You for Youth logo
Online Professional Learning and
Technical Assistance for
21st Century Community Learning Centers

Thinking and Talking About Works of Art

The key goal of Thinking and Talking About Works of Art is to increase student understanding of the arts. Students learn about art and the vocabulary of different art forms through observing, talking, or writing about a specific work of art and hearing the ideas of others.

Practice in Action

What Is It?

Thinking and Talking About Works of Art focuses on students' ability to critically look at a work of art, reflect, and talk about what they see, feel, or hear. It can include anything from paintings and sculptures to plays, concerts, or dance performances, as long as there is an opportunity for reflection and discussion.

What Do I Do?

Begin by providing opportunities for students to have firsthand exposure to the arts. Visit a museum, attend a concert, or watch a performance. Next, have students discuss their experience. What did they like? What didn't they like? Why? What did the art make them think of? Students can do this in small groups, or through talking, writing, or doing an activity related to the art form. For example, in African drumming, watching a video of drummers and discussing technique can help students develop their own technique. Talking about a Shakespeare play provides an opportunity for students to discuss the themes of the play and how those themes apply to their own lives. A follow-up activity could be to develop an original play or skit with a similar theme. After visiting a museum, students might sketch or research works of art and then develop their own exhibit, taking on the role of a curator in selecting work and deciding what makes an art exhibit effective. Whatever the activity, be prepared with questions to generate a lively discussion, and give students ample time to reflect on their experience and discuss what they've learned.

Why Does It Work?

Research indicates that experiencing and viewing the arts can be a source of inspiration and problem solving for individuals' own art work, and increases students' appreciation for the arts. Seeing various art forms gives students a sense of context and quality, and helps students understand what an art form is all about. Reflecting, talking, or writing about their experience or trying to replicate it may contribute to developing a deeper understanding and enjoyment of the art form.

Planning Your Lesson

Great afterschool lessons start with having a clear intention about who your students are, what they are learning or need to work on, and crafting activities that engage students while supporting their academic growth. Great afterschool lessons also require planning and preparation, as there is a lot of work involved in successfully managing kids, materials, and time.

Below are suggested questions to consider while preparing your afterschool lessons. The questions are grouped into topics that correspond to the Lesson Planning Template. You can print out the template and use it as a worksheet to plan and refine your afterschool lessons, to share lesson ideas with colleagues, or to help in professional development sessions with staff.

Lesson Planning Template Questions

 

Grade Level
What grade level(s) is this lesson geared to?

Duration
How long will it take to complete the lesson? One hour? One and a half hours? Will it be divided into two or more parts, over a week, or over several weeks?

Learning Goals
What do you want students to learn or be able to do after completing this activity? What skills do you want students to develop or hone? What tasks do they need to accomplish?

Materials Needed
List all of the materials needed that will be needed to complete the activity. Include materials that each student will need, as well as materials that students may need to share (such as books or a computer). Also include any materials that students or instructors will need for record keeping or evaluation. Will you need to store materials for future sessions? If so, how will you do this?

Preparation
What do you need to do to prepare for this activity? Will you need to gather materials? Will the materials need to be sorted for students or will you assign students to be "materials managers"? Are there any books or instructions that you need to read in order to prepare? Do you need a refresher in a content area? Are there questions you need to develop to help students explore or discuss the activity? Are there props that you need to have assembled in advance of the activity? Do you need to enlist another adult to help run the activity?

Think about how you might divide up groups―who works well together? Which students could assist other peers? What roles will you assign to different members of the group so that each student participates?

Now, think about the Practice that you are basing your lesson on. Reread the Practice. Are there ways in which you need to amend your lesson plan to better address the key goal(s) of the Practice? If this is your first time doing the activity, consider doing a "run through" with friends or colleagues to see what works and what you may need to change. Alternatively, you could ask a colleague to read over your lesson plan and give you feedback and suggestions for revisions.

What to Do
Think about the progression of the activity from start to finish. One model that might be useful—and which was originally developed for science education—is the 5E's instructional model. Each phrase of the learning sequence can be described using five words that begin with "E": engage, explore, explain, extend, and evaluate. For more information, see the 5E's Instructional Model.

Outcomes to Look For
How will you know that students learned what you intended them to learn through this activity? What will be your signs or benchmarks of learning? What questions might you ask to assess their understanding? What, if any, product will they produce?

Self-Evaluation
After you conduct the activity, take a few minutes to reflect on what took place. How do you think the lesson went? Are there things that you wish you had done differently? What will you change next time? Would you do this activity again?

Sample Lessons

African Drumming (4-8)

Students learn how music can convey meaning, and how African societies use the music of the Djembedrum to communicate messages.

Duration: Two 45-minute sessions

Learning Goals

  • Understand how music can communicate various messages
  • Learn about the history and uses of the African Djembe drum
  • Identify and practice the three basic African drum tones
  • Use African drum tones to create and convey a message

Materials Needed

  • Copy of Max Had Two Sticks by Brian Pinkney
  • CD player and CD of African drum music
  • Djembe drums (one for each small group)
  • CDs of various music to demonstrate messages, such as:
    • Current pop songs ("So Yesterday" by Hilary Duff, "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne)
    • Traditional songs ("I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Clementine")
    • Classical songs ("Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" by Bach, "William Tell Overture" by Rossini)

Preparation

  • Read Max Found Two Sticks.
  • Select CDs/songs of African drum music.
  • Review the history of the Djembe drum (See Resources tab for suggested Web sites.)
  • Review drum tones so that you feel comfortable enough to demonstrate bass, tone, and slap:
    • Bass: Strike the skin near the center of the drum with the palm of your hand. Remove your hand immediately after the stroke, as if pulling sound from the Djembe.
    • Tone: Strike the skin close to the rim with your fingers together and your hand flat. Your hand should bounce off.
    • Slap: Strike the skin close to the rim with your fingers open and your hand relaxed so that your fingertips snap to the head of the drum. Your fingers should bounce off immediately.
    • Note that the slap has a high, sharp sound and that the tone is more "round" and full. Other notes exist, but only advanced drummers can consistently create sounds that are distinct from the others.

What to Do

Session 1

  • Read aloud Max Found Two Sticks by Brian Pinkney. Discuss how and why Max uses music to communicate.
  • Discuss how music, like stories and writing, can have a main idea. Play three music selections from different genres. Have students work in small groups to determine the main idea of each selection.
    • Current pop song ("So Yesterday" by Hilary Duff, "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne)
    • Traditional song ("I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Clementine")
    • Classical song ("Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" by Bach, "William Tell Overture" by Rossini)
  • Divide students into small groups.
  • Play one of the music selections again in full. You may want to print or discuss the song lyrics. As you listen to each piece, ask each group to fill out a Graphic Organizer (PDF) to record the main ideas and details of each piece.

Session 2

  • Introduce the Djembe drum. Show a picture or an actual drum if you have one.
    • Also known as a "talking drum," the Djembe drum is described as "waisted" because it has an hourglass shape, with a "waist" in the middle. Its skin is stretched over the ends of the drum and held in place by many cords. When the cords are tightened, the skin is pulled tighter and the sound of the drum gets higher.
  • Briefly explain that this drum was often used as a communication tool to send messages from village to village, with different beats and rhythms representing words and messages.
  • Introduce African drum tones: bass, tone, and slap.
  • Discuss how musical messages are created through the combination of tones and number of beats or rhythm. Play various African songs/rhythms on CD and help students determine a song's message:
    • Quick, mostly bass = danger
    • Slap, tone = celebratory
    • Slow, bass = solemn (funerals)
  • Divide students into small groups and distribute the drums. Suggest that they pretend to be drummers in an African village who must convey a message. Groups should create a simple musical message using a combination of the three drum tones. For instance, the message could warn of impending danger, welcome an anticipated visitor, celebrate someone's birthday, or announce an important guest.
  • Have groups play their messages before the class. Ask the audience to try to guess the general tone of the message.

Outcomes to Look For

  • Student participation and engagement
  • An understanding of how music can be used to convey a message
  • Students identify the main ideas of various songs
  • Students accurately replicate three basic drum tones
  • Drum messages that convey a clear meaning

Telling a Story Through Dance (5-12)

By watching a video of the ballet Swan Lake, students learn how a dancer acts out a story with movement instead of words.

Duration: Three 45-minute sessions

Learning Goals

  • Understand how a story can be told through dance
  • Explore pantomime and movement to tell a story
  • Learn about ballet as a means of expression
  • Be exposed to one major historical performance of ballet

Materials Needed

  • Video or live performance of Swan Lake. There are several video performances available, or search for excerpts www.youtube.com. Given time, you can pre-select excerpts for students to watch, or let them watch the whole performance. You can also look for an opportunity to see the ballet performed by a local dance company.
  • The story of Swan Lake (as a PDF handout (PDF), or from your local library). You can find a synopsis of Swan Lake online at PBS.org.
  • Paper and writing materials
  • VCR or DVD player and TV or monitor

Preparation

  • Review the Swan Lake story and video.
  • Review pantomime techniques.
  • Be able to perform a small scene from Swan Lake in pantomime as an example to students.
  • Select a part of the ballet video that you can play for students (the whole ballet may be too long, especially for younger students).

What to Do

Session 1: Warm Up

  • Tell students that you are going to "speak" to them without using any words. You will point to one of them and ask them to translate into words what you are doing. For example, pretend to cry, then point to a student. A student might say "I'm sad" in response. You can do angry, frustrated, happy, excited, etc.
  • Next, tell them that you are going to pretend to "do" something, and that they will guess what you are doing. You might sweep the floor, wash your face, drive a car, etc. Point to a student and have him or her say what you are doing.
  • Explain that this is called "pantomime" and that it is one way to communicate without using words. Instead you use your face and body to express the words.
  • Give students a turn at pantomime. Have them walk about the room as if they are at the mall. Prompt them to:
    • stop and look closely at something in a store window;
    • try on an article of clothing that they like;
    • meet and greet a friend;
    • lose something and try to find it; and
    • complain to a friend or relative that he or she is taking too long and you want to go home.
  • Initiate a discussion about what they did and how they expressed their feelings in the movements.

Session 2: Swan Lake

  • Tell students that many dancers tell stories with their bodies and movements. Read the story ofSwan Lake to younger students (or have them read a library book with pictures), or give them the handout and have them read it aloud.
  • After you read the story, tell them that you are going to act out a part of it through pantomime. Can they tell you what part it is? Choose a scene that is expressive but easy for you.
  • Play the part of the Swan Lake video that you have selected. Look for a good example of the dancer or dancers expressing their characters. Ask students what they see happening. Also ask:
    • How did the dancers' movements help to show you what was happening in the story?
    • How did the music help with the expression of feeling and movement?
    • How were the dance movements different from your pantomime in class? What did you like best about the dancers and the video?
  • Tell them that it is their turn to re-create a scene. In small groups, select a part of the story and work together to re-create it in pantomime and movement. Students may select roles based on the scene they select.
  • Possible roles: Prince Siegfried, his mother the Queen, the evil Rothbart, Odette, the Queen of the Swans, Rothbart's daughter Odile, and the Swan Maidens.
  • Students demonstrate their scenes.

Session 3: Students Tell Their Own Stories

  • In this session, students are asked to either write a short story or scene or find a story or fairy tale scene that they like. Once they have chosen their stories, they can interpret them with pantomime and movement, as in Swan Lake. Students can work alone or in pairs.
  • The first part of the session can be devoted to developing the story or scene; the second part to practicing and performing. In the last part of the class, students perform their stories for other students, who must tell them what the story is.

Outcomes to Look For

  • Student participation and engagement
  • An understanding of ballet as an art form
  • Students can interpret visual media
  • Students can translate a story to mime or movement

The Art of Exhibition (9-12)

Students analyze works of art and arrange a collection into a museum-like exhibition, including making signs about the art and writing an essay about the exhibit.

Duration: Two to three 45-minute sessions

Learning Goals

  • Understand how to analyze works of art
  • Learn to classify art and curate an exhibit
  • Write a critical essay comparing and detailing multiple works of art

Materials Needed

  • Images of artworks (approximately 30 images)
  • Writing materials
  • Materials for signage (index cards, poster board, foam board, adhesives)

Preparation

  • Visit an art exhibition (in person or online) to see how art is organized and exhibited.
  • Review major periods and themes in art history.
  • Review the basic elements of visual art, including color, line/shape, and brushwork.
  • Review factors to consider in curating an exhibition (audience, space, theme, order).
  • Select 30 images of artworks and have enough copies for several small groups.

What to Do

  • Visit an exhibit at a museum or online (the National Gallery of Art has a virtual exhibit, and many museums loan slides free of charge).
  • Review the periods in art represented in the exhibit.
  • Discuss how exhibits are organized.
    • How does the exhibit begin and end?
    • What was the curator thinking in organizing the exhibit?
    • What was the desired effect on you as the viewer?
    • What did you learn from the exhibit?
  • Discuss the decisions made by the curator, the information included in the signs, and the impact the decisions had on students as museum patrons.
  • Divide students into small groups and give each group 30 images (titles, artists, and time periods). Ask students to select 15 of these images to curate into an exhibit. Their selections should reflect an organizing theme based on their interpretation of the images.
  • Ask students to write museum signs to accompany each selected work of art. Each card should include descriptive information (title, artist, and date the work was created), as well as interpretive information based on their theme.
  • Ask students to write an essay to accompany their exhibition. This essay should detail their organizing theme and place works in a curatorial context.
  • Allow students to share their exhibitions and writing with the class.
  • Discuss and compare student interpretations.
  • Review the original exhibition visited or viewed online. Discuss new understandings and thoughts on the curation of the exhibit.

Outcomes to Look For

  • Student participation and engagement
  • An understanding of how art exhibits are organized
  • Student exhibits that reflect a theme and challenge the viewer to look closely at a work of art
  • Signs and essays that include descriptions, analysis, and personal interpretations

The Critic's Review (9-12)

Students attend a live (or view a recorded) theatre production and write a review.

Duration: Two to three 45-minute sessions

Learning Goals

  • Understand the purpose and role of theatre criticism
  • Learn to analyze, interpret, and critique a live theatre performance
  • Learn to develop a framework for criticism and write a review of a performance

Materials Needed

  • Access to a live theatre performance or a video/DVD of a play
  • Audio visual equipment if viewing a video or DVD
  • Writing materials
  • Internet access (optional)
  • Biographies of the playwright or articles about the play
  • Sample theatre reviews

Preparation

  • Collect samples of theatre reviews from the Internet, newspapers, or magazines.
  • Review the major elements of a theatre production (acting, directing, script, stage, set).
  • Review the major elements of a theatre review (description, analysis, interpretation). The description refers to a summary of the events of the performance. For example: "Each scene was acted out accompanied by a series of images." The analysis takes the description and puts it in context. For example: "This technique is popular in restoration theatre." Finally, the interpretation builds on the description and analysis, and allows room for a personal opinion. For example: "This made it hard to connect with the characters."

What to Do

  • Discuss the role of criticism in theatre, reviewing the major elements of theatrical production and review.
  • Give students time to read about the playwright and/or the performance.
  • Attend a live performance or view one on video/DVD.
  • Guide students in a critical discussion of the work. Organize the discussion around a critical framework such as a description, analysis, and interpretation. You may even want to write down students' comments and categorize them under description, analysis, or interpretation. You might ask, for example:
    • What happened? Describe the plot and any aspects of the performance.
    • Why do you think the author or playwright included these things? What do they tell you about the playwright? What do they reflect about the period in which the piece takes place? What do you think the desired effect was?
    • What do you think of the things you've described and analyzed? How did they make you feel? Did the piece have the desired effect on you as a viewer?
  • Beginning critics may struggle to distinguish analysis from interpretation. Encourage students to practice separating analysis rooted in cultural or historical meanings from their own personal impressions.
  • Provide the details of the assignment: Students will be writing a review of a theater performance for a newspaper. The paper has a 400-word limit and a deadline of noon the day following the performance.
  • Share reviews with the class the following day.

Outcomes to Look For

  • Student participation and engagement
  • An understanding of the elements of performance and review
  • Reviews submitted before the deadline
  • Reviews that reflect a thoughtful analysis of a performance, including constructive criticism

Resources

Technology Tip for this practice

Whether your students visit an art museum in person or virtually, they will be able to reflect and discuss what they have seen more efficiently if they take notes and make sketches. Handheld computers provide everything students need to take notes, make sketches, and save notations for later discussion. And they're fun to use! K12 Handhelds offers information on getting started with these computers and the latest ways to use them.

K12 Handhelds

Research Summary: The National Standards describe talking about art as a way to facilitate a deeper understanding of its method, meaning and context: "Be able to communicate at a basic level in the arts disciplines, including knowledge and skills in the use of basic vocabularies, materials, techniques and intellectual methods of each art discipline" (skills and understanding), as well as "Be able to develop and present basic analyses of work of art," as in a "critique" (2003, No. 3). The value of analyses and talking about works of art, whether they are visual, musical, dramatic, or theatrical, lies in the student's use of art related vocabulary and understanding of how the art form works. Talking in itself has value to cognitive skills and social behavior. A number of afterschool and arts studies describe the relationship of theatre to memory skills, presentation skills, reading, and self-confidence (Caterall et al, 1999, Burton et al, 1999, Seidel, 1999, Winner and Hetland, 2000, Dupont, 1992).

Print Resources for this practice:

  • Winner, Ellen and Lois Hetland (2000). Beyond the Evidence given: A Critical Commentary on Critical Links. In Arts Education Policy Review, 2000. Retrieved from the web:pzweb.harvard.edu/Research/Reap/REAPCritLinkResp.htm
  • Catterall, James S., Richard Chapleau and John Iwanaga (1999). Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: General Involvement and Intensive Involvement in Music and Theater Arts. In Champions of Change, E. B. Fiske, Editor. Arts Education Partnership and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
  • Seidel, Steve (1999). "Stand and Unfold Yourself": A Monograph on the Shakespeare and Company Research Study. In Champions of Change: the Impact of the Arts on Learning: Lessons from School districts that value Arts Education. E,B, Fiske, Ed. GE Fund/MacArthur Foundation: The Arts and Education Partnership and the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
  • DuPont, Sherry (1992). The Effectiveness of creative drama as an instructional strategy to enhance the reading comprehension skills of fifth-grade remedial readers. Reading Research and Instruction, 1992, 31(3): 41-52.
  • Burton, Judith, Robert Horowitz and Hal Abeles (1999). Learning In and Through the Arts: Curriculum Implications. In Champions of Change, E. B. Fiske, Editor. Arts Education Partnership and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
  • National Standards for Arts Education (2003). Retrived from the web:www.ed.gov/pubs/ArtsStandards.html