Teaching & Learning in the museum district

Ancient Artifacts, Prado's Paintings and Sci-Fi on Stage: 6th Grade's Day in the Neighborhood

by Liz Thornton, 6th Grade Language Arts Teacher

Last week, the sixth grade class at Presbyterian School spent a full day enjoying the many resources of our Museum District neighborhood.
In the morning, students visited two exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts. First, they saw the travelling “Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado” exhibit, which contains one-hundred masterpieces of Spanish art. Sixth grade Spanish teacher, Mrs. Alexander-Trillo extensively researched the exhibit beforehand and then gave the students a guided tour about select pieces of art. 
Student Abby Boyce reflected on the exhibit, saying: “The Spanish art was pretty interesting. You’re looking at a completely different style of art. I personally love art and enjoy seeing the many different forms of it. I really liked all the pictures of Jesus. It gave me a better visual representation of what he would have looked like and also what the Spanish thought he would look like. It was fun!” 
Afterwards, the students completed a Scavenger hunt while looking at ancient treasures in the Antiquities collection. Students are currently learning about the Ancient Greeks in History class. Sixth grade History teacher, Kris Ross, explains the purpose of their field assignment: “I wanted the students to relate the Greek artifacts to what they were learning in the classroom. I also wanted them to enjoy using the museum as a resource. We did that through a scavenger hunt. Students looked at items and learned more about then by reading the information on the plaque.” 
 Julian Bahramipour, sixth grade student, describes what he learned during the scavenger hunt: “I learned about the ancient children’s toys and the different tools they used.” 

In the afternoon, the sixth grade class attended a theatrical production of A Wrinkle in Time at Main Street Theatre. In English class, they are currently reading Madeline L’engle’s classic novel, so seeing the play (only a few blocks from school) was a perfect enrichment to the curriculum. 
Student Dorothy Davis, an avid theater lover, reflected on the performance: “I thought the play was a very inventive and imaginative representation of the book.”
After a fun-filled day, the students enjoyed a special Valentine’s Day treat and played outside in the beautiful weather. Taking a day off from regular classes to enjoy the many museums and theater nearby was a perfect way to spend Valentine’s Day!

Posted by Ms. Courtney Daniell-Knapp on Tuesday February 26, 2013 at 10:37AM
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Founding of the Student Art League

by Kathy Webb, Seventh Grade World History Teacher

The Presbyterian School Art League meets each Wednesday from 12:30 to 1:00 p.m. with Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Berler. We walk across the street to the MFAH and have toured several galleries. In the fall, students particularly enjoyed Jennifer Steinkamp’s video installation Mike Kelley which presented a single tree as it passed through the four seasons. The children sat on a bench and simply watched the movement of the tree as they tried to detect patterns, shapes, and changing colors.

We also briefly toured the Arts of Asia collection which consists primarily of work from four areas: China; Japan; India and Southeast Asia; and Korea. Our first stop was the India gallery, and there we discussed Subodh Gupta’s monumental installation piece (Untitled, 2008) made up of everyday kitchen utensils.Our students wondered why pieces were selected, which included a variety of stainless steel ladles, stackable measuring cups, sieves, forks and knives, as well as the occasional spatula and mixing bowl, all of which were mounted on a convex base attached to the wall. During other weeks, we examined the Hindu god Shiva Nataraja, a fly whisk, made entirely from the trunk of one elephant, and a shogun’s wedding gift.

 What a great pleasure it is to visit a beautiful setting that is filled with treasures, objects of interest, and promotes an appreciation for the past and present!


Posted by Ms. Courtney Daniell-Knapp on Tuesday January 15, 2013 at 11:00AM
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Snapshots from an Exhibition

I am appreciative of teachers who do more than they are asked to do, purely because they want the students to have ample opportunity to learn and to grow as people. This year, Alyssa Smith (Lower School Spanish teacher) and Jacqui Chaltain (Lower School art teacher) merged their existing after-school clubs to become the Art and Spanish Day of the Dead Club. Their goal in collaborating was to enter their work in an exhibition of school art at Lawndale Art Center’s annual El Diá de los Muertos exhibit. Because of the behind-the-scenes efforts of these two teachers in early August, Presbyterian School’s proposal was the first entry they received.

When news came that they were chosen to exhibit, the students went right to work creating a varied, inventive and bright-hued exhibit of which our school can be proud. Because Lawndale Art Center is one block from school, grade levels walked over to enjoy the exhibit – made more meaningful to them because displayed on the walls were the works of their friends.

Here, you will find pictures of the art and reflections from both teachers and students about the experience of celebrating culture, working collaboratively and enjoying the fruits of honest effort.

 Alyssa Smith, Lower School Spanish Teacher

It was a wonderful experience for me to collaborate with Ms. Chaltain in order to delve deeper into the folk art traditions surrounding El Día de los Muertos. This is a holiday steeped in rich traditions, and a wide variety of cultural practices which combine to create a celebration that is not only somber, heartfelt, and reflective, but also filled with humor, gaiety, and fond memories. I enjoyed how the work of our students reflected all these aspects - from the Trees of Life dedicated to a beloved family pet and a member of the armed forces, to the Calaveras, which depicted humorous scenes and intricate designs. I had never had the children decorate tombs before, and the kids really enjoyed the process of creating the mound out of a paper paste, and incorporating traditional elements such as dried legumes, marigolds, and other materials to create them. Another fun experience was watching the group project, El Tapete de Arena, take shape. In spite of all the hands involved, the collaboration flowed effortlessly, and the end result was something of which all members were proud to claim as theirs. It is bold and eye-catching. In the end, the most gratifying part of the experience was watching the pride beaming from the children’s faces as they introduced their pieces to their classmates during the grade level field trips to Lawndale, and hearing their classmates congratulate them on their work. Many students appeared to discover that they really were artists through this project.


Nora Lawless, Fourth Grade Club Member

Ms. C showed me my spot in the front. She told the class I was to be in charge of the whole group project. While my mind was buzzing with thoughts, Senora Smith was showing us a slideshow of ideas. After the slideshow, I asked Senora Smith what exactly was Day of the Dead. After, she told me and showed me some books to look at. There weren’t a lot of carpets, which was our group project. After awhile, I found the perfect thing. A skeleton dog. I could draw a pair and a baby.

 After weeks went on, I felt like I was the only one working on the group project! But finally, some people came to help. Suddenly, the carpet was so crowded, I had to squeeze in to work.

Jacqui Chaltain, Lower School Art Teacher

The Day of the Dead Celebration is a wonderful cultural celebration honoring those people who have made impact on our lives and are no longer with us, specifically family members. Third and fourth grade artists participating in the celebration this year had the opportunity to explore images and make art that honored this tradition. More importantly, the exploration allowed Presbyterian School artists the opportunity to make connections to their own lives. Looking back, there were some profound moments of connection and meaning during this art experience. One of our artists lost a family pet towards the end of the project. His grief was channeled through his art after he was reminded of the celebration’s purpose. He added a skeleton and a statement to his sculpture dedicating it to Maddie, his family’s dog.  He imbued his sculpture with a relevance that was personal and a connection that anyone who has lost a pet could make. Our artists created from the heart using color and texture of their choice in their individual pieces and working in collaboration to create a group project that was original and also lifted up pets. Carl Jung describes two events that are casually unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced together in a meaningful way as synchronicity. As an artist observing other artists, when chance occurrences happen in the creation of art (such as the death of a pet, the group project focusing on pets and a cultural celebration of those who have passed), it brings to mind Jung’s definition of synchronicity. I am deeply touched by the connections that happen on a spiritual level.


Posted by Ms. Courtney Daniell-Knapp on Wednesday November 14, 2012 at 03:25PM
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Cultivating Creativity: The Role of the Director of Fine Arts

 By Courtney Daniell-Knapp, Director of Fine Arts

My mother referred to me as "the sensual baby" because from the very beginning I was so tactile, testing out every surface with my tiny digits. My experience of the world is dominated by my senses. I talk about seasons in terms of how they feel on my skin. I've painted every room in my house a different color. I remember the taste of my favorite tarte au citron in France and the smell of cedar trees from Christmas at my grandmother's house. And when I hear music, I typically must move.

I think living sensorially has contributed to my life as a conductor of music. I have to speak about music to those making it in a variety of ways. I must appeal to their different imaginations, motivate them to excellence as well as speak to them about the mechanics of singing individually and as a choir in order that their music is a gift to those who hear them.

I am a product of a "Presbyterian School" of sorts. In my history is a school where I was nurtured by loving teachers, challenged to stretch myself academically and encouraged to explore my talents. It was a wonderful environment in which to learn and to grow. I am extremely grateful that my parents sacrificed to give my sister and me a setting in which we could thrive. It is no accident that I should find myself back in a school environment so like the one that I loved in my youth.  

My "Presbyterian School" did not have a Director of Fine Arts in those days, so I do not have a model for the new role I'm inhabiting this year. I bring to this assignment my desire for all people, regardless of age, to exercise their imaginations. The Fine Arts should ignite our curiosity, spark creative thinking and embolden us as more sentient beings.

So how does that translate into my daily work? I believe I am in place to increase our student's contact with fine arts: be that in the rich arts environment that we find across our streets and one light rail ride away or on the walls and in the sanctuary of their school building. We want a school culture that considers beauty and cultivates understanding. My charge, which I relish, will be to encourage a culture of creativity where the arts are woven into the fabric of our students' lives so that they may realize their human potential. 

Posted by Ms. Courtney Daniell-Knapp on Friday October 5, 2012 at 04:02PM
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Art Teacher as Student: Professional Development Saturdays at the MFAH

by Jacqui Chaltain, Early Childhood & Lower School Art Teacher 

Saturday, Starbuck's coffee and sharing art with other professionals, what could be better? Today we would be looking at the art of portraiture with Patrick Palmer, Director of the Glassell School of Art. I can say from past experience that I was looking forward to working with Patrick again.

We started with paintings from the John and Audrey Jones Beck collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist paintings. We looked at works by Frantisek Kupka, Henri Matisse, Alexei von Jawlensky and Edouard Vuillard. We viewed each piece from a different perspective: how did the artist use color and what emotion was conveyed; how was line used, whether it was dark or light; how did the portrait impact the viewer, whether positive or negative and what was included or excluded in the story being told. Artists are storytellers. Two people will look at the same subject and it will be received through each person's lens and overlaid with meaning that differs according to their unique experience.

Now we were ready to go to Glassell's painting studio for a hands-on experience. Patrick opened this activity with the technique of adding paint to a canvas by using the analogy of creating a cake. He defined the difference between the art studio approach and the art history approach to painting. The art history approach includes balance, harmony and rhythm. The art studio approach focuses on placement, editing and scale. He spoke of the eight balloons to build a painting: color, value, composition, mark making, level of realism, subject, edges and pattern. He also demonstrated placement on the canvas to show positions of power. He noted the higher on a composition and the more centrally located, the more power a subject is assigned. The artist chooses to develop any combination of these elements and rarely is any artist strong in all of them. In this way, the signature style of the artist is developed. 

We all started our portraits with a ground for our painting using any color and applying the paint in any way we chose, with brush, knife or sponge. Each artist worked the paint and many chose to create a smooth application of dark and light contrast in monochromatic or anagalous color schemes. This artist went for the bold, abstract splashes of color in blue and orange. I layered it onto the palette with broad knife strokes and no particular orientation in mind. I put paint on the canvas so thick I had to take it outside to dry for the next layer. We were asked to think of a word to set the mood for our painting. I thought of transition as I felt deep in my bones the shift of energy from a younger me to an aging me. I opened myself to the memory of time when there was so much energy radiating from my spirit that I gave no thought to conserving it. It seems strange but even though my body is feeling the need to slow down, the spirit is still radiating the same bold energy.

The next layer was to develop the color choices and define a positive and negative space. Then, we were to develop values to define facial contours. Patrick stopped by and caught me trying to bring out what he called rosebuds and leaves. He said, " Not yet, wait. No details." It is common with most of us to want to develop the realism and,in doing so, miss out on what can be conveyed with a simple line or a splash of color. I heard him and wiped out the details with even more strokes of wild color. At this point, we stopped for lunch and to let the paint dry. This is always a hard thing for artists to do: stop and step back from creating. We just love interacting with the materials and the vision.

After lunch, we had a critique, which is always interesting, as the strengths and weaknesses of each painting are discussed. Emotionally, you feel slightly vulnerable, but so much of value is presented to help you that if you can get out of the way emotionally, you will gain ways to strengthen and grow. One thing I shared with Patrick later was that I always feel like I grow when I do workshops with him. I love seeing the connections between doing art and what I can share with my students so that they can have more meaningful art experiences. I really want all of us to freely experience the process in ways that break us out of the coloring within the lines. It is by far a more expansive way to interact with materials and have more freedom of expression. I was very pleased with the support and feedback I received on my portrait. I, personally, loved the expressive paint application and how I was able to move away from the need to define and capture the spirit I wanted to reveal. It was suggested that if I made any changes, that they be very little if any at all. The new Director of Education, Jason Moody had one word for me, fantastic! I had one word for the experience, freeing.

Posted by Ms. Courtney Daniell-Knapp on Thursday September 27, 2012 at 03:22PM
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Saturday at the Museum with Teacher Fellows

When you're a Teacher Fellow at the MFAH, you get certain privileges. When the Fellows met last Saturday, our instructors guided us through a secluded doorway into a staff only elevator. After reaching the second floor, we walked through the hushed administrative offices of the museum into an enormous conference room. Inside, fresh coffee was served while the day's agenda was projected onto a Jumbotron-size screen. For a museum-goer like me, getting this much access behind the scenes is the stuff of dreams.

At the Saturday meeting, we were given a hefty work assignment: write the middle school material for the Learning Through Art program. As a warm-up, Jenn Beradino and Natalie Svacina of the MFAH led us through several discussions about paintings on display at the museum. If not for our tight schedule, we could have talked for hours without pause. "We're passing hundreds of masterpieces," I told Kathy Webb as we rushed through the galleries behind Jenn and Natalie. Alas, no time for Goya or Picasso. There were other geniuses to see.

The nineteen Teacher Fellows returned to the conference room and immediately began composing material about works of art from the MFAH collection. We were instructed to write questions, discussion prompts, and curriculum connections to art which will promote good habits of mind in middle school students across all disciplines. Imagine, for example, that a teacher asks his students to look at Georgia O'Keeffe's painting Red Hill and White Shell. He could then link the painting to a study of desert geology, or marine biology, or any number of traditional areas of study.

Kathy Webb and I are energized by each meeting of the Teacher Fellows. We are motivated to find the best ways to introduce middle schoolers to world-class art. Kathy and I are also eager to bring our students across the street to the MFAH to look at art that links with the subjects we teach.

I like developing the Learning Through Art program for middle schools.  While it lasts, I like being a VIP at the MFAH even more!


Posted by Mr. Frank Singer on Friday September 14, 2012 at 03:52PM
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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.



Posted by on Wednesday September 5, 2012 at 08:40AM
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