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Making the connection: children's books and the visual arts.

Literature-based and whole language curriculums, popular in elementary schools today, begin with the use of children's literature to teach reading, writing and language arts, as well as science, social studies and even math. Classroom teachers use real books to connect the world of children to the world of learning.

Discipline-Based Approaches

In the area of art education, discipline-based approaches are rising to the forefront. These approaches advocate the development of critical thinking and cognitive skills, as well as manipulative skills through the teaching of art criticism, aesthetics, art history and studio production. Lessons at the elementary level now include looking at and discussing works of art, and teachers often limit these works to reproductions and slides of fine art. What about the art in children's books? If real books can be used to motivate children in classroom learning, then real books can be used to stimulate learning in the visual arts.

Children are young artists who need opportunities to become familiar with all kinds of artwork, not just fine art. Current literature suggests that children's books are works of art that children can experience through sight and touch. The illustrations in children's books are visual forms, created by artist/illustrators, that children are familiar with. These images can be compared to images found in fine art, and using them to stimulate learning can help children develop skills in the areas of art criticism, aesthetics, art history and studio production.

Children's Books as

Motivational Tools

Here's one example in which richly illustrated children's books were successfully used to motivate learning in the visual arts. The lesson was planned around a time of looking at and discussing illustrations and works of fine art, followed by a studio activity using a variety of art media.

Saint George and the Dragon

The dragon is a popular subject with first grade students and this lesson began with a brainstorming session of what a dragon looks like. Answers, which included "big," "green," "sharp teeth" and "has wings and scales" were written on the board. Next, we looked at examples of dragons in illustrations and from the world of fine art.

We focused on three books, specifically: Caldecott Award-winner, Saint George and the Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, Little Brown, 1984; The Knight and the Dragon, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola, Putnam, 1980; Harriet and William and the Terrible Creature, written by Valerie Scho Carey and illustrated by Lynne Cherry, Dutton, 1985.

Design Possibilities

The dragons in these books confirmed the students' beliefs of what a dragon should look like. A discussion led to questions such as: "Are all dragons green?", "Do they all have scales covering their bodies?" and "Do all dragons have wings?". The students soon began to think about what a dragon could look like, instead of what they were programmed to expect.

Next, we looked at and discussed three fine art reproductions of dragons: Saint George and the Dragon by Raphael, by Sodoma and by Rogier van der Weyden. Comparisons were made between these dragons and their illustrated counterparts. The students were surprised to find that dragons do not necessarily have to be big and green. Raphael's dragon has the head of a dog, while van der Weyden's looks like a creature that crawled out from the sea. All three dragons appear quite small.

Studio Activity

I displayed the books and reproductions. Some students, filled with ideas, began drawing; others waited for a demonstration. After the dragons were drawn and colored in, ideas for their backgrounds were discussed. The students chose to paint their backgrounds with watercolors. When the paintings were dry, they cut out the previously drawn dragons and glued them to the background pictures.

Following this studio activity, self-evaluation took place. I asked the students questions about their images such as: "Do you like your picture?", "Why or why not?" and "If you don't like your picture, how could you make it better?".

Creative Connections

Using children's books to motivate learning in visual art can be rewarding for the teacher and the students. Students can begin to make connections between the illustrations in their books, in fine art and in their own studio work. The students who participated in this lesson enjoyed looking at and discussing the variety of artwork. Following this lesson, some students were motivated further to search out these books in the school library and some began to work on other dragon images at home.

Kathy A. Miller-Hewes is an art specialist in the Lindenwold Public Schools in Lindenwold, New Jersey.
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Author:Miller-Hewes, Kathy A.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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