What is the Place of Science in Art and English Education?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Special Contributor

School districts have, over the past four decades, reduced their arts offerings in order to meet increased demands for time devoted to science, mathematics, social studies, and English language arts. As a consequence, time devoted to the Arts has diminished to the point that people and organizations in the community have volunteered to deliver arts-centered projects and programs in the schools. I’m one of those; I have been volunteering in the Poets in the Schools program where I live in Clark County, WA. with a second grade teacher for two years.

After my first year in the poetry program, I experienced first-hand how the support teachers receive from the state hasn’t improved over the years since I left the classroom, while the demands the state places on them has increased. While I won’t be able to resolve the issue by myself, I can use what I know and understand about science, the arts, and teaching to suggest some things that might integrate the Arts in today’s schools.

What does writing poetry have to do with art in schools, and teaching science?

One project I volunteered in last year was a poetry project designed and delivered by Ms. Jenny Mowery, the Hough Elementary School librarian. Ms. Mowery’s poetry project is delivered to all K-5 classes, one period at a time, and involves teaching a poetry genre like haiku or limerick to a class, then having them use that genre to write a poem about a person or historical era they had studied in her library. When the poems are ready to deliver, students find an image of a person they read about when they researched their topic, and transfer that image to an app, Chatterpix, which can be manipulated to have the image speak the poem. When they are satisfied with their app, they all sit on a carpet in front of the screen, and individual students present their Chatterpix poems for all to see and hear. No matter how students felt about writing poetry at the beginning of the project, they would become enthusiastic as they made progress writing their poem.

What does this have to do with science and art? Well, I was very impressed with the way Ms. Mowery presented this project to kindergartners. Most weren’t ready, at the time of year they did the project, to write a poem. So, she had them decide what they would write about, then write a four-line, one word per line, poem on that. This worked very well, and I decided to think about how it could be amplified to reach more than one grade level, and even to develop into an interdisciplinary vehicle for other learnings.

I really liked this, and saw immediately that the kindergartners could draw a picture representing the concept or feeling each one-word line elicited, then put the pictures and words together in a way that made sense. What about older students? Could they do the same thing, but with more and more words, the older they were? This, I thought, had possibilities.

So, how would this look? Here’s how a simple school garden project might take shape. Let’s say we’re working with 7th graders in a middle school science class. And, we’ll have to pretend that there is a 7th grade English teacher who is interested in doing a collaboration with us. (It’s not easy for teachers in the US to do collaborative projects because they have many time demands, and very little free time. In many OECD countries, teachers are in the classroom for about half the day, and do classroom preparation, parental communication, and collaborative planning during the other part of the day.)

What is a possible place for science in Art and English?

My plan for this 7th grade science class is to develop a school garden plan from details we discover about soil presence and quality on the school grounds. After we know more about the school’s soils, we will choose an area and build a plan for our garden. Hopefully, our principal will approve our plan, and we can go to work. (Yes, the principal does already know about this!) The idea here is to provide students with an opportunity to meet a standard which expects them to engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly. Eventually, the class locates a spot, receives approval for their garden plan (The principal gave her okay after students presented their plan), and planting begins. And so, where is the English teacher?

She might be expected to be involved in writing the proposal to the principal, but she wasn’t. From the start, she had them write notes about what they did each day. Then, every Wednesday, they spent part of the English period using their notes to develop a story about some aspect of the garden. They were encouraged to write about the part of the project that was most interesting to them. Some wrote about who lives in the garden’s soil; what they found there, dangers they had to avoid, how they helped the plants we see above the soil. Others wrote about insects they found; their adventures, their hard work pollinating so many flowers, etc. As the work, and the notes progressed, the English teacher asked the students to begin morphing their stories into tales. This writing project continued after the garden project had evolved into routine maintenance, harvest, and observations. At this time, we had done lots of good science based on the garden, and would continue that.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”