Careful Observation: Art in the Academic Classroom

John Gast, American Progress (1872)
What does this painting teach us about American attitudes towards westward expansion?
John Gast, American Progress (1872)

For 11 years, I taught Humanities courses at an arts high school. Due to the composition of our student body, the classes of academic teachers were somewhat naturally suffused with art of all types. In my U.S. History classes, I frequently asked my students to consider how art and media exposed American values and character, or how it revealed vital information about the changing nature of American culture. We studied how art and media could both influence and reflect upon social movements, politics, and the shaping of various American identities. All art and media were open to inspection, whether high-brow or low, famous or obscure. We studied Paul Revere’s etching of the Boston Massacre, Gone with the Wind, Palmolive print ads from the 1950s, and Bob Dylan’s music with equal passion and attention to detail. In all of these instances, students were engaged and delighted, stimulated by materials that were not always familiar in substance or style, but were familiar in type.

Palmolive ad
Sexism in the 1950s
Palmolive ad

Since arriving at Dana Hall School, I have continued the trend of supplementing the history texts in my classes with art and media. In seventh grade Social Studies, the girls dissect paintings to learn about the American West, political cartoons to better understand anti-immigrant sentiments in the late 1800s, and the works of Archibald Motley, Langston Hughes, and Billie Holiday to appreciate the activist spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. My eighth graders contemplate the messaging of propaganda posters, anti-Semitic newspapers, and so-called “Degenerate Art” to comprehend the beliefs and ideals of the Nazi Party. They listen to Miriam Makeba to tap into the soul of anti-apartheid efforts, and scrutinize the covers of Judge magazine to discover some of the prevailing attitudes toward nineteenth-century colonialism.

Rudolf Schlichter, Portrait of a Woman with Bob and Tie (1923)
Art of the German Weimar Republic
Rudolf Schlichter, Portrait of a Woman with Bob and Tie (c. 1923)

The practice of close looking is a popular pedagogical approach in many classrooms and museums across the country today, and it’s not hard to see why. Looking closely at images or film encourages students to slow down and hone the skill of careful observation, just as taking in a song can fine-tune one’s ability to listen carefully. The more acutely our students can see and hear, the better equipped they are to infer, interpret, and analyze. These universal skills translate across disciplines. An art-infused education taps into different learning styles, and inspires cultural and media literacy, which are of paramount importance in today’s world.

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About Jennifer Salamone

Jenny Salamone is a Middle School Social Studies teacher at Dana Hall School. She joined the School in 2016.

One Reply to “Careful Observation: Art in the Academic Classroom”

  1. Jenny,
    Thank you for sharing your reflections here, and thank you for helping our students develop their careful and critical observation skills.

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