Art teachers were STEAM-ing before STEAM was cool!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Celebrating Different Cultures Through Art

"When I was a kid..."

I can hear the groans now (especially from my 9-year-old)! But I've been thinking about my art experiences as a child. I loved art class in elementary school. We did doodle draws and splatter painting and it was so fun. Of course I remember more from my middle school and high school art classes. Technique and media exploration played a major role in those lessons. In a high school painting class I did an oral presentation on Monet but then somewhere in my research got him confused with Manet--that must have been an interesting presentation for my teacher to sit through!

In 1992, doing a chalk mural as part of a spring arts festival.

By the time I was 15 or so, I knew the basics of painting and drawing, BUT, the Monet/Manet mess-up was pretty indicative of my Art History knowledge at that time. I didn't know anything about art from around the world (or that much about Western art either, apparently). Then, something magical happened! I had been volunteering in Readiness and First Grade art classes and the art teacher I was helping did something amazing with the children: she showed them fine art before doing a project! GASP! Now I know that doesn't seem revolutionary, but to me, at that time, it caught me off guard. These children were six and seven years old and looking at "The View From Toledo"by El Greco! And the projects...they explored things like "Kente Cloths" and stuff! WHAT? These children were being exposed to art that I was just starting to see at the end of high school! I knew that was the way I wanted to do my lesson plans someday.

Then came lots and lots of Art History in college: 10 classes to be precise. Now I had my inspiration for TONS of projects for children! How do I integrate Art History and the art of diverse cultures into my curriculum?

Well...it goes a little like this...

With my after-school art classes, it is a no-brainer. I offer "Art Around the World" classes that focus specifically on certain cultures such as Mexico, China, Africa, etc. In six weeks (1 class a week) we can explore three countries (albeit briefly). I get to discuss the art of that country as it relates to the projects we are doing as well as incorporating other information about celebrations, important people and history. I try to have lots of visuals on hand: posters, maps, story books, nonfiction books as well as play appropriate music in the background as they work. I also tie in different media such as clay, paint and drawing while exploring 2D and 3D, printmaking and more (the combinations are endless!).

With my home school classes, I structure the classes the same: visuals, books, music. But I have 10 week semesters. When planning my curriculum, I sit down with my calendar and the computer and do some fact-finding. I look at the holidays each month and see if there are months designated to celebrating certain cultures or ethnic groups (ex.: February is Black History Month). While some may argue that we should be teaching children about these cultures all year long, I find it helpful to group projects from the same culture together to cement the concepts and give me longer to present info in the culture rather than squeezing it into one lesson. I put the lessons at a time during the year where my students may be learning about that culture somewhere else in school or because of a holiday. For example:

  • Fall is Native American studies
  • Winter (or whenever snow arrives) is Inuit art
  • January (this year) was the art of China due to Chinese New Year being January 23rd
  • February is African art because of Black History Month
  • March is Celtic Art
  • Spring is the art of Japan
  • May is the art of Mexico
This is obviously not an extensive list, but every year I tweak it a bit. Next year, I'm developing a unit of 20+ lessons on Modern Art so I'll be able to touch upon some of the cultures I haven't explored yet such as Tahiti (thanks Gaugin!) and the Caribbean as well as look at contemporary African American and Women artists. 

What a joy it is to see the children making connections cross-curriculum and watch them interacting with fine art! Celebrating different cultures through art truly enhances the children's art experience and brings art class beyond the basics, keeping it fresh and new. Exposing children to a variety of art early on really does "give them the world!"

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