Appreciating art helps young children learn to think and express ideas

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Art classes for pre-kindergarten students go beyond finger paintings and into the worlds of van Gogh, da Vinci and Rivera.

Teachers in a number of California districts are using classic artwork to inspire some of the younger students to observe closely, think critically, and discuss with respect – all key elements of the approach to learning. learning of the common core.

By watching a Picasso or Cézanne up close in class, children aged 4 and 5 learn to observe and translate their thoughts into language, to listen and to respond from multiple perspectives.

This approach for K-12 students was developed about 20 years ago by the co-founders of Visual thinking strategies, a New York-based association that provides training in the method to schools and art museums. More recently, the association introduced the concept to pre-K classes.

Alexander Chitay, a transitional kindergarten child, uses a laser light to indicate what he wants to discuss about the painting.

Liv Ames for EdSource

Alexander Chitay, a transitional kindergarten child, uses a laser light to indicate what he wants to discuss about the painting.

It seems that its appeal has increased since the introduction of the Common Core standards adopted by California and 42 other states. Over the past two years, national trainings of nonprofit educators have doubled, said Amy Chase Gulden, national program director. The association has trained teachers in more than 70 schools in the Bay Area, northern California and Los Angeles.

Research studies on the method showed that students in classes where the visual thinking program was used had better understanding of visual images, exhibited greater growth in math and reading, and showed better socio-emotional growth than students in classes who were not using the program. The approach was particularly effective for English learners.

The visual thinking method asks young students three questions: What is happening in this image? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?

This approach teaches students how to take the time to observe closely, describe what they see in detail, and provide evidence for their observations, said Gulden, “the types of skills that the core requires.”

Such programs are part of a new movement in the English language arts to develop visual literacy, said Kim Morin, a professor who teaches integrated art at Fresno State University.

“It kind of came with the core – a more holistic approach,” Morin said. “As society becomes more and more digital, it is not enough to be able to read the words; we have to be able to read the pictures.

“We have to be able to look at a picture and understand it, not just react to it,” she said.

Some districts, such as San Francisco Unified, used this method long before the adoption of Common Core standards. When Elizabeth Levett, a kindergarten teacher at George Peabody Elementary School in San Francisco, introduced the Visual Thinking Strategies program to her classroom about eight years ago, she said she saw the growth of language of his students “from one lesson to another. “

“They will start the year with ‘I see a balloon’,” she said. “After that it snowballed. It’s incredible.”

“We’re giving them language they wouldn’t normally have in a context that makes sense to them right now,” said Elizabeth Levett, kindergarten teacher at George Peabody Elementary School in San Francisco.

Teachers respond to a student’s comment on a painting by paraphrasing the comment and taking it to the next level, Levett said. Maybe a student will notice a figure. The teacher will then say: “So you notice this figure in the foreground on the left of the board?” “

“We are giving them language they wouldn’t normally have in a context that makes sense to them right now,” she said.

4-year-old Donavon Quezada takes a close look at a painting in Peggy Allsman's transitional kindergarten class in Fresno.

Liv Ames for EdSource

4-year-old Donavon Quezada takes a close look at a painting in his transition kindergarten class in Fresno.

It is important for the teacher to paraphrase the student’s comment in such a way that the student feels understood and the rest of the group can understand what the student said, Gulden said. Teachers need to let go of their agendas and ideas and follow the child, she said, another core learning approach.

Sometimes the student can look up a word and the teacher can rephrase the student’s idea using the word, she said.

The approach “builds vocabulary and fluency,” Gulden said. The method is particularly effective with recent immigrants, she said.

School psychologist Julie Montali also finds that the method works well with English learners. Montali has an art degree and was trained in the method of visual thinking. She developed a similar program for pre-K students at Fresno Unified with English instructional coach Claudia Readwright.

“Children act as language models for other children,” said Montali. “Often, another child is the best teacher. “

The open approach to discussing the painting also evens out the experience, she said. Art is new to everyone, sometimes including the teacher. Discussion of ideas inspired by art does not require prior knowledge, and there are no wrong answers. This makes it easier for shy students or those learning English to participate, she said.

Children also react to ideas from other students and learn to look at things from another person’s perspective, Montali said. They keep the discussion moving with minimal teacher intervention, the type of self-directed learning emphasized by the core curriculum.

By discussing the paintings, children learn to hold different opinions without hard feelings, Levett said. They use terms like “I notice” or “I want to build on what he said”.

Juliet James, who has used the method to teach 2nd grade students at Old Adobe Elementary School in Petaluma for five years, said the students were polite. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t agree with Karen for that reason.’ They have to give evidence, ”she said.

Using high-quality artwork is also important, Morin said, especially in terms of empowering observations by children.

“You can go back to a masterpiece and see something different every time,” she said. “If it’s not high quality work, it doesn’t have that depth.”

Students in a transition kindergarten class in Fresno discuss among themselves the piece of art they just discussed in class.

Liv Ames for EdSource

Students in a transition kindergarten class in Fresno discuss the artwork they just discussed in class with each other.

One recent day, students in transition kindergarten in Yvonne Stout-Barrett’s class at Figarden Elementary School in Fresno enthusiastically gathered around a print titled “Fruits on display on a stand” by the artist. 19th century French Gustave Caillebotte. They started talking about what they saw, including shapes and colors. Building vocabulary by discussing shades such as magenta, carmine or chartreuse is a way of talking about art that builds a more sophisticated language.

Teachers say they see the effect of the method in other subjects.

Brian Harrigan, who teaches preschoolers at San Francisco Unified, said that since using the visual thinking method, he notices the difference when he reads a story to children.

“They are starting to describe things more fully,” he said.

Such close-up observations of art help children learn to visualize, which helps them when they start to read, Morin said. “If you can visualize what you read, you are a stronger reader rather than just reading verbatim,” she said.

The same methods of showing evidence of what you are thinking or saying can work to deconstruct a mathematical story or graph, Gulden said.

James uses the method to teach all subjects to his grade 2 students, such as when she presents the number chart 100 to discuss place value.

“They will talk about the fact that it is a grid, about how every space is equal,” she said. “They will notice that the numbers that cross are from 1 to 10. I then go in and say that the horizontal the numbers range from 1 to 10. Then they will notice that vertical numbers count by 10.

“Very often young children have an almost deeper perception of what they are seeing,” said Kim Morin, a professor at Fresno State. “They don’t have preconceived ideas. They don’t think, ‘I don’t understand.’ “

Fresno decided to implement the program by adding it to a class each year, starting with preschoolers last year and transition kindergartens this year. The integrated approach will follow children as they progress through the K-12 system.

Starting young has its advantages, says Morin. “Very often young children have an almost deeper perception of what they are seeing,” she said. “They don’t have preconceived ideas. They don’t think, ‘I don’t understand.’ “

In a research paper Speaking of art with young people, David Bell, associate professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand, says that “children are less inhibited than many adults in their engagement with works of art.”

“They can be surprised, entertained, perplexed or challenged by what they see,” he said. “They are also likely to express their different responses to the works in exclamations, comments or conversations.”

Teachers praise the method for slowing things down in a rapidly changing world and building on young children’s natural ability to learn by observation.

“Everyone is worried about kids having access to technology,” Levett said. ” They’re too small. They have to learn to watch slowly, to really watch. Everything in technology is click, click, click. This method refines the art of looking deeply and really listening to one another.

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