Tana Johnson has just been asked one of those sweeping questions that would take most people a while to think about and to answer.
Johnson, however, doesn't miss a beat.
"It's so important, because many school art programs have fallen by the wayside,” she says. “We're finding art teachers in the classroom who say there's a generation of kids being raised without visual literacy -- without any understanding -- and it's sad to me. Kids are visually savvy, but they're not necessarily understanding or learning or caring about art. And it's such a fundamental form of expression.
“It's part of our cultural capital, and it's part of people being alive,” she continues. “They should be able to make visual things and put them out to the community and to society and be heard. That's a fundamental part of being human."
The question posed to her, as you may have guessed, is "Why is it important to teach kids about art? Why does it matter?"
Johnson, producer and instructional designer of interactive educational technologies at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), thinks it matters plenty, and she, her staff, and an array of teacher-advisers have spent the last several years doing something about it -- something lively, inviting, compelling, and digital.
That something is called ArtThink, SFMOMA’s media-rich Web site, which launched in February 2007. ArtThink provides teachers a wealth of curricula and theme-based activities in visual arts, language arts, history, and social studies, all in an elegantly designed, easy-to-navigate site. "Honestly, it could provide them curriculum for a year," Johnson says.
"Every person has the ability to be creative and be a creative thinker," she continues. "Whether or not they become an artist, it's more important to be open to that understanding of art."
Not doing so, Johnson says, is like "never learning how to read." But she's convinced there's evidence for optimism concerning art in the schools. "People are starting to come back around and realize that marginalizing the arts isn't in the best interest of education, because so many children need a creative outlet, or they just won't perform in the other subjects. Creativity is such an important part of growth in education. Our hope is that ArtThink will reach across disciplines."
Bringing Together the Team
That outcome seems likely. Integrating a cross-discipline approach to art was a priority for the ArtThink development team from the beginning. "Early on, we brought in a group of about thirty teachers,” Johnson explains. “We had art teachers, a couple of science teachers, history teachers, and language arts teachers. Then we brought in media-arts teachers -- people already doing cutting-edge digital work in the classroom. And they helped us study the screens, brainstorm the themes, and talk about the subjects and the subject areas -- things they actually taught in their classrooms."
That exercise generated a list of themes, and teachers were hired to write lesson plans. At the same time, the museum hired a group of six paid advisers -- two visual-arts teachers, two language arts teachers, and two history/social studies teachers -- who worked with the museum over a period of about two years. Some were new to the project, and others had been working with the ArtThink team since its inception.
"It was a good mix of teachers," Johnson says, "and they also represented very different high schools."
Drawn from a broad demographic range of teaching experience, some of the group came from San Francisco's inner city Mission High School, others were from San Francisco University High School, a private college-preparatory school also located in the city, and some were from San Rafael High School, in nearby Marin County. "They would meet with us quarterly, and they'd look at our lessons, look at our designs, everything," Johnson says. "They advised us on the whole site development."
Mission’s Kimberly Campisano, one of the teacher-advisers involved in the project, says, "Working with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has given me the opportunity to share what I know firsthand about the urban teaching experience, and the importance of art in activist education."
Pulling It All Together
Financing for the ambitious project came from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal institution that awarded the museum a grant of half a million dollars, part of which was earmarked for creating ArtThink.
"We had this amazing, vast archive -- an online resource we had been building since 2001," Johnson recalls. But it lacked a good means of navigation. "We didn't have a way for teachers to link to it. We'd show teachers, and they'd say, 'We love this, but we need some lessons and activities; we need to know how to use it and how to make it relevant to our students.'" That's when Johnson's team collaborated with the teacher-advisers and got to work.
There was a lot to do, but the team and the advisors also had a substantial foundation from which to build. "In 1995, the museum produced a beautiful CD-ROM called Voices and Images of California Art,” Johnson says. “Then, a year or two later, we worked with teachers to write curriculum for that CD-ROM. We produced it with a curriculum binder and distributed it throughout California. That was our first big effort at accompanying digital artwork with curriculum. After it was in the schools and doing really well, we realized it should be available on the Web."
Today, as explained on the site, ArtThink provides "in-depth investigation of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art and artists by using SFMOMA's award-winning interactive programs, Making Sense of Modern Art and Voices and Images of California Art, as the basis for study. Each section of the site provides online exploration and research of thematic topics plus hands-on, step-by-step activities in language arts, history, and visual arts." There is also a glossary and a section for educators.
Reaching Out to Other Museums
In addition to its group of teacher-advisers, the ArtThink team consulted with other museums in developing the site. "And we still do," Johnson says. "We look at other sites and see what they're doing -- it's a great way to learn, and it's a wonderful, supportive community out there." Johnson cites ArtsConnectEd -- a joint project of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center -- as an important model for ArtThink.
"Two of the consultants that worked on ArtsConnectEd came to San Francisco for two days of brainstorming with our teachers and our staff,” Johnson says. “It was a valuable meeting of the minds and cross-fertilization with people who knew curriculum and technology and how to put them together, and also how to train teachers. We learned a lot. And we go to conferences and meet with museum professionals all the time and share resources and ideas.”
Plans for the Future
“One thing we'd like to see ArtThink become is a place for other museums to post lesson plans," Johnson adds. "We'd like to create a site that would be more of a one-stop shop for teachers looking for art curriculum."
Another big dream, which Johnson says she hopes will come true in the next couple of years, is to give teachers access to the server-based multimedia authoring tool used in building the ArtThink site. "Teachers could then start making their own portfolios with this tool," she says, "and create their own Flash presentations so their kids can put their artwork in a presentation with text next to it, or upload a video they've made with explanatory text."
Educating the Educators
Though SFMOMA’s regular teacher workshops are not essential for using the site, the museum offers them to help teachers navigate the site and learn how to maximize its benefit to students. Thanks to an approachable, intuitive design by the Method design firm, Johnson says, "teachers can use the site without needing us to show them how, but after we've worked with them for an hour or two, they feel even more confident about using it."
ArtThink has been online for only about one semester, but response from teachers is already strong. "We've received great feedback,” Johnson says. “We had a teacher institute here at the museum, during which teachers were given an orientation and guided tour of the site. We also presented it to a Computer-Using Educators group in Southern California, and we've done small-group trainings at San Francisco State University and elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. We also held a day-long training at Apple.”
Kerreen Brandt, a teacher at San Rafael High School, is just one user who's enthusiastic about the site. "Before ArtThink, I never knew how to incorporate modern art into my history classes, and now I do," she says.
During the academic year, the museum will continue its teacher-training and dissemination efforts and its work with local school districts and offer regional joint-training sessions with Apple and statewide professional-development groups such as the California Technology Assistance Project. Five hundred teachers have participated in the sessions since ArtThink's launch, and Johnson hopes to reach that many more over the course of the school year. Meanwhile, Johnson's team will continue to create new curriculum, incorporating the work of artists Olafur Eliasson, Frida Kahlo, and Jeff Wall.
ArtThink's technology requirements for use in the classroom are what you would expect: a computer and a high-speed Internet connection. "It's really difficult, unfortunately, to watch videos without a high-speed connection," Johnson says. "Without one, it’s very frustrating for the kids." And in a one-computer classroom, an LCD projector, though not indispensable, would be handy. Johnson adds that the computers "definitely need to be running Flash to access the rich media on the site -- but that's a free download."
Beyond the technology needs, what are the other necessary supplies?
"It depends on the teacher and his or her vision of the project," Johnson explains. "Most of the projects are analog, so once you've done your research online and learned about the artist and the artwork, then, generally, we ask the students to make something offline -- make something with their hands -- or use their writing or research skills.”
The typical supplies students will need are those used in any art classroom, such as paper, clay, wire, glue, and paint. It's left up to teachers to decide how they want to handle the projects and how ambitious they want the activities to be. Johnson says, "We know creating a classroom collaborative mural could take four weeks. But instead, you could do a small, drawing-size mural in just two days."
Perhaps what has been most satisfying to Johnson and the ArtThink development team is the feedback they've received from teachers about the site. At the orientation sessions last February and May, one teacher commented, "It’s incredible to link art, language arts, and social studies into big ideas that define and reflect culture values and experiences." Another said, "I love the language arts and social studies connections. It’s a great resource for integration and collaboration." A third remarked that ArtThink "opened my eyes to new ways of teaching core subjects and visual arts," and yet another said, "I can hardly wait to go back home and begin creating new lessons."
Douglas Cruickshank is the former editor of Edutopia.org.