Book Review: A Symphony of Possibilities: A Handbook for Arts Integration in Secondary English Language Arts Edited by Katherine J. Macro and Michelle Zoss
A Symphony of Possibilities is an apt title – this new book from NCTE offers a harmonious mix of ideas, from a variety of contributors, to infuse the arts into the secondary language arts classroom. As co-editors Katherine J. Macro and Michelle Zoss explain in the Introduction: “Our goal with this book was to create a resource specifically for secondary English teachers to support them as they integrate the arts into their curricula. Teachers need meaningful examples of how to do the work of incorporating creative writing, drama, music and visual arts into their classrooms so they can challenge their students, expand the horizon for student growth, and, we hope, express their own passions for the arts while offering potential learning touchstones for students.” (xii).
Macro and Zoss are co-chairs of the Commission on Arts and Literacies (COAL) of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The goal of the commission is “to collectively aim to shed light on the thoughtful and creative work that teachers and students are doing across the country as they bring the full sense of possibilities in arts-based pedagogies into their ELA classes.” (xii).
The book offers a varied menu of options to guide English teachers towards finding or deepening their connection to the arts. Contributors explore such topics
as: protest song-writing, spoken word poetry, visual response to literature, musical adaptations, integrating drama, and publication beyond the classroom. Each chapter, although unique, contains some common elements – a rationale and theoretical background for the ideas presented, practical models of implementation with specific examples, suggestions for assessment, and a thoughtful conclusion that invited the readers to consider how they might adapt the ideas in the chapter.
For example, in a chapter called “Arts-based Pedagogy: Exploring Shakespeare Study in the Classroom” by Laura B. Turchi and Pauline Skowron Schmidt (director of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project), the authors explain that “we explore some playful performance aspects of teaching Shakespeare, we describe some key strategies and activities, and we explain how this kind of work fosters students’ expressions of identity through creative choices.” (79). The creative, play and performance-based strategies that they share are designed to bring Shakespeare to life, as well as to help in making other complex texts accessible and relevant.
In another chapter, “Exploring the Possibilities and Tensions of Visual Responses to Literature,” Alisha M. White shares that “Adding arts-based strategies as methods of differentiation in my English courses has included viewing images to connect to character and setting, drawing as composition, and creative projects for showing what they learned.” (101). In addition to sharing numerous examples of projects that she and her students have engaged in, White also addresses the tensions that can accompany this approach. She explains, “The tensions include perceptions of visual composing as less rigorous, arguments that images need language to explain their meaning, discussions with students who are resistant to image-making, and issues around how to assess visual responses.” (104). White then goes on to address these tensions with specificity and insight.
In the last chapter, “Radical Visions for the Future,” the co-editors leave us with this thought: “When teachers and students have an opportunity to linger, even if only briefly, they can think, see, hear, and feel, rather than just recognize what is at hand and move on to whatever comes next.”
I encourage you to linger with this book, and then reflect, collaborate, and act upon your new understanding of the intersection of the arts and literacy. How will you find new ways to integrate the arts into your literacy curriculum? What new possibilities are you exploring? What new questions are arising? Share your thinking in the comments below.
Macro, Katherine J. and Zoss, Michelle (Eds.) (2019) A symphony of possibilities: A handbook for arts integration in secondary English language arts. Urbana, Ill.