The Power of Bringing Art into the Classroom

posted December 12, 2016

Audrey Jacobs, The Heritage Center’s museum educator, has always understood the power of images. As an art museum educator, she has focused her career on using artwork to enrich students’ learning experiences and to empower them to think in new ways. So when she arrived at Red Cloud in 2015, she immediately started putting the interpretation of Native art from The Heritage Center’s vast collection into the hands of students from kindergarten through high school.

“When you bring artwork into the classroom, any subject—from science and technology to literature and drama—will be richer,” said Audrey. “Connecting a student’s learning experience to culture and identity, especially for Native students, significantly improves educational outcomes. Art is such an elemental part of culture; Lakota and Native American art needs to be a central part of our curriculum as well. We have a fantastic collection of Lakota and Native art right here on campus—and I want to make sure every Red Cloud student has the chance to experience this work first-hand.”

To make that a reality, this year Jacobs is leading a number of new initiatives designed to bring the power of art into the classroom—working directly with both teachers and students. Drawing on her deep experience in both arts and education, she is developing a range of innovative, art-based programs that are rooted in Lakota history, culture, and perspective. Connecting art to learning, she explains, can help Red Cloud students develop the critical thinking skills they need to succeed, now and in the future.

Teaching the Teacher: New Course and Fellowship Focuses on Art-Based Classroom Strategies

As a core part of her work, Audrey is connecting with Red Cloud teachers to deepen their knowledge of art-based learning strategies. This fall, in partnership with Oglala Lakota College, Audrey launched a new professional development course called Teaching with the Art Museum, which is designed to help teaching staff understand how to integrate museum art—and particularly pieces from The Heritage Center’s collection—into their curricula. Through course lectures, readings, and in-depth discussions, Audrey is expanding teachers’ knowledge of image- and object-based teaching, and to understand the ways in which teaching with art can strengthen students’ verbal and critical thinking skills. By the end of the course, the participating teachers will be able to tap into a range of new strategies to enrich their students’ learning experience through Native art.

For Audrey, it’s more than an opportunity to educate teachers: the course is also helping her to learn what kinds of support teachers need to use art effectively in the classroom.

“The goal for this course is that we’ll begin bridging the gap between The Heritage Center and teachers across both our campuses. The teachers become more familiar with our collection and looking at art and we learn where our teachers need support in terms of bringing art into their curricula,” said Audrey. “As much as I’m teaching our teachers, it really is more of a two-way dialogue and a learning experience for everyone involved.”

One of Audrey’s primary goals is to strengthen teachers’ ability to use art as a primary source in exploring history, rather than simply a literal illustration of what happened at some point in time. For her, treating pieces of art as primary documents means that students have to do much more than simply look at an object or image. Just as if they were looking at letters written a century ago, students must learn to use art as a document of the past, and to deconstruct and analyze it in order to truly capture its meaning.

“In history, we’re taught to question and interrogate primary documents and to use other sources to provide context and confirm our understanding. We don’t just accept everything they say as fact,” explains Audrey. “Instead of just introducing an artwork and then moving on with the rest of the lesson, I want our teachers to make sure students are practicing close looking—learning to break them apart, talk about what they are seeing, and test their conclusions. That kind of discussion really fuels the ability to think critically, as well as creatively.”

At this point in the course, Audrey is working with her participating teachers—including a second and third grade teacher, and a middle school science teacher—to reflect carefully on how art could factor into their respective curricula. Using a Lakota perspective is also crucial to Audrey: in addition to using Lakota art and guest presenters throughout the course, she is helping participants develop teaching strategies that support Lakota children’s knowledge and interests while honoring their families’ experiences.

Next semester she will work with each teacher individually on a unique capstone project they will implement independently in their own classrooms.  

“This course has to be about more than theory. Just like in the best primary school projects, application to the real world is crucial. So each person in the class will design a substantive unit plan using art from our collection. I’ll be in the classroom to help them bring those lessons to life,” said Audrey. “As they complete their work, they’ll write up their project and lessons plans, so that other teachers can use those resources in the future. It’s a way to ensure that arts-based learning continues to grow here—and enrich the lives of our students.”

Introducing Visual Thinking Strategies at Red Cloud

As part of the Teaching with the Art Museum course, Audrey is introducing Red Cloud teachers to a method called Visual Thinking Strategies, or VTS. Used by prominent museums for several decades, VTS is a straightforward, accessible approach that allows teachers to spur in-depth conversations with their students about images and artwork to deepen learning. Teachers ask their students to look at an image and then present them with a series of clear questions to facilitate discussion. First, students are asked what they see in an image, which prompts them to make inferences about a piece of art. Then, they are asked what specifically they see that made them make their initial inferences. By producing that visual evidence, they engage in a deeper level of critical thinking—a skill that leads to profound benefits in all subjects.

“What I love about this teaching strategy is that it is not about finding “the right” answer. Instead it validates students’ perspectives, as long as they are able to provide visual evidence for their thinking. It equalizes all viewpoints and encourages students to think both independently and critically,” said Audrey. “It’s an incredible foundation for developing historical analysis skills, oral and written language literacy, and so much more. And above all, it builds students’ confidence in their own ability to think and share their insights.”

Audrey partnered with a group of experts from South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD to provide essential VTS resources and training. Lynn Verschoor (Director of South Dakota Art Museum), Kay Cutler (Fishback Center Director and Professor in Teaching, Learning, and Leadership) and Mary Moeller (Associate Professor at South Dakota State University) have worked for years with the developers of this teaching strategy. Audrey is now working closely with the second and third grade teachers in her fellowship course to deepen their VTS skills and to encourage them to begin using VTS strategies in their classrooms. And with support from the SDSU team, she is in the very early stages of launching a study at Red Cloud exploring the benefits of VTS specifically for Lakota students. While still in the very initial piloting stages of the study, she is excited about the possibility of using VTS more broadly across Red Cloud’s campuses.

Hands-On Art: Experiential Learning with Red Cloud’s Youngest Students

For Audrey, there’s nothing like working directly with students and seeing what happens when they are inspired by art. This year, she wanted to increase the amount of time Red Cloud students have to interact with pieces from The Heritage Center’s collection, and then to create their own art based on their experiences. She expanded her Studio Art Program, which brings in students from kindergarten through fourth grade for art-based lessons at least once per month. Since the fall, she has worked with her students on self-portraits, batiks, gallery sketching and paintings. And even after just a few months, she’s already seeing her students express themselves in new and exciting ways.

“In the Studio Art Program, we usually start in the gallery, looking at an exhibit or a particular piece. And after discussing it, we go back into the studio or classroom. The students get to create their own work, inspired by their new knowledge and experience in The Heritage Center,” said Audrey. “It’s just amazing to see what our kids come up with. Recently we discussed a painting of a face that uses intense splotches of unusual colors all over the composition. We talked about how the artist wasn’t worried about realism—and then the students all created their own self-portrait. I never instructed them use inventive color schemes, but they all ended up creating an abstract image of themselves, clearly inspired by the piece we looked at. They naturally picked up on the difference between copying and using art for inspiration, which was so fun to see.”

This fall, after the opening of The Heritage Center’s groundbreaking exhibition Horse Nation of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Audrey brought students into the gallery to interact with the unique collection. They explored how horses have shaped the history, spirituality, and culture of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people of the Seven Council Fires (or Očhéthi Šakówiŋ)—and looked at how different artists used their own perspectives and mediums to express the power and beauty of horses. Then, each student had a chance to create their own artwork inspired by the Horse Nation. That experience reaffirmed for Audrey the importance of bringing cultural art into education.

“The experience of learning about the Horse Nation—and seeing so much stunning art focused on that subject matter—was really inspiring to our students. Because horses have always been such an important part of Lakota culture, they connected with the subject matter immediately, then created some incredible artwork of their own,” explained Audrey. “As The Heritage Center’s educational program continues to develop, it’s these experiences that connect art to students’ lives that I know will make their Red Cloud education even more unique and innovative—and ultimately give them the tools to succeed in whatever they dream of.”



Three New Principals Ready to Lead and Forge Connections


Red Cloud Community Begins to Heal in the Wake of Bus Accident


In the Shadow of Crazy Horse: Red Cloud Graduate Completes Unique Cultural Summer Program



Photos © Red Cloud Indian School