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Murals as storytellers.

In times before most people could read or write, pictures were used to tell stories and to teach people. Visual storytelling is most often seen in the form of drawing, painting, collage, printmaking, quilts, stained-glass windows, and murals. The concept of visual storytelling can be traced as far back as 20,000 years ago when cave dwellers communicated ideas by painting images on cave walls.

Stories on Walls

The after-school art club had a mission to tell a chronological story of historical events. Before the project began, students needed to research fundamental background information about murals. I presented a slide chronology of cave painters; Egyptian tomb paintings; Greek murals/the Mexican mural artist, Diego Rivera; and works by Thomas Hart Benton and contemporary muralist Judith Baca.

Integrating the Curriculum

A major goal of the project was to create a mural that would make deliberate connections between the visual arts and other disciplines. By integrating, math students learned proportion, scale, and measurement through enlarging, reducing, and rearranging. Language arts connected their interpretations of ideas orally and through reflective writing exercises. Students used historical inquiry when researching how people and events from the past influence later generations. Experimenting with color theories became another interesting challenge integrating art and science.

Students become leaders and educate their peers in art, language arts, mathematics, and social studies skills.

In art, students learned how to use negative and positive shapes effectively and how to define shapes within the mural. Students increased their knowledge of the art elements and how to organize them through the principles of unity, balance, and composition.

Researching the Mural

Since American history became the school-wide theme, it was decided that our murals would portray chronological events in history from the colonial period through and including the Civil War era. Each floor of the school would depict a different era in history. Colonialism would be illustrated on the first floor, American Revolutionary scenes would fill the second floor, and the third floor would depict scenes from the Civil War era. Fifteen students in an after-school art program collaborated by brainstorming ideas of images that would later be used in their research, written work, and artwork. These students researched events of colonial life up to, and including, the Civil War by using textbooks, biographical accounts, and educational websites to gather information for the visual storytelling mural. Students participated in the decision-making process about which important events in history to portray. They focused on the two-dimensional techniques of drawing and acrylic painting as they developed their visual expression through this mural-making experience.

Next, students developed preliminary sketches. These sketches would later be enlarged on the school walls of the stairwells using mathematics skills such as dimension, proportion, scale, volume, and measurement. Students also learned concepts of color-mixing, composition, and how to use negative and positive spaces effectively. The class periodically recorded reflections of this process in journals which later became an effective assessment strategy. Students were asked to complete an evaluation form in order to assess if we had met our goals. Students were also given questionnaires to determine what they learned.


In observing students, I have seen how they become leaders and educate their peers in art, language arts, mathematics, and social studies skills. Students collaborated and learned through the joint planning and implementation of a mural. Students considered the viewpoints of their peers as they shared beliefs and talents. Cooperative learning resulted in students becoming stronger individuals that have higher levels of self-esteem, confidence, and social skills.

The implementation and completion of a thematic unit in an integrated curriculum was a success. Learning across disciplines opened doors to an exciting experience. This was best exemplified by one fifth grader when she remarked, "When I want to remember the story of the Civil War, I'll just take a walk on the third floor." Students believed that through all the research, they could only interpret the past and imagine how it could be, but their aim was to bring history alive through murals.


Students identify connections between the visual arts and other disciplines in the curriculum.


Laura Fradella is an art teacher at P.S. 87 Queens in Middle Village, New York. The author wishes to thank Dr. Rikki Asher, Queens College at CUNY for her guidance, and Mr. Josh Sternberg for taking the photographs.
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Title Annotation:Middle School
Author:Fradella, Laura
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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