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Stretching Your Curriculum Canvas: Reading the World Through Art

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A young boy in a white t-shirt is standing in a museum, with his hands behind his back, looking at artwork.

A few years ago, I traveled to Guatemala to study the Maya with Tulane's Latin American Studies teacher institute. I met Denise Tullier-Holly, a Louisiana art teacher who showed me how to bring art into the ELA classroom. In doing so, I discovered that few of my students had taken an art class in seventh grade. Since NCLB began, math and reading interventions have taken the place of the arts in our schools, so I proposed that we integrate art across the disciplines and visit The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC).

Getting Started

I had never organized a field trip, and with close to 400 eighth grade students, the first step was to work through the logistics:

1. Cost: The Art Institute of Chicago offers free admission to students. Not all museums do this, but many do.

2. Time: With all the testing (MAP, ACCESS, PARCC) and popular field trip months between February and May, we decided that January was the best month for our school (as long as it didn't snow). I called in September to reserve the dates.

3. Travel and Supervision: How do we get 400 students and chaperones to and from Chicago in the middle of winter with lunches? For a sense of the students' experience, I visited the museum a month prior to our trip and met a few of the volunteer docents who would lead the tours. They showed me the small folding chairs that students carry between galleries, a place to store lunches and coats, and the dining room with a view. The museum requires one chaperone for every 15 kids, so we asked parents to join the teachers and principals. A dozen parents volunteered. The museum's visitor guidelines were a big help to assuage supervision anxiety. I found that some parents were so excited about the trip that they felt more like guests than supervisors. And our cafeteria staff agreed to make sack lunches -- teachers took the order during homeroom, and we stored them in rolling coolers.

4. Expertise: How are we supposed to teach with art if we don't know anything about it? Field trips are an opportunity for an educator partnership. I talked in depth to the museum education coordinator about our curricular goals, and she assured me that teachers don't need an art history degree to talk about art. The museum website is filled with many great resources. I also emailed the docents with a link to our class blog and the names of artists we were learning about. The docents planned to show us some of our favorite pieces. During the tours, our docent referenced specific students' blog posts.

I collected these findings in a proposal, which I shared with the staff and administrators, and then we planned how to integrate art across the disciplines.

Visual Literacy: Integrating Art

Teachers across all the disciplines had to believe in the project to make it meaningful for the students. Each discipline looked for ways that art could enhance their curriculum, but we agreed to focus on two literacy curricular goals based on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS):

  1. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different media (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea (ELA.RI.8.8).
  2. Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound reasoning, and well-chosen details (ELA. SL.8.4).

With the help of Denise and our school art teacher, we practiced visual literacy (or reading art) as one way to work toward these goals and prepare students for their docent-led discussions at the AIC. A great source for visual literacy is Philip Yenawine's Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines. He says, "VTS allows non experts to lead rigorous discussions about works of art, the rigor coming from the questions -- especially the one asking for evidence."

4 Steps and 15 Minutes

  1. Project a carefully-chosen image and ask students to look at it quietly for a moment.
  2. Ask students to answer several specific but open-ended questions that come in sequence:
    • What's going on in this picture?
    • What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What more can we find?
  3. Listen to what students say, point to what they mention, respond to each comment, and paraphrase every student's ideas.
  4. Link agreement and disagreement while remaining the facilitator throughout the discussion. Don't add comments, correct, or direct the students' attention (Yenawine 23).

As some students contribute comments, others listen to their peers describe the picture and figure out what is going on. The teacher's paraphrasing clarifies and reinforces the ideas. To assess what all students are hearing and noticing, it's helpful to pair the discussion with a writing activity. Phil Yenawine says that what art museum visitors need is "permission to be puzzled." Image reading engages their eyes and minds. In class, we can offer time "to noodle and figure things out" so that students can use what they already know to reflect on what they don't.

When selecting images, Yenawine says, "What is key especially at the start is to select art to connect with the experience of the group having the discussion; they will use what they know to figure out what's going on as well as the basis for considering what might be puzzling to them." This means that teachers do need to find culturally relevant work to ensure everyone's participation.

Each department committed to finding art related to their content, working toward the literacy goals, and developing visual literacy in their own classrooms between September and January.

Examples From the Classrooms

Teachers found their own way into art. Some displayed art posters, e.g., Hopper's Nighthawk (History), Kandinsky's Transverse Line (math), and Van Gogh's The Bedroom (ELL). Others incorporated cartoons, photography, and film. One teacher gathered art books to learn about the museum's featured artists. This turned into a great mini-research project. For reading, we looked at art about once a week (more as enthusiasm grew). On classroom blogs, students put into conversation their reading of paintings and photography with songs, poems, books, and articles like this post comparing Sia's "Elastic Heart" and Picasso's Femme Aux Bras Croises. For writing, students rendered paintings into poem and story form, trying different points of view. Read Emily's poem inspired by Picasso's The Old Guitarist and (scrolling down from the poem) her story inspired by Van Gogh's Prisoners' Round.

Once you learn a little bit about art, you start noticing it everywhere: in commercials, the newspaper, calendars, on the train. The students will, too. It just so happened that two Hollywood films, Woman in Gold and Big Eyes, premiered during this project. Some of our eighth grade kids chose these over the latest slasher movie.

The Field Trip

As January approached, the assistant principal and I finalized bus lists, checked in with parent volunteers, and encouraged teachers to review museum etiquette and introduce the word docent during homeroom.

On the day of the field trip, students saw firsthand the masterpieces they'd read. They all had specific pieces that they wanted to see and knew how to engage in discussion with the docents, presenting their claims about the art with sound reasoning and detail. But seeing the art in person meant that they could compare the digital and the real. The lines, textures, lighting, size, proximity, and sensors that sound if you get too close are all central to experiencing art. For example, one group gathered in the corner of the American Art Gallery to see Albright's Ida, Bolotowsky's Grey Diamond, and Evergood's The Indestructibles. About this latter painting, Sam wrote:

You can see how intricately these colors were chosen in order to show the depression and sadness of what is happening in this painting. I notice that the prisoners are bound up by chains, and others are looking out the window. I believe the reason they look out the bars is because they're looking for a greater world beyond their current living conditions.

Seeing the art in person -- alongside one another, in the museum, in the great city of Chicago -- was an aesthetic experience that defied measurement. We surpassed the CCSS goals. We learned a way of seeing and being in and beyond our own experience.

What I Learned From Art

In the end, art became my teacher. Here’s what I learned and what I’d do differently:

We're Not Alone

Planning a field trip is a lot of work, and you can't do it alone. Our experience was a partnership between museum staff, teachers, students, administrators, parents, bus drivers, and cafeteria personnel. Teachers often put a lot of effort into building relationships with students and have little energy left over for reaching out to others, but this project motivated me to work with parents and colleagues, and many memorable conversations taught me about my school as a community. Parents emailed me after the trip to express their gratitude and share some of their own art discoveries.

Further Inquiry Needed

Although visual literacy methods made art accessible to teachers and students unfamiliar with it, I would have worked more closely with our district's art teachers to bring their expertise into the classroom. (Our school's art teacher's time on the project was limited by paternity leave.) The video "I Could Do That" by The Art Assignment emphasizes that "every object is created within circumstances that are important and is distributed in ways that add to its meaning." The thought that the artist brings to the form requires work beyond image reading. Why did the artist do this? What are the social, political, economic, and even personal circumstances that drove the artist to create this object and find an audience for it? These questions go beyond the scope of our project this year, but I see them as spaces for further inquiry. Therefore, we have proposed making this interdisciplinary project a two-year study.

Beyond January, students continued to blog about art they discovered, and some are now in high school art classes. Art grapples with the familiar and opens our eyes (and hearts) to ideas about how we've lived. Art moves us to experience our world beyond words. It teaches us to imagine. And don't we want students to be able to imagine a world that is, well, better?

Does every student in your school have access to art education? I encourage you to check in with your local art museum for resources, and to consider organizing a field trip or making time for image reading to bring art to your students. You don't have to be an expert, and you don't have to do it alone. Stretch your curriculum canvas.

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thanks for sharing these great ideas Sarah. Some of the resources that you mentioned are a bit "hidden" and not many teachers know they exist and can leverage to use in the classroom. I loved taking art classes throughout high school, even though I wasn't particularly good at it. But I felt it was a class where I can express some of my thoughts and ideas. I also really enjoyed, as you mentioned, analyzing art as a form of social and political expressions. There is power in leveraging this type of creativity in the classroom.

Sarah J. Donovan, PhD's picture
Sarah J. Donovan, PhD
middle school ELA teacher

Thanks, Rusul. Art is often taught as there is some "right" interpretation that teachers must help students uncover, but I have found (not being an art expert) that the art can be a mirror and window of humanity, that its meaning is transactional -- the art, the artist, the time, the viewer and her companions all making meaning in that moment. And then when art becomes a story or is compared to a song, another piece of art, another being, well, the meaning shifts again. For me, I just loved that a student would be in conversation with Picasso about The Old Guitarrist in a public middle school classroom about the human condition as an equal voice.

Meg's picture
Teacher and Founder at Explorable Places

Sarah, thank you for writing this wonderful article! It is so important that art is not only taught in school, but integrated across content areas!

At my last school, we were encouraged to take students on a field trip each month. Our favorite trip was to the MOMA where my fourth graders were able to think deeply about how artists develop characters in paintings and compare that to how authors develop characters in stories. For the rest of the year, we were able to use the trip as a touchpoint, and students understanding of character was deeper because of it.

Over at Explorable Places we're trying to make it easier for teachers to find the great museums that relate to what they're teaching, so there can be even more cross curricular collaboration.

Thanks again for the wonderful article!

Missmorgan7's picture

I love this! Art is so important to learning, and sadly people are getting away from that. I thought it was super neat to have the students learn about the museum beforehand, so they know exactly what they were going to look at. This is great!

Sarah J. Donovan, PhD's picture
Sarah J. Donovan, PhD
middle school ELA teacher

Thank you. I am happy to say that our school has integrated visual thinking strategies and art into all the content areas. Students in history analyzed art about the Indian Removal Act, for example. This year, our school went to the Art Institute of Chicago again and was fortunate enough to see Van Gogh's bedroom exhibit. This project has prompted our school to take a look at the enrichment courses available to students and to minimize the intervention classes like extra math and reading in favor of music and art classes that can integrate literacy skills with greater attention to fine arts.

Lisa_MCcoy's picture
Parent. Teacher. Budding Writer

It is sad that Art is often neglected in comparison to Maths, Science and other subjects. It would be great if art can be integrated with other subjects to boost the overall growth of students. Glad to read and share this article that directs how to incorporate art in day to day learning!

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