Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Teaching elementary students about early medieval art

A week after introducing elementary school students to the early middle ages I returned to the school to lead the students in an art project inspired by the time period.  The curriculum recommended teaching the students to make a mosaic inspired by those found in Byzantium.   I disliked the idea for two reasons:  first, I thought that supervising 30 kids with cement was, frankly, frightening; and second, there was once again a mismatch between the era covered during the history portion of the unit and the era covered during the art portion of the unit (this entry covers more detail on this, and also gives two possible reasons for the shortcomings in elementary level art-history curriculums).  The history portion of the Dark Ages unit had emphasized the history of England during the Anglo-Saxon period (see herehere for my lesson plan), but mosaics were unknown anywhere in either northern or western Europe during this time period.  Mosaics existed in Byzantium at this time, but the cultures of Germanic Europe and the Byzantine Empire were completely different.  When planning the lesson, I needed to either ignore the discrepancy or to choose which lesson to throw out and rewrite. 

An example of Anglo-Saxon cloisonne
Hilt fitting from the Staffordshire Hoard
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Resolving these two issues ended up being easier than I had feared.  While looking at pictures of early medieval Germanic art I realized that the Anglo-Saxon cloisonné actually looked quite a bit like mosaic, set in gold rather than cement.  I also found the website of an artist who routinely teaches mosaic-making in classrooms, and she mentioned that aquarium gravel will stick to heavy paper with mod podge.  These discoveries gave me the basis of a plan.  I ditched the mosaic patterns based on Byzantine art, substituting my own (very basic) pattern of a Germanic brooch.  Then, instead of mixing cement or plaster of paris for the kids to use with their colored aquarium gravel, I supplied the kids with enough mod podge to decorate their brooches however they wanted. 

What went well.  The older students (fifth graders), particularly, appreciated the creativity of being able to decorate the brooches however they wanted.  The aquarium gravel did stick to the construction paper just fine as long as the students applied the mod podge liberally, and since I also had them glue the construction paper to a paper plate, the finished art project was not so heavy as to bend the paper (cardstock or cardboard would be a good alternative).

What didn’t go so well.  The younger students (second graders) did an easier version of the project, using scraps of paper and school glue instead of gravel and mod podge.  Even so, they needed more structure than I initially gave them.  Next time I will give them a more detailed pattern that they will simply fill in rather than expecting them to choose how to decorate the brooches themselves.  I will also bring fewer examples and fewer paper colors, because the younger students found the number of choices overwhelming.  Finally, following the curriculum, I taught the students about the color wheel and high- and low-contrast colors.  Both sets of students grasped the concept quickly, but neither group understood how to apply their new knowledge to the art project they made, even with my examples.  I’m not sure how to fix this problem short of giving the kids the specific instruction, “use high-contrast colors in your project.”  I don’t like this approach, though, because while the kids would make better art, they still won’t have learned why their art was better.

Final thoughts.  After the fun of teaching the history portion, teaching this portion was much more humbling.  I should have been more prepared for the second grade class, and anticipated their need for structure.  First graders (six- and seven-year-olds), I have learned, are very creative and need almost no structure at all.  I’ve also noticed that about the time a child turns eight, they become very aware of rules and are afraid to break them, so a third-grade class needs a lot of structure.  A Second-grade class is difficult to teach because some of the students have made the transition to an eight-year-old mindset, but the younger students still want the freedom of a first grader.  Since I taught this lesson in May, however, I should have realized that nearly all the class would want rules and I should have planned my lesson accordingly.  I will remember this the next time I teach this age group.