purposes. Jessica Davis, in her wonderful book Why Our Schools Need the Arts, states that “We need to include the arts in education not because they serve other kinds of learning (and of course they do), but because they offer students opportunities for learning that other subjects do not.”

Brokering Art

I continued my quest to integrate the visual arts with other content areas but was cautious to ensure that the making of art (production), the appreciation of art (aesthetics), and the study of culture (art history) were central to what visual arts had to bring to the table.

Whenever I approached a grade level team or they approached me about integrating art with other content areas, I made sure there were student learning outcomes focused specifically on the disciplines of the visual arts. I made sure each integrative theme or unit included outcomes that required students to produce, perceive, and reflect on art, especially in the context of other content areas.

I guess you could say I was an art curriculum broker, a term Howard Gardner used to describe a teacher who is “ever vigilant for educational prosthetics—texts, films, software—that can help convey the relevant content in as engaging and effective a way as possible … .” I was brokering visual art content into the larger content(s) being integrated.

I was the visual arts advocate when it came to being sure that the arts were not included just because it was a way to keep them safely in the curriculum or because the arts can help students perform better on standardized tests. We know they do, but I’ll save that argument for a different day. I advocated that the visual arts are distinctive in themselves; that there is, in fact, an artistic intelligence that the arts can foster, and as Elliot Eisner says in The Arts and the Creation of Mind, “that students should learn how to see and respond to visual forms and how to understand the role the arts play in culture.”

So moving slowly, my colleagues and I had several successes with such integrative collaborations as:

Masks and Movement, which unified visual art, social studies, physical education (movement), and music knowledge and skills, culminating in a performance for an elementary school, complete with original music compositions and program design.

The Egyptian History Museum Project, which began with the seventh grade team making Egyptian artifacts from clay, burying them, and having an eighth grade team (studying archeology), dig them up, research their origins, and design and carry out an exhibition in the school “museum.”

The Civil War Exhibit at the local public library that was presented by a seventh and eighth grade team, which integrated the study of art with the history of the turbulent 1861–1865 period.

After-School Apprenticeships involving six local artists who encouraged eighth graders to explore and experience photography, ceramics, graphic design, landscape design, and computer aided design (CAD). A collaboration with the counselors at the high school and technical school, these apprenticeships encouraged students to elect visual arts courses when they enrolled at the high school.

An Architect-in-Residence demonstrating CAD software inspired an entire seventh grade team to design and construct a footbridge that spanned wetlands behind the school to provide access to an outdoor classroom.

But these are more than small successes or isolated moments of integration brilliance; these activities are actually authentic ways to study the visual arts as well as authentic ways to study other content areas. My search for a team identity, like-minded colleagues, and a curricular structure that supported integration led me to a much larger concept of learning for all—authentic learning!

Art as Authentic Learning

I began reading about authentic learning in all its forms and found a great deal of learning theory, background, research, and theories that really interested me. Authentic learning resonated beautifully with what I know and love about adolescents and the nature of the middle school. There is no better place to include authentic learning than in middle school classrooms because young adolescents have progressed in their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development, and are able to synthesize what they learn in school with life outside the classroom.

In fact, young adolescents crave intellectual challenge, physical involvement in the lessons, interaction with others, and emotional exploration that is relevant and applicable to their world—all characteristics of authentic learning. Middle level education philosophy focuses on learning experiences for young adolescents that lead to higher levels of student achievement and overall development.

Grant Wiggins has directed his efforts to ensuring that school reform movements include authentic forms of learning. In Understanding by Design, he said, “A primary goal of education should be the development and deepening of student understanding. Students reveal their understanding most effectively when they are provided with complex, authentic opportunities to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess.”

Authentic learning is not a completely new concept. Wiggins points out that much of the extra-curriculum—especially the arts, forensics, and athletic programs—have modeled learning in authentic contexts for decades.

Fred Newmann and Gary Wehlage, in their April 1993 Educational Leadership article, “Five Standards of Authentic Instruction,” use the word authentic to distinguish between achievement that is significant and meaningful and that which is trivial and useless.

To define authentic achievement more precisely, they rely on three criteria: (1) students construct meaning and produce knowledge, (2) students use disciplined inquiry to construct meaning, and (3) students aim their work toward production of discourse, products, and performances that have value or meaning beyond success in school. Five primary traits are helpful in judging the quality of authentic instruction. According to Newmann and Wehlage, these authentic traits involve

  • The use of higher-order thinking
  • Substantial conversation about the topic
  • Peer support for achievement
  • Acquiring a depth of knowledge
  • Value and meaning beyond the classroom.

As I looked at the way my colleagues and I had been structuring our interdisciplinary units, I realized that I did not have to justify the inclusion of the visual arts in the curriculum; the visual arts were naturally contributing higher-order thinking skills (perceiving art), sustaining conversation (responding to art), providing peer support (communicating with others through art), acquiring a depth of knowledge (long-term involvement with the art process), and providing value and meaning outside the classroom (real-world applications of the visual arts). The visual arts were making the curriculum more authentic by virtue of the performance-based nature of the discipline of art and easily demonstrated value and meaning beyond the classroom.

Integrating the arts into middle level curriculum is one of the most authentic ways to approach visual arts curriculum for young adolescents. While middle level art teachers have their own set of standards to cover, each of these standards can be addressed using authentic practices. The National Standards for Arts Education outline what students in grades 5–8 should know and be able to do in the visual arts. According to the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, students should

  • Understand and apply media, techniques, and processes
  • Select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas
  • Use subjects, themes, and symbols that demonstrate knowledge of contexts, values, and aesthetics that communicate intended meaning in artworks
  • Understand the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
  • Reflect upon and assess the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others
  • Make connections between visual arts and other disciplines.

Visual arts teachers and the adolescents they teach will be able to go well beyond achieving local, state, and national standards each year by placing the arts into a meaningful, purposeful context. The arts should, as Chris Stevenson says in Integrated Studies in Middle Grades, go “dancing through the classroom walls.” Art in the real world extends throughout the entire human experience.

Open the Windows

In Art for Life: Authentic Instruction in Art, authors Tom Anderson and Melody Milbrandt say, “Authentic, content-based art education recognizes works of art as windows into the mirrors of our lives. It reflects the stories of individual human beings and the groups we live in, told through art and visual culture.”

Time for planning and implementing authentic practices is a significant challenge for art teachers and content teachers alike. I have found that if the five attributes of authentic instruction are the guiding principles shared by all the teachers at the start of planning, then integration of art content is simplified.

These are not difficult attributes to implement! It is clear that the visual arts can be taught authentically, and middle-level pedagogy, theories, and structures provide the perfect place for art to be taught effectively. Young adolescent learners are ready intellectually, socially, and emotionally for a meaningful, purposeful, and authentic visual arts education.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2009

Jacqueline McDowell is the dean of education and human sciences at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, where she teaches courses in integrated arts and cultures. E-mail: