“It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how,” quips the Cat in the Hat. He is referring to balancing a cup, plate, and teapot on top of his hat on a rainy day, but he speaks the truth, especially when it comes to art appreciation.
Where I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, we have access to several great museums. When we began homeschooling we visited them all, and the children announced wholeheartedly that the science museum is the best. Why? Because they let you touch stuff. The art museum? No. You can’t touch stuff there. Being a fan of the arts, though, I’ve put a lot of thought into how we can have a fun trip to the art museum. This past summer, while discussing the art of asking questions during the dialectic stage of learning with Leigh Bortins and other CC leaders, I finally began to develop some ideas on how we can have fun at the art museum and learn something, too.
I have mentioned before that the least effective method of teaching is lecture-style. That’s because the student is passive. A more effective teaching style is the dialectic-style: ask questions that allow the student to discover things. The student is actively involved, their brain is engaged, and the excitement of discovery makes the material memorable. Classical educators work toward developing the “Art of Asking Questions” as they develop their dialectic skills. Walking around the art museum alone is not exciting because we don’t have enough knowledge about what we see to ask each other questions, and getting a tour of the art museum doesn’t turn on the kids because although they get to walk and see neat stuff, the teaching is basically just a moving lecture.
To turn the art museum into a dialectic learning experience, I use a scavenger hunt format. I give the students some terms to define before we leave the house. At the museum, their job is to search out artwork that displays those terms. I give them a sketchbook so that they can sketch the artwork by the term that it displays.
For example, since we recently learned about drawing with perspective in Foundations class, we might take a trip to the museum and look for examples of perspective in paintings and drawings. Some related terms might be vanishing point, horizon line, overlapping, and shading, which are all ways to show depth.
In their sketchbooks, they write each term and its definition on a blank page. When we arrive at the art museum, we’ll split up. My older kids love the freedom to go exploring in pairs, my youngest likes to be my partner. (Inviting friends is an excellent idea.) We set a time and place to meet after about an hour and set off to find at least one outstanding example of each term.
This really engages the students in looking at the artwork and discussing what they see. They will be discussing whether a piece of artwork shows depth or not, and they will discuss which ones do it really well because they want to record the best examples in their sketchbooks. This is far better than the discussions we had before, which went something like this, “I like that one,” and “I don’t even know why that one is in here.” (Those were actually comments from my husband and me—adults with college degrees.) When we meet back up, we look at what each student recorded for each term. Usually they are so enthusiastic about their findings they want me to go with them and see some of the things they discovered, which I—equally enthusiastically—love to go see. They take me to their favorite artwork and explain how it shows depth. What a difference! They are appreciating and discussing art with enthusiasm!
Subsequent trips to the museum can center on other art terms. For example, you might be inspired by techniques used by famous artists we study in Foundations, or you might just do a search on “art terms” to find your next scavenger hunt terms.
I hope you will take your students to the art museum this semester and practice this newly formed art of going to the art museum. You are sure to have fun, now that you know how!