Tips and Tricks for Arts-Integrated Lesson Design

Scientific Thought in Motion: Dance and Science Integration
Note: This post was originally written as part of a course in arts integration for teachers. The focus was on integrating Dance and Science, but these ideas actually apply to all kinds of integration planning.


Start with Big Ideas
In the art form, an excellent place to begin is with the elements of that form. In the case of dance, we identify Body, Energy, Space, and Time as the primary elements. Each has several sub-elements, and those can help us find connections to the “big ideas” in the connected curriculum — in this case, science.

Let’s take an example. As I scan through the big science ideas about systems of the human body, I see immediate dance connections with shape, size, pathway, symmetry, energy, speed, rhythm, and (of course) body.


Once I have a sense that this is a rich playing field, I need to know more about the details of the science, and I also need to know how to access student prior knowledge — including any misconceptions they may have. (When I ask a group to create a human heart in movement as a short challenge task, I very often see them trying to duplicate the shape of the valentine heart rather than the complex, four-chambered organ we actually possess.)

I also have to devise a strategy to use one of the dance connections to help illuminate the science idea. That same strategy should also shed light on a dance element or dance as communication. So I have to narrow it down.

Now you get to engage more deeply in the creative process of lesson design.

Let’s say I want to narrow down my lesson to pathway in dance, and the flow of blood through the heart in science. My approach to teaching this lesson might start with having my dancers use the locomotor movement of walking to travel through the room in curving pathways. I could then ask them to layer in different energies, such as flowing, constricting, absorbing, and releasing. They can imagine themselves as red blood cells, picking up oxygen from the lungs and delivering it to all parts of the body.

Gradually I let the story build. This is evolving objectives. We might add in the idea of absorbing carbon dioxide from the body and releasing it in the lungs, making a cycle in action. Then we differentiate between veins and arteries (direction of flow relative to the heart).

The last step in the story would be to show a short video of blood flow in the heart, and have students work in small groups to create a model of the heart in motion. This could be a five-minute challenge.


Shape the Lesson
Everything above is the middle of the lesson, the learning experience. We still have to add a beginning (some sort of introduction, anticipatory set, or other engaging “grabber” to set the stage), and we need an ending in which students have a chance to reflect on their learning and make connections to other topics. These are critical to the success of the lesson if we are aiming at deeper learning.

Some ways of beginning a lesson are to don a bit of costume (such as a lab coat), bring in a model or specimen for students to discover, or show a short video with engaging content related to the topic.

  • Tip: Never, ever begin an arts-integrated lesson with the words, “Today we’re going to talk about…” I’m sure you can deduce why!

For the ending of the lesson, be sure to leave at least five minutes to pose reflection questions and preview any further lessons if this is an integrated unit. Some good reflection-starters are:

  • What surprises did you have in this lesson?
  • What questions do you have now?
  • Where could we go next with these ideas?
  • Do you see any connections to other things we are learning?

Test and Revise
OK, planning time is over. Time to field-test the plan. As you lead the lesson, don’t be afraid to have your outline in hand and refer to it frequently. You may not be fluent in your language the first time out, but as long as you have a “cheat sheet” of important vocabulary and steps of the lesson, you should be able to keep everyone engaged.

I try to notice hesitance on the part of the students to move, which usually indicates I have not given them enough information (or enough connections with meat on their bones) for them to know what to do. I may have to re-phrase or re-image what I want.

I also am thinking about pacing. I know if I talk too long, I will start losing students. If I go too quickly, they won’t have time to really put intention and meaning into their movement. I may realize that I won’t be able to teach the entire lesson as I envisioned it. The students may need more time to just play with the movement in order to enlarge their movement vocabulary. We might not get to exploring the actual heart chambers until the next lesson, which is fine. Smaller bites are almost always good!


Evaluate and Refine
After a few revisions, you may find the lesson plan works very well and also serves as a template or jumping-off place for additional lessons. The fun part is that each lesson you lead increases your skill and facility at the planning process, and you begin to develop effective shortcuts. Then you are ready to write a new and improved “tips & tricks” post of your own!

Photos from CETA “Scientific Thought in Motion” course session at Kensington Parkwood Elementary School, Maryland, USA: 12/6/2012.
I found this article online just about the same time I posted this entry. Here’s an interesting quote from “The Eight Aspects of Teacher Learning” on a site called Powerful Learning Practice (
By Sister Geralyn Schmidt

Good teachers design learning

Recently, when I perused my twitter feed, I came upon a blog post titled Teacher as Learning Designer. Andrew Miller, the author, states: “If you are a teacher and you are trying to explain what you do, say, ‘I am a learning designer!’ Teachers need to be empowered with a variety of instructional designs to meet the needs of all students. They need to be honored for their expertise to create creative and engaging learning environments. We can re-frame the concept of “teaching” to truly encapsulate all that teachers can and should do!”


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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