Looking at Art with Students: Activities That Enhance Learning


By Amanda Koonlaba

Koonlaba Looking at Art with Students 300x300I’m an art teacher, but we don’t just color in my classroom. In fact, I find the stereotype of an art teacher babysitting children who are coloring a worksheet while the “real” teachers plan very offensive. My classroom is an educational hub where subjects are connected and students are cheerfully engaged in their learning. They are safe, supported, and challenged.

We do color and have fun in my classroom. But, in addition to those things, my students are also learning. One of the ways I ensure that my classroom is a learning environment where the needs of the whole child are met is by setting goals for my students. I think in the long term about these goals and plan lessons to serve as road maps for meeting them.

Before becoming an art teacher, I was a 1st and 3rd grade classroom teacher—of all subjects—for six years, which gives me a unique perspective for arts integration. My teacher toolbox is filled with tools that have been tested in both the art classroom and the regular classroom. Some of my favorite ways to integrate subject matter in the art classroom also happen to work just as well in other classrooms. As I plan lessons to meet the goals I set, I like to include different ways of looking at art that guarantee that my students are analyzing, critiquing, comparing, discussing, formulating, inferring, and making decisions.

Here are a couple of activities that I use for to help me look at art with my students.

Puzzle Pondering

This is an activity derived from Amanda Heyn at the Art of Education. Amanda offers several ideas for looking at art with students. Here, I have offered some variations that work really well with my students, but I encourage you to also check out her blog post.

Cut an art print into pieces. Make sure each piece has a noteworthy aspect showing. Divide students into groups, and give each group one piece of the puzzle. Ask students to study their pieces and describe what they see to the other groups. Have them hypothesize about what the images on their piece might mean. Ask them what they can determine about how the artwork on their piece was created. Lead the students from their observations to a discussion about the meaning of the artwork. Have students assemble the pieces or show them the full piece using a large screen.

Georges Seurat’s most famous piece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, works well for this type of activity since there are lots of details in the work. This print could be cut into four pieces so that each corner is on one piece. This would divide the work so that one piece shows the monkey, one shows the dog, one shows the sailboat, and one shows the umbrella. Each of those details is interesting and significant to the work. Students will note the leisurely activities of people who appear to be at a park. They will notice that the people are from another time period based on their dress. They will figure out that it is a sunny day from the light in the painting. They will notice the pointillism. Finally, they will likely come to the conclusion that this is a piece that shows people enjoying their weekend.

This activity forces students to look for details and use oral language to explain what they see. It allows them to work together to draw conclusions and make inferences.

Headline Connections

This strategy is drawn from Visible Thinking, an approach developed by Harvard University’s Project Zero. It is based on the idea of newspaper-type headlines as a vehicle for summarizing. Again, I offer some tips from my classroom, but I encourage you to check out this and the many other strategies on the Project Zero site.

Allow students to study an artwork for 30 to 60 seconds. Have them write a headline for the work that captures the most important aspect to be remembered. Next, discuss the artwork with students. Ask questions to provoke meaningful conversations. Either right after the discussion or the next day, have students revisit their original headline. Ask them to evaluate it: Is it still relevant? Should it be changed? How should they change it? Why?

Norman Rockwell has many paintings that are perfect for this activity, but one immediately jumps to mind because of its ability to spark conversations about social justice. New Kids to the Neighborhood depicts suburban integration in Chicago’s Park Forest Community and was painted in 1967 at the height of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. There are white kids and black kids staring curiously at each other in front of a moving company van while an adult peeps through the curtain of the house in the background. Show the painting to students, and have them write headlines before presenting them with specific historical content. Then, teach them what they need to know about the subject and have them make revisions to their headlines. The painting will mean something very different to young students before and after they learn about the Civil Rights Movement. This activity pairs well with popular children’s books such as The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rapaport.

This activity allows students to formulate opinions, infer, compare, and discuss. They make connections to prior knowledge and evaluate preconceived ideas after learning new information.

Don’t Take Art Instruction for Granted

Art teachers and arts instruction have much to offer. Students love to look at artwork. Using art as a tool for engaging students in critical thinking is something that all teachers should do. Whether you are an art teacher or a teacher of another subject, you can use these strategies as you plan your instruction to encourage your students to think critically. They will be engaged, connected, and challenged in so many rewarding ways.


Amanda Koonlaba teaches visual art in Tupelo, Miss., and serves as an arts integration instructional coach. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader and just completed a specialist degree in educational leadership in December. Connect with her on Twitter @AKoonlaba.