Susan RileySusan Riley is an Arts Integration specialist currently working with the Upper Darby School District to provide teacher and administrator professional development. She is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of several books including Shake the Sketch and STEAM Point: A Guide to Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics through the Common Core. Her passion for teaching and shared support for fellow teachers has led her to her current role as founder and curator of, one of the leading resources for Arts Integration and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) practices. She has very generously offered time out of her busy schedule to answer questions and provide insight into the innovative programs that are currently being applied in the Upper Darby School District.

UDPC: Can you explain what Arts Integration (AI) means for our non-teacher audience?

Susan Riley: Arts Integration occurs when teachers intentionally teach a subject like math, reading, science, or social studies through the arts. It’s more than arts and crafts. When teachers are using Arts Integration, they are using the skills learned in the arts classes to enhance and deepen another subject. This makes learning more meaningful for students.

UDPC: How is it different from the art classes that many of today’s parents experienced as students?

Susan Riley: Arts Integration is a strategy — it’s not a curriculum. Arts Integration provides students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in ways that traditional education cannot capture. Arts classes in an Arts Integration-focused school are dedicated to building the specific arts skills and processes, and creating experiences that are central to the arts themselves.

UDPC: It is easy to think that when you are speaking about integrating the “arts” into a curriculum, you are talking about the visual arts and writing, but what roles can music, drama, and dance play in today’s core subject classrooms?

Susan Riley: All of the arts can be used to connect with any other subject area. That’s the beauty of Arts Integration — it expands a curriculum, rather than narrowing it. Music can be used in math classes to teach fractions or in science to teach sound waves and the scientific method. Dance can be used in reading to physically move through a story and build fluency, or in math to show geometric principles using their bodies. Drama can be used in social studies to act out historical events or people, or in reading to help students summarize a plot. The possibilities are endless!

UDPC: It seems there are some classes that would be easier to apply AI to a curriculum design than others. For example, social studies and history directly address the arts in some lesson plans. Can you give us examples of what an AI lesson plan looks like in a science or math classroom?

Susan Riley: There are so many exciting ways to integrate the arts in both of these areas. In fact, there is a whole movement called STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) that advocates for more arts in these subject areas. One lesson I love is looking at ratios in math through the lens of a camera. You can create a paper grid overtop of a photograph that students took and have them color a ratio of boxes in the grid. For more details, you can view that lesson seed here: arts integration lesson plan.

In science, you can use music as a way to learn about observation skills through critical listening and musical form. That lesson seed is found here: form and observation arts integration lesson.

UDPC: In your book Shake the Sketch, you speak to the necessity of AI being authentic. Can you explain what you mean and why you feel authenticity is so important?

Susan Riley: Authenticity is what separates Arts Integration from arts enhancement. Arts Integration is authentic when the teachers are choosing an arts standard to connect with their content and assessing both the arts standard and the subject content. This means that the arts must be taught in and of themselves so that students come to class with the skills they need to apply them to another subject. Without ensuring that there is an arts standard being taught and assessed, it is simply arts and crafts. Using a shadow box to show the solar system is a nice craft project, but it’s not arts integration. Students aren’t purposefully using their knowledge of arts skills to connect with another topic. I always ask teachers, “What arts standard are you addressing in this lesson?” if I’m supposed to be seeing Arts Integration. If they can’t readily tell me, then it’s not Arts Integration.

UDPC: Many public schools today are faced with extreme budget cuts, and it seems that the arts and music are the first areas that are on the chopping block almost everywhere we look. Is the implementation of AI a curriculum design intended to allow school districts to replace music and art classrooms altogether? Isn’t this just merging the arts into other areas?

Susan Riley: Absolutely not. As I said earlier, Arts Integration is a strategy — not a curriculum. It is meant to be used as a way to enhance and deepen learning of all content areas, not to replace a current arts program. In fact, I’m a strong believer that if you do not have dedicated arts classes, you absolutely cannot have Arts Integration. Arts Integration only works if students have time to learn the skills and processes they need in the arts themselves. Then, they can apply what they know. Without this dedicated class time, students don’t have the background knowledge they need to succeed.

UDPC: How do teachers measure student achievement with AI lesson plans?

Susan Riley: Teachers are assessing students on their growth in the both the arts and the subject area during Arts Integration lessons. They look at where a student starts and where they end, and measure the growth that has occurred. For both the subject area and the arts area, this provides an objective, measurable data point of student learning. There are a variety of ways that this happens: rubrics, pre- and post-assessments, portfolios, etc. The results are almost always more complex, higher-level products because the process of learning is much richer.

UDPC: How much professional development is required before a teacher would be considered proficient in applying AI?

Susan Riley: It’s difficult to put a time-frame on that. Everyone comes to Arts Integration with a different set of experiences, skills sets, and comfort levels. What I can say is that there should be a professional development plan in place that allows for teachers to receive training multiple times in all of the different areas. I have worked with districts who set aside two half-days per year for staff and some who set aside 40 hours per year, per teacher. The amount of time is truly dependent on staff need. What’s important is that the time is set aside and honored.

UDPC: It seems like a lot to ask teachers to have to prepare a lesson plan for true AI to exist. They already have limited schedules in order to prepare their standard core classes, and the idea of adding AI may appear to many to be cumbersome. How much time, on average, has to go into preparing an AI lesson plan? Have you experienced push-back in this regard?

Susan Riley: Anytime we ask teachers to do more, there is push-back, as there should be! Teachers are advocates for their students first, but also need to advocate for themselves. I’m not going to lie: Arts Integration takes time. However, it’s not just “one more thing.” It truly weaves in multiple expectations, including Common Core, authentic assessments, project-based learning, and student engagement into one lesson. Rather than spending time thinking about how to weave each of these individually into a day, teachers save time by planning for all of it in one lesson. The other important piece here is that there are planning strategies, like curriculum mapping, that save teachers time throughout the year. These things take a bigger investment of time at the beginning, but once a bank of lessons and curriculum maps have been developed, teachers can go use those over and over again.

UDPC: Is co-teaching (and co-scheduling) a requirement for a successful AI program?

Susan Riley: No. While co-teaching can offer many benefits to both teachers and students, it’s not a mandatory component for AI to be successful. Co-planning, on the other hand, is critical. Whether that is 5 minutes in the hall or for a dedicated period of time during the year, co-planning between arts and classroom teachers ensures that the integrity of the arts is honored in Arts Integration lessons.

UDPC: How can special education students benefit from having AI in their classrooms?

Susan Riley: Special education students may have difficulty accessing and making sense of information in the traditional classroom. The arts provide a sensory experience for them that allows an access point into the other subject. I have seen special education students truly thrive in classes that use Arts Integration because they can finally communicate and learn in ways that appeal to their unique needs.

UDPC: We hear a lot about the desired focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curriculum today, but your website references STEAM (as well as the title of your last book). Can you explain STEAM?

Susan Riley: STEAM has a few variants to its implementation in schools. The first can be as using Arts Integration in the science and math classrooms. Another is that the design and creative process of the arts can be used in the structure of instruction in STEM. STEAM is a new area in education that is evolving as more is understood about the best ways to integrate these critical areas. What’s important to understand is that creativity and innovation are key skills our students will need in the 21st Century economy, and these can and should be taught through the arts.

UDPC: You have a website called Education Closet. It seems that the directed audience is teachers. Do you have any plans to provide AI learning development for parents?

Susan Riley: Yes! My team and I are working to build a parent portal for the site. This will be a space dedicated as a resource for parents about Arts Integration and STEAM — what it is, how you can support it at home, and a community of parents from across the globe that can support each other in providing arts experiences for their children. We’re thrilled to be working on this and welcome any and all suggestions you and other parents have on making this a valuable resource!

UDPC: Since you have been working with Upper Darby for over a year, you must be aware of our schools’ rich and unique history with strong art and music programs that have graduated many successful artists. How do you believe AI will improve upon what many feel was already a highly successful program?

Susan Riley: I think UDSD has a tremendous opportunity to bring their incredible arts programs to the next level with Arts Integration. While it may have gotten off to a rocky start, the district has been dedicated to learning more about Arts Integration and providing their teachers with the professional development and support they need to turn it into a successful strategy for students. As teachers have been using this more this year, they are seeing significant growth in their students, both academically and artistically. As Arts Integration continues in UDSD, the arts themselves will only be showcased even more.

UDPC: What would you like to share most about your experiences in working with the UDSD with the parents in this community?

Susan Riley: Don’t be afraid of Arts Integration! It’s not something that is intended to take away from the arts programs — it’s the opposite. When implemented with integrity, Arts Integration provides meaningful learning opportunities, more engaged students, and closes achievement gaps while highlighting thriving arts programs. I hope you are as excited for the potential of the arts in UDSD as I am!

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