Interdisciplinary Literacy Unit: Transformation of Italian Folklore through Shadow Theater. Pinocchio, Son of Leonardo, Survivor of Vesuvius: A Strong Body of Research Supports the Common-Sense Assumption That by Teaching Interdisciplinary Curriculum, Concepts Become More Relevant to Students

Article excerpt

"The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it"

--Tuscan proverb

In the summer of 2007, we had the opportunity to lead a group of Hofstra University students, pre- and inservice, undergraduate and graduate, elementary and art teachers, to Sorrento, Italy, for interdisciplinary courses in both literacy and art education. The culminating project, a shadow theater play and performance, brought together students from both courses. The teachers assumed a dual existence during the course: They learned to think like teachers of the arts and, as proxies for their students, they experienced learning as a student does.

Although taught in an inspirational venue, in Sorrento across from Mt. Vesuvius, this interdisciplinary project is easily adaptable to more prosaic settings (say, an elementary school classroom). The art and literacy components of this project highlight many key elements of successful interdisciplinary curriculum development. It makes sense to integrate art, specifically puppetry, and literacy, as knowledge gained in art strengthens the understanding of concepts that are not only related, but also important to literacy.

The puppetry project described in this article is a part of an ancient art form called shadow theater. This type of puppetry, which integrates drama, art, music, and movement, offers rich multicultural teaching opportunities. Students are further engaged in their own magical performance of puppets, which come to life as they are illuminated from behind a screen. Folktales conveyed by the mysterious art form of shadow theater tell the history of humankind.

Conclusive Research About the Effects of Drama on Literacy

A strong body of research supports the common-sense assumption that by teaching interdisciplinary curriculum, concepts become more relevant to students. The supporting theoretical framework for interdisciplinary instruction has its roots in the philosophical perspectives of John Dewey (1916), Jean Piaget (1974), Elliot Eisner (1992), and Lev Vygotsky (1962). Current research reveals that a positive relationship exists between learning in the arts and other disciplines. Important characteristics of the learning process, such as elaboration, fluency, originality, and the capacity to take multiple perspectives and comprehend layered relationships, are stimulated by learning in the arts and other subjects (Burton, Horowitz, & Abeles, 2000; Greeno, Smith, & Moore, 1992; Singley & Anderson, 1989). The arts require different kinds of intelligence and employ multiple ways of representing knowledge and personal experience (Cornett, 1999; Fowler, 1996). For example, when drama is taught together with literature, each subject illuminates the other by engaging different learning modalities. The expressive and constructivist nature of artistic activity enables students to grasp complex concepts through the lens of their own experience and perceptions.

Despite enthusiasm from many quarters, some researchers have not found sufficient generalized support for arts integration. Winner and Hetland (2000) and Hetland et al. (2007) expressed skepticism about the efficacy of arts integration and claims for the arts raising academic achievement, as demonstrated through test scores and SATs. They conducted 10 meta-analytic reviews by combining groups of studies (80 reports) completed since 1950 that test the claim that art education results in improvement in non-arts learning. The researchers found only three areas in which a causal link was conclusively demonstrated; two studies were related to music and spatial tests, and the third involved drama, with the results showing that "classroom drama improves reading readiness and reading achievement scores, oral language skills, and story understanding" (Podlozny, 2000).

Based on 80 reports (107 effect sizes), a causal link was found between classroom drama (enacting texts) and a variety of verbal areas. …