Second-grade teacher Monica Bunton pointed to shrouded figures herding hulking animals in the bottom of an 18th century oil painting. What they might be doing? she asked.
Excellent question, her teacher responded, but “we don’t let kids point. We want them to use their language.”
Bunton, in her second year as a bilingual teacher at Fair Haven School, is one of 60 area instructors spending four days this summer at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA). They are learning how to “read” pictures and promote “visual literacy” in the service of teaching kids how to read and write with more pleasure, gusto, and—to use some educationese—“self-validation.”
Some 12,000 visitors a year come to the YCBA in group tours, about three-quarters them part of school groups, said the YCBA Associate Curator for Education Cyra Levenson.
Of those many are led by teachers like Bunton, veterans of the four-day intensive Summer Institute for Teachers. The institute also sends teachers into the teachers’ classrooms.
Begun ten years ago, the institute has reached about 500 teachers with a clarion call to help “revitalize the way we treat kids in school,” said Levenson.
She meant to critique, for example, the of giving kids bland “prompts” that produce bland writing.
If you ask kids what kinds of clothing people are wearing in a painting or the weather there, then the kids relate the paintings more to themselves and produce better work.
Monday’s session, the third of four days of this year’s institute, began with North Branford special ed teacher Meghan Reyher showing her sketch book, in which she recorded not “prompts” but “invitations”—that is, three ways to enter into the painting.
“I used to tell kids to start a story with a sound or description,” which suggested those were the only ways to write, said Reyher.
“Now I have them look at a text or painting [or a super hero or a potted plant]. ‘What’s the story you see in this?’ If a kid tells me, ‘It reminds me of my grandmother’s basement,’ it’s a go.”
She had never met Bunton before Monday. The two two shook hands and then went upstairs to focus on the morning’s activity: role-playing how to make a discussion work for students when you plunk them down in front of a work of art in the museum.
Each teacher chose a painting to “read.” Bunton selected Jones’s oil on canvas. She said she was intrigued by the lightness of the sky in the background and the shrouded nature of the foreground where all the action seemed to be taking place.
Shouldn’t that action be better lit?
Lesson one: a question that truly intrigues you, the teacher, is the place to begin. Two other teachers in her group, Boots Landwirth, a docent at YCBA, and Karen Williams. who teaches in Cheshire, role-played the students. Then they reversed roles.
The questions that arose: Do you want to have a general structure or objective to the discussion before you begin? Or go where the kids’ comments take you?
Pat Darragh, the teachers’ supervising instructor—she was the one who reminded Bunton not to point—said in general when kids are asked to pick out a part of the painting that intrigues them, they go for the brightest spot in the painting. Or the biggest. Or perhaps, as in the case of Bunton, the darkest.
“But the discussion should lead you to explain that the artist put paint all over [the canvas] for reasons,” Darragh said.
The next lesson: Notice new details, by stages.
So, why was the area so dark?
“Probably it’s in shadow because sun is setting?” Landwirth said.
Bunton: “What makes you say that?”
Landwirth: “The color on the left, the herd of animals, sheep” in front, and left going home, perhaps at end of grazing day.
Bunton: “Why are they sheep?”
Landwirth: “They’re little and white.”
The Sheep Question Explored
At this point Darragh popped over and suggested to Bunton to drill down a little more on the sheep question.
“When she said sheep, you could ask: Are you sure? There’s a goat up there [on a promontory, center left] in the painting. Maybe other animals? There’s 25 kids; 25 ideas.”
And so it went.
Bunton said she is excited to bring her kids to the YCBA next year. Subsequent to some in-school lessons by YCBA instructurs, she has already followed up with an intensive “reading” of art using Diego Rivera reproductions and the kids’ own art works, but never before in a museum with 25 little ones in tow.
Her kids and their families in Fair Haven don’t often get to art museums, she said. “They’re not aware of resources here.”
In at least one bilingual second grade class room come September, they will be.