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The Value & History of Integrated Arts at Bank Street

by Maria Richa

Integrated Arts

Sixteen years ago I arrived at Bank Street School for Children as a full time art teacher for Middle and Upper School (Grades 1 – 8) armed with a strong belief in “art for arts sake.” I saw learning and exploring with art materials as a tool that provides personal time for children to reflect on their own daily experiences. I found that asking children questions about their own experiences and interests including; “If you could travel to school in any way, how would you do that?” stood as an excellent first grade motivation that also tapped into their imaginations. Offering students these kinds of motivations allowed them to use their imagination and their prior art experiences to construct meaning and expand their interest in the world.

My background in art education provided me with a framework of what was developmentally appropriate for each age level not only in themes of children’s interest, but also in their art making processes. While attending Teachers College, I learned the artistic stages of development through studying and understanding both Judith Burton’s and Nancy Smith’s pedagogy. In “Experience in Art” by Nancy Smith, I delved into the specific motivations, responses and artistic stages that all children experience in painting. Similarly, Lois Lord’s publication, “Collage and Construction in school,” showed me the specific developmental paths to collage and construction which parallels Smith’s philosophy.

Once at Bank Street, I worked side by side with Edith Gwathmey, Ann-Marie Mott and Lois Lord; all extremely wise and important women who shaped the methodology and philosophy of art education. I gained an even deeper respect and appreciation for their work when I visited their classrooms and saw the students’ work. Seeing it in reality confirmed my commitment to this way of thinking which I had already embraced from research and reading.

Bank Street School for Children is a private, independent school, located in Manhattan, founded almost a century ago by Lucy Sprague Mitchell. Mitchell believed in teaching to the whole child; that is to their emotional, social and intellectual world. Mitchell also wrote “Young Geographers” describing her belief that offering children opportunities to “first –hand discover” on their own or in groups stood as a powerful tool in making meaning and sense of the concepts presented in class.

When I arrived at Bank Street, the art program reflected a clear validation of Mitchell’s philosophy of teaching the whole child, in that “making art” deeply connected children to their humanity. After several years at Bank Street, I began to discover that art-making experiences generally connected to the core social studies curriculum throughout the school. Children in third grade classrooms for example, drew roaches from observation as they observed the make-up of a roach. These observations supported that child’s understanding as to the make up and behavior of roaches. Three weeks later, the students moved onto researching their own favorite insect and later they build that insect out of paper mache. It became easier to consider and realize how powerful and excited children felt when making their art from these kinds of tangible experiences. As Karen Galas, writes in “Arts as Epistemology,”

“For both teacher and child, the arts offer an expended notion of classroom discourse that is not solely grounded in linear, objective language and thinking, but rather recognizes the full range of human potential for expression and understanding.”

As a progressive school filled with child-centered, collaborative and experiential learning opportunities, Bank Street created the support teachers needed to make this dynamic opportunity grow with collaborations from the art department. Today we now call this one period for ages 1st- 5th grades Integrated Arts. This Integrated Art block became a time for children to use all the modalities to learn and develop their ideas as well as to make connections with the subject taught.

Over the years, I have seen these Integrated Art blocks as times for children to grow in their commitment to and interest in topics in curricular areas that may not have been as engaging to them before. Now they use their hands to make art, to enhance, demonstrate and reflect their connection. When I see how excited they become, I get excited. Their enthusiasm enhances and extends their learning. Maybe they never knew that roaches had wings. Now they do, and that motivates them not only to think about what makes a roach, but also to remember it later. I frequently see graduates come back and talk about how these hands-on experiences represent life-long learning.

In order to do a good job during these integrated art times, I need to be a part of the teaching team as well as to understand what they are studying and why. Often I read the books that are part of the curriculum to get more information. I continue to attend group discussions and classroom social studies meetings and go on field trips. I work closely and collaborate with the classroom teachers, a committed group of professionals passionate about teaching in various modalities and comfortable with art materials. We build from a trust of each others knowledge of children and their artistic development as well as art materials.

Learning about People: Connecting Cultures and their Crafts

Connecting Cultures and their Crafts

One of the most concrete and readily available ways to connect to Social Studies, people and cultures is through looking carefully at the artists and crafts of a particular culture. As an example, when second graders study the Native American Lenape in the spring, students learn that the Lenape used weaving to make cloth, mats and many other functional objects. During Integrated Art time in the classroom and art room, students use natural dyes and looms to weave their own mats or cloths. This experience provides students with a concrete understanding of how the Lenape people think and make functional art.

Last year, while one student was weaving he said to me, "Wow, this takes a really long time. They must have had a lot of patience," to which another student replied, "Well, they had no TV, so they had plenty of time.” Through these art making experiences and conversations, we learn what children are thinking and feeling during the course of their studies.

Beginning the Unit: Providing Personal Connections

Curriculum integration happens at different times during a typical Social Studies unit. For example, in order to provide second graders with a context for their Hudson River curriculum, the class traveled to the river to observe and paint the scenery. Being present in the landscape offers an intimate opportunity to discuss and share what they see. I ask students to observe what is far, near, and in the middle of the river. I provide drawing pencils first and then paint to allow the students to experience the surrounding colors and textures surrounding. Once they return to Bank Street, teachers see how children express their understanding of spatial perspectives within a landscape. The students also write about this experience, using “juicy,” richly descriptive words about the river trip including the following:

"The water’s beauty: it was a beautiful day. The sky was a magical blue. The trees were green as grass. Boats whizzed across the water. The sun was a shimmering gold. I saw New Jersey on the other side. I thought it could never be better. The current was strong and the water was murky green. I love the Hudson river."

It is evident in this student’s writing that she was able to take in the full landscape: the objects she saw, the textures and colors, as well as the feelings and emotions the landscape inspired.

Fourth grade students study how people live in different environments or life zones. Students begin this unit with a visit to the park. In small groups they create sculptures using the natural objects in their environment. Before we go, I ask the students, “When have you worked with nature?” and “What materials have you used before?” The landscape becomes their canvas and inspiration. When they have finished building, we spend time walking through each other’s spaces and listening to each group talk about their process and inspiration. Through this sharing we are all able to see how much care, thought and collaboration each group put into their creation. Students come back feeling connected to nature and valuing its importance in everyday life. Later in class, they view and discuss artists who work directly with nature (ie Andy Goldsworthy). Students see the many different ways in which artists respond to nature.

These “kick-off” examples utilize some of the best tools to engage children in their journey of learning. These experiences provide a concrete connection to the abstract concepts in their study. During a conversation I had with a second grade teacher, we discussed children’s confusion about the concept of “long ago” and what a densely wooded Manhattan must have looked like 400 years ago. We decided we needed to experience a place in the park where they could not see any buildings. So the class traveled to the ravine in Central Park, a place where nature is present and the city absent. The students now could travel back in time.

During the Study: Assessing and Expanding on their Learning

By the middle of their study, students have developed a better understanding of the subject. As they gained foundational knowledge, they became interested and motivated to investigate. As teachers determine how children are processing the information, they plan for other activities to extend learning. For example second grade students built a three-dimensional model of the entire Hudson River of today using three large homasote panels to represent the upper, middle, and lower river. As the students covered Manhattan’s city surfaces for the lower area of the river, you heard rich discussions about why this land should be mainly concrete in contrast to grassy greens in the middle river, and the hilly, mountainous terrain of Mount Marcy in the upper river. This knowledge, attained through trips, readings, photographs and classroom discussions, solidifies in a concrete way their understanding of the different environments along the river.


During this process, a student once asked, “But what about the river? Does it change in any way?” He actually predicted the next component of the unit: namely, “How does the water change between the upper, middle, and lower river?” Week by week, the growing model reflects the students’ expanding knowledge. One week they might be studying and making fish in the river, another week, transportation. During the second half of the unit, the students remove all the modern elements, and the model becomes the river of “long ago.” They transform the Hudson River back to how it looked during the time of the Lenape tribes.

Mural making provides another way of recreating physical and social environments during the middle of a study. When studying the arrival of the Dutch to Manhattan, third grade students first paint the landscape as it appeared before the Dutch landed. As they learn about houses and farmlands, they add these components to the paintings. Later, while researching the daily lives of the people, each student adds a person in traditional Dutch clothing. For example, I may ask the children, “What kinds of work did people do outside and inside their buildings?” These rich exchanges that take place while students are “making” again provide them with an opportunity to further understand the concepts presented. I can see how involved the students are in their work and in sharing and collaborating. The material represents what they have learned. This encourages them to develop and search for more ideas and knowledge about the subject.

Putting all the Learning in One Place: Time to Build & Time to Play

Putting all the Learning in One PlaceThe time arrives, towards the end of a unit of study, to plan for the culminating project. I look forward to building dioramas of a miniature Dutch scene with the third graders. By now, children are proud of their expertise in Dutch life during colonial times. With each passing year and with different groups of students, I learn more about the study and how to teach children. As they build elaborate scenes of colonial times, children get to re-live their favorite part of the unit. As they build, students often include in their scene the stories that helped them understand the people and places they have studied. In their dramatic play, I see them delve into the subject matter and almost place themselves in that scene. Their ability to tell these stories and to engage in dramatic play with their scene unfolds naturally. There is also a rich exchange of ideas, as students are working side by side. It’s clear they gain inspiration from one another and value each other’s knowledge.

Similarly, once the Hudson River model is finished students have the opportunity to interact with the model. Teachers provide time for this dramatic play in the classroom. I can see how much children enjoy acting out these scenes. They continue to add objects to their model as they play and identify the need for more. These rich interactions inspire me and continue to stand as a true confirmation of their learning.