What Can Teachers Learn from Thinking like an Artist?

For many of us who don’t consider ourselves artists, being asked to draw on the spot can be a scary proposition. And what if you were then told you’d be doing it in front of a successful working artist? This June, teachers participating in SAAM's four-day summer institute, entitled Art, Inquiry, and Action, were asked to do just that in a hands-on workshop led by artist Manuel Acevedo. And what they took from it was both surprising and intriguing.

Art, Inquiry, and Action invited 21 middle and high school teachers from 14 states to spend the better part of a week at SAAM, exploring how American artists have engaged with social and political issues in their work, and challenging themselves to consider how art can be a catalyst for student-driven inquiry and action in their own classrooms. Aside from one art teacher who came in a team with a colleague, participants were largely English and social studies teachers.

Manuel Acevedo is one of ten artists recently featured in SAAM's exhibition Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography and currently has a piece, Rising, on view in the museum's Lincoln Gallery. In his afternoon workshop on the second day of the institute, Acevedo began by presenting a survey of his 30-year career, reflecting on the evolution of his work. He then invited teachers to participate in a hands-on art-making experience based on his Altered Sites series, in which he re-imagines the potential for neglected public spaces.

Participants each selected one of Acevedo's photographs of urban sites, printed on 8½ x 11 inch paper. Then, by attaching a piece of tracing paper on top, they were able to edit their streetscape by hand, re-working it through the addition or obliteration of built structures, landscape features, or text. The vulnerability of stepping beyond their comfort zones and being forced to think in a new way was challenging for some participants, but it could also be eye-opening. As one teacher pointed out, they ask their students to do this every day, and it's easy to forget what that feels like from the other side.

Many participants found ways to apply their own skill sets to the assignment; for instance, some English teachers chose to annotate their photographs with lines of original poetry. Another chose to engage with timely social justice issues in their work, imagining a "sanctuary city" monument rising above a previously empty public plaza.

During a group reflection following a gallery walk where teachers were able to view each other's work, participants were full of ideas for adapting this experience back at school. What if students went out into their own communities to photograph public spaces and re-think how they might be used? Could they ask students to re-imagine spaces within their own school building, making them more inviting or accessible? Acevedo's workshop was a reminder of how refreshing it can be to look beyond your own field or content area for inspiration. Taking on the role of an artist helped non-art teachers see how an artwork can be a communication tool, as well as a canvas for designing solutions to real-world problems, things all 21st century learners might benefit from practicing.

Art, Inquiry, and Action was a follow-up to SAAM's signature summer teacher institute, Teaching the Humanities through Art, which each year welcomes 60 middle and high school humanities teachers from across the country to explore the value of integrating American art into their teaching.