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Teaching with Wordplay

Art museums are places where people talk about art. The more we can encourage young people on school tours to talk about art, the more they will notice and the more they will remember. In addition, the more they become comfortable talking about the design and meaning of works of art, the greater the likelihood that they will continue to take part in such discussions as they grow into adulthood. There are all sorts of techniques docents can use to encourage students to talk about art. Here are two examples.

Clues and Questions

Have you ever played the game “20 Questions?” Someone says, “I’m thinking of something in this room,” and the others ask questions that can be answered “yes” or “no” until they can identify the object selected, dues and Questions is a museum version of that game. It encourages students to look at a group of objects and begin making distinctions among them. Because the game involves categorizing, it works best with students in grades 4-8.

Beginning with a wall or room of maybe 10 – 12 paintings, the museum teacher says, “I am thinking of a painting in this room (on this wall). Let’s see if you can guess which painting I am thinking of by asking me just five (or 6, 7, 9) questions. Here are the rules. AU I will answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The one question you cannot ask me is, “Is it that one?” In other words, you have to ask me something about the painting.”

Students usually get the idea quickly, and begin by asking category questions like, “Are there people in the painting?” “Is it an indoor picture?” As pictures begin to be eliminated, questions need to become more specific. “Is there a sun in the painting?” Sooner rather than later, students have isolated the one painting selected. Then, a discussion of the selected art work follows before moving to phase two of the game.

This time the museum teacher picks a child to choose the mystery painting from the same group of 10 – 12 paintings. The new rule in this game is that students may not ask any of the questions that were asked in the last game. The game can quickly become quite challenging as students grope for new questions to begin eliminating paintings and are forced to look again, from a different vantage point, at the same works of art. The classroom teacher’s or museum teacher’s input can sometimes help students develop a new line of questioning, but usually students come up with their own inventive queries.

This is a game children can play anytime they are in an art museum with family friends. Not only do students have fun using skills of description, categorizing, and questioning, they also notice things in works of art that they would have missed otherwise. This is a good activity at the introduction to a tour, demonstrating how much there is to see in any work of art. Its content is open ended and student driven. The goal is to get young people engaged in the process of looking, and to get them talking about art. Both of these goals are enthusiastically achieved by students. Lecturing to students can be counterproductive. We should encourage young people on school tours to participate so they notice and remember more. Games, activities, and discussions are educationally productive methods of stimulating involvement. This activity, which works so well in an art museum setting, can easily be adapted for teaching purposes in museums of history and historic sites. The process would be similar, however the objects selected would be artifacts, tools, or machinery from other times (or items found in historic homes) rather than works of art.

Portrait Autobiographies

Portraits are pictures of people. Portrait painters try to capture something of the essence of the sitter in the way they paint a face, clothing, the surroundings, etc. In this game, children look at a variety of portraits and write an imaginary autobiography about one of them. The teacher or student then reads the autobiography, letting other students guess which portrait is being described. The activity works well for students grades 4 – 12, but I will be describing the process we use for grades 4-8.

In this game we use a complete-the-sentence worksheet to help students think about the character of the person in the portrait. The worksheet looks something like this.

My name is … .

I am … years old.

I work or spend my time as a … .

I am thinking about ….

People usually think I am … .

I like the way the artist painted my ….

I do not like the way the artist painted my ….

Students are intrigued with imagining they are another person. They write sensitive, perceptive things about the person in their portrait. Even the names they choose usually fit something particular about their painted person. The guessing game is fun. Some statements are so “on target” that we all laugh out loud. Each answer reveals something about the child who wrote it, and something about the painting as well.

When working with kids at very low reading or writing levels the activity can be accomplished cooperatively, letting a group of four students, for example, work together to write an autobiography. One of my most memorable experiences playing this game was with a group of mildly retarded middle schoolers. They couldn’t read or write, but there were enough chaperones to assign one to do the reading and writing for each group of 4 or 5 participants. The students came up with wonderfully witty and perceptive things and left with a great feeling of accomplishment.

Portrait Autobiographies introduces an important concept in art to its participants — the role of the artist in creating a portrait. The game changes depending on whether you are looking at Colonial American portraits, in which sitters are surrounded by objects that reveal things about them, or the portraits of artists like Thomas Eakins, where only the sitter appears and the paintings seem to be psychological studies. We’ve even used it with the Pop Art “portraits” of Andy Warhol!

Maria Shoemaker is the Associate Curator of Education for Youth and Family Programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She is the author of numerous articles on museum education and is a lecturer/presenter at museums and conferences throughout the country. Portions of this article were previously published in the Pennsylvania Literacy Network Journal (Vol. i, No. 1). Ms. Shoemaker has contributed several other articles to The Docent Educator, including A Guide to Childhood Development” (Vol. 2, No. 1) and “New School Year’s Resolutions” (Vol 4, No. 1).

Shoemaker, Maria. “Teaching with Wordplay,” The Docent Educator 7.2 (Winter 1997-98): 16-17.

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