I owned a poster of John Scieszka's adorable Seen Art? before I'd ever read the book. I think I picked up the poster at a bookstore in upstate New York while attending a teacher conference. The book is whimsical and, well, adorable, but that's not why I'm referencing it in this post. I'm intrigued by the question brought up in the book's title. Now, Scieszca's "Art" is an actual person, a boy being sought by his little friend who has lost sight of him and looks for him at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. But, I want to ask you, your Uncle Art notwithstanding, have you seen art lately? I mean, really seen art?
I have. A lot of it. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend The Clarice Smith National Teacher Institute at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), in Washington, D.C. For an entire week, I looked at art, talked about art, discussed how art can be incorporated into the curriculum at school, and dabbled in a little technology, too. It was the week of my dreams.
The group consisted of about twenty teachers from the eastern half of the US, as far away as Ohio (me) and Alabama. The goal of the Institute is to get teachers comfortable with art and technology together, and to find ways to use art seemlessly in the curriculum. We started the week with a gallery walk and talk through SAAM with curators and education specialists from the museum. They modeled for us the methodology that they wanted us to take from the experience, that is, how to talk about art with students, how to get them to slowly look and look and look again at art and articulate in words and on paper what they're seeing. It's an inquiry-based discussion strategy that goes something like this:
-What do you see? (a basic "What's going on in this piece?" question)
-What do you see that makes you say that? (Grounding their observations in evidence)
-What more can you find? (Guiding them to use precise language about a piece)
The facilitator's job is to acknowledge every comment, help build a collective vocabulary around the art, restate the kids' observations, and summarize their thoughts. The purpose for this technique is not for the sake of understanding art necessarily, but for the sake of having students reach inside themselves, climb the ladder of Bloom's Taxonomy, and party on the roof with the heavy hitters: synthesis and analysis. (Sorry that I'm mixing metaphors like a Cuisinart.) Looking, thinking, and talking about the art can lead to any number of writing exercises- poetry, narratives, critiques. The idea is to use art as an approach to learning and writing, not as enrichment.
Over the course of the week, we really got the inside scoop on all things Smithsonian. We visited the SAAM archives and learned about using primary sources in lesson planning. The SAAM archives contain more material than I can fathom, and all of their digitized material is in the public domain and is therefore useable to anyone. Their website is full of treasure waiting to be unearthed: www.aaa.si.edu. We also visited the Luce Center, which houses 3300 works of art not currently on display at the museum but accessible to the public. That was very cool. Glass cases and drawers filled with pieces of this and bits of that and paintings and miniatures. Stuff to make your eyes pop!
The Institute theme was the American Landscape, and much of the art we saw was folded into that theme. Our task by week's end was to create a lesson concept loosely related to that theme which would incorporate the Visual Thinking Strategy (the technique of conversing about art that I mentioned earlier) and a podacst about one of the works of art in SAAM. Most people came to the Institute in teams, but those who didn't, like me, were paired up with other teachers to develop the lesson concept. I was paired with a wonderful young art teacher from Maryland (Hi, Gayle!), and we created a very cool lesson based on Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii. I'm going to place a picture of the piece here, but a little picture cannot do it justice. It's 15 feet high and 40 feet wide in person:
The piece really got my creative juices flowing. Our lesson was about getting kids to think about how they'd represent themselves visually in this new American landscape that we call the electronic superhighway (a term which the artist Paik coined). In the podcast, we described the piece, discussed its meaning, and read aloud some original poetry ("I am" poems).
To create the podcast, we were given iPod Touches and we used the app Voice Memo. Using Voice Memo, you can record your podcast, then you can upload the recording to your computer. We were given a lesson in using Audacity, a free, cross-platform sound editor, that's very easy to install and use. I had just done a podcast project with my students in May using Garageband (described in this previous post), and for Mac people, I'd recommend it over Audacity. PC users, Audacity is just fine.
Our last hurrah was our presentation of the lesson concepts and podcasts to the rest of the group. That was my favorite part of the lesson planning because it put me in front of a microphone, and that's when the Carol Burnett in me kicks in. Supposedly, the video that was made of the presentations will be posted online soon.
When the time rolls around next year to apply for The Clarice Smith National Teacher Institute, I strongly suggest doing so, particularly if you are at all interested in art. The experience was really enriching, and the education staff at SAAM made the whole week a pleasure.
One last thing: I might as well put in a plug for the Smithsonian's educational resources here. They are VAST. Go to www.americanart.si.edu and explore the online resources. You can also set up virtual field trips, aka videoconferences, with Smithsonian staff based on your needs for your classroom. Videoconferences can cover virtually any topic, from art in your home state to Latino artists to themes that the museum has created. Having participated in one while at the Institute, I can say that they are a great way to expose your students to pieces that they may never get to see in person.