Teaching with Contemporary Art

Teaching with Contemporary Art in the Elementary Classroom

Students in Maureen Hergott's class transform the space

Last week when I shared an interview with Julia CopperSmith and Maureen Hergott, two of our current Art21 Educators, one set of quotes particularly struck me. At one point I was asking about whether they both had an “a-ha” moment during our summer institute together and how that moment has influenced their teaching. Allow me to rewind for a moment:

How has that “a-ha” moment affected the year so far?

Maureen Hergott: Rather then designing “projects” for our students to make, Julia and I have been trying to develop lessons that allow our students to have contemporary art-making experiences.  We try to give them the foundation and confidence to be able to explore a variety of materials and make artistic choices on their own.  We want them to have a sense of pride in and ownership of their artwork.   Often times, we have the students working collaboratively so that they can share ideas and learn from one another.

Julia CopperSmith: I see my students once a week.  As an adult it is easy to forget that for an elementary school student a week is a long period of time. It has been helpful for my teaching to begin lessons by showing my students video clips from the prior week’s lesson. Using documentation as a starting point for discussion has assisted my students in building upon their prior learning experiences.

Maureen and Julia both make important points in this part of the interview and I wanted to highlight two of them this week…

First, if we want to truly transform art-making experiences for elementary age students and move away from step-by-step craft projects that are more about following directions than being creative, then we have to construct experiences for young students that allow them to think and behave like artists. For example, less “Here’s is how we are going to transform our space” and more “How can we transform our space?” Giving students the opportunity, not to mention power, to make creative choices is extremely important as we begin to expand on what elementary art education can be.

Second, Julia’s point about using video documentation to inspire discussion is an fantastic suggestion. There are literally tons of ways to take, make and share video at this point, and using video to bridge the often gargantuan gaps between elementary art classes can be a wonderful way to maintain continuity. Students don’t need to rehash the entire previous lesson, but a few minutes of reflection, discussion and planning can go a long way. And is it any surprise that students would love to see themselves in order to inspire themselves? I mean, really.

Many thanks once again to Julia and Maureen for agreeing to the interview and for sharing their perspective with us!


  1. Hooray – that you believe experiences for young students need to allow them to think and behave like artists. Art needs to be an integral part of the curriculum! It can influence all aspects of early childhood through adulthood. Therefore, an enormous effect is needed to restore the importance of art in the classroom.

    I’m retired now but taught for many years. In my combined first and second grade classes, children freely participated in the art center during Choice Time. Readily available supplies were bought with school money and parents supplied a huge variety of junk materials. Much of art for the young child involves exploring a wide range of materials. It should include the process that is emphasized. During this process, they have opportunities to develop, along with creativity, the very same cognitive traits necessary to succeed in academic areas.

    See my 2 entries about an art center for young children:



  2. Pingback: Teaching with Contemporary Art Turns Four | Art21 Magazine

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