Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why my kids' art history curriculum is so poor: Maybe I was wrong

I'm teaching early medieval art this month.
Here's a famous example from the Book of Kells.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons

As I've mentioned here before, I love teaching the art history classes at my kids' elementary school.  I enjoy learning about periods of time I know nothing about; I like to notice connections between art movements and the time period when the art was made; and it flatters my ego because the kids are always happy to see me teach (Art through the ages is today!  What are we going to do?).  The downside to teaching is the curriculum.  I hate, hate, HATE it.  The history is poorly researched:  facts are frequently wrong, and the examples of art I am given to show the kids often don't match the time period of the history being covered.  I've been assuming that the problem lies with the author, that she really wasn't qualified to write an art history curriculum, or perhaps with the PTA, which didn't know enough about art history to choose a decent text.  I read a couple of essays this week, though, which suggest that my assumptions may be incorrect.

Before I explain, let me give some background.  My university degrees are not in history; they are in political science (BA) and public administration (MPA). All of the history I have learned I picked up while learning about political science (let's face it, one can't learn about government without also learning about the history of that government) or from research that I've done on my own.  Research is where I have a bit of an edge over other amateur historians:  the emphasis I chose to study while obtaining my MPA was research analysis, and I've worked as a research assistant.  What this means is that I can read nonfiction, such as an art history curriculum, and notice where the information doesn't seem quite right, and I know how to quickly do the research to figure out if the information is correct or not.  Then, if it isn't, (and it usually isn't correct if it caught my attention) I can quickly find out what the author should have written instead.  I'm good enough at this that I'm beginning to irritate the other art history volunteers who hadn't noticed that the curriculum was poorly written.

Back to the essays.  They were written by two people who, like me, teach art history in elementary schools, rotating to different classrooms.  Unlike me, I think they are paid by their school districts and, also unlike me, they have university degrees in history and art history.  From these two essays, I learned that elementary school curriculums used to teach art history are notoriously badly written.  There were two reasons given for this:  first, bad source material, and second, teacher bias against history.

Bad source material.  There are two parts to most elementary school art history programs:  the history half, and the art project half.  In my school, I teach each unit once during the month, but the unit is broken up across two days, so I teach the history the first day and  I lead the students in the art project on the second day.  According to the essays I read, the information given in the history portion of the elementary school curriculums is generally inadequate.  It makes sense, then, that the curriculum I've been given would also be inadequate--after all, elementary school textbooks are usually not written from primary source material, but  by rewriting or updating previously written schoolbooks.  I had assumed that the author of my curriculum was foolish, at best, because she couldn't find accurate information.  It may be, however, that she was given bad source material to begin with.

Teacher bias against history. I have never encountered this myself, but according to the essays' authors, some elementary school teachers do not like art history taught in their classrooms.  Learning history requires students are faced with tough topics like war, religion, slavery, etc.  Some teachers feel that these topics ought not to be discussed in a classroom of elementary age students.  These teachers have a particular distrust of certain time periods with a bad reputation, such as the middle ages (crusades, inquisition) , antebellum America (slavery, racism), and the age of imperialism (colonialism).  Sure enough, in the curriculum I was given to work with, these units are more watered-down and inaccurate than other units.  Again, author ignorance may not be as large a factor as I had assumed.

This begs the question, however, what is the frustrated art history teacher to do?  If the essays I read are any indication, most art history teachers do what I have been doing:  reading the curriculum, keeping what is accurate while throwing out the rest, and writing their own lesson plans.  Check out the entry I wrote about teaching the Q'in Dynasty, and notice that I did my own research instead of depending on the curriculum.  Similarly, this month I'm teaching the unit on the Early Middle Ages, and find that I am rewriting most of the lessons.  OK, all of the lessons, as Byzantine mosaics have NOTHING TO DO with early medieval insular art.  (honestly, even wikipedia knows this.)  I think I will also start posting more of my lesson plans on this blog, for the benefit of others who may be frustrated by the art history lesson plans they were given.  Meantime, I guess I will stop accusing the author of my curriculum of ignorance, and stop blaming my PTA for not realizing they were buying a stupid book.  Still, I wish I could sell them an art history book I wrote myself.  I'd write an accurate one.

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