Promoting Literacy and Empathy in the Artroom

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Photo By U.S. Department of Education via Flickr , CC BY 2.0

As a high school Art teacher, I focus my curriculum and instruction on connections - connections between ideas and with the world outside the Artroom/Studio classroom. That might take the form of incorporating students’ home, community or cultural experiences as well as topics from other subjects in school.

The Artroom is a place of learning - whether it’s about technique in order to render images and make objects, or the context and history of the many art forms and their practitioners. But perhaps more importantly, it is also a studio   - an open and safe space to explore practices that call forth dispositions which impact learning. That’s where Arts Integration comes in.

A widely referenced definition of Arts Integrationn comes from the Kennedy Center's Art Edge Publication from 2010:

Arts Integration is an APPROACH to TEACHING in which students construct and demonstrate UNDERSTANDING through an ART FORM. Students engage in a CREATIVE PROCESS which CONNECTS an art form and another subject area and meets EVOLVING OBJECTIVES in both.1

Just last year,
KQED’s Mindshift examined the impact of Arts Integration in schools that made it a centerpiece of differentiation and cultural relevance.


From the beginning of the school year, I weave Integrated Learning and Studio Thinking into my lessons as means to develop connectivity, literacy and empathy as well.

Sometimes my art class (this year I teach mostly Art 1 and a section of Digital Imaging) looks like a conventional art room with traditional media and genres, such as watercolor landscapes, contour line still lifes, value drawings, charcoal portraits, collage, digital photography, etc. There are time, however, where we deviate and disrupt.

In the course of this Fall Semester, I implemented some strategies that required students to make connections verbally, visually and associatively, such as Illustrated Quotes and Concept Maps .  Realizing the importance of grounding classroom art projects in real-world contemporary studio practice, we looked at the work of artists from KQED’s Art School, such as  Wendy MacNaughton’s Illustrated Documentaries  and Chris Johanson’s Venn Diagrams as introductions.


In their book, Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum”, Julia Marshall  and David Donahue emphasize the importance of teaching not just about, but through the work of contemporary artists- “contemporary art does not necessarily require technical expertise; learners can engage in making real art and real thinking whether they are proficient in traditional art skills or not” (p.4). It is, therefore a great way to get the creative juices flowing in an Artroom with fewer inhibitions and can be an equalizer among peers.

Illustrated Quotes
Recently I gave students a “special assignment” in the vein of  Wendy MacNaughton’s Illustrated Documentaries,  using their accordion book process art journals (to be addressed in more detail in a later blog entry) to gather quotes from throughout their day. They were to beCreativeJuices05 alert to passages in  books, song lyrics, conversation with peers -  even quotes from other teachers -  that provoked, inspired, or moved them in some way. I especially encouraged them to bring in something they were reading or learning in another class. They then selected two that resonated with each other (contradiction and contrast, analogous or synonymous, complementary). From these they created visuals that incorporated the text they chose. For these “Illustrated Quotes” they could use whatever media they wished.  We had by this point worked in watercolor, charcoal, collage and even some photoshop. Any and all languages were acceptable - with the exception of hate speech or profanity - and some submitted bilingual illustrated quotes.  This process, as well as the concept map experience described below, are examples of Julia Marshall’s notion of “Artistic thinking”… which is largely an amalgam of logical reasoning and associative thinking.” (p.3)

The Concept Map assignment was conceived of as an introduction to a unit of “VALUE” (including all of its possible meanings) and Chris Johanson’s Venn Diagrams were shared as examples of how artists use this strategy to generate ideas and as an artform in itself.  Some student maps were collaborative and others individual.  I advised them to look for ways to express their systems of thinking, making them both visually appealing and informative at the same time. We concluded with a whole class gallery walk, and students left individual feedback on the maps they examined.

Next semester we will intentionally integrate themes and topics from across subject areas and I will build more reflections on the quality of student thinking on those topics into project assessments. But for now, I’d have to agree with the found quote chosen by 9th grader, D.C. ...