I'm a teacher in New York City, and I'm excited about city leaders’ new focus on ensuring all students get great reading instruction. Among the policies recently unveiled is a requirement that schools use literacy programs that are aligned with the science of reading, or what research shows about effective reading practices.
Children need phonics—a teaching method that emphasizes the relationship between letters and sounds—and must build their vocabularies and develop background knowledge to support reading comprehension. One way to further develop student knowledge and keep students engaged is by weaving art into literacy instruction.
My school uses Wit & Wisdom®, one of three approved curricula. My students and I love the award-winning books included in the modules, but it's not just the books that excite us. The curriculum does a terrific job of weaving the study of fine art into its lessons.
I've been delighted to learn that some of these artworks can be seen in person here in New York. This summer, I'm encouraging families in my school to go to the city's museums and check out some of the masterpieces we study in class. Visitors should do the same!
To get kids excited about a museum visit in any location, consider their interests and the books they read during the school year. Wit & Wisdom ELA Director Sarah Webb recently did this with her own children in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and wrote about it in the Dayton Daily News. And Great Minds CEO Lynne Munson wrote about pairing books with visits to the Art Institute of Chicago in the Chicago Sun-Times.
In New York, if kids have been studying the American Revolution, or are interested in that period in history, I recommend that families check out Emanuel Leutze's magnificent painting Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ask kids to view the painting and talk about what they notice and wonder. Discuss how elements of the painting, such as color, affect the viewer's experience. Studying art this way draws kids in and strengthens literacy skills, such as finding central messages in a story, that require close observation.
At the Met, you can also check out The Gulf Stream, an oil painting by Winslow Homer that shows a man in a fishing boat struggling against ocean waves. We study the painting with grade 3 students, who learn about the sea and read the book Amos & Boris by William Steig. We also compare this oil painting with the iconic woodblock print The Great Wave (an image of this print can be found on T-shirts, in restaurants, and even on students’ smartphones) to determine a central message of how the sea can be beautiful but also terrifying. Building knowledge about a topic through different types of media helps cement learning and gives students the confidence to try more challenging reading material.
On a lighter note, you might visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to look at the sculpture Two Cheeseburgers, with Everything by Claes Oldenburg. Just make sure you feed the kids first. I've seen that artwork make the tiniest of tummies grumble. Oldenburg’s sculpture always sparks great conversations, and it encourages viewers to look at everyday objects in a new light. During the school year, we study the sculpture as part of a series of lessons on good eating. These lessons include books about the digestive system and about food sources, and they also include the classic picture book Stone Soup by Marcia Brown.
When I took my grade 3 students to MoMA for a class trip during the year, my students were excited to see art pieces that they had studied in class. I will never forget the moment when they saw how large Vija Celmins’s Starfield is in person. Space is a huge topic of interest for students. At the Guggenheim Museum, you'll find artist Joseph Cornell's work Space Object Box: "Little Bear, etc." motif. It's part of a series of boxes that include celestial maps. Pair the visit with a book, such as Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca, from the library.
I enjoy offering summer reading lists for students, and sharing summer art lists is fun too. Both can help children hone their literacy skills and get ready for the upcoming school year.
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Anna Toma is a literacy coach at The Brooklyn Charter School and a fellow for Wit & Wisdom, providing professional development and coaching to teachers on how to implement the K–8 curriculum effectively.