4 Amazing Ways to Infuse the Arts into Literature Instruction


By Genein Letford

I had the privilege of meeting Rafe Esquith at Barnes & Noble last month where he said, “Students should not be reading a book in order to take a test at the end. That should not be their primary goal. Students’ should be asking themselves, ‘What does this book say to me? As the characters go through their problems and make decisions, how will that affect the way I  look at my choices in life?’”

This got me thinking: Most teachers are familiar with the reading comprehension strategy of making connections (text-to-self, text-to-text, etc.) After a personal experience with a fantastic book called Stutter Boy and its organic connection with arts, I decided we need to acknowledge another comprehension strategy, text-to-arts connections.

So I  began my exploration of making text-to-arts connections using the school’s next read-aloud text, The One and Only Ivan. We connected the arts with the plot and character development. Here are some of the ideas birthed out of this exploration:



Visual Art + Metaphorical Thinking Using the picture shown here, the students identified what they saw (Ivan the gorilla holding a half-eaten banana.) Then I asked, “How is Ivan like the banana?” The responses blew me away. After they got through the surface observations and begun to dig deeper and think about the story and Ivan’s character, these fourth and fifth graders came up with some insightful connections:

  • There’s a part of the banana missing and there’s also a part of Ivan’s life that is missing; his family.

  • The banana’s inside, like Ivan’s family and the peel is Ivan. He’s suppose to protect his family.

  • They are both stuck. Bananas are stuck in trees and Ivan is stuck in his domain.

  • Bananas are found in the jungle in bunches, just like gorillas. But this banana is by itself, just like Ivan.

  • The banana can’t do anything about Ivan eating it, just like Ivan can’t do anything about being in his cage.

  • The peel is the cage and Ivan is the banana.

  • The banana is not DONE yet though. Ivan had a hard life but he’s not done. There’s something else for him to do.

WOW! We had this GREAT discussion spring out of one picture!

My first graders worked on story setting. They drew pictures of their favorite characters and made sure they included details from their book’s setting.

My third graders worked on artistic metaphors. They chose a character and an object (similar to the Ivan with the half-eaten banana) and drew the character with the object. They then had to discover the connections (concrete and abstract) and prepare a written statement connecting the two. Students infused vocabulary (chosen from a word bank) into their statements i.e. represented, symbolize, means, conveys, communicates, etc.


  • I drew Ruby with a claw-stick because it represents….

  • I put Ivan on a rock because the rock represents Ivan because he is strong.

I even did a visual art activity with my kindergarten students. We looked at ‘Ivan’s Art.’ These are real paintings by the real gorilla Ivan. I first asked them to identify the colors in the art, and then we discussed why Ivan would choose these colors. I wanted the kids to connect the color to what it represent in Ivan’s life throughout the story.


  • He used a lot of red because his family died.

  • The blue means water because gorillas need water to live.

  • The yellow means bananas because he likes to eat and draw bananas.

  • The green is for the grass because he wants to live in a the zoo.

Of course it’s hard to get really young kids thinking abstractly, but I feel using the arts is a great way to get them started. They aren’t intimidated by a lot of thick text and can start by seeing visual art as a type of text. They are now reading this new visual text and connecting it to their literary work.

Any visual art standard can be interlaced with these projects. The students can do the metaphorical art while focusing on background or foreground, warm or cool colors, value or texture.


The students are also connecting text to musical arts. Here are some mini music projects the students are working on:

  • Find a song, and, with little or no adjustment to the lyrics, defend why this song would represent a certain character in the book. Line by line, connect what occurred in the story to what the singer is communicating.

  • Create ‘soundtrack music’ to a particular scene in the text using an iPad music creation app.

  • Take an established melody and write your own lyrics. My third grade students chose the melody of “Stand By Me.” They reached consensus on which character would be the singer in the song and to whom the song would be sung. They chose Ivan to sing to Stella and composed lyrics from his perspective. They concocted what he would say to her by referring to the text. Students must justify every lyric with evidence from the text.

Stand By Me

The Clouds are pink

And the moon is wide

And the zoo is the only thing we see

This cage, is rough

And it makes me cry

Oh Stella, won’t you stand by me

 Oh Stella, Stella

Stand By me

Oh Stand by me, Oh Stand now

Stand by me, Stand by me

The clawstick, it hurts

And the doctor’s late

Oh Stella, I need you, by me


I am not a dancer, but I know how powerful dance can be in communicating an idea, emotion, or story.

I took the music from the The One and Only Ivan book trailer and choreographed a dance to it.  The students listened to the music and divided it into 4 sections based on mood. Then they listed adjectives describing each section. Finally, the kids chose scenes in the story (or big ideas) and choreograph them.

I showed them the video “The Invisibles” from a dance group trying to increase awareness of modern day slavery (human trafficking.) I use this to show how one can tell a story through dance, and that dance is a type of ‘text’ as well. The students performed their dance and had the author and many people (adults and kids) in tears! Watch the performance on video here.


Students recreated a scene from the book including the setting and characters. They tried to make sure the personalities of the characters matched the book.

I sent out this email to the staff:

Teachers and Staff! Thank you for allowing me to really dive into this ‘Finding Ivan Through the Arts’ project with your students. I wish we could have shown more of the performing arts projects but due to time, we were only able to exhibit the dance. Nevertheless, below is how other classes interpreted the book through their chosen art form.

About the dance, I’m so glad it moved so many of you. I really must clarify that it was 80% of the students’ creation. I did my best to make it all about their interaction with the text and only chimed in to help with transitions and the few kinks that were bluntly evident. The lights slowly coming up in the beginning…that was all Eliel. The cage falling in the end…that was Itzel’s idea THE MORNING OF THE SHOW!!!! So many more examples in between but you get the idea!

I ventured into these projects to exemplify how the arts can and should be used to enhance critical thinking and should not be ignored as we head into Common Core. More importantly, the students need to understand that there are multiple ways to interpret and investigate written text and that ‘text’ actually comes in many different formats (visual text, musical text, written text, etc) and are all equally valuable tools for expression, interpretation, and communication. Let’s equip our students with as many tools as possible as they continue to make sense of the world around them and this future ahead of them. Play on!

Guest Blogger, Genein Letford, is the music director of an elementary school in Canoga Park, California. She is noted for her innovative teaching style that incorporates math, science, language arts, and social studies into a music curriculum. She is an avid proponent of the arts and preserving the quality of education in the arts. She won the 2010 Great American Teacher Award, as well as the National Sontag Prize in Urban Education.

Published by

Tim Bedley

Tim Bedley has been teaching elementary school since 1988. He was recognized as the 2013 Riverside County Teacher of the year. Tim is also the founder of America's number one educational rock band, Rockin' the Standards. He also produces two podcast found on iTunes: The Bedley Bros. and The 5-Minute MishMash. Tim and his brother Scott are co-founders of Global School Play Day, a grassroots movement to promote unstructured play with today's youths.

2 thoughts on “4 Amazing Ways to Infuse the Arts into Literature Instruction”

  1. Fantastic. How wonderful to see a school willing to give art, music and dance to its students and not just academics. The students will remember this all of their lives. I loved every bit of this and send you blessings for this wonderful
    lesson. Yay, yay, yay. Keep it coming. Please tell your students how much we all enjoyed their work.

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