As an art educator working in an urban environment of diverse learners, I struggle to create lessons that are relevant to my students and still incorporate and uphold art standards. What I have come to realize is “diverse learners” doesn’t indicate a group of learners from cultural backgrounds and/or races but instead, refers to individual learners who come from varied cultural and racial backgrounds. When in the past we might identify students as one cultural or racial group, today we must recognize students have backgrounds that include one group, two groups, or even multiple groups. In some cases, student backgrounds may represent groups whom have been in conflict. And, as educators, we must strive to develop lessons that are inclusionary of such diversity. Today, I teach middle school students and have discovered my students are proud to discuss the multiple racial and cultural groups they claim. It is perhaps part of the adolescent development of identity, but students are eager to discuss not only their heritage, but also that of friends and family.
Art History is vital to creating multi-tiered art lessons that reach beyond just product. Yet, as educators who do not see students on a regular, daily basis how do we develop lessons that reach beyond a product and are inclusionary of diversity? Several years ago, I began incorporating more Japanese and Chinese art into my classroom in an attempt to bridge the gap left in Western education when it comes to the Far East. What I found was my students loved learning about these cultures and far more students than I thought have backgrounds inclusionary of Eastern cultures.
As art educators we all know in late elementary and early middle school the student schema develops a need to draw “realistically” in order to feel success. But, it is difficult for students to curate such skills when such little time is devoted to art. I began to incorporate projects into larger lessons wherein students make a copy a fine artwork. There are varied views on student copying, especially when it comes to creativity, but what I have learned is it is easier to discover how to create when you are walking the path of another, master, artist. From the concept of copying and including relevance and diversity, I developed the lesson “Remixing The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”
A copy of the original on top, and the student “remix” below
The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai represents one of the great appropriated images of Eastern art. I show the image to my students and many have seen it previously; in this way, we are able to bridge upon existing knowledge. As a class, we discuss the series that includes The Great Wave off Kanagawa; Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji. Students are encouraged to identify the importance of the artwork as relevant to the natural history of Japan and to the importance of art history. Each student is given a full-color copy of The Great Wave off Kanagawa and are instructed to copy and color it in colored pencil.
Upon near completion of the copies, the class discovers the appropriation of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. As a class, we define the concept of appropriation and homage as it relates to the use of pre-existing images. Appropriation of visual imagery can be an abstract concept for middle school students. Students are, however, familiar with the concept of sampling parts of songs for a new, original, musical composition. Recognizing this, I am able to make the concept of appropriation relevant, and thus tangible, when I compare it to “remixing” a song or track. We view a series of images that re-appropriate The Great Wave off Kanagawa from fashion, to functional art, to humor, to composition, to situational, to material, to color. Students are instructed to create 4-5 thumbnails that “remix” or appropriate The Great Wave off Kanagawa according to their own creativity using pencil and colored pencil. After a brief teacher conference, each student begins their final draft of the remix. Upon completion of both the copy and the remix, students mount their compositions side by side for display.
Part of creating lessons that provide profound learning is allowing students to share their discoveries and struggles. To conclude this lesson, we host a mini-critique session wherein students are encouraged to share their creations and the personal choices that aided in the development of final drafts. During this portion of the lesson, many students choose to share about their personal heritage as it relates to their creation. The success of this lesson is not dependent upon drawing ability, although it does include that, but rather creative concept. My experience has shown a lesson that bridges the gap to student relevance while incorporating diversity, art history, and a basis for stronger execution skills leads to deeper learning and understanding.