What can a painting or photograph tell us about life long ago? What clues can sculpture or pottery give us about the society in which it was created? How can we engage students in women’s history by incorporating hands-on art-making into the K-12 curriculum? These are questions that I pose consistently in my daily work as Manager of Professional Learning. In this role, I develop interdisciplinary programming for teachers and write arts-integration activities for the Women & the American Story curriculum. Using visual art in a history lesson can feel like a daunting task for many social studies teachers, but in a visual society full of visual learners, art can serve as a key point of access for students in understanding expressions of culture, the practices of different communities, and the historical perspectives of those who lived long ago. Most importantly, art can be an essential tool for teaching the histories of underrepresented groups, who are often left out of the written historical record.
How can art help students gain a better understanding of American history? Art is not created in a vacuum. Artists are inspired by the world around them and often create work that responds to the social and political culture of their time. Incorporating art in the history classroom can help contextualize moments in history, and using works created by different artists in the same era can expose students to multiple perspectives. When studying women’s history, in particular, art can be integrated into lessons to give a new voice to those who have been consistently left out of history textbooks and the larger historical narrative. When students create their own works of art in response, it deepens their connections to those narratives.
In the Modernizing America unit of the Women & the American Story curriculum, the photography of Gertrude Käsebier is used to explore the life and identity of Zitkala-Sa, a Native American educator and activist who fought throughout her life to preserve the rights and culture of Native people. In the early 20th century, Käsebier worked as a woman in a male-dominated profession and she used her portrait photography to highlight other underrepresented groups. Her portraits of Zitkala-Sa convey the complexities of her subject’s upbringing. One photograph depicts Zitkala-Sa in tribal dress, paying homage to her Sioux ancestry and culture. Another shows her in the western dress of a society that forced her to abandon certain aspects of her heritage. These photographs offer a powerful depiction of the “Americanization” of Native culture and the experiences of Native women in an era of xenophobic policies. This work of art–by a woman, about a woman–sheds light on important intersections of gender and race in the early 20th century.
The accompanying arts integration activity tasks students with becoming the photographer. They stage portraits of classmates to reflect their personal identities. This immersive process helps students make connections with personal presentation in modern society and the digital world. Art gives them the autonomy to make these important statements while also gaining a deeper understanding of each other, as well as the historical figures whose complex stories and identities have been preserved through this artistic medium. The activity also helps students make connections to the use of photography and social media as a form of political activism.
Art history textbooks, much like American history textbooks, often offer a patriarchal view of the past that systematically excludes women from the record. Yet women have existed as makers, creators, and innovators in both the fine and craft arts throughout the centuries. Engaging students in hands-on activities can help them gain a deeper understanding of women’s experiences and roles in society through their art-making practices. In the Early Encounters unit of Women & the American Story, Zuni Pueblo pottery and an accompanying coil-pottery arts integration activity are used to explore women’s participation in the cultural revolution of the Pueblo Revolt.
In 1680, the Native people living on the land that the Spanish claimed as the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México rose up to overthrow the colonizers. Uniting the Northern Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Tano, Keres, Pecos, Zuni, and Hopi tribes, the Pueblo Revolt killed 400 Spanish colonizers and sent the remaining 2,000 fleeing from the area. Zuni pottery created during and after the Revolution gives students insight into the Native culture, the traditional practices and artistic expression of Zuni women, and their rejection of European colonial influence. It also provides a sense of empathy for what the women may have been feeling at the time. Ceramics and pottery continue to be a vibrant form of artistic expression in Pueblo nations to this day, and the arts integration activity that accompanies these sources invites students to experience this authentic process. Through the production of their own coil pottery students can explore this cultural history, while also understanding the skills that are required to make a piece that is both aesthetic and functional. The activity also tasks students with considering what this process may have been like for women during a time of cultural reform and social revolt.
Bringing the practices of hands-on art making into the classroom helps students can gain a deeper connection with content by actively engaging with materials and artistic processes, and fosters creative thinking and problem solving. Arts-integration has been linked to higher student performance and engagement in school. In a national study of over 25,000 middle and high school students, researchers from the University of Los Angeles found that not only was higher arts involvement linked to academic success, but that students with higher arts involvement also watched fewer hours of TV, participated in more community service, and reported less boredom in school. Additionally, schools integrating arts into the curriculum as an educational reform strategy have documented positive changes in the school environment and improved student performance; and “arts-engaged low-socioeconomic status students” experienced significant advantages in college attendance and employment, as well as increased civic engagement like volunteerism and voting.
Whether students are analyzing a work of art or creating art of their own, arts integration in the social studies is an important tool for teachers trying to convey a deeper understanding of history to their students. Using art as an entry point to the past encourages students to engage in the content more deeply and to think critically and creatively about the people who lived long ago. Visual art is a common thread throughout time, even as particular forms speak volumes about the social and political climates of different eras. As a form of cultural expression, activism, or narrative depiction, integrating art into the classroom opens new doors to the past and presents more inclusive narratives.
— Schuyler Schuler, Manager of Professional Learning, New-York Historical Society
Stay tuned for an all-new Women and the American Story website, launching this March in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Top image credit: A:Shiwi (Zuni) Sh. Ashiwi Polychrome Water Jar, ca. 1630-1690. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 10/1681. Photograph by NMAI Photo Services.