We are always looking for ways to incorporate and integrate art into the student experience at Ancona. Our art teachers, Angela Ford in the primary grades and Janet Musich in the Middle School, couldn’t agree more that art is an essential part of educating the whole child. This is apparent in their overview of the art program:
“Our art program develops visual literacy in our students and empowers them to be both creators and appreciators of visual art in all of its fluid and ever-changing manifestations. We accomplish this in a balanced and sequential program that is pedagogically consistent throughout all eight grades. Self-assessment and critical thinking skills are emphasized, and our instruction proceeds in an interrogative format with the active participation of students in discussion. Students are encouraged to bring their own objects, ideas, experiences and inspirations to share in class with teachers and students alike and to recognize that everyone brings expertise and knowledge to the table.”
Like other subjects at Ancona, art education is child-centered. By basing both their appreciation and their developing skills on their personal experiences of the world, and by using high quality tools and the best practices in the discipline of art, Ancona students engage as authentic artists in exploring and expressing the world around them. They express their own ideas and imaginings in a wide variety of media and to authentic audiences whenever possible.
When the mind and the hand are both applied to an exploration of the world, things can be unpredictable, but it is often by experiencing the unexpected that children construct an understanding of their world. Finding the right color, creating the right line, and capturing the right contour to recreate the subtleties of a leaf, feather, or a butterfly wing — the “feel” of those natural surfaces–all require iterative attempts and fine adjustments. The Color Experimentation unit in 1st and 2nd grades allows students to try out many variations of pattern, contour, and color to create their own renditions of specimens they gather in their environment. As Angela says, “Autumn provides a nice backdrop for exploring nature’s treasures and transformations through observation and documentation. We notice the brilliant and unique color patterns on autumn leaves, the diaphanous nature of butterfly wings, the smooth skin of apples, the ribbed surface of pumpkins, the softness of feathers, and the intricate design of an osage orange. We discover ways to capture the characteristics of these objects through continued colored pencil experimentation.”
This year, Angela added a new component to the color experimentation unit and was very pleased with the results. After creating rubbings of leaves (more than one so that they could choose to work with a favorite or with a variety) and then coloring them in with pencils as in years past, students also tried using paints to capture the subtle hues they observed in the original leaves. The result was very satisfying, both because the paints blended beautifully to reproduce the transitions between colors and also because the tendency for the paints (watercolors) to overflow boundaries seemed to capture the authentic nature of fall leaves with their overlapping of color and contour in their natural environment. It was felt liberating to the students who did not feel compelled to “color inside the lines.”
Art as Seeing
What does a marching band look like from above? What does my house look like on Google Earth? These kinds of inquiries get students thinking about the world from a bird’s-eye view and other unusual, seldom-experienced perspectives. Looking at things from unfamiliar perspectives not only expands our view of the world, but also prompts more abstract inquiries into our assumptions about it. Exploring objects this way can increase students’ understanding of the way they perceive and represent objects. In the two-dimensional composition unit, students “consider the phenomenon of the horizon line, the place where the sky meets the Earth. They think about the horizon line in different environments, such as a beach, downtown with tall buildings, in a neighborhood and at a park or playground. They explore the mechanics of vision and prove that people and objects diminish in size and clarity with distance.” But the experience of perspective goes beyond simple observation, as “Each child takes a turn on the playground running away from the group while the other students observe the runner decreasing in size the farther away s/he runs.” Making such real-world connections helps students grasp abstract concepts more securely.
The Science of Art
One of the goals of Ancona’s art program is to equip students with the tools, techniques and strategies artists use to manipulate the materials and media of artistic production. In the 7th/8th grade Linear Perspective unit, students explorate one and two-point perspective, which they study both as a historical development in art and a method for rendering space and geometrical objects. Janet describes this middle school art unit as a confluence of these approaches: “Linear perspective was a major development in artistic and mathematical expression in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance in Europe. The representation of built environments and architectural drawing are heavily dependent on a firm grasp of this concept, and students are introduced to this mechanical drawing technique through the geometric solids. Lessons are built on the intuitive knowledge that things seem to get smaller when they are more distant. Drawings of multiple receding shapes are followed by patterned surfaces on polygons. Students also consider the use of linear perspective in compositions by Edward Hopper, Di Chirico, Da Vinci and others. Works of art are evaluated to yield information about whether lines of perspective are mechanical and incidental or deliberate and adding to the information or content of the work.”
Just as in the primary grades, it is the actual production of art juxtaposed with the historical and conceptual context that makes true understanding and effective skill-development possible. “As part of their exploration of linear perspective, students accomplish a drawing of a single building in a landscape in proper perspective. Many students go on to draw multiple buildings and points of view and add details such as streets, sidewalks and interior space. Weather and time permitting, the students go outside to observe and record visible perspective in the built environment.” Understanding single and two-point perspectives empowers students to enhance the realism of theirs drawings and to further their ability to interpret and appreciate other works of art. It also serves as a foundation for future artistic endeavors, such as the 3-D Construction Project, in which “students consider the relative stability of triangles and squares as a basis for construction. Beginning with a rectilinear shape for the base, students add layers constructed out of toothpicks and glue determining configurations that have the maximum stability as the structure progresses.” There are many potential applications of the geometric and mechanical understandings students construct in this project, such as in the design of earthquake-proof building in their 7th/8th grade science unit on seismology.
The Art of Science
During one of our fire drills this fall, some of our younger students happened upon a recently deceased yellow-bellied sapsucker. The bird was almost perfectly intact, with only the eyes eaten out by the first round of scavengers. The bright red nape and mottled black and white wings were brilliant in the autumn light, and Janet could not let this specimen go to waste, so she gathered it up gently and preserved the bird’s carcass in her collection in the freezer near the art room. This bird, like the other specimens she and Angela have collected over the years, will serve our students (and teachers) to engage in close, careful observation of the world, helping them to understand through concepts like proportion, shape, coloring, and even weight (density) how the world and its creatures function. As Janet writes in one of her unit overviews, “The concept that form follows function is beautifully demonstrated in the anatomy of birds, providing an excellent introduction into the mechanics and aerodynamics of man-made flying machines.”
The relationship between form and function has been linked to a science unit on the invention of flight in years past to offer insights into how flight is accomplished, both by birds and by aeronautical engineers such as the Wright Brothers. The study of science and social studies at Ancona involve the arts extensively, both in terms of technique, such as when students use scientific illustration to heighten their powers of observation, and in terms of appreciation and understanding, as when students examine the cultural artifacts of other peoples and periods of history to better grasp their values and their social and political institutions. This year,when 5th and 6th graders will be studying the Middle Ages, they will explore the roots of some of the cultural and economic forces that shaped European society by examining, well, a root vegetable with a very interesting history: the carrot. The introduction of the domesticated carrot from Afghanistan during the 15th Century is just one way–in this case, a very colorful one–to explore how an exchange of ideas and goods can transform societies. Stay tuned . . .
As one way to offer student choice at Ancona, 7th and 8th grade students are able to choose among three electives throughout the year. Each series of workshops, called Creative Expression Lab (CEL), runs for about 12 sessions, during which students can explore an area of the arts they find interesting. The workshops offerings usually include options in the fine and performing arts, and occasionally in digital media; recent examples include mosaic tile design, Rhythm and Blues, Hip Hop Theater and A Capella Choir. Many of the electives allow students to produce or perform something for the school community. For example, the Mosaic Tile workshop completed a mosaic map of Spain last year and is busy creating a similar map of this year’s curricular focus in the Spanish program: Mexico, Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. These maps–four of them eventually–will adorn the hallway in the old building, contributing to the beauty of our school. Performances are also offered by workshop groups; some of these will be featured in our next Curriculum Connection on Performance and Process at Ancona.