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Lesson Plans


Multicultural art, elementary challenge

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JAMES MULLEN (J-C-Mullen)
Sun, 2 Feb 1997 15:11:13 -0500

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I've been having problems with my service, so I'm trying to catch up with
the Celebrating Pluralism chat.
Like Joan, Ive been committed to developing substantive multicultural and
cross-cultural art units for years.
Regarding Sources: When I started this search almost 10 years ago there
was much less contextual information about non-westerrn art than there is
today. Although there is much more information, prints, books, that are
touted as MULTICULTURAL the quality may be AWFUL (especially at the
elementary level). I won't buy or order anything unless I can preview it
before committing to it. Lots of old resources are out there with fancy
new covers hiding the same old dismally inadequate information. Sometimes
a resource may have limited value, but it just is too superficial. I'm
always searching and researching, it is time consuming but if we want our
students to be thoughtful life-long learners , don't we have to show them
how? I have found it very helpful to identify leading art educators in the
field by reading Art Education, Studies in Art, NAEA publications, and
Getty publications. Isn't there some way generalist and art educators like
Graeme with a demonstrated expertize in this area could come up with a
guide which would rate resources that proport to be "multicultural" as to
what level of multicultural education the resource is on, as well as to
errors such as ethnocentrism, stereotyping, and appropriation? I have to
think that something like this must exist for librarians (which could serve
as an aid in developing a similar multicultural arts database).
I have found that collaborating with other teachers to develop integrated
units has been a big plus to the Art program. Although my art period is
still only 40 minutes a week, because some of the introductory and
background materials are covered in a language, social studies, or a
library lesson, the children get lots of contextual information before and
after their time in the art room. Before this will work you may need to
educate your staff as to "What is art for?", a slow but extremely rewarding
process. I'll give an example.
For several years the 5th grade teachers asked me to work on "kachina
masks" when I do plastercraft and found object masks. The lesson I had
developed was not on kachinas but an investigation of "What are/were
Mexican Masks for? How do they reflect Europoean, Native American and
African American influences?" Tactfully I had to explain my reluctance to
teach their kachina mask lesson. Recently we were able to work out a
variation of the Mexican Mask unit, "What are/were Native American Masks
for? What can we learn about a particular tribe by studying the masks that
they produced?" I introduced it with an overview of Native American Art
which included contemporary artists. I joined them in their classroom for
a joint social studies-art discussion, as they studied their assigned tribe
for art and social studies they included information about the role of the
mask in the culture of the tribe. When they planned and made their mask
they had to meet artistic standards as well as relate this image to a
particular function. They could be "inspired " by a particular mask but
they were not to copy masks or symbols, this was not a problem as most
masks were extremely original. Although I was only working with 2 out of
10 grade 5 teachers, I taught an abreviated version to all grade 5 and
wrote up an overview of the unit for all the teachers with the hope that in
future they will want to work together more closely. ( Of course on the
down side, my schedule doesn't have time or flexibility to do this with 10
classes.)
For those who worry that art making suffers from this kind of attention to
history, criticism and aesthetics, it has been my experience that the
artwork produced in these lessons is generally among the best produced. On
the advocacy side, teachers and parents were very impressed with the masks
as well as the depth of learning.
With grades 1-3 I find that a cross-cultural approach which incorpoates
events from the children's lives works the best for me. At Thanksgiving I
talk about celebrations of the Harvest from around the world, Is that
something anyone else has tried? I just saw the John Biggers exhibit at
the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and one of his works, "Jubilee: Ghana
Harvest Festival" will be a wonderful addition to this lesson. I highly
recommend this exhibit, this 20th c. socially conscious African American
artist speaks to all humanity with inspirational and educational images.
Another cross-cultural lesson which I do with grade 3 involves guardian
sculptures. We discuss what a guardian is and why they think so many
cultures have some form of guardian that is expressed in sculpture. I show
them a variety of images, chimera-China, angels-Germany, guardian
warriors-Japan, dragons-Japan, kachina-Hopi, sphinx-Egypt and ask whether
they can think of any real, imaginary, or fantasy (from T.V.,books or
movies) examples from their own lives. The kids really get into this, they
enjoy learning about the significance of the images, the visuals seem to
provide a wonderful spark to their creativity as they draw their own
personal imaginary guadian. I do have to stress that these are guardians
not destroyers to a few whose ideas are aggressive or violent. Do you have
any other guardian examples from other cultures?
Has anyone purchased or previewed "Rings of Passion" resource kit on the
exhibit of the same title at the High Museum of Art,developed by John
Carter Brown to coordinate with the last Olympics? It has 5 themes, each
being an emotion. Each theme is represented by images from a variety of
cultures. I'm wondering if it would be useful at the elementary level?
Thanks for any suggestions.
Chris Mullen,
Bristol-Warren Elementary Schools,
560 hope Street, Bristol, Rhode Island 02809
Fax (401)253-5092

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