U.Va.'s Curry School, Art Museum Help K-4 Teachers Make Sense of Art

July 22, 2009 — When times are tough, budgets are tight and lots of kids are having trouble with math and reading, why teach art?

"Everybody gains something from art," said Melanie Owen, one of two Curry School of Education students who collaborated on a project with the University of Virginia Art Museum. The project involved designing a series of lesson plans for elementary school pupils based on the museum's recent exhibition, "Matisse, Picasso and Modern Art in Paris," which has embarked on a statewide tour.

Organizers hope that funding can be found for similar projects in the future.

"Art also teaches analytical skills that can help boost developing skills in other content areas," added Holly Copper, the other Curry School student who worked on the project.

And for pupils who don't necessarily learn well by listening to the teacher or reading a book, but must experience things for themselves, art can be a godsend.

"Visual arts is a way that some students can make sense of what they are learning," Owen said. "Not everyone learns the same way."

The Commonwealth of Virginia has established Standards of Learning for the fine arts, from kindergarten through high school, said Eleanor Wilson, associate professor at the Curry School, who supervised Owen and Copper. According to the Visual Arts Standards of Learning for Virginia, the study of art teaches students to "think critically, solve problems creatively, make informed judgments, work cooperatively within groups, appreciate different cultures, imagine and create."

Wilson said the two Curry students kept those SOLs in mind – as well as the SOLs for social studies, language arts and math – as they prepared two sets of lesson plans: one for pupils in kindergarten through second grade, the other for third- and fourth-graders.

"Our hope is to make the lesson plans accessible to teachers so they can get background knowledge before they bring their classes to the art museum and provide some extension activities after the students return to the classroom," Copper said as the project began.

The lesson plans cover surrealism, still life, portraiture, the circus, and organic and geometric shapes. In addition to helping area elementary school teachers, they will eventually be available on the museum's Web site for teachers throughout the state.

"Holly and Melanie have done a tremendous job in launching this program," said Aimee Hunt, the museum's education coordinator and the Curry students' contact for the project. "They have put their knowledge and expertise to work for the museum in a groundbreaking way. We worked together to identify works in support of specific themes and develop the ideas and learning associated with them. Then Melanie and Holly produced fully formulated lesson plans.

"My hope is that we can obtain funding to make this an ongoing partnership between Curry and the museum that will further Curry students' education while expanding the programs the museum can offer the public in association with its collection and exhibitions."

While the art museum has conducted community outreach for a number of years, such efforts received new energy under the leadership of Elizabeth Turner, U.Va. vice provost for the arts, Wilson said. The joint educational initiative with the Curry School also dovetails with a growing University interest in encouraging projects and programs that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.

The exhibition, "Matisse, Picasso, and Modern Art in Paris," which inspired the lesson plans, was drawn from the T. Catesby Jones Collections at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the University of Virginia Art Museum. Jones, an alumnus of the U.Va. School of Law and a trustee of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, bequeathed most of his extensive collection of modern art to those two institutions in 1947.

The exhibition ran in Charlottesville from Jan. 30 to April 24. It is scheduled to travel around Virginia for nearly a year, reaching the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester (Aug. 15- Nov. 29), the William King Art Center in Abingdon (Dec. 11, 2009-Feb. 21, 2010), and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond (tentative dates: April-June 2010).

In addition to spending time in the museum studying art, the two Curry students benefited from hours of hands-on experience in writing lesson plans.

"Taking time to look at art and develop my lesson planning skills has been very valuable," Copper said. "It's wonderful that in a concrete way I can bring the visual arts into the classroom. I always hoped to achieve that and now I can."

Copper, 22, calls Salem home. She's majoring in studio art, with an emphasis on printmaking. She is enrolled in the Curry School's five-year B.A./M.T. program, and is on track to receive her bachelor's degree from the College of Arts & Sciences and a master's degree in teaching from Curry, with a specialization in elementary education, in May 2010.

Owen, 21, is from Richmond, majoring in American studies. Like Copper, she also plans to earn a five-year B.A./M.T. degree with a specialization in elementary education from the Curry School in May 2010.

"In our lesson plans, we look for ways to help students connect to the material they see," Owen said. "The more connections there are, the better the understanding of the material. And that's important because if you don't truly understand something, you can't take it with you."

And that's a lesson that applies to more than just art.

— By Charlotte Crystal