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MFA for Educators

Engage your students with the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to illustrate themes and concepts in any discipline.

The Many Voices of America

Abstract: This lesson engages students around a discussion of the many different voices that make up American culture and history through exploring 12 works of art. Students will be asked to evaluate the works of art, to consider their specific stories, and to explore the many identities that make up America.

Description: This lesson engages students around a discussion of the many different voices that make up American culture and history. In the outreach program for Highlights of Art of the Americas, students were exposed to works of art that told one story of American artwork. This lesson will expand that narrative to include several others. Students will look at works by a diverse group of American artists and will be asked to think about how their artworks present an “American” identity, or multiple identities. Upon exploring the range of artworks, students will also be asked to consider why and how the identities expressed in these artworks might not have historically been valued in the same way as those heard in the Highlights of Art of the Americas Tour.

Learning goals:

 In exploring this lesson, students will compare and contrast two or more versions of America by comparing the story they heard in the Highlights of Art of the Americas Tour with the story told by the objects in this lesson.

Students will consider how the objects express different cultural viewpoints and will compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes from different perspectives.

Using this resource:

Social Studies teachers and students will be interested in thinking about the values, politics, and interests that inform art and how they vary by culture.

Visual Art teachers and students will be interested in exploring the purpose and meaning of art and the role of artists and cultural organizations in society.

Language Arts teachers and students will be interested in processing and discussing ideas presented in various formats, comparing and contrasting the treatment of similar themes from different perspectives, and comparing and contrasting two or more versions of the same story.

Guiding questions:

What are some of voices that contribute to American history and identity? (Work with students to identify groups of differing races, ethnicities, genders, experiences)

How does this artwork represent an American identity?

How does this artwork show that American identity is made up of many different voices?

How do the objects in this tour and the stories that they tell compare to the objects from the Highlights of Art of the Americas tour?

The objects in this lesson are just a beginning. We encourage you to explore the Museum's online collection through this web source—or even better, to visit the Museum and walk through the physical galleries—to look for other objects that will provide further insights into this topic.

Lesson:

This sample of American art includes works produced by people of different ages, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Examining these works, and acknowledging the many voices that make up American art, will require students to engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

This lesson explores various works of art that give voice to groups who have historically been left out of discussions on American history and culture. During the Outreach Session with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, students explored artworks from the early colonies through the Revolutionary War. The artworks in the lesson will (a) build upon the artworks students viewed during their Outreach Session with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and (b) encourage them to extend their understanding of the Art of the Americas in new ways.

It is important to note that these are just a sampling of artworks from a few of the voices that make up American culture, and are by no means representative of all of those that have contributed to our cultural and historical identity. An important question to explore with students is “who is still missing from our definition of American art?”

The looking questions paired with each work of art are targeted towards 4th and 5th grade students. That said, the larger themes that the looking questions address can easily be modified for younger audiences.

Vocabulary:

Anglo: A white person who lives in the United States and who is of non-Hispanic descent.

Anglo-European: A white person who lives in the United States and who is of European descent.

Commission: To call for or to authorize the production of something.

Domestic: Of or relating to the running of a home or to family relations; referring to a person who is paid to help with household tasks.

Hopi Pueblo: A group of Native Americans from the Painted Desert in northeastern Arizona.

Plains Indians: Native Americans from the Great Plains area of North America.

Segregation: The separation of people based on their skin color, including where they live, where they shop and go out to eat, and where they go to school.

Mood: Suggestive of a particular feeling or state of mind.

Tone: The general character or attitude of a place or thing.

Strategies for Looking:

Art works well for discussion because it holds multiple points of entry. In looking at art we engage in different ways: we describe, analyze, judge, associate, question, and more! Many of the questions included above are designed to encourage these different ways of looking and consideration of the larger theme of the lesson.

Beginning with the question “What is going on in this artwork?” is a powerful way to engage students with looking. This question encourages students to make sense of what they see beginning with what they know. For example, students may not be able to identify George Washington's role in the battle of Trenton, but they can notice that he looks important in Sully's Passage of the Delaware or describe the story depicted in the artwork. “What is going on” provides an authentic, learner-created foundation, which allows students to give meaning to contextual information and to grapple with deeper looking questions.

In engaging with works of art using looking questions, students will often make claims about the artworks. To encourage students to support their claims with evidence, “What do you see that makes you say that…?” is an excellent follow-up that prompts students to reflect on the steps they took to reach their conclusion. For example, “What do you see that makes you say that George Washington is important?” in Passage of the Delaware?"

Many of the questions used at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston during tours are designed to begin with open-ended discovery and move students to consider different interpretations or frameworks for thinking about the work of art. For example, a question such as “What can this artwork tell us about the time in which it is made?” allows for multiple interpretations while prompting students to consider that art, indeed, can provide a lens for a time and place.

These strategies are based in research such as the work done by Visual Understanding in Education and Project Zero of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  This research suggests that art is an ideal tool for promoting critical thinking, fostering a constructivist environment, and providing students with a strong context for developing the skills of collaborative and evaluative discourse. The strategies outlined above are one tool to foster that type of a learning environment. Experiment and see where your students will take you!