Imagine this: Your school is 45 minutes from the nearest art museum. But you want to provide students with an immersive art experience. That was the challenge at our suburban integrated arts school. An art museum in a neighboring city has been running an amazing program for schools for decades. They call this program The Art of Writing. During this day-long experience, students from all over the metropolitan area gather at the museum. They spend the day amongst the artwork, eventually choosing one piece that inspires them to write a personal narrative. While my school sends a select few students to this program, it is cost-prohibitive on a large scale. So, if an art museum is not an option for you due to cost and/or distance, how can you replicate, or maybe even improve upon, this experience?
Why an immersive art experience?
According to an article titled “Art Makes You Smart” from the New York Times (Brian Kisda, Jay P. Greene, and Daniel Bowen, Nov.23, 2013), when students visited Crystal Bridges Art Museum, they “demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions.” Being exposed to a library of visual art, especially when examined deeply by using tools such as The Artful Thinking Palette, is a wonderful way to build appreciation and empathy, provide historical context, and broaden the horizons of students. Researchers went onto conclude that “Expanding access to art, whether through programs in schools or through visits to area museums and galleries, should be a central part of any school’s curriculum.”
How do we provide such an experience with cost and time constraints?
We chose to partner with our local high school. We created an on-site experience in which elementary students interact with Advanced Placement art students and their artwork in a meaningful, memorable way. By the end of the half-day experience both the elementary and the high school students have gained a great deal. (It’s also worth noting that this program is now an annual event at my school!)
What does the planning entail?
Our 4th and 5th grade team and art teachers meet beforehand with the high school art teacher. He invites 4-8 high school students to participate. At the meeting, he has their names along with photos of the artwork they will be bringing to highlight. For the past two years we have been very fortunate to have one student demonstrate using a pottery wheel. However, most of the artists bring drawings, collages, photos, or paintings.
By taking photos of the artwork ahead of time, we are able to create a visual schedule for the afternoon, which helps all students, but especially those with special needs or who are learning English as a second language. We also prepare copies of an Art Analysis Tic Tac Toe, which students have practiced using with a variety of artwork throughout the year. As students learn about each piece of art, they fill one of these out preparing them with notes for writing. We also have students bring their iPads and take photos of each artwork. If your students do not have their own devices, you could provide them with photos.
We also recognized that the high school students might initially be apprehensive about sharing their art with elementary students. So, we planned an opening activity to make everyone feel comfortable. We start with a pizza lunch provided by our PTO, followed by recess. Then we settle into an afternoon of work. Since we want everyone to know about the great integrated arts learning happening at our school, we invite School Board members, district administrators, and our local newspaper.
What does the rest of the afternoon look like?
As you can see from the visual schedule, sessions alternate between presentation and application. So, for example, in one room two teens presented their pottery and charcoal drawings. They talked about their inspiration and techniques they used. They also shared their future career and artistic plans, and fielded questions from the 4th and 5th graders. In the following room, the younger students applied a charcoal drawing technique. With twenty minutes per session, by the end of the afternoon students were able to see and take notes on four presentations and try four new art techniques.
What about the writing?
The initial year we tried including the writing on the same day. However, we discovered that there was not enough time. Students needed to reflect upon and discuss the artwork further prior to writing. However, the high school students do each write reflections on the experience prior to leaving. Without exception, the event far exceeds their expectations! They are always impressed with the level of questions they field from their proteges.
During Writer’s Workshop sessions on subsequent days, students divide into groups by the artwork they chose and have some time to go over their notes and discuss the artwork. Once they have generated their ideas, they do their individual writing. Initially, we required personal narratives, mimicking the museum event, but soon expanded the genres per student request. Some students still choose personal narrative. Others write fantasy. Some do informational pieces on the artist’s background and technique. Some write fiction. One of the unexpected outcomes of this event is that every high school student ends up talking about the importance of revision and persistence during the Q & A sessions, both skills which we revisit with the elementary students during the writing process. After the fourth and fifth graders go through the writing process, all of the pieces are published alongside photos of the art that inspired them. The museum event produces a bound paper compilation of the student writing, but we create a simpler electronic version.
This sounds like a lot of work! Is The Writing of Art really worth it?
Yes!! The chance for students to see visual art “in real life”, plus connect with the artists personally, is invaluable and inspiring. Since we are a 1:1 device district, the elementary and high school students can continue their new friendships via a safe email system. As an integrated arts school, our mission is not to train artists, but to employ a teaching model in which content and the arts are taught simultaneously as a way to deepen learning in both areas. That not only happens in this project, but it gives students the opportunity to hear how young adults are planning to continue to incorporate the arts into their lives, regardless of their post-high school plans. As for the workload, it does take some time to put things in place the initial year, but after that, it’s pretty easy to repeat from year to year. The staff, high school, and elementary students all love this event!
For more ideas on how to teach writing through art, please read Edutopia’s 2014 article “Inspire Thoughtful Creative Writing Through Art.”