An Art History Center in Elementary School?

Article excerpt

When I pictured my career as an art teacher, I had many images in my mind. Teaching kindergarten students to hold a paintbrush, teaching fifth-graders to use one point perspective, showing third-graders how to blend chalk pastels and create beautiful landscapes ... the list went on. The one thing I hadn't anticipated though, was having students come in the classroom saying, "Do we get to learn about an artist today?"

Over the past two years I've really focused on developing a curriculum rich in art history and art criticism. To my great joy, I've found that even the youngest of elementary students are eager and excited to participate in the exploration of art history.

Up to now, I've seen only a small number of elementary schools integrating art history and art criticism into their curriculum. It seems to be a prevalent facet of secondary art education, but rarely have I run into young children familiar with Picasso, Cassatt and Rivera.


Before the 1980s there was very little emphasis on art history, art criticism and aesthetics. Art production was the main, or only, form of art that was found in the elementary classrooms. Often, teachers even relied heavily on "crafty" projects, which had few educational objectives. No wonder the arts were always at the top of the list when cuts had to be made. Arts were viewed as "frill."


In the 1980s, there was a push for Disciplined Based Art Education (DBAE). The premise for this new approach was to not only engage in art production, but also in art history, art criticism and art aesthetics. Most of us teachers who have gone though university or master's level education since this time have had this focus clearly transmitted, though it is still absent in many elementary schools across the United States.


When I set up my curriculum for the year, I knew I would have to find a creative and fun way to integrate these disciplines into our classroom. I decided to create an "Art History Center."

Early on, I tried to show the children images from books, but having the tables spread out caused problems. I had to walk around the room every time l turned a page, so it took most of the class to read just one short book. I realized a corner of the room had some empty space, and I went to work. I got some small sample carpets donated from a local carpet store, flipped them over and lined them up side-by-side, creating a checkerboard of carpets. I taped them together with duct tape, which is not visible when flipped back over carpet-side up.

The students love hurrying to the carpets and picking their favorite color or texture. Then, I brought in a white wicker chair, made a colorful artsy sign that read, "Art History Center" and placed an adorable, cuddly teddy bear in the chair. He, as I explained, would be our resident art historian. He would pick the artists we studied and buy or check out books for us to explore.

I took votes on what his name could be. Each student wrote down his or her suggestion. They loved thinking up creative names and giggled as they jotted down their ideas. I picked my three favorites and had each class vote on which name they liked best. Since my name is Mrs. VanTine, and we had recently studied Vincent van Gogh, students picked the name "Mr. VanArt," which had been suggested by several.

To this day, Mr. VanArt sits in the Art History Center on his white wicker chair with new books to read and discuss. It's not unusual for students to glance over at him on their way in to see if he's holding a book for them to read. …