Making Meaning at the Museum

When my children were little, one of their favorite books was Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day. This mostly wordless book features Carl, a responsible rottweiler, who takes care of the baby and the house while the parents are out. As soon as my kids were able to string sentences together, they took over “reading” the book, using the pictures to tell their version of the story. I was reminded of the Carl book the other day when I went along to the Carnegie Museum of Art with the Lower School students.
I was standing with a small group of grade 3 and grade 4 students in front of a large painting by the artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The docent pointed out that the artist had not given the piece a title or a description, explaining that words can sometimes tell us what to think before we search our own creative minds. She encouraged us to look at the painting of a girl and a dog and imagine a story.

The students responded enthusiastically, sharing their ideas. One student focused on the rough green strokes surrounding the girl and the swimsuit she was wearing and imagined she was standing in the grass near a lake. Another student noticed the dark sky and thought a storm might be coming. Someone else said it was a hot night and the girl wanted to swim in the dark.  Several girls noticed that the figure was looking off into the distance and imagined what she was looking at using clues from her facial expression. One student crafted a story around the hints of orange in the painting that made her think of fire, imagining that the girl and the dog were standing at a distance from a bonfire.

In addition to appreciating the girls’ creative and imaginative responses, I was impressed with how carefully they looked at the painting and the way they supported their ideas by pointing out specific details. We ask our students to do the very same thing in their writing when they return to a text to find evidence to support their statements. When we consider literacy, we traditionally think of reading and writing, but as I listened to the girls talk about the artwork as we made our way through the museum, I was reminded of how essential it is for students to participate in opportunities to build visual literacy.

Every day our girls are engaged in the process of making meaning from the world around them, whether they are interpreting words on a page, the look on a friend’s face, or a painting hung on the wall. Imagine being a young child bombarded by verbal, non-verbal, and visual communications. Even as adults we have trouble making sense of it all. At a time in history when information and ideas are regularly conveyed through images and symbols, children need to develop the skills that can allow them to answer the question, “What am I looking at and what does it mean?”

In the Lower School, our students are fortunate to have the expertise of our art teacher Sarah Ceurvorst guiding them as they develop visual literacy, which she defines as their ability to interpret, break down, and make meaning of the visual world around them. Ms. Ceurvorst expressed to me how pleased and proud she was to see our students display their developing skills as they interacted with complex images during the museum trip. The students did not stand passively and wait for the docents to tell them what to think. Instead, they looked carefully; they accessed their prior knowledge and experience; they asked questions; they articulated their thoughts and listened to each other; and a few times, they created drawings to express their ideas.

At the end of the visit, the docent told me she was “blown away” by the way our students had engaged in the experience. On the bus ride home, the students were similarly enthusiastic about the art they had seen until someone started singing a line from a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang song, and then, well, you know what happened next.