Using the Arts to Teach Symbols and Reading

I am a firm believer that the arts can be used to teach anything.  Especially when taught by living, breathing artists.  And, while art purely for art’s sake can bring joy to a student’s day, the truth is that there’s no better way to teach some of the more abstract academic concepts than through the arts.  And the best part is, students don’t even realize that they’re being taught. 

For the past several years, I have been using music to teach concepts including main idea, comparing and contrasting and author’s purpose to name a few.  One of my favorite workshops is so rich, that it cannot be contained in a single session and so I devote two lessons to the concept of Symbols. 

Emerging readers need to have several skills and concepts in place before being able to decode.  One of these concepts is the meaning and significance of symbols.  We are, of course, surrounded by symbols in our lives -- from road signs to icons on smartphones.  They’re everywhere and we take them and their various meanings for granted.  But, for a young student, if he doesn’t understand that the letter “B” is a symbol for a sound, then decoding words will be impossible. 

So, how can these emerging learners come to understand that markings on a page can represent something completely different, separate and seemingly unrelated in the real world?  Oddly enough, one way is through music.  How better to get a handle on this abstraction, than through musical symbols?  This dot (pitch) here on this line sounds one way, and this one over here sounds completely different.  This symbol means to play the music loudly, and this other one: quietly.

It might seem that these concepts would be difficult to grasp for Kindergarten, first and second graders, but there are days when I can almost see an actual light bulb go off above students’ heads as I teach my lessons.  They pick up and absorb these ideas so rapidly because they’re not learning; they’re singing and moving.  They’re not studying, they’re “playing.”  They’re not being taught, they’re being entertained.  But they are learning, studying, and being taught.  And when education is combined with joy, it stays with you for a lifetime. 

With the upcoming changes to the Common Core State Standards, we are at crucial point where we, as teaching artists, can lead.  So, I’d love to share a few ways we as artists might use our unique abilities to convey what a symbol is, so that we will be able to then make connections between academic concepts and our unique, varied, and diverse art forms

In my Symbols lesson, I teach the kids a few musical terms and their symbols.  Then I encourage the students to create their very own symbols and what sounds those symbols represent.  The sounds can be made with their voices, their bodies or anything that can create sounds.  Then, together, we then compose a soundscape using their symbols. 

After practicing and performing the soundscape, we then add the musical symbols they learned and see how the sounds are now more expressive and come to life.

Now let’s take this a step further and bring the visual arts into the mix.  The students could take the symbols they’ve created and create a piece of art using those symbols.  Then the kids could do a gallery walk where the student artists talk about what their symbols represent.  Perhaps there is even a discussion where students interpret the symbols created by their classmates.  

Unlike music or math, where symbols are constant and always have the same meaning, symbols in art can have any number of meanings.  I have found it interesting to, at the end of my symbol workshop, show the students some artwork that is rich with symbols and have them interpret what they see.  Some students even create a story around some of the artwork I show them.  The students love that there is no right answer and that their opinion is just as valid as mine.  What they have to say is important and worthwhile. 

Last year, I attended a teaching artists training at MOCA which taught us how to use a technique called Visual Thinking Strategies.  Very simply put, this technique allows you to facilitate a discussion about a piece of art by asking the following questions:

  • What's going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

I have found that  by using this method, I can lead the discussion without imposing my interpretations on the class.

A dancer can choreograph a dance with students and use symbols to represent the movements.  Students will then experience how symbols can be memory aids.  A theatre artist can have students make a stage plot using symbols, or perhaps use symbols to create a map of how a scene has been blocked.

The connection between music and symbols is so organic, that my lessons practically wrote themselves.  Perhaps, as you become more familiar with the Core Standards, there will be concepts that will be a natural fit for your art form and you will be able to reach some students who are aural, kinesthetic, visual or musical learners.  And that lightbulb?  Well, that’s a symbol too, isn’t it?

Beth Sussman received her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from the Juilliard School. She is currently a Master Teaching Artist with both the Los Angeles Music Center and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.  Recently, Beth was a presenter at a TED - X conference where she demonstrated how steady beat can improve reading fluency and comprehension.  She is currently working on a project which will bring arts workshops online using both animation and live action.  Further information about this project can viewed at www.joppity.com 

Follow her on Twitter:  @bethsussman

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