by Matthew Lasnoski
I applied for an internship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum last winter because I knew I would be craving a new community after graduating from Kenyon College. My major in art history and summer internship at The Art Institute of Chicago gave me a passion for art education, and so far American Art has been an incredible place to focus on exactly that. This was the museum I visited on my high school class trip to Washington D.C., and it brings back all kinds of memories for me of my first experiences with art.
Matt leads a discussion with students in the Lincoln Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photo by Gene Young
In addition to my work at American Art, I recently had the opportunity to teach an after-school creative writing workshop at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, Maryland. I was excited to adapt my experience teaching art in the museum galleries to a classroom setting. I have found the transition to be a useful tool for reinforcing basic narrative structure concepts and research skills as defined by the Common Core State Standards. It is with this spirit that I developed two pre-writing activities to prepare students for an artwork-based creative writing project.
For the first lesson, I asked my class of eighteen middle school students to write a creative essay around the theme of going on a quest. Through this topic, I sought to reinforce my students' understanding of basic narrative structures. I decided to start my students' investigation by creating a cohesive storyline that connected ten images from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's permanent collection. The artworks were from many time periods in American history and represented a diversity of subject matters. I presented this narrative by arranging the images on a PowerPoint presentation. I suggest choosing artworks that have a clear visual narrative for the students.
My choices included:
Next I posed questions about the writing topic. With this inquiry-based approach, I sought to focus my students' creative energies to reflect on character and plot development. Instead of simply listing elements of narrative structures, I found that strategic questioning and group brainstorming sessions helped to generate enthusiasm. One student, Sudhir, became so excited that he jumped out of his seat, his hand raised high, to share his thoughts with the class. In the eighth session with this group, I observed that more students caught up to Sudhir and became more excited to participate in group discussions.
In the second activity, I narrowed my students' focus and had them look closely at one artwork to begin their writing process. To begin, students divided their papers into two columns and titled the first column "Objective" and the second one "Subjective." I modeled the activity by asking the group to generate objective and subjective observations about the first artwork. I observed that the structured objective/subjective framework gave my students a meaningful platform to find inspiration for their later writing. As a second part to this activity, I distributed the artist's biographical information and had them research and learn more about the artwork before starting their final writing assignment about going on a quest.
The end result exceeded my expectations. The students did far more than simply gain practice with Common Core State Standards. When my students shared their final quest stories, I was astounded by their ability to see with incredible insight and passion. Sudhir's story still remains with me to this day. He became enamored by Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii.
The work of art resonated with him on a personal level and culminated with a beautiful personal narrative about his childhood. Having lived in four states in the past five years, he recounted a story about his experiences living all across the country. His inspiration from the artwork went deeper than simply looking at the map as a base for his own childhood experience. Sudhir observed the bright neon tubes representing state borders. This observation contrasted with his own experience with the transition between places. He explained that each state where he lived, although unique as shown by the televisions, shared more commonalities than differences. This incredible depth was not uncommon among my students, and there was not a shortage of students who could not wait to get home to share their stories with their parents.
I urge interested teachers to repurpose or even adapt these activities for their own classroom needs. But more importantly, I hope that teachers can see that their students can benefit from a curriculum enriched with American art.
To find more ideas for using American art in your language arts or social studies classroom, visit our Education Resources page.