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Some aspects to consider when approaching art integration in co-equal ways are the emphases between process and product. It can be easy to value the final product at the expense of a carefully scaffolded artistic process. This is understandable as students (and teachers) often put forth great effort to create the final product and want others to see it. However, when a final product becomes the sole focus, many valuable learning opportunities can be lost. A final product might look visually pleasing but if students have not learned skills along the way, an art project might be an end to itself rather than a way of achieving a larger goal or purpose.

Over the years, we have spent more time emphasizing the importance of scaffolding students into the process of creating art. When we first started our work with visual arts integration, our focus was on the creation of a final product for display in the community. Our professional artist collaborated with students but, under our direction, spent most of his time working with students on the final product. Now, as our opening paragraphs illustrate, our professional artist spends a significant amount of time unpacking the processes and choices involved in what he does as an artist. He discusses his brainstorming phase and the doodles, lists, notes, and conversations with family, friends, and mentors that inform his thinking. He talks about his research phase and the considerable time he spends googling images, taking photos, reading about particular issues and topics, and talking with more knowledgeable others. He concludes with discussion about his “layering” phase, the final stage in his creative process (Figures 1 and 2).

Scaffolding students into the process of creating art can help demystify and debunk prevailing assumptions about art, artists, and the artistic process itself. Many students are genuinely surprised that professional artists do not just paint what is in their heads but need to brainstorm, research, and practice. An extension of this is that emphasizing process helps reinforce many of the writing moves English language arts teachers already encourage students to participate in. Artists’ creative processes, for example, are often similar to writing processes involving drafting or revising. Emphasizing process can also provide students opportunities to further develop their verbal and written skills. We often ask our students to write self-reflections on the development of their art by assessing small group and individual strengths and challenges as well as identifying meaningful application and transfer of skills. Our students also share their artistic and written decisions in small and large group settings.

Throughout 2017, students spent time in small groups brainstorming images they found in When the Emperor was Divine. They then did online research to find representations of these images within the book’s historical context and created visual notes that blended text excerpts, images, and words to organize their research. Visual notes, or sketchnotes as they are sometimes called, can be described as note-taking but with visuals and text rather than just text. In our case, students shared their visual notes with the rest of the class and the artist (Figures 3 and 4). Then, together with the artist, they sketched out and practiced what they drew or assembled on the canvas.

We admit that our situation is unique in that we have the resources to have professional artists visit our classrooms. However, there are many ways to achieve the same outcomes. Art teachers in a school and district or advanced college or high school art students could share their art projects, processes, and skills. YouTube videos or online visual arts programs are other possibilities (Wissman & Costello, 2014). We also use ideas from practitioner journals that give us language to unpack the elements in visual art pieces.

To this end, we have enjoyed Schieble’s (2014) list of “Critical Visual Literacy Questions” and found it to be helpful in getting students to notice, analyze, and question what they see in an image:

  • What aspects of the image draw our attention first?
  • What does the shot distance suggest about the image?
  • What mood or tone does color portray?
  • What or who is represented in the text?
  • Who or what is missing?

Callow’s (2008) Show Me framework for assessing students’ visual literacy has also been useful. Although geared to elementary students and their understanding of images in picture books, Callow’s framework places visual literacy in the larger context of authentic literacy teaching and learning; we find the framework’s suggested assessment questions useful in getting our students to talk about their own or others’ artwork. These questions include:

  • How do you respond to the piece?
  • What is happening?
  • How do we react to other people or other participants in an image?
  • How is the piece designed?

Asking students these questions encourages them to articulate and defend the choices they made throughout the process of creating art.


Callow, J. (2008). Show me: Principles for assessing students’ visual literacy. The Reading Teacher, 61(8), 616-626.

Schieble, M. (2014). Reading images in American born Chinese through critical visual literacy. English Journal, 103(5), 47-52.

Wissman, K. K., & Costello, S. (2014). Creating digital comics in response to literature: Aesthetics, aesthetic transactions, and meaning making. Language Arts, 92(2), 103-117.

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