As art teachers, we have so much to fit into our precious time with students. Sometimes, more abstract concepts like visual literacy get pushed to the side. Sure, we know visual literacy is important, but we might struggle with how to explicitly teach it to our students.
That’s why I’m so excited to introduce you to Stephanie Stern. Stephanie is the K-12 Programs Assistant Manager at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA, an organization dedicated to improving visual literacy for its guests.
I recently had the chance to talk to Stephanie about how we can improve our students’ visual literacy. She has some great suggestions and also will share two specific Barnes Foundation activities that you can recreate in your own classroom.
Stephanie describes the Barnes Foundation as, “a non-profit art and educational institution where people can learn about art by looking carefully at that art.” So, while it’s technically not a museum, it functions much like one today. In fact, according to Stephanie, “The Barnes holds an incredible, world-class collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Early Modern paintings, African sculpture, Pennsylvania German furniture, and American and European metalwork.” If you’re unfamiliar with the Barnes, you can learn more by visiting its inspiring website.
Part of what makes the Barnes Foundation so special is this unique vision. Stephanie told me, “At the Barnes Foundation, our educational philosophies and practices are influenced by our founder, Dr. Albert Barnes. Dr. Barnes worked with John Dewey in developing a way of looking at art. Dr. Barnes believed that if viewers focused on four elements of art, they could understand any artwork, no matter who created it, when it was made, or where it was made.” According to Dr. Barnes, the elements to focus on were color, light, line, and space.
Stephanie says that these four elements can be used by students of all ages to better understand a piece of art. The elements can also be used as jumping off points to dive deeper into topics like narrative, culture, and materials.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that developing visual literacy should be an inquiry-based skill. Says Stephanie, “We use inquiry-based teaching to guide students in looking carefully at art to create their own understanding. In most cases, we are not looking for a specific right answer. Instead, we allow students to shape their understanding of art and tell them that if they have proof, that statement is right for them.”
In fact, unlike most traditional museums, the Barnes Foundation doesn’t focus on art history. Instead, “Through explorations of color, light, line, and space, students sharpen their observational skills, analytical skills, problem-solving skills, and critical-thinking skills, and develop visual literacy.”
For example, when looking at Van Gogh’s painting The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin), educators ask students guiding questions such as:
In this way, students are asked to really think about and understand the painting in their own way. Whatever answers they come up with are right for them.
If you’d like to recreate this kind of learning experience in your own classroom, you’re in luck. Stephanie is graciously sharing two specific activities that are used at the Barnes Foundation in their Pictures & Words program. The program is free for K-3 students in the Philadelphia School District and combines literacy and art.
This group activity asks students to think carefully about color.
This activity is a great way to get students thinking about brushstrokes and line.
Part 1: Examining the Art Tools
Part 2: Experimenting with Line
These two simple activities are perfect to introduce your students to some of the key components of visual literacy. You could use them to introduce or wrap up a project or as stand-alone activities. They’re also great because they can be used with almost any piece of art, making them easy to fit into your curriculum.
When students come to the Barnes to complete these activities through the Pictures & Words program, they also work with the concept of storytelling. You can watch a great video that depicts some of these activities on the Barnes Website. (Scroll down to the Pictures & Words section and press play.) Many of the ideas in this video could also be translated to your classroom for some truly powerful cross-curricular learning experiences.
If your classroom is located in the School District of Philadelphia, it’s worth your time to check out this amazing program. If a visit to the Barnes isn’t feasible for you, make sure you check out all the wonderful program descriptions and videos on the K-12 Outreach page for ideas you can use with your students.
Thanks so much to the Barnes Foundation and to Stephanie for sharing their work with us!
Tell us, have you ever visited the Barnes Foundation? What did you think?
How do you approach visual literacy with your students?