In an ideal world when we think of the United States, we think of this one big "melting pot." People come from all over the world, unite and share a part of their culture while assimilating a new culture. In the real world we see something different. Many people come to the United States, put their culture on a back burner and try to fit in with this new culture that surrounds them. In the process some are losing a bit of who they are and not fully understanding who they are expected to "become". Most students begin to look upon their culture and history as "less" because it is not the focus of the content they are being bogged down with. I see this happen a lot when I am teaching a Social Studies/History unit. No matter how much background knowledge I try to provide them with, there is a disconnect. Students see history as an "us and them". They do not understand the ripple effect. They see history as isolated pockets of events that do not connect. Most of my students just want to memorize dates, facts, and events. By looking at and analyzing the art of the period, I am hoping the students will begin to see these historical figures as more than just "imaginary" people who are being written about in a book. I want them to feel that history is more than just a bunch of facts that they need to memorize. I want them to make the connection that these events took place and that real people and families were affected.
I currently teach at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy in the Hill section of New Haven, Connecticut. My students are fifth and sixth grade English Language Learners. They come from modest income homes. Most are recent arrivals to the United States from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. History is not an integral part of the curriculum. Social Studies are what is most taught and it is focused on the present day world around them. History is taught later on in the curriculum and when they get here they have not experienced studies in History. They find it hard to grasp the concept of the "past", not to mention artistic representations of the times. Upon getting to know my students I come to realize that most had limited exposure to the arts in their native countries because of lack of access, means or proximity. This by no means suggests that these countries do not have wonderful, relevant art. It only re–enforces that sometimes although available, access is a big factor. Since access to the arts was limited, the ability to make the connection of text to world falters. I cannot expect them to understand and engage in something they have never experienced.
By working with my students this year, I am able to appreciate that art is a topic that really interests them. I have been able to witness that with a simple illustration, their interest is piqued. They formulate so many questions based on what they observe. These illustrations open up a world of questions and curiosities. Lots of times they also become creative themselves and draw their own representations of how they visualize what is going on.
Bringing art and history together will close some of the disconnect the students experience. When I teach them history it only seems natural to bring artwork into the equation. I want to be able to teach a historical event, present them with content and then find artwork of the period and present it. By presenting it I will be able to re–enforce the content and also bring a human element into the lesson. Through artwork I can put faces to the names we have just read about. With the artwork I can extend the history lesson into the realm of what society was like. We can examine how people lived in colonial America and how people lived in colonial Jamaica after the emancipation of the slaves and compare what their lives were like. Through artwork we can also examine what leisure time was like, we can view how people enjoyed themselves when they were not focused on work or struggles to gain freedom We can examine what may have been some of the causes of these historical events. I also want students to identify some of the places mentioned in history and relate them to actual places that still exist today. Through art I want students to be transported back in time. I want them to see a work of art and appreciate that they know what is going on, what were some of the causes and what effect does it still have on us today. I also want them to see the humanity of people in history. They may not have been from the same country, time period, social, or cultural background, but they were human and very much like them or myself. I want them to appreciate emotion transmitted in art that they may otherwise miss in a book laden with facts. Art will be able to bring about that connection that we should share with the world. Art will also give them the opportunity to verbalize what they are observing, thinking, and feeling about a specific piece. Our students need the time and opportunity to observe, analyze and then verbalize without feeling pressure and worrying about whether they are right or wrong. This is a skill that through art they can develop and later on transfer to other areas in life.
I want to include some of the artwork of the Caribbean, specifically Jamaica, during the same period. As we know Jamaica was a British colony much like the "New World". Many of my students realize that cultures are different but then they equate these differences with inferiority. By presenting correlating images of Colonial America leading up to the Revolution, we can view the history of Jamaica after the Emancipation through art. I want my students to be able to compare characteristics of colonist in two different countries colonized by the same nation. I want them to appreciate that most of the struggles, victories, and losses experienced were similar to those experienced in the United States. By viewing artwork of the American Revolutionary period I want them to see portraits of important and contributing historical figures and know that their effect was profound and on a grand scale. I also want to zero in on how the artwork of the new American nation begins to change once the colonies gain independence and what the artwork of Jamaica looks like after the emancipation. Students should be given the opportunity through art to "see" how people were feeling when art was the best way to express these feelings. I want them to see that history was in the making all over the world and just because something was happening in the United States, that did not mean that the rest of the world ceased to exist. I want my students to feel like citizens of the world who share a history or what it means to be human. Through artwork I also want students to appreciate who we are as a people with culturally mixed heritages. Through visuals and art, students will be able to see relationships that they otherwise may not be able to grasp if they just read about it.
I want to be able to take full advantage of the art galleries and studios throughout the Greater New Haven area and Yale University. Just within the city we have a wealth of history, landmarks, and artwork. With the incorporation of artwork into the curriculum, fieldtrips and guided tours will be so much more meaningful. Students will be able to take learning outside of the classroom and apply what they know, engage in active learning and broaden their scope of topics and interests. Experiencing art will also help them with language acquisition because vocabulary will be expanded based on the need to communicate what they are observing. Children want to express what they know and what they have learned and artwork is the vehicle that will take us there. Artwork will give meaning to that "book full of facts."