History Through Art

Guest blogger: Tara Hupton, Highview Middle School

This year in our 6th grade Social Studies curriculum my colleague and I are trying to integrate other disciplines and mix up our teaching strategies to keep kids engaged (and to keep ourselves entertained too!).  Our learnings in the MNHS cohorts (she is in the pop culture cohort) have given us some great ideas and resources as we forge ahead on this goal.  We have tried a few different things, but what stands out the most are the lessons we have done using artwork.

The first lesson we tried was in studying the Dakota people of Minnesota.  We assigned groups of students a picture straight from our textbook.  Each group analyzed their picture, discussed possibilities as to what was being shown and then wrote a caption.  We then went through them as a class, discussed each picture, and compared each group’s caption to the one in the book.  The students LOVED seeing how close they were (or not) with their captions.  Many of them figured out a portion of it, but did not have the correct vocabulary to explain it, so it created an opportunity to introduce some new content vocabulary to them.  Student engagement was high throughout the lesson.

The next lesson was right before Thanksgiving.  We teamed up with an art teacher and had students analyze two pieces of artwork depicting the first Thanksgiving.  Purposefully using some terminology from their art class, we had them compare and contrast the foreground, middle ground, background, mood and tone of each picture.  Again, students were highly engaged and loved trying to figure out why one event could be portrayed so differently.  I was amazed at the depth of knowledge this activity brought out of my students.

AV1988 45 313
“Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.” Frank Blackwell Mayer, 1885. MNHS
MN 57
“Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.” Francis Davis Millet, 1905. MNHS

We then had our 6th graders looks at the paintings by Millet and Mayer depicting the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.  Just like Jessica and Heidi asked us to do, we asked 6th graders to circle the differences and then decide which one they thought was hanging in the Governor’s reception room.  That question alone got kids using different resources to help provide evidence to support their answers.  The conversations taking place about these two pieces of artwork were amazing! Students were engaged, debating, citing evidence, looking for more facts, and doing this all on their own without teacher direction!  It was an awesome activity. Thanks to Jessica and Heidi for that one!

I have found artwork to really enhance student’s depth of understanding surrounding a concept.  I have been amazed that students are able to articulate their depth of knowledge so well when talking about a piece of artwork versus the discussions that happen after a more “traditional” style of learning. Using artwork in my lessons has enriched the content for my students, has been engaging, and fun for me to teach!   This was a great discovery for me this year and I continue to explore more options as well!

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