Smithsonian American Art Museum
Last winter, high school English teacher Phyllis Merrill penned the following article about her experience integrating what she learned during the 2011 Clarice Smith National Teacher Institute into her classroom practice. Phyllis, a veteran educator of over 30 years, currently teaches high school English at Saint Andrew's School in Boca Raton, Florida.  To find out more about the Clarice Smith Institutes and other teacher programs at the American Art Museum, visit our professional development page.


-- Addie
Education Department
American Art and Literature: A Compatible Couple
by Phyllis Merrill

Phyllis Merrill
Phyllis and an English student research the reference to Lilly Martin Spencer's We Both Must Fade in The Heidi Chronicles, a play by Wendy Wasserstein. Photo courtesy of Carlos Barroso, Saint Andrew's School. 

My students ask why Lilly Martin Spencer's We Both Must Fade an
d Lilla Cabot Perry's Lady With a Bowl of Violets are featured in Wendy Wasserstein's play, The Heidi Chronicles. These paintings, among others alluded to in this play, became the quest in my English 10 Honors classes. I always tell my students that authors, like artists, do not include any elements or details that are not relevant in some way to their work as a whole. Thus, my students went to one of our computer labs to investigate the importance of their assigned painting to Wasserstein's play. As a result of their research, they were able to write a short description of the work, and share with the class what they had discovered concerning the painting's relevance.

This kind of research and the ensuing discussions about art would not have been possible were it not for my experience of attending the Clarice Smith National Teacher Institute at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in August 2011. I had always wanted to couple art with literature, but felt that I lacked sufficient background to direct my students through a discussion of art. Thanks to inquiry-based methodologies taught at the Institute, I was empowered to facilitate such conversations. Additionally, I came away from this five-day experience armed with innovative ways of using technology to integrate art into my English 10 Honors curriculum. The "bridge" provided by technology proved invaluable, and I returned from the Institute confident and inspired. The students, with their affinity for technology, were very excited about this project, and we have since engaged in similar research and presentation activities for the music referenced in Wasserstein's play.

Left to right: August 2011 Clarice Smith National Teacher Institute participants Hawanya Render (Orlando, FL); Phyllis Merrill (Boca Raton, FL); Lizbeth Shelley (NYC); and Stacey McCown (Cupertino, CA).
My experience at the Institute proved essential to two other projects this semester. In the first, we viewed photographs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to deepen our understanding of Yusef Komunyakaa's poem, "Facing It." My students concurred that their understanding of Komunyakaa's images and message would not have been so profound had they not seen the shape, the names, and the reflective qualities of the memorial wall.  


The second put to use my new-found skills in podcasting. At the Institutes, participants create podcasts related to an artwork of their choosing. Podcasting helped organize my thoughts on the piece of art I selected and afforded me the opportunity to review and refine my script. Because of this experience, I had my students use podcasting to record and play back their essays so they could listen for errors in their writing. As they listened, I watched them correct their word usage, sentence structure, and organization of ideas. My students agreed that by hearing their compositions, they could take notice of errors in need of correction and identify areas in need of strengthening. They all look forward to repeating this experience as we proceed through the year.


Integrating art and technology into the literature classroom now feels like second nature because of the skills I learned at the Institute. My colleagues even think what I am doing is innovative and "cool." The next step is to help them implement these skills in their own classrooms.



To find out more about the Clarice Smith Institutes and other teacher programs at the American Art Museum, visit our professional development page.


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