Teaching with Contemporary Art

Where Am I?

Claes Oldenburg, "Floor Burger", 1962

Claes Oldenburg, "Floor Burger," 1962

The beginning of a school year, especially the first days of school, can be beautiful or brutal. I remember as a kid sitting in class after class on the first day of school listening to teachers rattle off lists of rules while we stared outside hoping that maybe, just maybe, one teacher would take a different approach that day. There were times when I could actually predict the sequence:

Rules, index cards, basic information, more rules, bizarre homework assignment, bell. Time crawled, and as my four-year old son often suggests, I sat there and wished they would just get faster clocks.

Teachers want to find ways to learn more about the students they will be working with on the first days of class. Incorporating strategies that expose them to works of art can introduce a variety of artists while simultaneously getting important information about the kids. And believe me, it’s better than another essay about summer vacation.

For example, last year I used a strategy where each student was given a postcard with a different image. Some images were famous, well known works, and others were contemporary works that students had never seen before. I asked each student to tell me “where they were” in the picture they received. To illustrate my point, I used Arthur Dove’s “Foghorns” and pointed to one of the dark gray rings just outside the black center of one of the three “horns”. I explained that I am the gray ring because while I don’t like being the center of attention, I do enjoy being near it. I enjoy being around the action, but not always the person who stars in the action. They got it immediately.

One student, whom I will call Nelson, received Claes Oldenburg’s “Floor Burger”. He thought for a moment, picked up his post-it paper and wrote, “I am the pickle on top because I stay on top of things. The wrinkles remind me of the problems in my life, especially getting good grades.”

John James Audubon, "Roseate Spoonbill", 1835-8

John James Audubon, "Roseate Spoonbill," 1835-8

Another student, let’s call her Alice, received “Roseate Spoonbill” by John James Audubon, which basically looked like a cross between a duck and a goose with a really long, oddly shaped bill. She wrote, “I am the ugly duckling,” and nothing else. When I read the post-it later that day I almost cried just thinking about the way she sat in class, alone, while most others chatted as they worked.

Both of these answers allowed me to see Nelson and Alice in ways that an essay about summer vacation or basic information on an index card may have missed. In the following weeks, I was able to have short conversations with Nelson about using his organizational skills to not only get good grades, but also help run our class efficiently. I was also able to talk with Alice’s parents on Back-to-School Night about her impression of being the ugly duckling, which we gently worked on over the semester. And these are just two of the examples!

Breaking free of routines, while at the same time making investigation and inquiry part of the first few days, can kick things off in surprising ways.


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