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How to Engage Students with Art History + Community

Showing and talking to students about works of art is one thing, but promoting them to explore the art that exists around them, helps them to both connect to the work and sparks curiosity for further learning and exploration.

I spend a lot of time walking around Lancaster City, either going to and from work or walking my two energetic Shiba Inu puppies. On these walks, I’m always excited when I uncover a new mural or public work of art. I also like to look at the variety of architecture and think about what time periods and what in history influenced the variety of buildings that now share walls. Looking at my surroundings through the lens of an art historian, makes art history come to life, it’s no longer in a textbook or hanging on museum walls, I wanted to bring this same feeling to my students.

As art teachers we know that whenever we try a new project, it may be a hit or students may sit, looking at us, with expressions that read, “ what is she thinking.” However, I knew this was hit when as students submitted their projects they began thanking me for the assignment, stating that it was fun and they learned a lot. Yes, I said it, they thanked me!!!

Students start by learning what questions art historians commonly ask when trying to learn about a new work of art. Make sure that students know that they might not be able to find all of this information, but they should try. If they can’t find the information, then have them make an educated guess.

How old is it?
What is its style?
What is its subject?
Who made it?
Who paid for it?
Next, we go over words that art historians commonly use.
Form and Composition
Material and Technique
Space, Mass, and Volume
Perspective and Foreshortening
Proportion and Scale
Carving and Casting
Relief Sculpture
Architectural Drawings

Now for the assignment:
Students are asked to look around their home, town or city. They might go to local galleries, uncover public art, or closely examine a home or local building that they enjoy the architecture. Students take a photo then, pretend that they are an art historian. Their job is to ask the questions that an art historian would ask, and answer them to the best of their ability using the words that a historian would use.

There is no required length for this writing assignment, but students are asked to answer all of the questions that an art historian would answer, and, use at least 5 of the words that art historians use.

If your students aren’t familiar with public art, this is a great video to share with them.