Teaching & Learning in the museum district
Welcome to Teaching and Learning Through Art in Middle School
by Kathy Webb - Seventh Grade World History Teacher
When I was 23 years old, you would have found me living in Austin near the east side of town, teaching at Martin Junior High School, and subsequently exhilarated and terrified. Exhilarated because I had accomplished the impossible: After much persistence (calling Austin I.S.D. every day for three months), I had done it! I had landed a position teaching history and a) I was straight out of U.T. and b) there were about 10,000 other people who also wanted to teach Texas history (or something along the lines…maybe not state history, but you know what I mean.) But the flip side was also very real and very present. I was terrified because despite hours and hours of history courses, and hours and hours of education courses, and a semester of student teaching, I still really didn’t know what I was doing. It was one thing to sit in a college classroom surrounded by people your age who, like you, knew how to write papers, and read textbooks, and take lecture notes. It was still not too much of a stretch to work under a supervising teacher who reviewed your lesson plans and said things like, “Well, ummm…have you thought about completely starting over because just one of your lessons will take six weeks so maybe we should not be quite so ambitious?” However, those first days of teaching junior high school were nothing like the university experience nor were they similar to my student teaching days, so, yes, it was all quite challenging. It didn’t take me long to figure out that if I did not want to spend that first year grimly crossing off the days until May 25th, I needed a plan of action.
So I did what all recent graduates do when they are stuck…I went back to school! The first graduate course I took was called India and the Great Partition, a subject which still fascinates me today but did nothing to improve my pedagogical skills nor did it result in my students’ better understanding the Battle of San Jacinto. So that summer, when I had a little more time to think clearly again, I registered for the maximum number of graduate education courses I could, one of which was all about implementing effective questioning strategies in the classroom. You may be like me and think, oh, really? An entire class about how to ask questions? Wouldn’t that subject take about ten minutes to teach? In the end, it was one of the best courses I took because the point could not have been clearer: closed questions (who, what, when) are useful for guiding students’ observations but rarely result in much inventive thinking or class participation. On the other hand, divergent questions can stimulate student creative and critical thinking as they discover information for themselves, make inferences, and identify relationships. However, to generate excellent questions requires time and planning (which the professor emphasized again and again) which all too often gets lost in daily lesson plans, duties, grading papers, and the many other tasks of simply teaching day to day.
So here I am 34 years later, and I’m still thinking about the best way to reach our students through effective questioning strategies.
Enter the MFAH and a recently acquired grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services Museums for America titled Teaching and Learning with Art: A Collaboration with Middle School Educators. Frank Singer and I are part of the Teacher Fellows project team who will work with the MFAH throughout the two-year grant period. Our first year will be devoted to identifying the areas of the curriculum that offer opportunity for arts integrated teaching. We are examining lesson models and frameworks to provide a concrete approach to share with other teachers. We will establish the final format of the LTA/MFAH MS curriculum as we determine an appropriate approach for developing a curriculum based workshops for educators.
There are some big questions to answer here, and Jennifer Beradino, one of the grant writers and leaders of the project team, has posed them: “How can exploring a work of art contribute to a student’s understanding of both the science and humanities? How can we link together principles from different disciplines through the arts? How can investigating works of art affect habits of mind, metacognition, and how, rather than what, a student learns?”
This is the beginning of a story and, if you were with us at the Seventh Grade Back to School Night, you know that I believe that history is a collection of stories and interactions among individuals who, for whatever reasons or circumstances, find themselves in contact and partnership with one another, and whose collaboration can positively or negatively impact a greater community. Of course, I’m sure that our collaboration will be a great one for our children at Presbyterian School, for the children of the greater Houston area, and for the many faculty members who will benefit from what my U.T. professor said that all teachers need to do their work well…time, and lots of it, to reflect and consider the most effective strategies for working with our students.
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