Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
The months of May and June are greeted with joy and relief by teachers and students alike, because they mean that summer break is just around the corner. As spirits and temperatures rise, so too does students’ energy. Every school year eventually reaches a point where typical classroom routines become a thing of the past, when attempting to stick to focused lessons is a recipe for frustration.
I like to capitalize on this restless year-end energy with art projects, nature walks and library scavenger hunts, but these activities are far more than mere time fillers. They are always extensions of a book. I’ve spent much of the past week cleaning our library tables after art activities, and my white cardigan is now dotted with green and blue. My students’ colorful tissue paper collages (inspired by Eric Carle’s The Tiny Seed), watercolor and pastel nature scenes (inspired by Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPré’s Mornings With Monet) and colored pencil flowers (inspired by Shawn Harris’ Have You Ever Seen a Flower?) fill my heart with happiness.
These three picture books introduce women who used their artistic gifts to showcase the simple things in life, raise awareness about important issues and add beauty to the world. I can’t wait to share their stories with my students and invite them to share in that beauty through creative projects.
“Wherever in our world / we want to go, we go— / Pa and me,” declares young Henriette Wyeth, the oldest child of illustrator N.C. Wyeth. In lyrical first-person prose, author Beth Kephart narrates a day that Henriette spends outdoors with her father. The pair slips away from the rest of their family to explore the land around their Pennsylvania farmhouse, taking time to notice and paint the foliage, creatures and vistas. Pa encourages Henriette to sense deeply and “love the object for its own sake.” Gentle and reflective, this poetic book introduces students to a renowned family of artists and showcases the power of noticing nature’s unassuming beauty.
- Nature still life
Take students on a nature walk around the school grounds. Encourage them to collect pieces of nature that they find beautiful. When you return to the classroom, read the page from the book where Pa reminds Henriette to “love the object for its own sake.”
Give each student a small stack of index cards. Provide many different art mediums, such as crayons, graphite pencils, markers, watercolors, washable paint and colored pencils. Invite students to depict their object in as many ways as possible. Encourage them not just to use different mediums but also to vary their approaches to perspective, color, symmetry, line and so on.
- Wyeth family art study
Read aloud Kephart’s author’s note, which identifies Pa as N.C. Wyeth, who was an American painter and one of the most well-known illustrators of the golden age of illustration. Discuss the story’s historical time period and look at Wyeth’s iconic illustrations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe’s Kidnapped and more. Display an illustration and ask students to describe what they see and then ask them to write a short one-paragraph story about the illustration. This exercise helps students understand that illustration is a narrative art, filled with story.
Provide oversize books that showcase Wyeth’s artwork or create a slideshow of some of his most recognizable paintings. Take a picture walk through And I Paint It and see whether students can identify settings or landscapes that are drawn from Wyeth’s paintings. Finally, look at paintings from all five of the Wyeth children and encourage students to articulate similarities and differences between them.
Make Meatballs Sing: The Life & Art of Corita Kent
By Matthew Burgess
Illustrated by Kara Kramer
As a child, Frances Elizabeth Kent loved to sneak away from her five siblings to draw and daydream. After college, she decided to pursue a religious life as a nun. Now known by her monastic name, Sister Mary Corita, she began teaching art at Immaculate Heart College, where she encouraged her students to “see the sacred in the everyday.” Her work soon became inspired by new techniques and perspectives, such as screenprinting, mass media and advertising, and she used her art to bring awareness to injustice, including poverty and racism.
Illustrator Kara Kramer’s bright, graphic, neon-hued illustrations reflect Corita’s bold art style and add energy to this story of a nun’s relentless pursuit of justice. Unexpected, inspiring and fun, Make Meatballs Sing is a joyful account of Corita’s life that captures how art can create awareness, spark change and convey messages of goodness, beauty and truth.
- Cardboard finders
In one of her art classes, Corita “asked her students to cut a small window into a piece of cardboard to make a FINDER.” She led her students down Hollywood Boulevard and encouraged them to use their finders to see the beauty and detail in ordinary things.
Use thick card stock and a square punch to make finders. Give students time to decorate their finders, then take them on a walk around the school grounds. When you return to the classroom, ask students to draw or share the details their finders revealed in ordinary objects.
- Word art
Corita was inspired by the words and imagery found in billboards, magazine ads and street signs. She often made art by rearranging shapes, text and colors into something new. Provide old magazines and other ephemera for your students and let them create art with the words and images that inspire them. Inspired by Kramer’s illustrations in the book, I gave my students graph paper to use as their canvas.
- Postage stamps
In 1985, the United States Postal Service commissioned Corita to design a postage stamp. She created a rainbow that symbolized love, hope, kindness and unity. Invite students to consider what message they would want to share with the world through a small postage stamp and give them time to experiment with various designs. After they have settled on their design, let them create a polished, colorful version. Once every student has shared their stamp, display the stamps together on a bulletin board.
Joyce and Judith are sisters who do everything together. Their mom even says they’re “two peas in a pod.” But when it is time to begin kindergarten, Judy must stay at home because she has “what will come to be known as Down syndrome.” Joyce is devastated when Judy is sent to an institution and visits her faithfully for years. When saying goodbye becomes too hard, Joyce arranges for Judy to come live with her family in California. Joyce enrolls Judy in a local art class, and after her initial disinterest, Judy begins creating sculptures out of fiber, yarn, wood and other found objects. Exquisitely illustrated, Unbound is a tender, moving and personal tale of sisterhood that depicts the power and importance of loyalty and individual expression.
- Found object art
Judith’s art incorporated many found objects, or items not normally considered to be art. Ask students to articulate why they think these items are classified this way. Invite them to collect found objects from their homes or the classroom. Allow them time to share their objects with a small group or the class.
Provide a variety of found objects and other supplies, such as tape, yarn, fibers, stationery, paper, cardboard, colored pencils, pastels and so on, so that students can create their own works of art. Display photographs of Judith Scott’s sculptures on a bulletin board, and display students’ sculptures on a table or shelf nearby.
- Sculpture study
Read more about Judith’s life and art, as well as about the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, where she created her art. Make a slideshow of her sculptures. Show them to the class one by one and generate discussion by asking open-ended questions that encourage and foster visual literacy. Here are some examples of questions you can ask:
- What do you see here?
- What else do you notice?
- What do you wonder?
- How does this make you feel?
- What do you think is going on here?
- What do you notice about color, line, symmetry and size?
- Do you think a story influenced this sculpture? What is it?