Many high school students walk into their history classes with preconceived notions of what their history class will be like. Far too many students enter these classes believing that history is just a long, intimidating series of events, people, and dates that happened long before they were born and therefore have little impact on their everyday lives. The further back into history you venture to have them explore, the more difficult it can be for them to visualize and connect with themes of the past. Add to this challenge struggling students. There are students with Individualized Education Plans, 504 plans, Response to Intervention plans, and the generally unmotivated, all of whom must understand and learn major themes and concepts from the course curriculum. Despite all these challenges and considerations, I have come to find that using visual art has become one of the most effective ways I can engage my high school students with the past. For this reason, I am focusing this unit on using visual art to teach a time period I have found my tenth grade students to struggle connecting with the most––Colonial America.
When the topic of Colonial America is first brought up in class, students usually cannot conjure up much more than vague ideas about clothing, the general existence of slavery, and an understanding that there was eventually a war that was fought. Literature on the subject can often seem "dry" to students, making it difficult for them to really examine and consider ideas of race, class, gender, and work in Colonial America. Students often consider this time period and ask, "What does this have to do with me?" and "Why should I know this?" For these reasons this unit aims to get students to approach the themes of race, class, gender, and economy that develop during America's colonial years through visual art. The idea behind this is that if students can be taught to construct meaning and develop an understanding of these themes through visual art, they will be more invested and interested in the learning because they uncovered the knowledge themselves in a meaningful way. The beauty of using art in a history curriculum is that it incorporates primary sources into the curriculum, it naturally captures student attention, it can be implemented to engage students in critical thinking, all students (advanced or struggling) can approach it, and it can foster great discussion.
I find that even my struggling students who do not do work outside of school and who lack motivation enjoy analyzing and discussing images. In many ways art can be a great differentiation tool in the classroom because no matter what level a student is at, they can participate in making observations and contributing interpretations. While an advanced and struggling student may initially make different observations and have different interpretations when analyzing a piece of art, they can both engage themselves with it and be challenged by it. By developing students' visual literacy skills and discussing art that comments on major historical themes, I hope to motivate students to critically consider points of view and ways of life from this time period.
Overall, this unit will contain strategies for teaching students how to analyze and discuss art, a collection of images organized thematically to address topics of race, class, gender, and economy, and a list of various readings to accompany the discussion of these themes. These four themes were chosen because they will help students begin thinking about who these colonists were, what they would want and value, and who they were becoming. As much as this unit strives to teach students about life in Colonial America, it also will also have a focus on sharpening certain skills that all high schools hope to be building into their underclassmen. Through interactive activities, creative and expository writing, discussion exercises, group work, reading, and role playing, students will interact with art of this time period to construct an understanding of Colonial America. It is my hope that through the techniques and ideas introduced here students will be able to construct for themselves an understanding of Colonial America through visual art, with art leading the discussions of race, class, gender, work, the development of an American identity, and the lasting impact of these ideas on America.