The world often presents a confusing picture of itself, yet forces us constantly to make decisions and choices in order to survive. Sometimes what we do in the classroom is remote and irrelevant to the student’s encounters with his world. Modern society, while making us more sophisticated, confronts us with an abundance of conflicts and alternatives. As teachers we are concerned with students’ ability to understand our world and to be constructive contributors in our society. In education, our mission in guiding students to a happy and productive life includes giving them the opportunity to make choices on the basis of clear values. We want to help the students ponder what and how to think, believe and behave. By discussing cultural questions, the students may develop a framework in which to make better decisions. Providing an opportunity for students to question will increase knowledge and the search for values, past and present.
For example, the story of Thanksgiving can be taught on the level of facts, investigating when, where, what and how. On another level, concepts can be considered such as freedom of religion and emigration, with comparisons made to other historical or contemporary events. A discussion of values allows the students to become personally involved with the historical event. What might they feel strongly enough about that would make them, like the Pilgrims, leave their city or country? The consideration of objects can even bring the student closer to the event. If they were to leave their home and only take one suitcase, like the Pilgrims, what would they put in it? The choice of objects reveals values on the part of the students and can be compared to the Pilgrim’ objects as reflective of their culture. Since culture expresses our beliefs, attitudes and values, the objects of culture have a direct significance; the objects express our character and human spirit.
Often students will look at pictures in books or objects exhibited by teachers and not see beneath the surface. They accept that the object exists, came from someplace, illustrates something, but do not connect themselves to it. What is viewed remains separate from them, and in an isolated frame of time. We, as teachers, are partly to blame for these exercises in educational brevity since we jump to historical cataloging, dating and identification, without first observing carefully the object itself. In particular, the development of writing skills suffers in the curriculum when it is sandwiched within a multiplicity of skills and technical information in the English and history disciplines.
Last year we were fortunate to attend a lecture presented by Dr. Jules Prown of Yale University which suggested a method which can aid the learning process. Dr. Prown detailed a schema of study upon which he had spent considerable time concerning how to read an object. The process involved several sequential stages of coming to know an object. By the end of the lecture, it became apparent that by using Dr. Prown’s method, a simple object not only elicited the customary surface appraisal as we would expect of our students, but ranged far greater into an entire realm of experience not heretofore anticipated. Since that lecture we have pursued the theory that if Dr. Prown’s methodology created such a startling effect upon the viewer of an object and that viewer’s appreciation of the object, that this same method of looking at objects would be of benefit in the teaching and development of writing skills. This unit intends both to promote visual inquiry in order to increase observation skills and to present an opportunity whereby writing skills can be developed. An extended purpose of this unit is the introduction of a method of investigation of objects in order to study culture with more objectivity.
The critical viewing of objects can bring the realization that objects are a means of communication; that taken collectively, objects may serve as a reflection of culture, an expression of human values. Any object may be used to demonstrate the cultural reflections in the material. Some objects may reflect better a style, tradition or people’s values, such as chairs or clothing. Certain other objects, tools for example, are functional in purpose and analysis may be limited. However, the task is to help students to view critically. Much of our past exists in objects around us; they are stored in attics and trunks, as well as preserved in museums and historic houses. These non-verbal records are an expression of the society that produced them and used them. In viewing artifacts, we can connect ourselves across time and place with those people and their pattern of life. We want to help students express what they see and feel in exact descriptions. Once tooled, the students will begin to think and to question; the student will then be closer to the culture in searching for answers beyond the artifact.
The providing of observation skills creates a tool whereby writing can be guided, developed and nurtured through a structured process. Coupling sensory experience and critical analysis helps students to think and to express themselves through the written word . Students can easily relate to objects; they are real tangible things to be felt, placed or used. The questions of function and spatial positioning may seem easy to answer but objects can be considered in other ways. An artifact is a source of ideas raising questions concerning human values. How people feel about it or the value placed upon it are questions that students can consider and research while examining the importance of their own values. In studying old objects, the students will gain insight into past and sometimes changing values. Yet the object remains constant; with careful viewing and analysis, it may reveal a portion of our human history. For example, a whale’s tooth is fascinating to hold for students, and a discussion of scrimshaw can be worthwhile, but putting the object, the skilled hand and purpose of man together can bring the students to the past with a special understanding. The student can clarify his values and those values of the past. Thus, objects are readily a substance for the development of writing.
The study of material culture allows us to deal with primary sources. We can come to know objects, made or modified by people, first hand. These objects may be fragments; but by close observation, they can become alive in meaning for us and express fundamental attitudes. Dr. Prown’s methodology allows for contact through objects with questions of culture. By applying his investigative techniques of description, deduction and speculation, the students may increase their critical thinking. At the same time, communication gained with objects can be translated into increasing the writing experience of students.
In order for students to comprehend artifacts as historical documents they must first develop the ability to “read” individual objects. The methodology that this unit presents is an analytical tool to help beginners to study objects. The learning activities in this unit offer an opportunity for the students to apply the methods of investigation and to reinforce writing skills. Using common objects, they can practice critical observation, develop a human connection with others and increase their appreciation of any culture. Either the entire learning packet or selected activities may be used, depending upon the achievement level of the students. The unit is intended for any middle or high school grade and to be of use by any of the disciplines.
By applying some of the ideas expressed in the narrative or using some of the activities suggested in the learning packet, the students’ observation of objects can be increased and extended to photographs, paintings, graphs, symbols, buildings, any such subject related materials. Once visual literacy is established, the teacher can develop the students’ communication with the object to help them reason and experience the values that the object can invoke. At the same time, vocabulary can be increased and written expression developed. Students begin to write about what they can readily know and build their self-expression through longer narratives. Through observation and investigation the student can research cultural values as reflected in objects. He will have an opportunity to make choices and move closer to the past.
The use of artifacts, folk arts, documents and structures can serve to broaden our understanding of our heritage. They attest to achievement, struggle, growth—a range of human accomplishment. A record of corn harvests can lead us to agricultural assessments, a study of a sampler can reveal decorative expression, the structure of a house can relate a family’s needs, a piece of pottery may characterize social status. Yet with a special look, our understanding can be deepened.
That “special look” first begins with careful observation of the object in order to gather information that the object itself can reveal. As a substance it has weight, dimension, physical form that occupies space. Careful measurement can be important. James Deetz notes,
In Small Things Forgotten
, that archaeologists can approximate dates of sites by measuring the bores of English clay pipestems. Diameters become smaller at a uniform rate over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Next identify what the object is made of; the type of material used may raise questions but they can be answered later. A good detective gathers the basic facts first. Then determine how the object was constructed or put together. The fact that a handle was fused or a dovetail joint was used are observations that help discipline the viewer. In this first encounter, the object speaks for itself.
The description continues with the observation of the object’s content. The obvious story illustrated by a painting or photograph, the design on a plate or piece of silver, is to be noted. There may be an inscription, the maker’s initials or the name of origin. Even the composition of the object may reveal a story; the form as it exists in space needs to be viewed as the maker saw it as it took shape.
As we communicate with words, written and spoken, and by motion and action, objects also communicate with a language of lines, colors and shapes. Thus, the last section of description should deal with the formal aspects of art. The elements of line, direction, shape, size, texture, color and value, together with contrast, rhythm and composition constitute the visual language of art which can also be noted in many artifacts. Formal analysis of an artifact requires training, time and a practiced eye. It is not the purpose of this unit to instruct critics of art nor to lose the students’ interest at this point with heavy analysis. However, certain elements of design may be easily recognized and understood since the basic language is timeless. A shape, an effect of light and dark, a texture or a vertical line may be used to touch our feelings and we are impressed by what the artist may tell us.
Students should become acquainted with the concepts of at least the following: line, color, shape and texture. Equipping them with a working vocabulary may best be done by allowing them to be come active in expressing the qualities of these elements. While listening to a selection of music or the traffic outside, they may illustrate the tempo with line drawings. They may be asked to draw by using lines that express such themes as war, peace, storms or harmony. They can feel the lines and see the movement, direction and quality. Lines have shape; they can be geometric or free-flowing. Students can cut various shapes from cloth or paper and arrange them to create a visual expression of their choice. The size and spacing of the shapes create a composition in which repetition or contrast, or both, serve to express the designer’s concept or feeling. The addition of color can make the pattern more interesting. The same activity may be repeated using different colors of paper or cloth. Their choice and the blends of colors may suggest moods; darker colors may be somber or depressing, and red may suggest danger or courage. Since it is natural to want to touch what we see, texture can add visual interest. With crayon or pencil and paper, students may make rubbings of a variety of textures. They can identify texture contrasts and the effects upon us. A collage using found materials may allow them to understand the variety of textures and the blending of forms, colors and lines. Analysis of student compositions may demonstrate that the artist may emphasize a single element, while using many, to create a single effect which speaks to the viewer.
These initiatory activities will provide the skills necessary for the inquiry about objects and generate enthusiasm upon which to build. When the student is introduced to an object, he gains his first experience in writing description by putting observations into clear and vivid written expression. Lucidity can only be accomplished if the student chooses his words carefully. Vivid nouns and adjectives are a primary tenet of this mode of writing and will be of utmost importance throughout the student’s writing experience. The students must learn to call objects and parts of objects by their names rather than to use generalities, e.g. “that thing”, “it”. In addition to the incorporation of specific nouns within description, vivid adjectives must also be employed so as to recreate aptly the image of the object in words. Once words, the building blocks of any writing experience, are mastered, the student will then learn to organize his writing so as to maintain the clarity of his description. With knowledge gained by better observation, the student’s information and writing should improve.
We come to know things first by using our senses, especially sight. Often this sense is used in looking but not in viewing critically. Images pass by quickly in our society; reflections are often distorted and our glances are all too quick; thus, our power of sight is often not used to full capacity. Careful observation is necessary and carefully expressed descriptions are the detective’s path to deduction.
The next step involves our communication with the object; it is the applying of our senses, intellect, and emotions in order to make reasonable deductions. In the viewing of any object, we should be able to use our common human traits to bridge cultural gaps and experience a human connection. Careful viewing, knowing objects with sight, can only be enhanced by the other senses, especially that of touch, which makes us reach out to feel and make the object one’s own.
All the senses may come into use in developing a dialogue with the object. Thus, there exists a real need to teach students to use them in viewing objects. By demonstration, a lighted candle can he used to obtain sensory responses from the students. Its color, the sound of burning, the texture of the wax, the heat generated or the coolness of its base, the colors of the flame; all can be understood by students on a sensory level. The students can write these responses, often expressed in single words, into complete sentences that express reasonable conclusions. By applying their senses, the students can develop a human sensory connection with any object and develop their descriptive writing as they communicate with the object.
Once the descriptive writing process has been honed through the use of the senses, the student should make full use of his intellect in order to continue his dialogue with the object being viewed. One such way of achieving this is through spatial organization. It will enable the student to provide his audience with an exact blueprint of what he is observing in a clear, organized fashion. Spatial organization, as it is used here, is describing an object from top to bottom or left to right or near to far or the reverse of each of these. Students will receive training in organization techniques of experiencing these six ways of spatially observing what is before them. A specialized vocabulary comprised mainly of prepositions and past participles of verbs may be introduced to the class. Such words denoting direction and place in space give a student a clearer handle for harnessing his observation into a lucid pattern of expository writing.
Expository writing enables the student to enhance his own deductive understanding of an object since it deals with the dialogue created between the student’s intellect and the object. A student may be able to offer through written expression an actual recreation of a burning candle which not only details the object,s functional appearance but also the energies used in its creation. Such an explanation of a candle not only describes the candle, but becomes a blueprint for tracing its existence through its production to its functional worth upon completion.
An effort into narrative writing must be prefaced by a general guideline—logic. If the student is to make assumptions based on what he perceives is the natural intent or purpose of the object, he must proceed in a logical manner. Certain facts or givens concerning the object should be the threshold of any narrative expression, and these should be agreed upon not only by the student in his own mind but by others viewing the same object. Based upon this logical framework, the student is then free to create a dialogue between his emotions and the object being viewed in a narrative writing process. If a student is viewing a lighted candle, assumptions that it was used to light dark places or simply existed as a decoration are logical, and others viewing that same lighted candle would tend to agree with any of these. However, should the student regard the lighted candle as a kiln or portable hearth because it generates heat, he would be hard-pressed to find agreement and would not be effectively utilizing his senses and intellect in a logical manner.
Once logic is introduced and its importance stressed, creative narrative writing may start to flourish. A student, upon viewing an object from another historical period, might write an effective paragraph or two detailing the work the object might do and how that student feels about these considerations. A burning candle might invoke emotional responses by the student concerning a past birthday, a visit to a restaurant, or a place of worship. The student can now look into the flame of the candle and recall such memories. The harnessing of such feelings remains deeply personal for each student attempting such a dialogue but, at the same time, each student has built upon a consistent framework of Logic to reach his emotional response.
After he has delved into the aforementioned developmental activities of observation and deduction, the student as viewer may then move into the realm of speculation. This culminating stage will link together writing skills and an awareness of objects as extensions of people’s attitudes, needs, and values. Students are encouraged here to expand upon the information that they have gained from their experience with the object. Through reflection upon experience and the generation of theory, the student may form an hypothesis which can be discussed and researched. The discovery of an object’s meaning might well relate to the understanding of the society from whence it came. Objects that were used by a group of people or at a particular place can help us and our students to understand that society’s structure or forces and the function of the object within it.
Student research of an object may be focused primarily upon the craft responsible for the object or even the craftsmen whose efforts brought the object into being. In viewing a candle, for instance, the student may wish to trace the use of candles in colonial times and the people who made them. Such questions as the primary use of the candle, the changes in colonial lighting, the types of candles, the time of the year and quantity made can lead the student upon an interesting journey in research. As a by-product, the research would necessarily educate the student in terms of another culture quite different from his own. Such research should remain unbridled and each curious question when answered should provide other questions too tempting to neglect.
For instance, if the candle were researched as an object for colonial lighting, the student should seek to resolve in his mind if all colonial families used the same method of illumination. How difficult is it to read by candlelight? Did people read that often at night? Were candles inexpensive and simple enough to make or did colonists use them sparingly? Was the candle made in the home and, if so, how often during the year were they made? Did the entire family become involved in the craft? The possibilities of inroads to research remain endless, and the student should be encouraged to explore as many avenues of thought in his narrative expression as he deems necessary.
In addition to whetting the student’s appetite through the mode of research to satisfy the student’s curiosity, speculation can also allow the student to express his narrative thought in order to satisfy his imagination through creative writing. Just as in research, where there seemingly is no end to the questions which can be answered by chronicled facts, so too there are no bounds prohibiting the student’s imagination in speculatively viewing an object. The student, through his imagination, can readily assimilate himself into the culture from which an object came. He can at once experience anything associated with the object from the energy and vitality inherent in its road to existence to the emotion felt upon viewing.
Speculation can not only satisfy intellectual curiosity through research associated with the existence of a lock from a colonial door, but can also invite the student to theorize about who may be on the outside of that door and whether or not he should be allowed to enter. Whereas a photograph of a person can be researched through biographical sketches of both the subject and the photographer, imagination can lead the student to detail narratively the lives of both the day the photograph was taken complete with the emotions of each during the sitting. What might the subject and photographer have said to each other? In early America, a weary traveller observes the faint flickering of a lighted candle through the outline of a darkened shape. What does he immediately sense? What emotions flow through his mind as he approaches the flame which is now a beacon guiding him toward others? What new experiences—whether good or evil—await him as he approaches that door and knocks? . . .
The flag in your classroom is an at-hand object to demonstrate visual inquiry and develop a written expression. Its analysis is offered as a sample for the student’s introduction to VIEW and the learning packet.
Observe. A rectangular shape of light weight soft cotton attached to a pole. White bars evenly spaced, contrasting with red surroundings or vice versa. An area of blue tucked in an upper corner upon which are found systematically placed stars. Colorful and thoughtfully designed. Have a student measure the flag and its parts. As a class activity, describe what they see, listing the words on the board. Attempt to have them be exact with their terms, e.g. cotton for cloth, and try to extend their vocabulary, e.g. bars and canton.
Look again. The material and shape allow the catching of a breeze whereby displaying its fullest glory. It is symbolic in nature. What might the number of strips tell us? How many stars? Do we have to seek the answers outside of the object? Do the colors have a special meaning? What emotions do we have viewing it? Is there a meaning to be found that reveals our past and may direct our future? Beyond the object exists a story of people, of a nation symbolized by its flag. Allow the students to write sentences that express their sensory reactions to the flag. What sounds and smells might be associated with it? Also have them describe their feelings towards it and their emotions when seeing it displayed. Then let the students express their thoughts regarding its meaning and where the flag might be used. The sentences can be ordered into a paragraph reflecting clear ideas. Having the class share these responses, although personal and varied, will probably show the existence of many common reactions. This illustrates the human bond between ourselves and many others who have viewed it over the years.
Now look again. Why are flags used and for what purposes? What was the struggle that created the flag? Is there room for further growth and what may be the pattern? Can we feel Francis Scott Key’s emotion as he penned the poem? What are our feelings towards allegiance? Questions or ideas that students may have raised earlier may be investigated. They may do some research into the history of our flag, into heraldry or symbols. They may find literary expressions concerning flags in poems, stories or quotations. Some students may design a flag for themselves; others can use expository writing to express their thoughts and feelings. Knowledge gained from the object and their reactions to it will help students focus on a narrative expression of their own while awakening a cultural conscience. The flag of the United States conceived in the past remains a thread of common heritage. As an object, it is a symbol of that heritage and can provide substance for directed students. What a story our flag may tell!
An ordinary object such as a quill pen which recorded the harvest or the needle which fashioned the sampler were held by a hand in the past. If we view the simplest objects with an eye to the holder, the owner, the maker, we can almost touch that hand and deepen our understanding of them and of ourselves.
Teacher notes for VIEW learning activities.
The learning packet which follows can be used independently by the students or according to the suggested schedule. Some of the activities can be assigned as homework end all students should be encouraged to complete at least one of the Quest Activities for extra credit, due at a later date. It would be helpful to make a chart of the activities, options, and self-tests to serve as a checklist for student progress and grading.
Survey dealing with the art of the 17th and early 18th centuries.