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Art and Ingenuity: Teaching Literature Through Arts Integration

This post is written by member Stacey Dallas Johnston who is serving as a 2016 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. 

stacey-johnstonI am fascinated by the history of America. For 13 years I have been teaching an American literature class and detailing the historical and artistic evolution of society, politics, and literature. Unfortunately, not all sixteen-year-old’s feel the same way about this subject as I do.

I admit, old literature can be a bit dry at times. A teenager in this day and age is used to high-resolution TV, video games, and information being delivered at lightning speed. The slow crawl from the colonization of America to the 1920’s doesn’t always pack as much action as they would like.

Stacey3As I kick-start this current school year at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, I once again have turned back the clock to enter early America. This year, however, I have decided that I am no longer content with the way I’ve been doing things. As a teacher who wholeheartedly believes in arts integration, I know I can take my usual journey through American literature on some new twists and turns. All I need are some art supplies and ingenuity.

This year my students will study foundational American texts such as The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, and The Great Gatsby while using an interactive notebook to create collages, write poetry, draft letters, and analyze pieces of American artwork. Additionally, we will be memorizing and delivering some of the greatest American speeches such as “The Gettysburg Address,” in full costume, of course. It’s time to turn up the dial on arts integration so that my juniors forget that what they are reading is hundreds of years old and focus more on engaging in the empathetic experience of learning about history and enjoying literature.

Stacey2There is no reason why a room full of teenagers can’t be just as excited as I am to get inside the head of political figures or to imagine life in a Puritan colony. It just takes the right approach. Already, in a mere three weeks, my students have written rap songs encompassing the traits of America and have created visuals to express their responses to an essay titled “What Is an American.”

All it took was an invitation and a few markers, and no one was bored. My students were engaged in deep conversations and critical thinking about word choices and symbols. Although I teach at an arts high school, my student population is “diverse.” Not all the kids are outgoing, and not all of them even consider themselves creative. Additionally, they often do not see that their arts and academic classes share many of the same qualities.

Stacey1My job is to bridge that gap, to show them that jazz is not just a style of music but a culture, with just as much importance to the literary world of 1920’s as the musical world of that time. My job is to show them that delivering the words “Give me liberty or give me death” was probably not a performance meant to entertain, but was delivered with just as much, if not more, passionate intensity than the most riveting stage monologue. My job is to show them that language can be just as creative and metaphoric as an abstract painting.

It might be a hard sell at times, but I believe that the arts have the power to knock the dust off of history and appeal to the harshest of teenage critics. If you don’t believe me, just ask Alexander Hamilton.

Stacey4Stacey Dallas Johnston is an English teacher at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts in Las Vegas, NV, currently teaching English 11, AP Literature and Composition, and Creative Writing. A 16 year veteran of the Clark County School District, Johnston is an advocate for the arts. Johnston is currently serving as a 2016 Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education.