Math in the Elementary Art Studio (Ep. 155)

How much focus does your school put on cross-curricular learning? Whether it is a point of emphasis for you or simply a way to help your students with their learning, Nic has ideas on how you can incorporate more math into the art studio. Listen as she talks about lessons on symmetry, geometry, pattern, and so much more.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Have you ever been asked by your administration to do more cross-curricular curriculum in your art classroom? I know I get asked this on a regular basis. In fact, in the 18 years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve been asked to sit on other people’s PLCs to learn about the math curriculum, or learn about the English language classes, science curriculum, whatever it is. I think there’s a lot of value in doing that in collaborating with other content areas, but here’s the deal: a lot of times our curriculum is their curriculum. So we can go ahead and keep teaching our content and then also put a little bit of that extra, maybe just the vocabs or the idea of those other content areas within our curriculum. So we’re going to concentrate on one area today. I’m going to talk about how you can put math into your curriculum. We’re going to focus on our elementary kiddos for this podcast. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Okay, so what I need you to do is just take that deep breath, your administration has just come to you and said, “I need you to teach more math in your curriculum.” Now, initially, and I have been victim of this as well, I have thought in the past, “Oh my gosh, my curriculum is strong because it is art, art for art’s sake. I do not need to qualify myself by teaching someone else’s curriculum.” I refuse to even acknowledge that. I am important for me. Well, yes, that’s absolutely true, but here’s the deal: does it hurt to add a little math into your curriculum? Not at all. In fact, when we take a look at the curriculum that our elementary students are all the way up to 12th grade, the math curriculum that they are using, we’re going to find a ton of overlap. I’m just going to talk about a couple of math concepts that I find so easy to integrate into my classroom on a regular basis and we’re going to start with our youngest individuals that we teach: kindergarten or preschool, I guess, this would work as well.

So there’s a couple of things that I like to do with my youngest artist, and one of the things is sorting. So to begin with early on, we are going to talk about, who knows? We can talk about color. We can talk about size. We can talk about shapes. When we are creating these objects, let’s use the example of color for this one. So let’s say that I have the kids creating with different mediums and we’re just exploring all the mediums. It’s early on in the year and I have asked them to color in using markers, so I give them a piece of paper and I say, “Color the very best that you can on this piece of paper,” and they color with a marker. One marker, one color, and then I say, “Okay, here you guys go. Let’s try crayons. What I’m looking for is making sure that you’re not running. You don’t have any white spots when you’re done. You’re keeping nice and even with it,” give them an example. “Okay, now you go choose a color. Color this piece of paper,” a new piece of paper, another small little piece of paper, “with your crayon.” They choose a color and they color it up.

Now, we’re going to try oil pastels. Ooh, these are all the different ways that you can use oil pastels. This is what an oil pastel is. Maybe we could even use some wet mediums. Maybe I have them try a watercolor, or maybe I have them try actual paint. I probably wouldn’t do paint in this example, but nonetheless, you’re using many different mediums and they’re creating one color on many different pieces of paper. At the end of this, you can have them sort in as a group, as a large group or in small groups, you can say, “Okay, let’s put all the colors that are yellow in this pile, all the colors that are red in this pile, blue, green.”

Okay, so now they’ve sorted by color, and then we all celebrate that and take a look at it. We can even make a graph or a grid. “This is how many times we used yellow. This is how many times we use blued.” So now we’re incorporating math in that way as well. Then you can say, “Okay, pick up your papers again. Let’s separate them by medium. Let’s organize them in and put them in categories by medium.” This is part of the kindergarten math curriculum is sorting and arranging by grouping. So you could also use different size papers, which would be really fun because then you could say an additional one is sorting by size. Again, adding that graph, talking about it as a group afterwards would be a really fun way to expose our students to math in our art curriculum.

Pattern is another one that I love to do, and I usually will hit this later on in the year. So we’re talking probably after holiday break, maybe February, or maybe January, after I know that they have received the information of patterns in their homeroom classroom. Then I’m going to support that in my classroom. I know that they use verbiage, in my school at least, of AB pattern. So that’d be red-blue, red-blue, red-blue, or ABB, red-blue-blue, red-blue-blue, or ABC, red-blue-yellow, red-blue-yellow. We practice in that sort of way. I have them first tell me the patterns. I give them a pattern and then I ask for volunteers to come up with seeing a pattern that we would all repeat. So maybe a lot of times they come up with like truck-dinosaur, truck-dinosaur, then we say that three times altogether.

So we practice our patterns, and then we physically do that in so many different ways. I have done this with printmaking using Q-tips and drawing a line, and then on that line, creating our different patterns that are required. I have done this with necklaces. So anytime that you see a cute little necklace going home maybe for Mother’s Day or something like that, out of my classroom, there is so much more learning going on with that one little project than just the pretty little thing that mom has to wear. We are talking about pattern, with the beads that go onto the necklace. We are talking maybe about tactile texture with a piece of ornament that we have created. So there’s always a lot of learning that’s happening behind the pretty little project.

Another thing that I do for pattern is I have them use found objects. So I’ve collected container tops like bottles and milk jugs and whatnot of a variety of colors and sizes. Then I have in the past, this is one way to do it is setting up a camera over the top of some individual groups. I have some really good tripods that hold up an iPad above a table, but from the ground. So I have them working on the ground. We put a base on the ground of a piece of paper, and then they have to work collaboratively to create patterns of these bottle caps going across the page. I hit time-lapse on the iPad, and so it captures the motion of them talking and collaborating and creating these patterns. Then we can watch them as a group, and then I can also share them on Seesaw and highlight the fact that we are doing art today collaboratively and studying math as well.

In about first grade, I will bring up the idea of geometric shapes. Of course, that’s in my curriculum, right? I’m going to talk about geometric shapes and freeform shapes, and we’re going to talk the difference in about first and second grade. So when I’m talking about geometric shapes, I have often used different terminology that I know just as a creator, but I’ve changed that by listening to the curriculum needs of my first-grade math team. When learning about that, I understand that they don’t call a diamond a diamond, they use the word rhombus. So that was a simple little switch that I was able to make in my classroom. It’s just changing it, that name, instead of saying, “Now you’re going to add a diamond,” I say, “Add a rhombus.” In fact, we have changed even the song that we sing, “Shine bright like a diamond,” that song. It was a couple of years ago. It was very hot at the time, and we would sin, “Shine bright like a rhombus,” and you can’t see me, but I’m making a rhombus with my fingers and I’m making it beat like a heart off from my body.

It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun doing that. Then we learned about rhombuses for the whole day and creating them in many different ways. That was when I was running a choice-based class. I would say, “Okay, here’s the many different materials that you have to use today and all I want to make sure is that you’re adding rhombuses. Here’s how you draw them. Here’s how you … Go ahead, go create in the way that you want to.” We did all the geometric shapes in that way. So every day that they’d come in, we’d learn about another geometric shape and then they’d have the choice of what medium or how they were going to use that shape in their artwork.

Another way that you can use geometric shapes is just doing fun facts. So this might be something that I would start in kindergarten, just starting with the four or five simple shapes. So rectangle and square, circle and oval, and then triangle. Those are my base shapes that I cover in kindergarten. When we’re talking about them, we talk about the definition, the things that create a shape to be a rectangle or a square. So we talk about that there is four corners to a square, that all the sides are the same, that there’s four sides to a square. But sometimes I’ll do it as a guessing game: “I’m thinking of a shape. It has four corners. It has two sides that are longer than the other two. What shape am I?” Hands go up. We discover it’s a rectangle. You got it. We’re moving on. Maybe we will learn how to draw a rectangle by drawing the four dots, by connecting the dots, exposing them to how to cut the rectangle. Again, this is working on our skills of drawing, our skills of cutting, and then getting that little math lesson in as well.

Talking about symmetry is one of my favorite things to do with second, third grade, kind of that. That area is where I’ve noticed that symmetry is a little bit stronger in the classroom or in the classroom curriculum. So I definitely will highlight that within my curriculum as well. Now we have taught geometric shape in so many ways in my classroom, but I’m going to hit on some of my favorite ways.

Don Masse actually has a lesson where he goes out … Well, he has … it was based off from an artist. I’m going to have to look that up, but it’s two artists facing each other and they have a black piece of paper down and then they use chalk and they mimic each other’s movements. So I’m looking at the person in front of me and if their hands go up, my hands go up, and if their hands go to the outside, my hands go to the outside. We create this similar, this mirrored look, this symmetrical piece of artwork, by using each other’s bodies, by acting as a mirror. I’ve done that same lesson, but outside for the end of the school year. We have talked about symmetry that way using our bodies and using a collaborative sort of play.

Another play or a game that we have done is just doing a symmetrical body position, and this one’s really fun. So I would have them partner up, maybe you partner with them or they choose to partner. Then they’re going to stand next to their partner, and they’re going to figure out a pose. One person might put their hand up and then their hands together with each other. So they’re touching each other and their other hand is up and then their one leg is out and so is the other person. Then they’d strike that pose in front of our class and we would get on the count of three, one, two, three, are they symmetrical or asymmetrical? One, two, three. Symmetrical. Yep. You’re right. Okay, next group. So they’d stand up and they’d obviously make themselves asymmetrical and I’d say, “Okay, what are they?” One, two, three, and we’d identify that. That’s a really fun play game to either introduce symmetry, or also you have a few minutes at the end of class, maybe some kids are finishing up. Go ahead and bring in this symmetrical body game.

We actually, for a recent lesson that I did for our FLEX curriculum with the Art Of Education University, I did a stop motion where we do symmetrical play as well. This is just using found objects, that same idea of the chalk, but instead we’re putting a line down and you’re creating symmetry in a group, also creating a stop motion animation. Now, this can be in just a symmetrical pattern side by side, or it could be radial balance. So you could bring in higher thinking symmetrical ideas. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I always think of some symmetry as starting with just side by side and then moving into radial balance, maybe even quartered up the base, and then working that, that way as well. So lots of different ways to bring symmetry in.

I think in distance learning, we saw a lot of people using natural materials, asking their students to find objects in their own house and creating symmetry of some sort. That’s a really fun way to do it. Then also just think of all the different ways that you can physically create a project using symmetry. Of course, we can make the pretty projects easily using symmetry, and we can also use, well, we can use collage. We can use drawing. We can use printmaking. Printmaking is a really fun one where you’re going to create with paint on one side, flop it together, and then open it up and reveal your pattern. You can also do that with oil pastel, but this time you’re going to create on one half of your piece of paper, flip it over, and do a rubbing on the back so that the oil pastel transfers to the other side of the paper. That’s a fun way to talk about symmetry as well. My goodness, we definitely have so much in common with our math curriculum and so many fun ways to coincide the two ideas.

We’re going to talk about one more today. One more way to get math into your curriculum and that’s through measurement. This is the root of all evil. So you have to bring it into your class and you have to teach them in the same way that their math teachers are teaching them, because guess what? Their math teachers are teaching them how to measure. It just is a really hard concept for a lot of people. I’m not even going to say students, a lot of people and this is why I know. It is taught in the math room, and then it is taught in art, and it is practiced in both areas, and it is practiced year after year, and they go to middle school where they have my husband for Tech Ed, and guess what? They still cannot do. It’s use a ruler to measure. So my husband brings it back to square one again, and they learn just the basics of what an inch is, what a half inches, what is quarter inches. Most kids can get that. It’s when they need to be a little bit more precise going down to the sixteenths that our students really struggle.

So let’s get started in the elementary classroom, in the elementary art classroom, making sure that they know how to use that ruler, how to use the simple measurements, at least. At the very least, an inch; at the very most, get them down to at least a quarter. So in addition to the idea of math using measurement in that sort of way, I try to bring in some of the skills that I need them to have. So how to hold that ruler when they’re using it as a drawing tool, as a straight edge? So I play this really fun game with them where, whatever we want to call it, your teacher doesn’t know anything, maybe? I play this game a lot with our students.

So I’ll set down the ruler and then I’ll say, “I’m going to draw a straight line and here I go.” My fingers are pressing down on my ruler, but really they’re just up at the top or the bottom, and when I go to make my line, my ruler moves because I don’t have my hands securely onto the ruler. Of course, I end up with a very curved line instead of the straight line I was looking for. So, of course, the kids go, “No, Ms. Hahn.” “What did I do wrong? Okay.” They tell me, “You have to hold it nice and tight.” “That is a great idea. Okay, I’m going to do that.”

So I put my hand down and I’m pressing very hard, but what I make sure is that my fingers are over the edge of my ruler, and then when I make my straight edge, I go straight down around my finger, around my finger, around my finger, and nope, I don’t end up with a straight line then either. Nope, I have a bumpy line. “Ms. Hahn, not that way.” “What did I do wrong?” “You had your fingers over the edge.” Okay, so I’m going to make that change. Hold my ruler down, pull my fingers back, make sure that it’s nice and tight to my piece of paper. I take my pencil down and I draw this irregular line because I don’t have it resting against my ruler. “No, Ms. Hahn.” Yep. Yep. Okay, what did I do wrong? Yes, of course. I didn’t have the pencil resting against my ruler. Last shot is perfect. Holding it in our proper way, making sure that my pencil is resting against my straight edge and bringing it down. That is for my curriculum.

The next step is then, of course, measurement. Any time that I can give students a challenge of measuring, I will eat no matter how early this is in their art experience. So I’ll tell them, make a mark by the one. A lot of times, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s by the one, like when we’re creating a paper loom, I will have them do that. I’ll have them fold a piece of paper on the side that opens up, so not on the folded side. They line up their ruler to the edge of the paper and make a straight line. Then I say, “Make a mark at every inch increment.” They do that and some are perfect and some are not. Then I’m able to have them cut the draw lines from the folded side up to that mark that they made and then cut to create a loom. That might be a little hard to understand. I hope you were following. Most of you creatives probably followed along with that one.

It’s important to have them use measurement as much as possible even if they’re not accurately doing it. You can definitely hit that with those individuals that are struggling, but the more exposure they have in the more places, the more successful they’re going to be later on in life. I will recommend, if you are doing measurement in your classroom, try to get all the same size rulers and the same type of ruler so that you can use images of that ruler. You can say it’s that big line after such and such. We need that beginning part of the ruler to be the same for everyone. So sometimes some rulers have a little bit that it goes in before it starts the actual measurement, and some of them started at the edge of the ruler. Again, hope that makes sense.

But here’s another thing. If you don’t have those matching rulers, if you can prove that there’s a need for some high quality rulers that all look the same, you can maybe ask for that money, not in your budget, but out of the math curriculum money. That’s maybe another idea of why you would want to use as much math as possible in your classroom to support your ideas of art curriculum.

Cross-curricular is not a new idea by any means. It is something that has been around for ages. It’s not an evil, you guys. You have to change your mindset if you think of it as something that you don’t want to do, because art for art’s sake is good. Yes, how can you combine the two ideas? How can you combine, in this case, math and art? You’re going to find that you’re not going to be compromising at all. You’re just going to be making your lesson plans even more rich and showing kids that all subjects are important and because they do overlap so, so very much. If you are looking for some more math ideas, how to bring math into your curriculum, you know what I’m going to say, the Art of Education University website, it has a ton for you. You just go on onto the website, type in the word math, type in the word geometry, type in the word symmetry, whatever you are specifically looking for, I’m going to tell you, there’s a lesson plan out there for you, and it’s probably free. Go check it out and incorporate those lessons, jam packed full of art and math.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.