Thursday 22 Sep, 2016

How to Engage Your Students With Art

Ty G. is entering his tenth year of teaching in Courtice, Ontario.  He now teaches mostly visual arts but began his career as a history teacher.  He led his first group overseas in 2010 and will be taking his 200th student on an EF Educational Tours Vimy 100 trip in the spring of 2017.  Ty’s love of travel was sparked as a young person and he strives to share the eye-opening cultural enrichment and impactful memories that travel with his students.

Not every high school student chooses to take visual arts, and based on my experience in teaching a Grade Nine course, not every student that does choose to really does so due to honest interest (or ability).  As many European tours make stops at art museums such as the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum, student travellers aren’t often given the choice to be involved with visual arts and those without interest can become disengaged and miss out on an enriching cultural experience.

Given the pace of a tour, it’s impossible to even glimpse all the work on display at many large European museums (the Louvre has 35,000 paintings in its collection!).  The travelers that get the most out of their museum visits are those that don’t try in vain to see it all but rather those that know how to look at a fewer pieces more carefully.

When approaching a piece of art in a museum, encourage students to think about the art in a three-step process.  Here are some ideas to introduce this process through interactive elements of a traveler meeting. This is a great way to get your group together, get to know each other, and get excited for your trip! You can also download this handout I’ve used in class to help guide your discussions.

Step One – The Basics

Identifying the title, media of the piece, the artist, his/her background and the year of its creation is a good place to begin your discovery. Often, this is all the concrete information a viewer might know about the piece of work. Plus, this information is usually found on the nameplate next to the piece.

An activity to show how this information can be useful is to show a few pieces to the group and ask a few “What if I told you?” questions to see how basic information can help shape first impressions of a piece.

For example, look at Jean Michel Basquiat’s The Slave Auction from the Centre Pompidou in Paris and see if any of the following “What if I told you?” questions and possible directions of discussion shape your experience of the piece, as follows:


Question: “What if I told you the title of this piece is The Slave Auction?”

Perhaps this could lead to further contemplation of the visual content, including what the simple figures might be representing.  Does a narrative unfold?

Question: “What if I told you this piece was created by a 22 year old?”

Maybe this could lead to further contemplation of the primitive style of representation.  Why would the artist create such a basic, almost ‘childish’ image if he were a young adult at the time it was painted? Is the age of 22 too young to create meaningful, impactful work, or does work from younger artists have more impact as it can be more ‘raw’ or immediate?

Question: “What if I told you this piece was created by an American?”

Perhaps this could lead to thinking about the artist’s connection to his country’s culture and when connected to the title, his ideas about race and slavery.  Is the artist making a statement? If so, what kind is he making?

This first step can lead to travelers gaining more confidence about approaching a piece based on some very basic connections and questions gleaned from a simple nameplate.  The next two steps help to dissect the visuals and then connect them to some of the initial ideas formed during the first step.

Step Two – Visual Content

This step focuses on the simplest question about a piece of visual art: What is it that you are looking at?  Viewers should thoroughly examine the visual content of the piece from left to right, top to bottom without trying to dig below the surface.  Focus on the very basics in trying to unpack all that is (and isn’t) included.

A two-part activity to explore this step can lead to some entertaining results and can be quite useful in developing a visual vocabulary.

Have the travelers prepare to draw informally in either pen or pencil on a blank area of paper (the backside of a meeting agenda can work just fine).  Choose a piece from a museum that you will visit on tour and read out a basic visual description without showing the piece.  The goal is for the travelers to take in your description and sketch out what they see based on your words.  For the sake of time, it is much easier to skip over colour and focus on basic content.  Displaying the text descriptions as you read them out to your students can help as well.

Here is an example of a description based on Jean Francois Millet’s The Gleaners, found in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris:

-The horizon line of the landscape painting is about 1/3 from the top.

-Three female figures in the foreground are larger than any other element.

-The two figures to the left are bent at the waist, picking hay out of the dirt of the recently cut field.

-The third figure is more slightly stooped and in the middle of tying together a bundle of hay.

-All three are dressed in drab colours with large caps, full-sleeved blouses, ankle length skirts and aprons fitted to collect their gleanings.

-Their dark skin is visible only on their hands and faces.

-The middleground is much lighter and blurrier; it contains a horse drawn cart full of wheat with workers adding to the pile, a number of women similarly dressed and employed in labour as the three in the foreground and a figure atop a black horse with an outstretched arm pointed in the direction of the cart and workers.

-Three very large stacks of hay are visible to the left of the cart and as the scene recedes toward the horizon line, three more groups of three stacks become increasingly smaller in size.

-Beyond and behind the pointing figure on the black horse, the outlines of a number of buildings with triangular roofs are visible.



When you’re finished reading out the descriptions, have the students compare each other’s work.  The differences between the sketches can be quite entertaining.  After you’ve compared everyone’s sketch, display the Millet painting for a final comparison to their work.

This step forces the travelers to only focus on the visuals and to take in the entire composition.  When applied to viewing paintings in a museum, encourage students to create an inner monologue of a similarly basic description of the visual content of the piece.

In the next step, travelers will try to extend some of their initial ideas about a piece from the first step based on the visual content and hopefully find some deeper level understanding of the piece.

Step Three – Deeper Levels

In this step, travelers will look deeper into the visual content and attempt to draw out messages, purpose and impact.  The basic information about the piece and some of the questions and speculations discovered during the first step can be combined and perhaps verified with the more thorough look at the visuals in the second step.

Like the first step, using a series of questions with an example image displayed can be used to facilitate discussion of deeper levels in a piece.  Focusing these questions on choices the artist made can lead to travelers discovering some of the subtext of a piece.  As these are more probing questions, for the sake of time it may be better to leave these hanging with the travelers rather than allow time for them to be answered by the group.

Here are some example questions based on Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa from the Louvre using details that would be discovered in the second step:


“Is the tiny ship on the horizon line coming toward the raft or moving away from it?” What impact does this answer have on the theme of the painting?

“The composition of the raft is triangular.  What might this choice symbolize?”

“There are many gruesome but also extremely emotional elements to the painting.  Could Géricault’s work be successful without the uglier, more ‘real’ elements?”

“The shrouded, bearded man in the bottom left of the painting draws a lot of attention.  What might his expression indicate about the theme of the painting? Of all the figures that are still alive, he is the only one looking away from the horizon.  What might this indicate and why do you believe Géricault included this figure?”

The ‘answers’ to these questions may vary between travelers and lead to more intrigue and desire to delve into the work after leaving the museum.

Create a richer experience for your group

Providing a framework for deeper discovery to those travelers that would be more apt to run through a musuem without thinking or sit in the lobby and play on their phones can lead to a much richer experience for the entire group.  Interest is contagious.  One student’s desire to remain engaged with a painting for longer can encourage nearby travelers to do the same and those lingering, deeper questions about a piece can make for far more interesting bus conversation than, let’s say, the strangeness of potato chip flavours in France. I hope these activities help you and your students make the most out of your museum visits!

Are you inspired to show your students the world? Find your perfect tour now.