Closer Readings Commentary

Introducing American Art at the Core of Learning

Participants at American Art at the Core of Learning, courtesy Terra Foundation
Photo caption

Participants at American Art at the Core of Learning.

Terra Foundation

Using art as a teaching resource

Whether you’re in the classroom or on a field trip, artworks are a fantastic way to engage students. But how do you go beyond art as illustration and use it as rich informational text? How do you deepen your skill set when integrating visual art into your curriculum?

Regardless of whether you’re just getting started using art as a primary source, or if you’re already using it in your classroom, there are many great, free lessons offered by museums and other cultural institutions that provide quality teacher resources (and professional development opportunities) for K–12 classroom educators and librarians.

However, the Chicago-based Terra Foundation for American Art wanted to take this a step further by starting American Art at the Core of Learning (AACL), a new project to help educators respond to the shifts that took place in education after the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts (CCSS-ELA).

Art and the Common Core

First, AACL brought together museum educators from twelve Chicago-area museums and libraries with historic American art collections. This diverse group of institutions then worked in tandem and with local teachers, sharing their artworks, co-creating classroom resources, and learning from each other’s strategies for integrating artworks into the curriculum.

The project resources that grew out of this learning community are now available on the free AACL website, which features lessons, texts, and tools aligned to the CCSS-ELA anchor standards in Reading for grade bands 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12.

Learn more about the project, its partners, and its goals by watching this introductory video (courtesy of the Terra Foundation for American Art):

Want to take advantage of this new resource? Here’s more information of AACL’s digital resources for teachers and how you can use them in your classroom.

Art studies: texts for students

One of the problems with engaging students is reaching them with resources geared to their specific learning level. Many museum-created texts, for example, are written at a reading level appropriate only for high school students (or adults), which makes it difficult to engage middle school and elementary-age children.

To resolve this problem, museum educators in the AACL learning community wrote 27 texts about artworks at different grade bands. We call these texts art studies.

Each art study is a stand-alone exploration of an artwork and can be used by itself or in conjunction with lessons on the website. These texts are designed for students to complete on their own, but they could also be used in the context of a classroom lesson. Each art study has a list of “at first glance” questions for a student to answer after looking at an artwork; a short reading to learn more about the artwork; and finally a list of questions to help students analyze and interpret further.

Migrations: lessons humanities teachers can use

To help integrate visual art into curriculums outside those created for art classes, AACL offers lessons within six themes or topics related to “migrations,” a commonly-taught concept in social science and English language arts subject areas. These themes include social studies-focused groupings such as the Dust Bowl, Migrations to Chicago, Transformations, and Western Expansion, as well as English language arts-focused themes, Journeys and Identity.

There are 19 lessons offered on the site, each of which is aligned to one or more of the CCSS-ELA anchor standards and relates to one or more art studies. You’ll also find overviews that show how lessons within a theme can be grouped together as a unit.

You can sort AACL resources by theme, learning activity, or grade range. For example, if you’re a seventh grade teacher and select “grades 6–8,” you’ll see a variety of art study texts, lessons, and overviews on six topics.

Tools for teachers: building visual literacy

If you’re looking for more general ways to address visual literacy and the CCSS-ELA, here is a selection of helpful American Art at the Core of Learning tools:

CCSS-ELA anchor standards in reading-aligned questions for discussing artworks—To help generate classroom discussion, close reading, and critical thinking, look to this list for inspiration. It contains several questions under each anchor standard in reading. For example, if you are working on a lesson that examines how an artist creates a text or work of art, you could start classroom discussion with instructions and questions about details within the piece, such as:

  • Spend a few minutes looking closely and write down 5 things you notice.
  • What else do you see?
  • What do you think the artist is showing?

After getting the students to look and familiarize themselves with the artwork, move to questions from the “Craft and Structure” section, such as:

  • What role do lines play in this work of art? Do they define shapes, create patterns, lead your eye around the composition, etc.? Describe what you see. (CCSS-ELA Reading Anchor Standard 4)
  • What materials did the artist use? How do the materials affect the message of the artwork? (CCSS-ELA Reading Anchor Standard 5)
  • In what ways is the work a reflection of society or a product of its time? (CCSS-ELA Reading Anchor Standard 6)

Video teaching demonstrations—in museums, breaking down connections to the CCSS-ELA and teaching tips: Videos focus on how to closely read artworks and how to use multiple primary sources during a lesson. These examples are taken from teaching in museums, but these techniques can be used in the classroom as well.

How to read an art label—Each artwork on the website features a museum-style label, a type of informational text. This guide “decodes” the information you’ll find on any museum label.

We hope this collection of resources inspires you to use art in your classroom. American Art at the Core of Learning is aligned to the Common Core English Language Arts Standards and is an engaging, multidisciplinary way to help your students build their skills in close reading.

If you have any questions about any of the content you find on American Art at the Core of Learning, you can reach Sara Jatcko at