Start with Art!

March 18, 2019 / by Brett Bigham

Most often I use this column to adapt an existing lesson that has been shared on Tch for a Special Education classroom. I want to share one of my favorite ways to begin the day. I call it “Start with Art” and it’s about as simple of a conversation starter as possible for your students. 

Since art is one of those things that every person can enjoy on their own level, to start the day looking at art gives every student a chance to participate from the moment they walk into your classroom.

With most classrooms having access to a projector or at least a computer screen, there is no reason not to fill your room with examples of art every morning.

Portrait of a Young Boy 1958 by Simon LekgethoThe internet allows us access to all of the art in the collections of the great museums of the world. That screen in the front of your room has the potential to share the most cherished artistic creations the world has ever produced. Or, of course, It can just be a blank spot in your room. That choice is yours.

When I think of “Start with Art,” I see ways it can support any and all of your core subjects. You may not think art is the best way to teach the life cycle of the butterfly, but have you ever Googled “butterfly painting”? The paintings you will find are perfect examples of the life cycle of the butterfly. If you take a moment to look through your lesson plans for science, math, social studies, and literature you will find hundreds of topics that could be well represented by a painting or piece of art.

Edward VI as a Child 1538 - Hans Holbein the YoungerAnd why is this important? Because every teacher has students that learn differently than others. The idea behind “Start with Art” is not just to look at pictures. It's to share information about a subject you're learning about and to give students an extra opportunity to learn. Your science text will show pictures of deciduous trees during the different seasons. Why not use a Van Gogh painting of leafless trees to make the same point? Why settle for a textbook stock photo of a forest when the works of Ansel Adams are sitting in your desktop computer?

Teaching should never be about the cheapest photo a text book company can acquire. It should be about showing how the human mind has taken that same topic and created a masterpiece. Why not use Georgia O’Keefe when you want to look at the parts of a flower? Why not let Dali teach about elasticity? Who better to teach about balance than Alexander Calder?

Interior 1944 - Horace Pippin

If you Start with Art, your conversations about these subjects will come from a different place. When you compare Van Gogh clouds to Georgia O’Keefe clouds you'll find your cumulus and your cirrus, but they'll be part of a bigger picture. They transcend the science of moisture and weather and step into the realm of mood and imagery. Why not have all those things in your classroom instead of a dry old text book photo?!

And, most important for me as a special education teacher, these conversations do not require the ability to read a science text or know a mathematical equation. What they require is the ability to see, to discuss what they see, and maybe share how the art makes them feel. For that moment of the day, my kids are equal. They are equal because art speaks to everybody. It might just be favorite colors, or joy over something silly, but art is a window into the soul. And every student has a soul.

The ancient Greek bronze statue, Jockey of Artemision, was found in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece.

And because it's March and testing is starting, and you still keep having to find activities for “indoor recess,” I can already hear your voices echoing in my head: “It is a great idea, but I just don’t have time to find a picture online every day.” I understand. This year I'm teaching Resource Rooms at two schools on a split day. I commute half an hour at lunchtime. I don’t have a spare minute on a school day.

So I want to help you Start with Art. I’ve gone through my own photos of art and created three portfolios for you to download. Each portfolio has over a month’s worth of art photographs to share in your classroom. These are broken up in into three themes: Children in Art, Animals in Art, and People in Art (these pdfs will open in another tab where you can download them; they're approximately 50 MB each, so they may take a few moments to open). 

The three portfolios have enough pictures for you to start every day between now and the end of school with a piece of art. These are either my own pictures or works from Wikimedia Commons or shared by the Museums themselves. You have my permission to use any of my photographs but if you use the pictures from Wikimedia Commons or museums, you must attribute the work to them (they're clearly marked in the pdfs). May you all enjoy them each day as you Start with Art!

Topics: Professional Learning, New Teachers, Class Culture, Differentiation, Engagement, English Language Learners, Arts

Brett Bigham

Written by Brett Bigham

Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. Connect with Brett on Twitter: @2014ORTOY.

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