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Unit Studies Using Art as the Thread

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By Sharon Jeffus

Many times art is taught in short segments of one perhaps two hours. A better way to teach art and inspire children to do art and learn art appreciation, is the immersion of students in a topic in art for 6 hours or more. A shorter period of 2 1/2 hours would be appropriate for younger children. Art can be part of each of their core disciplines. When we give students brief encounters with art and teach it as a separate subject, we miss the opportunity of teaching by doing art to enforce the core. If we include science principles with art projects; history principles with art projects; geography principles with art projects; English principles with art projects; we end up teaching important art basics and having our core curriculum become sheer delight for kinesthetic and visual learners. Learning through art teaches you to see things from several perspectives. It is a great way to reinforce other types of learning. We can look at the St. Louis Arch from an aesthetic point of view, from an engineering point of view, from a scientific point of view, and from a poetic point of view.

Art instruction has three main elements. It's important as you merge your art instruction into your core curriculum that you incorporate each of these elements. The first element is art appreciation. Children need to be shown great master works of art in their historical context. This can be a brief description of the work of art using the vocabulary of the arts. The second important element in a good art lesson is just that, the vocabulary of the arts. Each lesson needs to reinforce vocabulary of the arts such as foreground, background, hot colors, or cool colors. The last element is the use of a variety of media. Children should draw, paint, and sculpt. They should be allowed to use oil and chalk pastels, work with clay and textiles. By planning to incorporate art in your studies, you can include one or more of these elements and a core learning principle in art.

There are additional benefits to spending extended time on art. For example, if you are working on a history based unit study, you can give your students an opportunity to complete projects and get a feel for how art was done in the period you are studying. They can also learn about the science and literature of that time period. The key to retaining the excitement and interest of children is to offer a wide variety of activities and media. We do a variety of day long workshops with students that address various areas of history and science. A typical day of American History through Art would begin with a lesson on portrait art. We look at a variety of art by early American portrait artists Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley. We notice the way that the portrait art of Rembrandt and other European master artists has similarities to early American portrait art. Early American portrait artists studied the European master artists. We teach the students how to make portraits and then let them make a picture of George Washington on black paper using chalk and charcoal pencils. They learn art history, how to draw a face, and how to use chalk pastels and charcoal.

Following this lesson, lasting approximately one to two hours, we show "The Peaceable Kingdom," and other animals pictures that were created by Edward Hicks. We then look at a variety of bird paintings by John James Audubon. We show the students how to transfer a picture onto a piece of paper using Audubon's "Pink Flamingo." We then let them choose any bird they want and do a picture of it on white paper with oil pastels. We teach them how to use this medium correctly. For the third hour we look at a variety of western art by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell and talk about the great history of Western art. We draw a horse's head together, learning how to proportion a picture by sizing one area at a time. Students complete a horse's head from which they have learned shading, and the use of shadow and texture. This project is done in pencil.

Following a lunch break, we talk about American Indians and their art. We show the students how to do coil building and slab building and let them make a pot out of clay. We talk about Indian signs and symbols. We then show Indian sand paintings. Students, then, create their own sandpainting.

You can purchase colored sand at most discount stores. Wal-Mart usually has some. Cut 4" by 4" squares of foam board or mat board. Provide diluted white craft glue on disposable foam plates with brushes for the students. Instruct students to draw the design in pencil first. Then they need to paint one area of their design with glue sprinkling one color of sand at a time on the area of wet glue. Caution students that a line drawing will not work. Letters need to be doubled and thickened. Put different colors of sand on separate foam plates. One box of colored sand purchased at Wal-Mart for $5.00 goes a long way with 30 students.

After sandpainting, we allow students to do a stick weaving. We show various Indian weaving and talk about balance and the beautiful symmetry of their designs. We do something similar to a God's eye using at least three sticks instead of just two. We also give students feathers and beads. They love this.

We then wind the day up with a lesson on Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and cityscapes. We talk about Sullivan, the father of the skyscraper and mentor to Wright. We then give students ruler, pencil, paper, and they learn to do a cityscape from looking down on the tallest building. city scape 1, city scape 2, city scape 3

During this day, students have learned a variety of vocabulary of the arts; experienced different media; seen several master works of art; and talked about history as well. Students have heard about art history and seen how it is woven into American history. They will remember what is taught because they actually were involved with the projects. It is similar to baking a cake. How much do you remember when you read a recipe? Now, think how much you remember when you actually watch the recipe being made. But when you actually bake the cake yourself, you will always remember the ingredients. Teaching art using this method is a marvelous tool for making your children not only remember what you are teaching them; but have them love every minute of it.

Copyright ©  2003 Eclectic Homeschool Association

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