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Art history in the kindergarten classroom: five- and six-year-olds study the masters at Laytonsville Elementary.

Five- and six-year-olds study the masters at Laytonsville Elementary.

At what age or grade level is it appropriate for students to learn about Van Gogh, Matisse and Klee? What about Jessie Wilcox Smith and Andrew Wyeth? When can students use egg tempera or mix their own earth-toned pigments front different soils?

Kindergarten teachers Pat Rakes and Joanne Ranshaw, of the Laytonsville Elementary School, Montgomery County, Maryland, believe that it is important for their five- and six-year-old students to study these and other masters, and to experiment with the various media and techniques used by different masters. These teachers believe that this program encourages students to express themselves creatively and develops higher order intellectual/problem-solving skills. Furthermore, Rakes and Ranshaw recognized early in their careers that a study of the history and processes of art can promote the development of math, language arts and social studies skills. They saw art as a means for children to apply the fifty different concepts required for kindergarten.

Rakes and Ranshaw believe that all students should study five different masters each year. They selected Van Gogh as one of their five, knowing that the kindergartners could experiment with a heavy impasto and expressive brushstrokes. Children mixed white soap flakes with tempera paint (1 cup soap flakes to one-half cup paint), and applied the resulting thick paste with tongue depressors. Laytonsville students were creating their own versions of Sunflowers when the great masterpiece was auctioned in London.

To begin the unit, children examined the various Van Gogh reproductions placed around the classroom and became generally familiar with the master's distinctive style. They handled and smelled fresh flowers, identifying the shape and position of petals, leaves and centers. In short, the teachers cleverly worked in a science lesson on flowering plants. The children also spent time collecting vases or unusual containers and arranging their flowers in them, setting up their own still life displays to paint. They worked on sheets of 18" x 24" (46 cm x 61 cm) paper at large wooden easels. Together, teacher and child would critique a completed work from across the room. The child was asked to notice any differences in his/her painting when viewed at a distance as opposed to close up. In this way, the child could detect which, if any, changes should be made.

Rakes and Ranshaw selected Matisse as another master, using his work to further the study of repeating patterns and using his life to begin a study of the aging process. To integrate kindergarten math concepts with the Matisse unit, the teachers worked with children for several weeks using beads and blocks to make repeating patterns. Children then examined the patterns in the background of Matisse reproductions. They looked at the figures in these reproductions, learning how Matisse worked from live models.

They also compared his early work with his later cut-outs. Noting the changes, they learned how the aging process can cause such changes. They saw pictures of Matisse in his wheelchair and discussed what it might be like to grow older and be confined to a wheelchair. They began to understand why Matisse used scissors when he could no longer use his brushes. These discussions of aging formed the basis of a social studies unit.

Having completed the math and social studies components of the Matisse unit, the children began to paint "like Matisse." They used a stuffed Mother Goose as their model and created their own patterns. Again, they worked with tempera on large paper. Class critiques of completed work were conducted during sharing time. Children were asked to describe the things they liked about each other's works.

Mother Goose, the model for the Matisse paintings, became the subject of a study of Jessie Wilcox Smith illustrations. As with the studies of Van Gogh and Matisse, the study of Wilcox Smith nursery rhymes served several purposes. To learn the concept of sequence, the children were asked to arrange jumbled segments of nursery rhymes in the correct order. They looked at Wilcox Smith illustrations of children in motion and discussed how they themselves might look in motion during their physical education classes. Then they were asked to write and illustrate their own nursery rhymes.

Because the kindergartners, like all elementary students in Montgomery County, must keep a journal as part of the "Writing Across the Curriculum" program, Rakes and Ranshaw thought that their students would enjoy learning about George Catlin and his journals. They hoped the children would be able to identify with Catlin as they painted their Indian portraits and put their thoughts, as dictated to the teachers, in their journals.

To prepare for an upcoming unit on Andrew Wyeth, the children and the teachers experimented with making earth-toned pigments by mixing soil with egg yolks and gesso. The results of these experiments yielded three distinct pigments from three different Maryland soils. They also plan to study the life and work of Jacob Lawrence during Black History month. Studies of additional women artists, such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Mary Cassatt are also planned. These planned units will further and effectively integrate art history and social studies.

Both the children and teachers are enthusiastic about taking this kind of integrative approach to the Laytonsville kindergarten program. The masters which the teachers have integrated into the program have become a part of the children's lives. One child was overheard telling a friend that she had painted "like Matisse today." The friend asked, "How old is he?" Proud of their work and eager to show it off, the children wanted to know when it was time to take the "Van Goghs" home. Another child was so excited about Paul Klee that she explained about his rectangles to each member of her family.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the Laytonsville program serves as a model both for Montgomery County and for the state of Maryland. It certainly appears that the creative energies which the teachers and children pour into this program produce new creative energy and enthusiasm. The program, designed to encourage children to express themselves creatively, is also a vehicle through which the teachers can express themselves creatively.

Carol S. Jeffers is an art teacher in the Gaithersburg, Maryland, Public Schools.
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Title Annotation:Gaithersburg, Maryland
Author:Jeffers, Carol S.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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