I really love our 6th grade curriculum because it seems the most cohesive. It ties directly in with what students are learning in 6th grade social studies at our school- exploring ancient civilizations and the meaning of culture. There are very clear essential questions: What is culture? How do different people in different times and places express their beliefs and traditions? How do cultures influence each other and change over time? Since 11 and 12 year olds are opening up their awareness of their own place within culture, these themes can also help them define identity, critique popular culture, and better understand others. It excites me that art can be the place where so many ideas and experiences integrate. All that said, some projects were better than others and there are definitely changes I would like to make for next year.
- Prehistoric art: Students took a virtual tour of the Caves of Lascaux. They considered several possible purposes for why these ancient tribes would have drawn animals and handprints on the cave walls: perhaps to document their experiences of daily life, perhaps as magical thinking to summon the prey they desired to hunt, perhaps to show gratitude to the spirits of the animals they had killed. After painting a textured cave wall- with thought to what rocks and minerals look like (hello science connection!) Students imagined a story they would like to tell about themselves and their experiences and drew in charcoal and pastel over their paper. The one above depicts a dance competition my student won. We also made a class mural of handprints to represent our "tribe". I like using this as a way for the newly-formed classes of students to begin connecting as a team.
- Sumerian statues: Next we studied the Mesopotamian River Valley, the development of laws (Hammurabi's code), cuneiform as a writing system, ziggurats as public buildings, and votive figures used in tombs to give offerings. This really lays the foundation of what we focus on all year. I showed my students how to work with clay, and they had a choice to make a signature cylinder seal, a cuneiform tablet, or a votive figure showing their "gifts". The student above made her figure hold a cupcake to show off her baking talent. I enjoyed seeing how each student decided what path to take for the project, and hope to continue doing options like this for every unit next year.
- Egyptian sculptures: After finding out what students already knew about Egypt (a lot!), we further explored ideas about the pharoahs, the pyramids, and hieroglyphics using a Scholastic Art magazine on Egypt. I had students vote on which topic they were most interested in, and formed groups according to interest. Each group did further research on their topic and formed a plan of how they would create something together showing what they had learned. We then used papier mache and some plaster to create large-scale sculptures. I had reproductions of the sphinx, Tutankhamen's death mask, standing pharoah sculptures, tomb offerings, tomb paintings,and sarcophagi. It was a very long project because working in groups is always a challenge. However, student interest was extremely high because they were focused on the thing they were most interested in and working with people they liked. My students were so proud of what they had made, they "borrowed" their projects from the hallway displays I'd made to use in their Egypt presentations in social studies class, too.
- Greek architecture and mythology: For this project my students had to do some homework. They each had to select a Greek god or goddess to research and bring in a picture example and a paragraph story about their myth. We learned about the Parthenon and the various orders of Greek architecture. I showed how to use the rulers to plan a temple structure that included a stylobate (stairs/foundation), columns, entablature, and pediment. Then they had to draw their chosen god or goddess as a statue inside the temple and add symbols and details in the pediment to help symbolize who it was. We know the image above represents Athena, goddess of wisdom and war because of the owl and shield and arrows.
- Byzantine mosaic: Next we explored the Roman empire, the introduction of Christianity and the split into Eastern and Western empires. We learned about icons and iconoclasts, and the use of mosaics in Byzantine churches. We had a debate about whether it was better to be an iconophile or an iconoclast, which was surprisingly heated! Then students chose to design a mosaic that was an icon, honoring someone they admired, or iconoclast, showing a symbol or pattern instead of a figure. I had done this project as a group collaboration last year, but was displeased with how long it took and how difficult it was to get the students to collaborate.This year I cut 6x6 inch cardboard for each child to make an individual piece, but it STILL took forever to complete, and in the end was voted as the students' least favorite project. I'll have to figure something else out next year.
- Islamic tile design: We learned about the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, and looked at examples of Islamic architecture and design like the Alhambra, the Blue Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock. We also viewed a video on how tiles are made in Iznik, Turkey today for inspiration. Students designed a pattern unit using geometric and nature-inspired shapes to carve into foam plates, then printed their design in a repeating pattern across a 9x12 page. When complete, they colored details, considering symmetry and repetition. This is one of my favorite projects all year! I love printmaking and I love repeating patterns in my own artwork, and this is one of those projects where everybody's art looks amazing all displayed together.
- Kano ink and gold: Last year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a gorgeous exhibition of Japanese art by the Kano dynasty of artists. I bought the postcard set, which had many scenes of animals in landscapes all drawn in ink with gold backgrounds. I also found a great video on Khan academy that explained how the shoguns wished to show off their power and wealth through paintings of dragons and tigers on screens and doors in their palaces. I let students select an image of their choice to work from and experiment with painting directly with india ink. Some wanted to sketch first in pencil, but I banned the pencils and erasers for this one so as not to lose the freshness of the painted lines. We spent a class period just painting in ink, then a second one to add color details and gold backgrounds. This is another project I really love, for the diversity of images that result and the energy of the lines. I know many art teachers frown on copying, but the students focus so intently on reproducing their postcard on a larger scale and working from images increases their visual vocabulary beyond the hearts and flowers they constantly doodle.
- Navajo weaving: Our final culture study is the Navajo tradition of weaving. We look at how their weavings changed over time as they came in contact with other cultures like the Pueblo, the Spanish, and the American settlers. There's also a Philadelphia connection as later designs utilized yarns spun and dyed in Germantown and traded out West. I taught my 6th graders how to warp a cardboard loom and do 3 different tapestry weaving techniques. When complete they chose whether to finish it off as a bookmark, a bracelet, a pouch, or a headband, and we talked about how some art is functional. Instead of tying knots, this year I ran each weaving through my sewing machine to zigzag the ends from unraveling. It took less time than tying all those knots and looked better too! I have a few students in 6th grade who are also in fashion design club after school, and they helped their classmates sew on the machines, too.
- I have no pictures of our final project due to time constraints, but we reviewed all the reasons why ancient peoples made art. Then I offered a variety of materials, and had students select their own purpose or intention for creating a work of art that would represent their culture. There were several flags (US, Mexican, Italian, Canadian, and El Salvadorian), many sports-related projects, many dance and music inspired pieces, and lots of telephones an video game references.
I have to admire teachers who are full TAB/choice based classrooms. It is not easy to manage 25 children in the art room doing so many different ideas and materials. I want to create opportunities for choice in my curriculum because student engagement is dramatically higher when they are doing things they are interested in doing. On the flip side, I find our projects taking longer because my students don't seem accustomed to making decisions and plans for themselves. It's much harder for them. However, the more we do this, the better they should get at it. I believe the curriculum I've developed spirals and scaffolds to encourage students to have a strong concept of the purpose of art in culture and a strong understanding of art history. Unfortunately, what is lacking in my 6th grade curriculum right now is observational drawing skills, and that's something I hope to improve upon in the future.