Student Art

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Student Art in the Social Studies Classroom

Student art is a great way to have students show what they know about a social studies concept or history event. Not every student will be a talented artist, but you can design art assignments for the whole class enhancing your class content. In addition, you can make student art one option when doing larger projects.

The Mexican American War Art Assignment

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I introduced an art assignment early in my US History class. When we studied the Mexican American War, I had all students do a visual representation of the events leading to the war. I began by giving them some historical background on the event with the Mexican American War slideshow. As students took notes on the Mexican American War Organizer, I had students add symbols to go with the notes. For example, with their notes on Anglo settlement in northern Mexico in the 1820’s, students might draw a long horn steer to represent settlers desire to raise cattle. When the notes and symbols were complete, students received a page to draw their visual representations of the Mexican American War, along with colored pencils. In addition, once they completed their visual, they were required to write about itl. The prompt said, “identify the symbols in your visual and explain how each symbol is related to the US expansion into Mexico.”

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What you will really enjoy in an art project like this is to see all the different and creative ways students tackle the assignment. For example, one student created a collage of images, including a map of the newly acquired US territories the result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Another student drew a political cartoon showing Uncle Sam and a representative of Mexico pulling  in opposite directions on the horns of a long horn steer, representing the Texas territory. I always explain to students that they aren’t being graded on their artistic abilities, but on their uses of symbols and their written explanation of their visual. Take a look at the Student Art Gallery of Mexican American War Visuals and you’ll see that art is a powerful way for students to show what they know 

Becoming American - An Original Book on Italian Immigration

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Some art assignments are for the whole class, but you can also make student art an option when you are working on projects. One year during our unit on immigration we viewed the PBS documentary, Becoming American -The Chinese American Experience. We used the excellent Becoming American Facing History Study Guide, as we watched the movie. After studying the Chinese American experience, students had a variety of options to tell the story of another US Immigrant group. Some students made iMovies, others slideshows; Phil and Jessa decided to make an original illustrated book, entitled, The Italian American Family; A Family’s Struggle In a New Land. Once they did their research on Italian immigration, they used paper, pencils and paint to tell their story. We watched the progress of their work each day until it was finished. You can see all the images from their book in the Italian American immigration. The lesson I learned watching these talented teens was to design projects with an art option, giving my student artists a chance to shine.

New Deal “Alphabet Soup” Posters

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During our unit on the New Deal, students viewed pieces of public art made by artists employed in the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  I thought this would be a good chance to have my students make their own art, a poster for one of the Roosevelt New Deal programs. In the Alphabet Soup Poster assignment, the prompt said, "Use the area below to design a poster/handbill for one of the Alphabet Soup programs. Be sure to include the initials of the program, along with symbols showing what the program was designed to do. Be creative, neat, and use color in your poster.” After students researched and made their poster, their job was to, "Write a paragraph explaining your poster. Be sure to tell what the agency did, and point out the symbols, colors, and figures that you used to communicate this idea.” You can see examples of their efforts in the Alphabet Soup Poster Gallery

 Protest Art of the 60’s

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The 1960’s was a decade of protest. During our unit on the Vietnam War, students learned about the division of the Americans over the war. In the Are You a Hawk or Dove? art activity students were asked where they would stand, had they lived at the time of the Vietnam War. The task was to make a sign representing their point of view. As with other art assignments, they were also to write a well developed paragraph explaining their sign.

 During the 1960’s unit we also studied the struggle of the United Farmworkers (UFW) led by Cesar Chavez. In the Cesar Chavez slideshow I included artwork designed by and for the farmworkers, especially the1968 grape boycott. After students learned about the UFW’s fight for unionization, I asked students to design a piece of protest art. I created a templates, allowing students to decorate a picket signflagbutton, or bumper sticker. You can see the results in the UFW Protest Art Gallery made by my students. 

Encouraging Talented Artists

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When you find a talented artist, encourage him or her to create a piece of art symbolizing the historical period or contemporary event you are studying. One year I simply brought in acrylic paints, brushes, and several canvases into my classroom. My artists were excited. One student used the materials to portray the UFW struggle. Another econ senior made a painting of the circular flow factor and product markets. A US History student created a split screen painting, comparing the attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Students painted what was on their minds, the things they were passionate about: global warming, pollution, and marriage equality. Let students pick their medium,too, whether it is a traditional collage combining images in a map of the United States, or a photoshop collage of Union City. Student art is a poignant and powerful way for students to illustrate the themes of your course. So, build in opportunties for your artists to shine.  

Art Lessons

The Mexican American War Art Assignment

Becoming American - An Original Book on Italian Immigration

New Deal “Alphabet Soup” Posters

Protest Art of the 60’s

Student Artwork

© Dave Forrest- 2018