Teachers Attend Summer School To “Read Art”

Allan Appel PhotoSecond-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?

Answer: Both.

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.

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posted by: ms.mary on July 5, 2013  7:14pm

Nice article,Monica Bunton is a great teacher for Fair Haven.I am sure she will use every tool she can to teach.Her kids will learn a lot.Way to go Monica!!!!

posted by: Josiah Brown on July 8, 2013  7:50pm

Readers interested in the work of Monica Bunton with Cyra Levenson, Linda Friedlaender, and other colleagues at the Yale Center for British Art may also wish to look at volumes of curriculum units that New Haven teachers have developed, in part through use of the Center’s collection.

For example, a 2012 seminar led by Tim Barringer of the History of Art faculty drew upon both the Center’s collection and that of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Seminars that Janice Carlisle of the English faculty led in 2011 and 2009 provide other recent examples, as do earlier seminars led by colleagues including Mary Miller and Jules Prown.


These seminars were offered through the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.  Teachers in the New Haven Public Schools participated as Fellows and developed curriculum units for their students.

Numerous additional units that teachers have prepared as Fellows, on a wide range of subjects across the curriculum (including the sciences and math as well as the arts and humanities), are available for non-commercial, educational purposes:

posted by: laurel on July 8, 2013  11:36pm

I love it when life serves up just what you need—serendipity? I am in the midst of my comprehensive exams this summer (working toward a Ph.D. in special ed.)and my focus is on art and literacy and the ways they inform one another. What a great article to find at the end of a long day of reading and many days of writing! As educators, we have to expand beyond the old, narrowly-focused ways of seeing literacy as a reading and writing (only) endeavor. There are so many students whose meaning-making is visual. They know what we want them to know! They just cannot necessarily share it with us in a traditional way.  By incorporating visual literacy into the classroom, we are opening the doors to so many students who might have been left behind because they just don’t have the traditional literacy skills to share their rich inner perceptions with us.

Great article and great opportunity for the teachers who had a chance to participate!

Thank you. I am fueled!

Laurel Semsch
Albuquerque, NM