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Art from the start: An innovative art program comes to area schools

Published on: February 01, 2008

Remember art history class? That’s when your instructor showed you slides — water lilies, perhaps — and you took notes on color, composition and the techniques Monet used when he painted them.

Chances are, you were in college at the time. And chances are, you were bored.

That was then. These days, there are first-graders learning about Monet — and an assortment of other artists — except no one’s calling it art history; they’re calling it VTS. That stands for “visual thinking strategies,” and it’s anything but boring.

VTS is an elementary school curriculum that uses art to teach aesthetics and communication skills. Developed in the late ‘90s by a museum director and a developmental psychologist, it’s run by Visual Understanding in Education, a nonprofit organization based in New York. The course costs $15,000 for a three-year period and includes workshops, images and teacher training. Schools typically pay for VTS with a mix of public and private funds.

Here’s how it works: During the school year, teachers (or parent volunteers) conduct 10 hour-long classes to kindergarten through fifth-grade students. The kids gaze at carefully chosen art — either poster reproductions or slides -and then, prompted by the teacher, chat about what it is they see.

“Art has many interpretations and is very personal,” explains Angele Hunskor, who is teaching the course to first-graders at St. Benedict, a private school in Seattle that introduced the curriculum last year. “That allows for amazing observations and conversations.”

Hunskor says VTS acts as a vehicle. “It’s a great way to get kids talking,” she says. After students study an image, she asks, “What do you see here?” And then, “What more can we find?”

At first, the young students typically offer simple statements: “That’s a tree.” “That’s a horse.” “That’s a soldier.” Then someone will elaborate: “They just came from a battle.” “They’re on their way to a forest.”

Later Hunskor addresses more specific questions and asks students to back up their interpretations with evidence: “What do you see that makes you say that?”

A growing presence
While VTS has been a fixture for several years at The Island School on Bainbridge Island and in other schools all across the country — 50 schools in Texas use VTS as do 64 in the Bay Area — the program’s just gaining momentum in the Seattle area. Last fall, the University Child Development School in Seattle partnered with the Frye Art Museum in Seattle to develop VTS programs. Frye provides partnering schools with a three-year professional development program that includes a full-day training session, five two-hour debriefings throughout the year and a museum visit.

This year, the Wyman Youth Trust began funding a Frye development program for Roxhill Elementary School in West Seattle. And last spring, VTS held workshops for the staff and docents at the Tacoma Art Museum and plans another one at TAM this May.

“VTS works well with all ages,” says Susan Burnham, manager of school, teacher and docent programs at TAM. “It gives children the opportunity to not only be exposed to art, but to develop skills around looking at and creating art.” Best of all, the discussion technique VTS facilitators use helps kids feel more comfortable about the world of art in general, Burnham notes. The older students — grades three through five — conclude the series with an art museum visit.

The program also helps kids develop critical thinking abilities, says Yoon Kang-O’Higgins, regional VTS director. Teachers in schools around the country are finding that the skills kids learn though VTS transfer to other areas of learning, she notes. “It affects the way students approach science and math, and we think it positively affects test scores.” In fact, she says, VTS execs no longer call the curriculum an arts course; they call it a literacy program.

How does examining art encourage critical thinking and literacy? Hunskor, whose own son is in the program, finds kids learn to observe, evaluate and articulate their opinions — all while taking their time doing it. “It helps them slow down,” says Hunskor. “So often we don’t give our kids a chance to really look, listen and choose their thoughts.”
What’s more, children can bring their own perspectives to the table — without feeling self-conscious, says Sean Freeman, who teaches VTS to second-graders at St. Benedict.
“Much of what children learn in school these days is how to figure out the ‘right’ answer or what the teacher wants to hear, whether that is the answer to a math problem or the capital of South Dakota,” says Freeman. “We hear complaints about how children are being ‘taught to the test.’ With VTS there are no wrong answers.”

Facilitators stay nonjudgmental. “The student knows that he or she is being heard and that no answer carries any more weight or ‘rightness’ than any other,” Freeman notes. “And they learn it’s OK to disagree.”

Linda Morgan, ParentMap’s associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.


Source: Visual Understanding in Education Web site:
Students and teachers examine carefully selected art images.
Teachers ask open-ended questions, such as “What’s going on in this picture?” “What do you see that makes you say that?” “What more can we find?”

  • Teachers paraphrase student responses, actively listen and validate individual views.
  • Teachers facilitate student discussions, encouraging observations and interpretations.
  • Students support opinions with evidence, and listen to and share information and ideas.
  • Artworks become more complex.
  • The program adds Web materials and writing assignments.
  • Students visit museums to expand their experience.

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