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Classroom Teachers | module 3

Get Arts Powered with Classroom TeachersPS 144 6th grade teacher Lori Diamond with students

In Arts Powered Schools, classroom teachers create Arts Powered Learning using the following four strategies:


PLUS, Tips for Arts Powered Teaching

strategy 1 l Classroom Teachers Act As Critical Thinkers

PS 144: Col. Jeromus Remsen in Forest Hills and the Queens Museum

Arts Powered ParQueens Museum of Art at Flushing Meadows Corona Parktnerships demand a lot of classroom teachers—planning meetings, training sessions, schedule adjustments, and rethinking the curriculum. They also require that teachers be critical thinkers. An excellent example is the long-running partnership PS 144 has with the Queens Museum, which celebrates the culture of this New York City borough. The museum’s building was created for the 1939 World’s Fair, a centerpiece of urban planner Robert Moses’s master design for New York City. Moses was a brilliant and extremely controversial figure: He created an unprecedented amount of parkland, for instance, but he also bulldozed neighborhoods, leaving urban blight in their wake.

When the museum’s curators started planning an exhibit honoring Moses’s legacy, its staff approached PS 144 about creating a Moses-inspired Arts Powered Unit. But many of the school’s teachers were unhappy about the prospect, as they had strong personal memories of how Moses’s grand plans overrode the will of their communities.   


PS 144 4th Grade Teacher Elizabeth Spears: Robert Moses in front of the Unisphere outside the Queens Museum

“We lived through Moses’s disruptions. We saw highways bisect neighborhoods. We saw how low bridges were put in to keep out the trucks that local businesses needed for deliveries and shipping. At first we were dead set against glorifying the man, plain and simple.”

Nevertheless, the teachers sat down with museum educators to grapple with possibilities. When the back-and-forth ended, they had developed a unit for fourth graders about the pros and cons of urban redevelopment focusing on Moses and New York City. At its core, the unit was about critical thinking, and the planners realized that the preliminary discussions had enhanced the curriculum and made it more complex. 

Image of Queens Museum and Unisphere from "Google Earth"

They decided that the key idea should be urbanization—how a city grows and develops—and that this would be an important opportunity for the students to work with ideas and think about values. They also saw it as a chance to break out of a textbook approach to social studies by using sources like maps, Google Earth images, and historic photographs.

The unit combined a study of Moses’s projects with discussions about the future of the school’s neighborhood. The students and teachers wrestled with one of the ferocious debates of the last century: whether to save old, crowded, quirky neighborhoods or replace them with modern, efficient high-rises, roadways, and bridges. Along the way, they realized that core of the debate wasn’t as much about heroes and villains as it was about human decisions and how they unfold. “[It was] about choices that get made and how communities have to live with them ever after,” PS 144 Arts Coordinator Lois Olshan observed.

Queens Museum's 10,000-square-foot city panorama

Part of the students’ work was to create three-dimensional aerial representations of various Moses sites and exhibit them for other students, teachers, families, and the museum staff. They also visited the museum and its fabulous 10,000-square-foot city panorama. The overall experience was Arts Powered Learning—and its impact is likely to last in countless ways. 



PS 144 4th Grade Teacher Elizabeth Spears:

“Each child took one of the public works projects that Moses was behind, usually one that the child was familiar with. They researched it very thoroughly. They read about its history, what is was before and after Moses, They learned to navigate using Google Earth, so they could get to know every nook and cranny. They also worked with teaching artist Aimee Mower to make a 3-D representation of that particular site. I have to say it was intense. When we asked them at the end of the year about their memories, this was at the top of their lists.”

PS 144 3-D representation of the Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Bridge (formerly Triboro)            PS 144 3-D representation of the Major Deegan Expressway            PS 144 3-D representation of Shea Stadium (until recently, home of the New York Mets)
              RFK Jr. Bridge (formerly Triboro)                  Major Deegan  Expressway                                 Shea Stadium                                                                                
   Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Bridge          Major Deegan Expressway         Shea Studium, (until recently, home of the New York Mets)

You can read more about Robert Moses and his controversial master design for New York City. Also be sure to check out City Lore, an organization that gives students a deeper knowledge of the history and evolution of their neighborhoods.

strategy 2 l Classroom Teachers Insist on Strong, Multilevel Connections

One hallmark of Arts Powered Learning is an emphasis on interdisciplinary thinking and working. In Arts Powered Classrooms, teachers insist on strong, genuine connections between the arts and other academic content areas. They know that just singing a song about community helpers does not lead to deeper understanding of how cities work; instead, they use maps, history, and data. They won’t settle for a drama project where the literacy component is writing a thank-you note to the performers. They want more—and they work hard to make it happen.

Fannie Lou Hamer students displaying their Medea masks
The value of strong interdisciplinary units of study is that they
Make meaningful connections made among disciplines
Promote in-depth learning (such as discipline-specific vocabulary, strategies,
   and standards for quality work) in each discipline
Show students how connections between disciplines have applications beyond
   the immediate project
Engage students in learning through the artistic processes of creating, performing,
   and responding
Provide opportunities to show students examples of similar interdisciplinary work
   by professionals or other students
Allow student work to be assessed in ways that acknowledge its multiple aspects

Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the South Bronx

Click to enlarge: Elie Weisel's "Night" project and artist statement by special education student
At Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, classroom teachers have had a sustained partnership with the Studio Museum in Harlem. This partnership has produced a series of interdisciplinary units that help young people to read a range of complex written and visual texts at a level that prepares them for the rigorous New York State Regents exams in world history and English/language arts. For example:

A unit on the Greek tragedy Medea was complemented by mask-making and performance
In a unit on Elie Weisel’s Holocaust memoir Night, the class also studied the elements of  graphic design and
   created mixed media paintings that featured powerful visual metaphors. Click here for a video on the process
   and art of Night with general education students. Click on photo above right to see the artwork
   and artist statement of a student from a Fannie Lou Hamer special education class.
Students analyzed the origins and consequences of Latin American revolutions using contemporary political
   comics from Africa
   (click below for an in-depth look at the "Revolution Comics" unit and student outcomes, part 1 & 2):

 Student Artwork from Revolution Comics

Click to enlarge             Click to enlarge      Click to enlarge          Click to enlarge
 Fannie Lou Hamer student displaying his Macbeth shield
(Interdisciplinary units continued from above):
 In a unit on Macbeth and the Crusades that focused on power and its corrupting effects,
   students created shields and heraldry that represented major characters' struggles with
   power (Macduff having to stoop to Macbeth’s level of treachery and violence in order
   to save Scotland, for instance).
In a unit on Enlightenment writing about human rights (by John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft,
   and others), students made paintings expressing the claims these writers made for all
   human beings. 

In each case, the visual art concepts—symbolism, theme, motif—and the visual works that students created illuminated important ideas in literature and history. Working at this intersection gave students the opportunity to explore what it takes to understand a challenging text—whether it’s a novel, play, essay, film, or painting. The arts gave teachers a learning community in which their own skills and knowledge could be challenged and expanded.    

Fannie Lou Hamer Humanities Teacher Garth Reeves:Fannie Lou Hamer Humanities teacher Garth Reeves working with students on their Macbeth shields

“Working with the Studio Museum pushed me to think about how I can bring more art in to my teaching. It was a gift to work with another person [the teaching artist] and collaborate on creating a curriculum that opens up more avenues for my students to learn. To put it bluntly, if we didn’t have this partnership I wouldn’t have done an art project or learned these skills. Now whether or not we continue this collaboration, and I hope we do, I would still be able to teach the unit. This is a great benefit.”


strategy 3 l Classroom Teachers Teach That the Community Is a Campus

In Arts Powered Schools, inquiry is a 24–7 enterprise. Classroom teachers engaged in Arts Powered Learning teach their students to think of their communities as living books, museums, or performances. 

IS 259: William McKinley Intermediate School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

If IS 259 had a school T-shirt, it might read “New York is my campus, 259 is my school.” Though this Brooklyn middle school is almost an hour’s train ride from Manhattan, its students are growing up in the heart of things in large part because their teachers use the arts to help them become citizens of the entire city. 

Click for "Making Connections Across Time" powerpoint, an arts integrated curriculum focusing on Asian and African culturesIn their first year at the school, sixth graders dive into a humanities-based curriculum that combines social studies and English/language arts. As in many other schools, they start in the ancient Near East, moving on to Egypt, Africa, Rome, and Asia. But while more traditional classrooms might march through the textbook, one civilization per week, these students come face to face with the living cultures of these civilizations through Arts Powered Learning. As part of a long-term partnership with Symphony Space and the Creative Arts Team, the humanities teachers have reorganized their curriculum, calling it, “Making Connections Across Time” to incorporate the performing and visual arts of the traditions and nations that they study. 

IS 259 Assistant Principal Carney Haberman:
"Most of our students are a generation and a half away from living in another country. Their families are immigrants—from Egypt, Russia, Taiwan—so part of what we do is to teach them the city, and especially what wave after wave of immigrants have contributed to making it the place that it is."
Students visit Symphony Space for interactive performance based on arts integrated curriculum      Symphony Space teaching artist brings African drumming to the classroom      Students visit Symphony Space for interactive performance based on arts integrated curriculum     

IS 259 6th Grade Social Studies Teacher Anthony DeBenedetto:
“We think about our work with Symphony Space as introducing our students to primary source texts. The visiting artists are performers on the world stage, bringing the music, dance, and theater from China or India or Africa, and not as long-ago, 'BC' stuff. but as the cultural traditions that influence many of the families in the school and neighborhood. They offer our kids a way to read and interpret them: the symbols, the meanings, and the traditions.”

As is always the case with Arts Powered Learning, IS 259’s curriculum is designed to have an impact long after the unit is done.

IS 259's Social Studies teacher, Anthony DeBenedetto   IS 259 6th Grade Social Studies Teacher Anthony DeBenedetto:
“We make every effort to keep this conversation about culture going and take advantage of every opportunity to engage the kids outside the classroom. We saw South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater through the Theater Development Fund (a nonprofit that helps diversify theater audiences). And because of what they had been learning, the students totally got it. They could pick up on the conflict and the different values of the two cultures—I was amazed.”


IS 259 student painting supplies set up in hallway for all day access

With this foundation, the students were ready for what Tom Buxton, an English teacher, and Roma Karas, a visual arts teacher, had in store for them in sixth grade. Beginning in 2005, the two teachers began a series of mural projects that, four years later, took up the entire third floor of the building and were travelling up to the fourth floor. The murals’ theme was New York as a city enriched by the cultures of everyone who had arrived on its shores; their visual inspiration was the 1930s, especially Art Deco, jazz, and movie palaces. Using reference books and the web, students documented how buildings throughout the city drew on the styles, icons, and mythology of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The students also studied the music of George Gershwin as well as movies and paintings of the 1930s, creating a lively portrait of the city’s pulsing life at that time.

IS 259 8th Grade English Teacher Tom Buxton:

“To this day, the kids make connections; they can read reference or suggestion. Now they can unpack that whole heritage anywhere they are. One of them came in the other day saying he’d noticed the god Mercury—he’d seen the FTD symbol in a florist’s window. Another one was reading the paper and picked up on someone talking about Donald Trump’s hubris. People ask how we can do all this when they have to do well on the 8th grade tests, but it is really all connected. The whole time we are working on the murals, they are researching and reading. They have to be able to give tours of the murals and answer any question that a visitor might ask. They have to think on their feet. They have to know what to say, how to give it context, how to speak to any audience. The writing flows from the speaking.”

IS 259 student works on hallway mural during her lunchtime


And there’s data to back up Buxton’s observations about the connections between the arts and improved performance. New York City Department of Education data shows that the students who had been working on the murals for the previous three years improved their English/Language Arts grades. The data also shows that students who worked on the murals who were English-language learners scored in the 90th percentile of standardized tests and that the lowest-performing students who worked on the projects made more gains than the citywide average.


strategy 4 l Classroom Teachers Keep Arts Powered Learning Alive

In many traditional residencies or partnerships between an artist or cultural organization and a school, gaps can happen. An artist visits, a performance takes place, but the next day, it’s back to business as usual. In Arts Powered Schools, however, teachers and students keep the learning alive and the conversations cooking.

PS 144: Col. Jeromus Remsen in Queens

Guggenheim Museum on 5th Avenue in ManhattanPS 144 has a partnership with the Guggenheim Museum’s Learning Through Art program, through which practicing artists work with New York City public school teachers to create art projects that will help students examine ideas related to their curriculum. 

The school’s second graders started by looking at landscapes and cityscapes at the museum. Teaching artist Aimee Mower introduced them to art techniques and concepts while showing them how to develop an array of visual observation skills. Back at school, working with their art teacher, the students selected a specific scene in Forest Hills, and, using bold tempera colors on large-format paper, painted what they had observed.

PS 144's Learning Through Art program on display at the Guggenheim Museum
The classroom teachers then asked students to hone a different visual skill: envisioning the future. In connection with their science and social studies curriculum, the children added clear plastic overlays to their original paintings and redesigned the scene to show changes that could make important differences immediately as well as in the future. Based on their study of the environment, the students recognized the importance of planting trees, creating parks, providing safe walkways for animals and people, and having green buildings.

In a less well-thought-out program, the learning could have shut down when the paints were put away, but because Arts Powered Learning was in effect, it didn’t happen that way.

PS 144 Second Grade Teacher Jennifer Sussman:

“They kept sketchbooks during the project, and they started to realize that art is all around them: in people’s gardens, on the fronts of buildings, in the tiles of the subway. They loved it; they started to bring the sketchbooks everywhere—to lunch, home, and back. The sketchbooks weren’t graded, it was more organic than that. Carrying them around was more a sign that they were invested in their project. They began to understand how artists develop ideas from sketches—like in the writing process. Now we have a shared vocabulary about that. When I want them to invest in something—and do a lot more than just 'first-draft’ work—I can say, 'Think about how you worked in your sketchbooks.’"

In addition to learning more about science, social studies, observation, and painting, the students also developed community-building skills.

PS 144 Second Grade Teacher Jennifer Sussman:

PS 144 teacher Jennifer Sussman working with students“I see this work as giving them the tools to do anything for the communities where they live in the future. They don’t have to be an artist, but this is a way of making them critical thinkers in life. The project really helped them to be better citizens with each other; they came to see the classroom as a community. And it gave them a vocabulary. You’d hear them saying things like, “I’d like to build upon what so-and-so said” and “Can you tell me more about that?” The old “yes-no” answers began to slip away. It drew them together and spread to other parts of their day, other classes. It’s my job not to let that become something that belongs only to the Guggenheim projects.”

Tips for Arts Powered Teaching

 At each of case-study schools (PS144, Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, IS259) classroom teachers made lists of how they pursue the four Arts Powered Teaching Strategies. Some items turned up on everyone’s list, some were particular to the grades taught.

On Every Teacher’s List

  • You need a strong arts coordinator or a teacher who is willing to put in the time to lead the effort
  • Tweak the schedule to support the work (open the building early to let kids work on projects, schedule
  • Double periods to allow for project work, align planning periods for teachers who want to partner, etc.)
  • Insist on high-quality partners who are invested in working at your school, with your kids and your curriculum, and in using the resources of your community. Stay away from prepackaged vendor programs.
    Quality partnership: One of PS 144 and Queens Museum's many meetings in school library
  • Seize opportunities (find out about grants, classes, courses) that could help you achieve your goal.
  • Raise the bar each year; the work should get deeper each time you do it. If it doesn’t, you’re coasting.

in Elementary School:
Advice from PS 144

  • Integrate the teaching artist or cultural partner into the expectations of the school. Guide the teaching artist to make them successful.
  • Test-drive the projects ahead of time on yourself, your own kids, or older kids who will come in at lunch.
  • Make connections plain for the kids. (“Remember, that just-right pink that it took so long to blend? This is just like that—it will take time.” “Think about when you looked at those Cubist paintings and you had to look really hard.”) If you don’t do it, who will?
  • Make a clear plan for what will happen when; just feeling your way is a waste of valuable time and resources. You can be flexible in the moment, but you can’t improvise your way to a quality project.
  • Keep in touch with each other about how the process is going throughout the project.
  • Speak up. Communicate with the teaching artist or organization about what doesn’t work. You both need the success.
  • At the end of every project, take stock, keep what worked, and learn from what failed.

in Middle School:
Advice from IS 259

  • Use all available times to plan: before school, lunch time, after school. It takes hours to do good work.
  • Don’t allow disinterest. Create a range of roles that play to students’ interests and talents: project manager, performer, costumer, tour guide, master of ceremonies, docent, greeter. It’s important that everyone be involved—and keep them involved by making them proud.
  • Families begin to be less involved in their kids schooling starting in early adolescence. Use the work (plays, gallery openings, ballroom dancing parties, etc.) to draw them in to the school.
  • Exhibit the work, make it public, acknowledge the kids.
  • Help students think about how they are going to acknowledge and preserve their interests and gifts after middle school. Get them thinking about where they want to go to high school, help them find out what arts opportunities are there; talk with them about being multidimensional—they could become scientists who do ballroom dancing, for instance.


in High School:
Advice from Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School

  • Fannie Lou Hamer mixed media project, "Revolution Comics"Develop long-term partnerships with artists and institutions that will work with you on the big ideas your kids have to and need to learn.
  • Consider working as an interdisciplinary team  (English and social studies, for instance) to get enough time and depth to accomplish what you want.
  • Nurture new teachers as they come onto the team; they may never have worked across subjects or with outside partners before.
  • Consider using more experienced students (upperclassmen, for instance, or students who have done numerous Arts Powered Projects) to help explain, mentor and support students new to doing this work. Their example can be extremely powerful.
  • Give the students' work a place of honor. Put it up on the walls. Make it part of events for families. Include it in students’ presentations of their academic portfolios. There is so much students have to accomplish in high school that art can get crowded out—unless and until you make a place for it.


PS 144 Pop Art self-portraits based on Andy Warhol silk screens

 Giving Student Work A Place Of Honor


You can read more about PS 144 in the School Overview, Progress Report, Quality Report and the Annual Arts in School Report at the New York Department of Education website.

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