Fourteen years ago, through chance inspiration, I discovered a powerful arts integration strategy. As an art teacher in a summer enrichment program for inner-city students at Stuart Country Day School in Princeton, New Jersey, I had students paint images in the style of prehistoric rock artists onto boulders around the school building. I took photographs of their creations, and I hit on the idea of integrating images of students themselves into the scene they had created.
I posed students in simple costumes suggesting the Paleolithic era, photographed them, cut the students' images out of these photos, and grouped those images on one of the boulders for a final shot. When we showed students a slide show of the results on a large screen, their excitement was palpable. They had become "movie stars" overnight!
Since that summer, I've used this technique—students photographing one another and placing their own cut-out images into an outdoor setting, a two-dimensional picture, or a constructed background—with hundreds of kids and many different kinds of content, as part of classroom activities, special projects, or enrichment programs. I've found the technique is exceptional for getting students excited about learning, making historical or cultural content come alive, and incorporating hands-on learning and art into many disciplines.
Because it personalizes the experience, creatively working one's own image into a historical scene brings to the education process an emotional dimension and an energy that Alfred North Whitehead (1929/1970) called the first stage of the learning process. In his essay "Cycles of Learning," Whitehead refers to this first stage as romance—"the vividness of novelty" (p. 17). Learning, Whitehead believes, then moves into a more intellectual, analytical phase he calls precision. The hours students spend researching a topic, planning, and crafting the various components of their projects reflect this phase. It's followed by a final phase, generalization, in which emotions and intellect combine to bring the learning to fruition—which I see reflected in students' absorption and pride as they complete a project and present the finished product.
Trying on Dreams
This kind of project can serve a variety of learning purposes in different content areas. This technique can motivate learning at the outset of a new unit or consolidate and demonstrate learning through a final presentation. One use might be to let students explore alternative perceptions of themselves, to try on different dreams or visions of their futures by choosing a range of backgrounds and simple, ready-made costume pieces, such as a hard hat or scarf. Placing his or her image into a natural setting or a magazine picture, each student creates a new persona and alters what he or she chooses to reveal publicly. Teachers may see their students in a totally new light. I've seen aggressive students show surprisingly gentle sides. I've seen timid or learning disabled students take on unexpected characteristics and blossom as they create their photographed persona.
For example, during the first year I worked with students in Pennington, New Jersey, to create a model village of what Pennington looked like in 1708 (and pose themselves in this model), one girl was very withdrawn and awkward. The second year she let down her hair and wore her costume with style; four students taking photographs wanted to snap her every move. I'm not sure that the two-year project was responsible for her transformation, but I know I saw her differently by the second year. And since she has a photographic record of the difference, I hope she can see it, too.
Releasing Imagination and Provoking Literacy
Other classroom teachers have incorporated this technique as they taught writing. At a school in Lambertville, New Jersey, 4th grade teachers helped students choose a dramatic photo of a landscape or cultural scene from back issues of National Geographic and integrate a cut-out photo of themselves into this background. They used this photo creation as a prompt and wrote about such imaginary adventures as hang gliding, tracking down medicinal plants in South America, or riding a camel with family members in Saudi Arabia. The images provoked an unprecedented flow of imaginative writing.
It's also effective to focus a project on a curriculum topic. This approach is content driven and largely teacher directed, but student choice and active learning are still woven in. Fifth grade social studies teachers at the Lambertville school created a unit on the Oregon Trail, assigning students to write captions that reflected research for their photo creations. For a unit on the Middle East, the 6th graders selected background photos and found simple costume pieces and artifacts reflecting that region; each student wrote a letter from the perspective of one of the individuals in the photo.
Making It Work and Incorporating Skills
I have gotten as many as 100 students working cooperatively in small groups on the same topic and integrating their contributions into a final product. This process taught groups about both ancient and contemporary cultures, including the Mayan Indians, Ndebele tribespeople in Africa, Stone Age artists, and a futuristic undersea environment—and even a fantastic world of giant chickens.
Taking students through this process can be simple and require little advance preparation, as when students attach photos of themselves onto a magazine picture, or very complex, as in the Pennington Village project, in which students were involved in researching, constructing, and combining their efforts into a finished product for a series of 30 class periods covering a full year.
The amount of time students and teachers spend on research depends on the amount of time available. For longer projects, I usually provide a range of different materials for learners to explore, and students bring in related materials as their enthusiasm mounts. I collect books and magazines on the topic in advance, steeping myself in the materials (particularly photographs) before we begin and continuing to read as we go along. A look at how students at the Cambridge School in Pennington, New Jersey, created scenes from a model village and photographed themselves as Colonial characters within those scenes shows what's involved in this process and the diverse skills students gain along the way.
This project involved researching the history and geography of the earliest European settlement at Pennington (originally called Queenstown). One of the teachers involved was a geographer who had worked as a mapmaker at the National Geographic Society. He helped students understand what geographic features cause people to locate in a particular spot and guided students in creating a giant relief map of the area. Because the time frame of 300 years was hard for students to imagine, we had students trace their ancestors back as far as they could through records or photographs. We documented ancestors going back to just before 1900.
Because we were creating an illusion, it was important to achieve an authentic look. Students made drawings—focusing on clothing, food, housing, and tools—from images they found in magazines or books, noting the source of the information. Students then replicated these images in three-dimensional miniatures using inexpensive materials such as clay, cardboard, twigs, glue guns, and poster paint. They made small versions of houses; barnyards complete with sculpted animals and tools; and realistic interiors featuring furniture, a fireplace, cradles, and kitchenware.
This project was schoolwide, so it was necessary to design authentic activities for all grade levels. Kindergarteners and 1st graders made the animals, miniature clay maps, and houses. The older the student, the more detailed the work and use of fine-motor skills. Older students especially became involved as we made a mini-movie from still photos of the tableaus, creating digital counterparts to the artifacts.
Like in the research phase, the amount of effort applied to creating artifacts can depend on the time and resources a teacher has available as well as the interest level of both teacher and student. Students made model Pennington houses brick by brick: I wanted them to understand how bricks were laid and the historic ways of using brick patterns. The tactile experience of making small bricks was something even the smallest children enjoyed. We learned about the design of English and Dutch houses and Swedish log cabins, all of which were present in early Pennington architecture.
Students' costumes needed to fit into the illusion. One of the school assistants, a former pattern maker and costumer, taught all the kids simple stitches, which they used to make felt vest shapes and gathered skirts and aprons. Students all worked enthusiastically in sewing teams.
In balancing authenticity with realistic classroom concerns, it's essential to simulate a look without using costly materials or those dangerous to work with. I've found that solutions develop as you go along. In a project in which students dressed as Ndebele tribespeople, I invented a way for students to make coiled neck, arm, and leg bands with corrugated cardboard, filling in the troughs with strips of glued wire and spray painting everything silver: instant flexible coiled jewelry.
This phase of costume and landscape construction calls for very industrious, purposeful group activity. In past projects, students have learned to make wigs, duplicated African geometric patterns on walls, calculated dimensions for a scaled cardboard pyramid, and learned beading and net making. It's an ideal way to have teachers from different disciplines work together on a project that integrates academic and artistic skills and draws on individuals' expertise.
The next step in the Pennington project was to photograph the Cambridge students in costume assuming appropriate attitudes and posing as if they were actually feeding pigs, shearing sheep, picking fruit, or doing similar tasks. A support teacher who had expertise in pantomime techniques taught students how to use gestures to convey various states of action.
Creating a mini-movie of the village took this project to another dimension. Current, user-friendly movie-making software programs made it possible to move from the simpler slide shows I made with students when I first launched this technique to more sophisticated presentations. A technology expert taught a select group of kids to use iMovie software to create a DVD of scenes in the model village. Making our movie required creating a script and storyboard, selecting and processing still photographs taken by both students and teachers, and sequencing them into a series of digital images. We then added a sound track. (View the students' video of the project.)
The Power of Visual Forms of Expression
This technique uses many strategies that have been identified as best instructional practices, from personalized learning to multisensory instruction. It also teaches students the potential of using visual representations for communication.
Humans have been using visual forms as expressive communication for more than 30,000 years. Written verbal communication forms are a much more recent invention, dating from approximately 5,000 years ago. Both visual and verbal forms have great power to represent thoughts, ideas, and information.
Although words predominate in our education system, many educators now recognize that artistic expressions are "equally powerful cognitive levers used either alone or in combination with words" (Bizar & Daniels, 2005, p. 78). They may have even more power to motivate students who are visual learners. This hands-on, creative technique is a flexible way to help all kinds of students tap into that power.
Video courtesy of the Cambridge School
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Bizar, M., & Daniels, H. (2005). Teaching the best practice way: Methods that matter, K–12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Whitehead, A. N. (1970). The aims of education and other essays. New York: The Free Press/Macmillan. (Original work published 1929)