Classroom Strategies, Tools and Resources

Art and Literacy Go Hand in Hand

How Doodles Academy art lessons prepare students to be good readers

“There is no such thing as doing the nuts and bolts of reading in kindergarten through fifth grade without coherently developing knowledge in science and history and the arts. Period. It is false. It is a fiction.”

David Coleman, current President of the College Board and lead author of the Common Core State Standards.

Almost a decade ago, I remember watching the YouTube video in which Coleman made the above claim. Until this point, I—like so many—had been told and encouraged to table all activities that were not directly tied to reading and math outcomes, in favor of things believed to lead to higher scores on state tests. Intuitively, I knew narrowing the curriculum for students was not good, and Coleman’s remarks proved an important lever in helping stakeholders bring art back into the elementary classroom.

Yet, bringing art back is a little easier said than done. I work in Nevada and in the elementary grades, there are no state or district funded art teachers. Moreover, budgets are tight, and purchasing an art program or writing an art curriculum proved a nonstarter. It was with that context that a friend shared Doodles Academy with me and encouraged me to experiment with the resource. 

A Doodles Academy art lesson begins with an “inspirational image” that is matched to the instructional goal of a project. For example, before students learn about silhouettes, they look carefully at Kara Walker’s Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War. They are asked to notice and wonder and draw evidence from the work to support claims and conclusions. Some students may know the term silhouette, but even if they do not, they will begin to recognize the features of it. In turn, they will be ready for the lesson that involves the teacher sharing a short video, replete with terminology, connections to previous lessons, and demonstrations of different artistic techniques.

For me, part of the appeal of Doodles Academy is that it spoke to my previous discomfort in teaching art. Largely speaking, art was reduced to what I could model and what my students could imitate. I suspect my experience is not much different than many elementary educators, so having a fully built resource like Doodles Academy is important. I don’t have to be an expert and I don’t have to spend hours looking for high-quality and standards-aligned materials. Further, I know the lessons move beyond just producing pieces to other dispositions in the arts including creating, responding, and connecting. 

The first Doodles Academy project I ever did with my students was the Superheroes lesson. We started with the careful observation of an art piece. The idea of beginning with careful observations was new to me, but I immediately recognized how it was like students mining a text for evidence. This primed them for the video demonstration that came next and even allowed me to integrate word study around the prefix, super-.  

The success of the first project led me to look at other projects. In every instance, my students were engaged, learning, and unbeknownst to them, reinforcing our literacy standards. When it came to administrators walking through my room, they also saw the power of a Doodles lesson. They saw how much ownership students had throughout the process and how it fit with school and district goals of maximizing the academic and social potential for all of our learners. 

If you click here, you will see my students completing the Learning About Native American Totem Animals project. I hope the engagement and learning is obvious. Less obvious is how it builds knowledge that will help students become stronger readers. In my state, students study native people of Nevada in fourth grade and native people of South and North America in 5th grade. If you have read Natalie Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap, or a blog post by Dr. Dan Willingham, you know that my third-grade students were building schema that will make them more successful with material going forward. 

One final note: my students love the lessons. If they didn’t, I would have stopped after the first project. Instead, I have exhausted just about everything on the site and continue to encourage others to visit Doodles Academy. 

Coleman once asked, “What do the arts do, that literacy teachers could learn from?” Coleman’s answer: It requires teachers to have students go back to an art piece multiple times, much like educators ask students to do with text. Art also allows for multiple interpretations of a creation, much like what is possible with a great piece of writing. 

As you plan for engaging and standards-aligned experiences this school year, I would suggest that Doodles Academy is part of the planning process.

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About the Author: Aaron Grossman is a 4th-grade Distance Learning teacher in Reno, Nevada. Aaron was his district’s 2017 Teacher of the Year and a Nevada 2018 Teacher of the Year Finalist. Aaron cocreated the website www.justtwoteachers.com where he posts curricular supplements, for the Benchmark Advance reading program, strongly aligned to the expectation of the standards. You can learn more about Aaron and what his students are up at his Twitter feed https://twitter.com/classroomd4.