A couple years ago while I was researching material for my master’s, I discovered (a few years late) the book Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. I was captivated the activity See-Think-Wonder. The activity is intended to examine specific parts of a problem, idea, or concept through observation, constructing meaning, and inquiring to spur further examination. To incorporate art history and literacy, I currently use a modified STW activity to analyze an artist or style deeper in a small group setting.
One of my biggest challenges are finding artists that students can connected with. One of my favorite artist to display is Frida Kahlo. Many of her paintings are strange while thought provoking. She shares her life story that’s riddled with tragedy and inner turmoil. I use three different pieces for 6th, 7th, and 8th in order to keep some continuity to build on the prior year. To provide some historical context, we watch this quick video Who Was Frida Kahlo?.
To begin the assignment, students list as many physical features in the artwork. The obvious features may consist of the subject matter like a flower, a person, a skull, food, or clothing. I try to encourage students to look for details that aren’t typical objects such as the direction of shadows, the mood of the atmosphere, facial expression, and body language. Generally, I like to choose artwork with several objects like Vanitas style portraits, various surrealism paintings, or artwork depicting historical events. A Rothko? Maybe not.
In the next section, students think about what the artist intend to communicate with the audience and decipher the meaning. I modified the Think section to focus on dissecting the visual metaphors in the artwork. On the worksheet, students use one of the objects from the previous section and interpret the metaphor the artist is trying to convey. Students also provide evidence to justify their thinking. Here is an example from a 6th grade group examining Frida Kahlo’s painting Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird: The “Black Cat” represents “Bad Luck” because “Frida had many accident in her life”. Here is another example of a group’s metaphor for Frida Kahlo’s The Two Sisters: The “Bench” represents “how the Frida’s are inside each other” because “they are the same person on the inside just not on the outside”. After students construct three metaphors, they summarize their interpretation of the artwork in just a few sentences.
To conclude the activity, students ask three questions regarding the artwork. I try to prompt students to ask questions that transcend the artwork such as questioning the artist’s mind frame or the social climate. Here are a couple examples from 8th grade groups examining Frida Kahlo’s painting Self-Portrait Along the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States: What do the dying flowers represent in her life? Why is she holding a flag?
In the Classroom
Typically I alternate a group art history assignment and an individual contemporary art assignment (Bring the Street to the Classroom) throughout the trimester. Each assignment requires about 15-20 minutes depending on how well each group works together. From a teaching perspective, I think it’s important to have some context, historical or cultural, surrounding the artwork for more avenues of entry. Find a video or story that helps set the stage for the artwork. And be honest, every art teacher loves talking little art history.
Try it for yourself!