Every year our priorities shift a little as the spotlight searches our student’s abilities and stops on a data-backed shortcoming. An important goal on my elementary campus this year is to improve our student’s writing skills. That means across the curriculum, every subject teacher has that as one of their priorities. Our directive is to include writing as often as we can in our lessons and encourage our students to express their thoughts in full sentences and use punctuation. I can hear the sense in this goal. Who doesn’t want their child to be able to write down what they think, to keep a journal, to learn the beauty and richness of our written language?
As an art teacher, I want student writing to connect in a meaningful way to the art curriculum. Of course the current Texas art TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills – 4th grade in this example) include developing appropriate art academic language skills in our students:
- …use appropriate vocabulary when discussing the elements of art, including line, shape, color, texture, form, space, and value, and the principles of design, including emphasis, repetition/pattern, movement/rhythm, contrast/variety, balance, proportion, and unity;…
The TEKS also include students developing the skill to analyze their own artworks and artworks of other times and cultures and be able to communicate those ideas:
- compare content in artworks for various purposes such as the role art plays in reflecting
life, expressing emotions, telling stories, or documenting history and traditions;
- compare purpose and content in artworks created by historical and contemporary men and women, making connections to various cultures
- investigate connections of visual art concepts to other disciplines
But somehow those sterile TEKS descriptions don’t do justice to what I want to do. As a twin sister to the visual language I teach, the written word has a separate beauty. How can I get these little minds to grasp the context of the word that describes art? That the word is not just a label for the parts of the artwork, but clues to meaning. What does it represent? Why did that artist choose that image to convey that idea?
So now, what to do? I teach 4th, 5th and 6th grade art, so there is a wide ability spread in my student’s writing skills. Even though I see my students every day, I only have 30 minute classes (not much time!), so I decided I would dedicate one class a week, Fridays, to short writing assignments that would connect to art history.
I used a mimio whiteboard presentation and include video and audio clips to supplement the visuals. My attempt at a three-slide streamlined format (read as: make it fast and easy to understand) are included below.
The first slide sets up the learning process. I ask the students to look at the artwork:
- study the artwork and take an inventory of what the see
- analyze what the artist’s message could be
- evaluate if the artwork is successful in their opinion and how they feel about it
The second slide gives a short art biography (if the artist is known). It also gives the nationality of the artist or location of the artwork by country and a link connected to that countries’ flag that takes them to further enrichment resources. In the case of our study of Lascaux cave art, this link takes you to a short video virtual tour of the Lascaux site. https://vimeo.com/40849516
I also included a YouTube clip of the movie Ice Age. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/205828645446960930/ It was a lucky leap, but the scene where animated characters see cave paintings come to life somehow brought home to my students that the people who drew the art in the Lascaux caves where real. They lived and ate meat and left us a cryptic message about their life on the walls of the cave. What could they mean?
The third slide brings the lesson to a writing conclusion. For 4th grade, we are just starting with one sentence that describes an artwork. We will build up quantity as they learn the routine. Write about the artwork, using the word bank and the writing guide notes.
The students write their sentence in their sketchbook, which reinforces the sketchbook as a place for thoughts and notes as well as their drawings.
The jury is still out on how much this format will improve my students writing skills, but one of the first things this process has accomplished is giving me a renewed interest in teaching art history to my elementary students. They are little “travelers of the mind”, and love exploring different times and cultures inspired by the artwork. As to finding the right words to describe an artwork, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”