Stories in the Art Room Essay

Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences deals directly with the idea of both story telling as well as visual and other arts in the classroom. Gardner put forth the idea of multiple intelligences in his book Frames of Mind published in 1983. In this book he challenged the status quo of academic intelligence. We now have the concept that individual students do not all learn the same, and further that their styles of learning are not inferior because they do not fit neatly inside the box of standardized tests. How can we put artistic intelligence into a system of questions and bubbles? Gardner in Frames of Mind pointed out seven main forms of intelligence; linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, interpersonal as well as intrapersonal.

            Of primary importance to us in this present paper are the forms of intelligence that combine linguistics with spatial intelligence. Through the art of story telling a student may be able to explore an imaginary visual world that was unavailable to them prior. For example take a child that has never been to the ocean. Our assignment in class is to paint ocean scenes. This child may become frustrated or even depressed at not being able to fully participate in the activity. Through the use of story telling and allowing children to imagine scenes as they progress through descriptive language the child is given the opportunity to experience the ocean through the minds eye.

            After having experienced the personal virtual ocean the child is capable of expressing these personal visions through artistic expression. This child has also developed his or her skills in imagery. Imagery skill has been linked to “listening, speaking, reading, writing, memorizing facts, solving math and personal problems, understanding scientific and cultural processes, creating discovering, and attending to complexity” (Wagler, 1994, pp. 23). The child may now be able to put emotion, quite possibly an eighth intelligence, into their creative representations of the ocean. Further the child can now imagine herself in a place, after having experienced it through the telling of a story. After having expressed visually their response to the ocean the child may be able now to tell their own story, based on their intrapersonal experiences.

            Gardner along with others from a Harvard Developmental Group under the title Art PROPEL did extensive research dealing with arts in the school system. (Gardner, 2006). Very important to the work of art instructors is the U shaped learning curve found by Gardner in this research. This indicates that if left alone or not given an avenue to grow, student’s natural artistic abilities will decline over time.

            This declining over time is where it is important for the art instructors to factor in individual intelligences as well as the malleability and evolving nature of the intellects they are dealing with (Aborn, M. 2006). The traditional art room for many students has been similar to the creative writing portion of English classes. This is a time in which students that may not be measuring up in math or science may find an intelligence at which they excel. Keeping this in mind the art educator can skillfully integrate the two creative fields in the form of expressive story telling and the illustration of those stories. Further, the art educator can begin to maintain art’s place in the education system by incorporating state standards into the mix.

            Art is a vital form of well-rounded learning. The processing of information does not happen on one level alone. It happens on many levels. It happens linguistically, it happens auditorally, it happens visually and it happens tactilely, to name a few. Art in all of its forms represents itself as a method by which information may be processed more deeply and students may learn information with greater chance of retention.

            Story telling applies itself to the theory of learning called constructivism. Within this paradigm learning is not a passive endeavor. Learning is quite active and the way we learn is by adding to or ‘constructing’ new neural pathways in the brain. These pathways are connected to old pathways. Simply put, learning is not something that happens to us; it is something we are engaged in. Story telling allows us to build upon previous knowledge (McDrury & Alerio, 2003). McDrury and Alterio quote Chaille and Britain (1991):

The learner is actively constructing knowledge rather than passively taking in information. Learners come to the educational setting with many different experiences, ideas, and approaches to learning. Learners do not acquire knowledge that is transmitted to them; rather they construct knowledge through their intellectual activity and make it their own. (p.44)

This quote very thoroughly expresses the importance of storytelling as an educational tool in the classroom. It important here to note that while this paper speaks form the perspective of art education, the importance of story telling reaches far into every classroom. To be able to tell a story about something, an idea or a historical moment is to have integrated that information into preexisting knowledge (Paquette, 1994). When this occurs we can say we have truly learned.

            In the classroom this may be applicable by allowing students to read passages from relevant texts, perhaps lessens from the state standards, and reflect on these passages and this new information in a variety of ways. In a traditional art room the students may choose a way to pictorially represent their ideas concerning the text. Students can be encouraged to write poetry or short stories, including themselves within historical events. The classroom play has long been a way that teachers have aided learning by artistic student involvement. Students can become actively engaged the creation of props, sets and costumes (Paquette, 1994).

            Students can learn the value of story telling as a method of learning by being introduced to old story telling strategies. By looking into the history of story telling and the cultural contexts of story telling students can develop a more personal relationship with the stories that they tell. Whether this is reading stories from a history book or telling stories about things done during the summer. Students should be instructed in the personal nature of inflection and gestures that are used during the telling of a story of any kind.

            Procedurally story telling lends itself to art. The telling of a story by its very nature conjures images in the mind. These images are to be taken advantage of. Images are then translated into a visual format via paints, color pencils or even crayons for younger students. It is important during this transfer to capture the moment while imagination is at its height. Children are distractible and will flow quite naturally into the next mode of thinking if the transition from the story to the visual arts is not smooth.

            Teachers may use these steps to achieve a smooth transition in the classroom between story telling and the production of art;

Have the students read a passage to themselves.
Have students actively engage in sharing personal experiences or ideas about what they have read. Encourage imagination during this phase. If students for instance do not have personal experience with the topic allow them to express how it made them feel and what it made them think about, visually as well as emotionally.
Have the students take turns reading the passage allowed, this time expressing themselves in the reading by body posture, inflection and mood.
At this stage the classroom should already be set up for the art activity to decrease any lag time between the reading and the activities. Allow students to freely explore the provided mediums to express their feeling and thoughts concerning the subject.
As an example a book such as ABC NYC by Joanne Dugan is an excellent choice. While this book is for younger students the subject matter of the ABCs is approached in a unique and engaging manner. Photos from around New York City that relate to the letter being described are presented. These interesting photos will challenge students to think of letters in way they may not be accustomed to. This book may be shared with the class and students that have no personal experience with New York may begin the process of actively thinking about New York in creative ways. They may then begin art projects that center around their own new and creative vision of the ABCs or venture into learning about a new city by way of their imaginations.

            Not only is interpersonal, spatial and linguistic intelligence being challenged, but body-kinesthetic as well. In this hypothetical lesson students can engage linguistically through the story itself. They can experience what it may be like to live in New York on an interpersonal level as well by creating pictures of stores that they may own or jobs that they may have if they lived in New York. Even the body kinesthetic intelligence is being tapped into by the art activity. This could be achieved by building their stores or cityscapes with Popsicle sticks, construction paper or cardboard. From here to further encourage the telling of stories as a means of creative communication students ma be instructed to use their art projects to begin telling their own story to each other and the class based on these projects. The class should work together on this and be guided in cooperation with one another to create one big story from their individual stories. These projects then could be put together into a book format and published. Publishing does not have to cost money, remember that bookbinding is an art form too. This story can then be shared with other classes (Paquette, 1994).

            Story telling in the classroom may further engage students in thinking about their own personal histories, their cultural history, or the cultural history of others not ordinarily available to them. By introducing stories to students in an adventurous way, stories can become as exciting as travel. For instance during a class that I helped with I saw students engage in a project involving an African village. During this exercise students were not only learning about a culture in an historical manner, they were learning about the culture in a virtual first hand manner. Their excitement and motivation to learn seemed to come from an intrinsic desire to understand this village. They were not concerned with being tested on the material; they were concerned with learning the material. This was an encouraging thing to see and one experience that I will draw from in my practice as a teacher.

            In conclusion it should be restated that learning is an active experience. Story telling is a method by which students may become personally involved in the information they are learning. When added to the visual arts the levels of learning that take place can barely be calculated. By taking linguistic information, integrating, retelling it from our own perspective and then creating visual representations for it students are engaged in locking information into the very biological structure of their brains.


Aborn, M. (2006). An intelligent use for belief. Education, 127(1), 83-85.

Blyth, T. & Gardner, H. (1990). A school for all intelligences. Educational Leadership, 33-37.

Dugan J. (2005). ABC NYC. Harry N. Abrams.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2006). Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. Basic Books.

McDrury, J. & Alerio, M. (2003). Learning through story telling in higher education: Using reflection and experience to improve learning. RoutledgeFalmer.

Paquette, J.P. (1994). Making stories the heart of the curriculum. In S. Daily (Ed.), Tales as tools: The power of story in the classroom (pp. 33). National Storytelling Association.

Wagler, M. (1994). Jailbreak storytelling in roots 103. In S. Daily (Ed.), Tales as tools: The power of story in the classroom (pp. 21-25). National Storytelling Association.