Cross-Curricular Ideas that Work (Ep. 101)

If we are going to create well-rounded artists, our students need to be versed in a variety of subjects and topics. Those connections between subjects help us create art at a deeper level. Natalie Jackson, a Washington, D.C. teacher who does incredible things with interdisciplinary teaching, is on the show to share some of her best ideas. She talks to Tim about the benefits of storytelling (4:00), how she collaborates with other teachers and other subjects (10:15), and helping students develop confidence and creativity (13:00). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education. I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Arts integration is always difficult. How do you know how much content to pull in from other subjects and how to do it the right way. How do you know when it starts to distract from the art making your kids are supposed to be doing? When it comes to that point, how can you tell if it’s even worth it?

Obviously, I can’t answer those questions for you. Every kid, every teacher, and every classroom is gonna be different. I think those are the questions and the ideas that are worth talking about. So, that’s what the episode is gonna be about today.

As I was putting together the line up of presenters for the Art Ed Now Conference, I was looking for someone who is really good at really creating those connections. Someone who can speak to how to bring ideas from other subjects into the art classroom and weave them seamlessly into what we’re already doing. That’s the ultimate goal, right?

I was lucky enough to run across Natalie Jackson, who is an awesome teacher from Washington D.C. She is passionate about Art History, and collaboration between subjects, about using all of these ideas to help her kids learn and help them to grow.

She and I talked about this a little bit, but if you’re gonna be a well grounded artist, it’s important to see the interconnectedness in our world. In the presentation she’s going to give and Art Ed Now, Natalie is going to share strategies for helping tell stories and create connections to help our students appreciate art at a deeper level.

She has some awesome strategies. I want to talk to her today about some of the big ideas behind those strategies and the thinking behind why she does what she does. So we’ll talk Art History, art making, confidence, creativity, and how you can make all of those things work in your own classroom.

Let’s go ahead and bring her out now.

Natalie Jackson is here with me now. Natalie, how are you?

Natalie: I’m doing great.

Tim: Good, good. I’m really excited to have you on here. But before we kind of start the interview, can you just let listeners know a little bit about you? Where you’re from, where you teach, how long you’ve been there. And, can you talk a little bit about the types of things that you’re passionate about when it comes to teaching?

Natalie: Absolutely. Hey everybody, I’m Natalie. I teach at Basis DC Public Charter School. We’re in Washington DC, part of a big network of now international charters. I’ve been here at DC for six years, so since we opened.

I teach Art. I’ve taught Art History. I deal with a little bit of curriculum management. I love … love, love, love incorporating Art History in my classes. I just, I guess, get tired of hearing about wars and conflict, we have enough of that every day.

So I kind of flip the script and incorporate Art History in student’s daily lives. Help them make connections. That’s where I’m really passionate. I want them to make beautiful stuff as well, but I love nerding out with my kids and getting them talking about art.

Tim: Yeah, I love that. I’m a huge Art History nerd, too, so I think we’ll get along well. But for me, one of the big things of Art History is all about story telling. It’s just so rich with stories that you can tell, stories that will engage kids.

I know that’s a huge part of what you do in your classroom as well. So, can you talk a little bit about how you define story telling in your classroom? Talk a little bit about how you talk about art and also informs, I guess, how kids create their work as well.

Natalie: Absolutely. Story telling, for one, I’m a big fan of picture books for children. There’s this narrative structure and I like to change it a little bit in the classroom where I’m not necessarily doing a beginning to end like in a picture book. But I want to give students the idea to engage with material that doesn’t feel dry or rigid.

I let them use a little fantasy, as well. I like them to understand that objects, and art, and … Not just Art objects, but everything has a story and I want them to help the object tell the story. Help interpret the story and translate the language of, what does this stool have to say. What is the history of the stool that you’re sitting on?

Also, to be silly. But they get so creative. It’s interesting because you really never know what they’re gonna come up with. They all have their own stories to tell, too. To get them to give an object a story, it helps them open up a little bit and they start to reveal a lot about themselves in a way that they might not be comfortable doing ordinarily.

Especially when you’re getting into artwork that’s a little autobiographical, or you ask them to show how they feel using art, they hesitate. I have middle schoolers mostly, so they’re already awkward because puberty sucks.

You know, they think everyone is judging them. If I’m telling them to tell me the story of the stool, or the lady in the painting, or the pencil, they are able to … Why am I not thinking of the term? Like, transfer their own experiences to that object. Then, gets feedback. Then start getting comfortable when it’s time to actually make their own artwork.

Tim: I like that a lot. I think a lot of teachers hesitate to kind of take time out of studio practice to do that storytelling, to do that talking. I want to talk about that a little bit later.

But can you talk maybe a little bit more, maybe just dive in a little bit more about the benefits of using storytelling? Is it about building confidence like that? Is it about creativity? What are the main benefits? Or does it go beyond those two things as well?

Natalie: Yeah, it’s definitely a confidence booster. I want them to get comfortable being a little vulnerable. Displaying a little bit of themselves in a different way. But also, I just … I’m really passionate about making sure students understand that art is not just a class they come in to. Have play time, fun time, self-expression time. But it’s truly a discipline.

I tell them, a lot of us spend thousands of dollars to get an education in Art. We didn’t spend time with just getting in touch with our feelings. We incorporate so much. My students, they get surprised when I know something about science or something about history. I’m like, “Well why are you surprised?” I have to use those skills in Art as well.

They have to stop and think for a minute how and why. Actually, I just did some oil painting today with seventh graders. We talked about the chemistry behind it. I didn’t get into like super detailed … I’m not talking about molecules and things like that.

But trying to get them to understand that as an artist, I do need to know a little bit about chemistry before I start slapping materials around or how my skin might interact with those materials, things like that, so. Letting them know this is [inaudible 00:08:37], it’s a solvent. Oh, I heard solvent before. We had that in chemistry during a lab.

I told them, yeah. I had to pass those classes to get where I’m at. I didn’t just get A’s in art. Actually, just before we started chatting, I was with fifth graders. We’re using rollers to build grids, that was fun. That was really interesting getting into fractions. But immediate frustration, this is art class, not math class. We just came from math, I don’t want to do this.

It’s all necessary when they ask those questions of their other subject teachers, when am I ever gonna use this again. It’s true, it never goes away.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. Actually, that’s kind of a good segue for me because I wanted to talk a little bit more about how you do use those other subjects. You give a couple good examples about the chemistry, about the grids, and rulers, and fractions, and we all know how frustrating it is to teach that with kids.

But can you talk a little bit more about how you incorporate some of those other subjects in your curriculum? Not just hey, here’s a little bit of chemistry, but do they play a role in lessons you teach? How do you bring that into your curriculum?

Natalie: Let me see … I’m trying to think of a really good example with lots of parts. So mainly I want to make sure I’m using language that they’re familiar with from their other classes. I work really closely with other teachers here. Luckily, we’re encouraged to do a lot of collaboration.

Some things I do need a refresher on with my classroom. But I’ll break things down with … I just came up with a great example, actually. We, in DC, have the Cherry Blossom Festival every year. It’s a big deal. Everyone is coming from everywhere to see the Cherry Blossoms bloom. They’re a gift from Japan, early twentieth century. I can’t remember the year, I think 1914.

They get really excited about that, so I decided to bring some Japanese art into their lives, as well. They get to be influenced by the Cherry Blossoms in their Artwork. Then, we talk about Japanese culture, so I usually have them write haiku’s. We will take time and write them in class. I’m pretty lucky here to use this because we have Art class more than once a week, so that affords me a little bit more time.

I know a lot of other Art teachers don’t get. It’s very much a luxury for me. But students write Haiku’s, they make artwork about their Haiku’s. Sometimes I overlap with their English teacher and we’ll expand.

One year there was an English teacher I worked closely with. The kids did Haiku’s because it was a book of poetry they had to create for English class, so I tried to tie my Japanese unit their poetry unit. We talked about syllables and things like that. I allowed them to be a little bit sillier in here because they’re not being graded on their English skills.

Just tried to use that to brainstorm as well. So just plopping them down in front of a project for 50 minutes and expect them to do that one project the whole time, the attention spans not there.

Tim: For sure.

Natalie: I’m mixing it up to keep their attention. Also, some of the kids are not art because they want to be in Art. Sometimes it just evolves. They have options here for other arts, but the other arts are performing arts. So they get nervous, they don’t want to perform, so they think they’re gonna hide away in Studio Arts class and be left alone.

But then they get frustrated. They’ll get frustrated, “I’m not a good artist. I’m just here because I didn’t want to sing, I didn’t want to act. You keep making us draw, you keep making us do this. I’m not good at it.”

So I definitely try to get to know my students’ strengths in other subjects, as well, in these conversations so I can incorporate more into the class. My current sixth-grade class this year really loves history. While some years they hate it and I kind of dial back a little bit, this year I’m going hard. We will spend one entire class discussing artwork, and historical events, and how it impacted the artwork because they really love getting into it.

Those same students that are really passionate about talking about how smart they are, how much history they know, and how they can interpret the artwork. They may not get as enthused once they get the pencil in their hand. So it gives them an opportunity to feel like they’re active, and engaged, and participating in the class instead of kind of hiding away.

Tim: Yeah, I like that. I think that sounds like it’s a really good fit for the kids you have and where you’re teaching.

So, I guess the big question for me, though. I think the big question a lot of teachers have is how do you balance trying to integrate all of these subjects but still teaching a Studio based course?

Do you feel like integration can ever take away from the art making and not give you as much time as you want for kids to create?

Natalie: I have to say, here, I don’t feel that. If I was teaching like once a week, I could see how that would be really difficult. I would say as long as I plan really well ahead of time, then I feel like there’s a nice balance.

If only we spent two minutes in the beginning of class, such as a warm up to discuss, then I feel like I’ve done some kind of integration of other subjects. Then, they can spend the rest of the time working. Again, I try to just take the temperature of the class, especially with younger students.

If they’re really not into the particular project or the process of making, then I’ll find other ways to build more time into their class time to either discuss or interact with Art in different ways. I don’t know I think my attention span is way short, as well.

So I like to mix it up, I don’t feel like it takes too much away. Actually, one of my students said that today. He said, “You have a kid brain.” I was like, “A kid brain? What are you talking about?” He goes, “No, it’s just like you get it. Like you have ADD.” I’m like, “I do.”

I think we get quite, quite out there sometimes. I don’t feel like it’s a burden. I really don’t like spending the entire class time just making because I feel like Art is critical thinking. Art is problem solving. So if we’re not spending all 50 minutes just making, then I’m okay with that. I feel like, as a practicing artist, we spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re going to do. We can’t just can’t be-

Tim: Yeah.

Natalie: … churning out pieces. Which I know that kids do, they want to churn out pieces. It’s a satisfying product in the end. Like, oh, I did that. I can take it home. But I really want them to just get saturated into the art. I want them to be in it and really feel strong about their work as they leave my classroom, not just I completed it. It’s done.

No, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like it gets in the way. It’s really great to see the kids light up in those conversations. In those other scenarios. We did a class Haiku for the Japanese unit, in addition to them writing their own, too. I taught them calligraphy, so they did calligraphy for their own Haiku’s on their artwork.

But getting them, as a whole class, to write a silly Haiku together at the board, kind of get out of our seats and change it up. I feel like we all need that. I feel like we need to break things up and not just worry about the end product. We should enjoy the process.

Tim: Yeah. You make a lot of really good points there. Yeah, I’m definitely on the same wavelength with you there. I always say art class should not be a production factory. We have so many opportunities to teach so many more things.

I love how you are taking advantage of those opportunities. But, one last question for you. You are presenting at the Art Ed Now Conference just a couple weeks away, now.

I know you’re gonna be going over a lot of these ideas and going a little bit more in depth in your presentation. Can you give people just kind of a small little sneak preview as to what you’re gonna be talking about. What they can expect from your presentation?

Natalie: Sure. So, but yes, definitely a little bit more in depth into the idea of story making, and story playing in the classroom. How to utilize your language as an instructor to have that integration processing seamless. Where you don’t have to make it obvious. Like, “Oh, this is also what you do. This is something you also do in English.”

Just trying to create familiarity by using similar language and get the students to start doing it as well.

Tim: I’m very much looking forward to seeing that. I think it’ll be really, really well received. But I think that’ll wrap it up. Natalie, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been really good talking to you.

Natalie: This has been great.

Tim: Now, as we mentioned, Natalie is one of the presenters at the Art Ed Now Conference. So, I need to tell you all about the Art Ed Conference. It is coming up in just two short weeks. Actually, more like a week and a half. On Saturday, February 3rd, we will have over 20 presentations. All online, all incredible, and all relevant to what you are doing in your classroom.

Each presentation comes with resources and handouts for you. You have access to every presentation for a full year after the conference. If you haven’t attended an Art Ed Now Conference before, this is the perfect time to do it.

Hey, let’s be honest. As teachers, January and February are tough. This conference is a boost of inspiration and motivation when you need it the most. There’s still time to register and you can learn everything you need to know about the conference at

In fact, we have a discount for you. If you use the code SAVE20NOW, that’s S-A-V-E 20 N-O-W all uppercase. You get $20 off the registration price. So make sure you go check it out in about 60 seconds, when this episode is all wrapped up.

But first, let me go ahead and end things. Now Natalie said a lot of great stuff throughout the interview. She had a lot of great ideas. But two things that really stood out to me. Two things that I loved, were building confidence and developing creativity.

She talked about how storytelling can help kids personalize things and help them kind of organize their thoughts. Help them tell their own story. Putting that together creates a creativity. Being able to put that together develops their confidence. As Natalie said, middle schoolers especially need that. But all of our kids can benefit from it. Because the more involved they are and the more confident they are, the better off they are going to be.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our email list at Go sign up for the conference at You’re running out of time. Make sure you use the code SAVE20NOW, that’s S-A-V-E 20 N-O-W, all upper case. Get yourself a discount. We’ll talk to you next week.



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