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Interdisciplinary multicultural education: a unique approach.

Education literature is replete with articles involving multiculturalism. The history of the United States is rich with tales of people traveling from distant countries in search of freedom, riches and abundant land. Others came here, not of their free will, but as slaves. Our uniqueness, and some would say our greatness, arise out of the diversity of our people.

Demographically, our country is becoming more and more diverse. Recent studies indicate that by the year 2050, the average U.S. resident will trace his or her ancestry to Africa, Asia, the Hispanic/latin World, the Pacific Islands, Arabia - to almost anywhere but Europe. In some classrooms, the students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and ethnic traditions. In others, particularly those in rural or suburban America, very few of the students are representative of the cultural diversity so evident in much of the country.

A multicultural approach to our educational system and art classes can be beneficial in either situation. For the ethnically diverse school, such a program can be a reflection of the students' backgrounds and ancestry. In schools where students come from similar cultural backgrounds, a multicultural approach can enrich their understanding of other cultures and beliefs.


This year my middle school began to offer a course entitled Art/music/History, in which three teachers team-taught approximately seventy-five students over the first semester of the year. Our civics teacher, our music instructor and I planned the course over the summer. We decided to break it into three groups and cultural areas, and rotate our students through each of our classrooms every two weeks.

Gargoyles and Gregorian Chant

Our first six weeks were spent on the Gothic and Renaissance periods in Europe. In the music section, the students studied Gregorian chant and wrote their own chants on parchment or aged paper. For the history section, the civics teacher developed a unit describing the historical changes and devastation brought about by the Black Plague in Europe. He also discussed the power of the church and its political implications.

In the art section, I showed slides from both the Gothic and Renaissance periods and discussed ways the art differed. I also discussed how the Black Plague influenced the artwork, and why most of the artwork of the period reflected religious themes. We took a field trip during this session to a nearby abbey, where our students were able to see authentic illuminated manuscripts, stained-glass windows and religious icons. They were also able to speak with one of the monks, who was glad to answer their questions, and to give them a feel for what it was like to live the monastic life in the time period we were studying.

For the production aspect of the art class, the students were given a choice of creating a gargoyle out of clay, making a facsimile of an illumination or designing a rose window. While most of the students chose to create gargoyles, all of the creations were unique and detailed.

At the end of the art course, the students were tested on the information they had been taught. They were shown slides of two Pietas: one was a Gothic work, and the other was Michelangelo's famous sculpture. The students had to identify which sculpture was Renaissance and which was Gothic, and give reasons for their identifications. The students were amazed at how they could connect the three aspects of the time periods. It actually began to make sense to them!

Japan: Prehistory to the Present

Our second session was spent studying Japan, which allowed the students to see how eastern and western art and life have influenced each other. The history section outlined the various periods of Japan, from its isolation to its opening to the west. In the art section, I showed slides of artwork from prehistory to the present. We also saw the video, Living Treasures of Japan, which illustrated the importance of the arts in this unique country.

For the production section, I focused on the woodblock prints of Japan. Due to time constraints and the difficulty of carving, I decided to use linoleum to create our block prints. The students studied images they found in books on Japanese art, and made off-set and multicolor prints. Many of the students also spent time decorating the kotos (Japanese musical instruments) they had made earlier.

A successful part of our Japanese section was an art and writing exchange that developed between Aito Junior High School in Aito Echi Shiga, Japan and our school. An American teacher at Aito Junior High and I set up the exchange. Our students were delighted to recieve gifts of one thousand origami cranes for good luck, origami kimonos, nesting boxes, special origami paper, illustrated books, and photos and drawings of various aspects of Japanese life.

In return, our students sent artwork, letters and photographs along with a video they filmed around the school on a typical day. I added information to the video about holidays that we celebrate in the United States, such as Thanksgiving. Students were interviewed about what Thanksgiving means to them, and I brought the video camera into my home to film a typical American family's Thanksgiving table. The Japanese students returned the favor with a video showing their typical day at Aito Junior High School. It has been a valuable exchange and many of the students are continuing with their correspondence.

Native-American Culture

and History

Our third section was a Native-American unit. Ed Edmo, a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes of Idaho, came to the school and spoke to the students. Our history teacher talked about the background of the Native Americans in our country, and stressed the changes brought about when Europeans came to the North American continent. He told some of the legends he had heard growing up as a Native-American youngster. Our music teacher then had our students write and act out their own legends in front of the class, using music and sound effects in their performances.

In art, we saw slides of Native-American artifacts. Mr. Edmo had also brought some actual artifacts: beaded jewelry, leather and other items of interest. I stressed that, while we often think of art as simply painting a picture and putting it on a wall, Native-American artists live with their work. They cook in it, wear it, use it in ceremonies, and live in it. The importance of living in harmony with nature, so often reflected in Native-American artwork, was also discussed.

In the production section, we used clay to make masks the students had designed. Each student then wrote a legend to go with his or her mask. Many of the legends were written in the first-person style and had morals to them; others told about the background of a particular animal or being.

Reinforcing What We Learned

The culmination of the course was a one-day visit to the Oregon Historical Society, where the students were able to see samples of the artwork we discussed during the semester. I had created a booklet listing some of the items to look for, and asking pertinent questions to be answered and turned in for extra credit. It so happened that the Historical Society had an exhibit on American women of Japanese ancestry. Many of our students hadn't known about the internment camps created by the United States during World War II; they were able to see photographs and read about Japanese-American women and their experiences. This ended our eighteen-week time period.

Summation and Evaluation

We passed out evaluations to our students at the end of the semester. The overwhelming majority gave the course rave reviews and stated that they would highly recommend the class to a friend.

Tying several areas together by using teachers who were experts in each area allowed the students to see that art and music reflect the lives and times of a people. Students learned that people do not create things that have no meaning for them; their creations are tied to their culture and their humanity.

Parents made statements such as, "This is what education should be about." One parent raved, "This was an outstanding experience and has motivated my son to explore art and historical periods further. Thank you for a job well done!" Not surprisingly, our principal has said that the Art/Music/history course was the most well-received and talked-about class of the year. When we continue the course next year, we may study Africa and Russia, although it is still up for discussion!

Suggestions for Improvement

A modification we might suggest is to cover only two areas per eighteenweek period. Some of the sessions were cut short by holidays or inservice days. It also helps to get funding for art supplies and for special projects. We received a grant from The Oregon Education Association and the West Linn Education Association which enabled us to buy supplies and take field trips with our students. It was greatly appreciated.

In order for this course to be successful, you will also need teachers who work well together, and who are willing to put in a lot of time, effort and planning. As an art teacher, I can't think of a more enjoyable experience than to open students' minds to the beauty and meaning found in other cultures' artwork. Helping human beings to understand others is the first step toward acceptance of diversity. Isn't that what we're all about?
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Title Annotation:using art, history and music to understand various cultures
Author:Pass, Marilyn
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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