Teaching Visual Arts: We're All Visual Learners

Whether with crayons or computers, kids like doing art. Well-conceived projects and activities that introduce graphic and multimedia arts are not only fun, they help kids expand their creative skills.

The visual arts provide a platform for continuing to practice core curriculum topics like language, science and math, so always structure your multimedia projects in the context of broader learning goals. For example, you might introduce drawing concepts within a unit about animals, having kids draw pictures of the creatures they are learning about. Similarly, don't introduce a presentation program like HyperStudio for its own sake: Work it into a project in which students will report on the results of a research activity. In addition to building a program in which all elements reinforce each other, this approach helps demystify both art and technology, two topics that produce anxiety in many people.

tip Look for ways to combine words and pictures in your activities, especially when teaching language arts. For example, use visualization techniques and graphic organizers in your planning and idea-generation activities, and encourage kids to draw as well as write in their journals. Try activities like bringing in a particularly evocative photo and asking students to write down all the words it makes them think about or that they see in the picture. Introduce mapping and storyboarding, not just linear forms like outlining, when developing stories and ideas for presentations and videos.

Another important reason to work these kinds of projects into your curriculum is that in our media-saturated culture, kids must learn to identify how images are sometimes used to manipulate people. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but not all of them are true. Just as kids need the skills to differentiate between information and misinformation from books or the Web, they also need media literacy skills to understand how the angle a photographer chooses for a front page news story can generate a different emotional appeal. They also should understand that in the digital age, it's easy to alter an image, audio or video clip to create a fabrication.

See our Activities section for easy lesson ideas for introducing graphics and multimedia into your program. You'll find pointers for teaching drawing; simple, noncomputer animation techniques; ideas for introducing photography; lessons on working with computer graphics and image editing; and activities involving multimedia presentations and video.

During the course of a term, you may choose to introduce any or all of these techniques. In working with graphics and multimedia, keep in mind these important points:

    • You must first teach human cognitive, visual and mechanical skills before introducing any mechanical device like a camera or computer. If kids don't understand the basics of seeing and translating what they see into shapes, they won't be able to draw on a computer any better than with a pencil; if they don't understand photographic concepts like angle and focus, their snapshots will be routine and their videos uninspired.

    • Carefully think through which skills you'll be introducing during a term, and make sure that you leave plenty of time up front to introduce them slowly. You can combine several skills in an ongoing project, each building on the previous, or use just one or two in a single project. We've presented them in order of increasing sophistication, so give consideration to the sequence you'll use. For example, even though you may ultimately be working toward a video project, you'll find that spending a one- or two-day interlude on animation will help kids gain a fundamental understanding of important concepts, such as movement and visualization, that will improve the quality of their videos. Whatever you choose to do, always leave plenty of time for kids to practice the basics in modules so that they achieve real mastery. Introducing too much at one time will only frustrate them.

    • Note that the activities are organized around particular skills and techniques, rather than age. Your activities must always be age appropriate, of course, a requirement that presents certain challenges when working with kids whose skill levels lag behind their age group. The lesson ideas we suggest here will work with any age, but you'll need to be sensitive to the kids' interests and prior knowledge in using them.

If you're new to any of these topics, take a look at some pointers on teaching about and with technology.