At the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the museum educators support teachers by creating resources and offering professional development opportunities to assist K-12 educators in learning how to integrate art into their teaching.
I sometimes hear from language art and social studies teachers that they are hesitant to use art in their classroom, as they may be unfamiliar with art elements or art historical movements. At the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the museum educators support teachers by creating resources and offering professional development opportunities to assist K-12 educators in learning how to integrate art into their teaching. Bringing students on field trips to the museum to directly engage with an artwork can further enhance the classroom learning. A recent student visit to the museum provides an example of the great potential in using works of art to support student learning across the curriculum.
Observing, Interpreting, Understanding
As the eighth grade students lean in to get a closer look at the small plaster sculpture before them in the museum gallery, a variety of interpretations begin to form. Without giving the students any information about the work of art, such as the title or the year it was made, a museum educator asks them to share their observations about what they see. One student thinks the sculptural grouping of four figures looks like a family. "What do you see that makes you say it's a family?" asks the educator, encouraging the student to back up his observation with visual evidence. "Well, there's a man and a woman, and two young boys." "Wait," interrupts another student, "one boy is wearing rags, and the other is not. The other boy is dressed fancy, like the parents." His friend chimes in, "Those aren't his parents. The woman won't even look at the guy, and he looks more official." "What makes you say he looks official?" muses the educator, guiding the students toward deeper interpretation. "Well, he is wearing a military uniform and he's holding a book." ‘What might the book signify?’ "Maybe he's teaching her to read?"
After probing further, and even posing in a tableau to mimic the body language of the four figures in the sculpture, the students have come to the following conclusion: The man in the military uniform is holding a book, which they've determined is the Bible, and he is asking the woman to place her hand upon it and "swear to something." The educator then reveals the context of the sculpture, "Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations," created in 1866 by artist John Rogers. A rich discussion ensues about how many people had to take loyalty oaths to the Union following the Civil War in order to receive food and assistance from the government to survive in the war-torn South. Students infer that the woman's husband probably died in the war, and the future of her family is uncertain, as her land and livelihood have likely been damaged.
Looking at an archival copy of a handwritten loyalty oath from the period, students recite the words out loud. They are asked to take the point of view of the widow in the sculpture — how might she have felt taking this oath? What is the point of view of the military officer, or the children, one of whom is a formerly enslaved boy? What is the artist's point of view? How does the artist convey those feelings through the work of art?
In closing, students read Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address from 1865. They pay particular attention to the last paragraph, in which, at the close of the Civil War, the president encouraged the nation: "With malice toward none, with charity for all ... let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ... " Reading Lincoln's words with Roger's sculpture allows the students to compare a primary source document with a visual source created during the same period about the same topic, reading both works critically.
Goals for College and Career Readiness
In the example on the facing page, students observed an artwork and evaluated several possible interpretations for its content. They communicated and argued independently and supported their interpretations with evidence. They worked collaboratively to construct meaning from what they were seeing, placing the work in historical context. They grappled with point of view, plot, setting, and character development. The thought about the events that led to the sculptural scene depicted, and made projections about what might happen following this moment. They compared the visual text with two primary source documents, and physically acted out the scene. Their minds and bodies were fully engaged as they internalized a historical event, came to understand different perspectives, and evaluated conclusions.
All of these engaging strategies fall nicely under the goals for college and career readiness in reading, writing, speaking, listening and language as outlined through the CCSS. Analyzing a work of art can help a student “comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and ... construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information.” In addition to building strong content knowledge about the work of art under examination and its historical and cultural context, they comprehend, critique and value evidence.
Facilitating a student-centered dialogue around a work of art offers students the chance to grapple with a visual "text" and figure out its message. Art is a form of communication, a visual message from a particular time and place, a text we can grapple with, take apart and figure out. Often teachers follow a close reading of an artwork in the museum with a post-visit writing exercise back in the classroom. Students can create dialogue between people depicted in a painting, or use the artwork as a writing prompt for creating poetry, journal entries or podcasts. As visual texts increase in complexity, a student will practice drawing inferences in deeper and more varied ways.