A gentle reminder ...

The goal of this blog initially was for Mr. Mc to show his students and friends what he doing while in Pennsylvania and DC in 2011. Now it's being used as a place for him, travelling colleagues and former students to discuss edumacation and history related "stuff" as well as ... well, anything which pops into his head. Mr. Mc would never knowingly embarrass either the school he loves or the family he is devoted to. By joining in the discussion, he expects the same of you.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"It looks like a gunshot through Montana!"

The first week of school is a odd time in the life of a school. The kids are still stretching from a three month nap.They are excited to see old friends and embracing the 'school' part of school is a necessary evil in order to see said friends. The teachers are in the midst of a ten yard dash to get ready for students. They are chomping at the bit to talk, discuss, instruct, show, play, and ... (let's be honest teachers, laminate!) Its a dynamic I wish I could explain to those who don't spend  a lot of time in a classroom.

This year I thought I would try one of the Smithsonian strategies out and see if it would work. We called it "Artwork of the Week" and here is what we did:

State Names. 2000. Jaune Quick-To-See Smith. Born: St. Ignatius, Montana 1940. oil, collage and mixed media on canvas. 48 x 72 in. (121.9 x 182.9 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Elizabeth Ann Dugan and museum purchase. 2004.28.

On the first or second day of school they saw this painting projected on the SMARTboard. No discussion.
For the next couple of days after they made observations using a process called VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies). VTS is pretty easy to explain but challenging to actually do (more on that later). The facilitator can ask one of three questions:
  • What is going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What else can you find.
The facilitator should:
  • remain neutral, 
  • repeat the response to the observer in order to make sure they understood the comment, and 
  • point when necessary to where the observer is talking to get everyone focus on the same part of the piece.
The killer part is remaining neutral. Part of giving feedback, for me, is praise. Praise encourages, it creates a positive attitude in the class and it can help guide a class into the direction you want them to head. For VTS, the danger of getting them to go 'my way' outweighs the encouragement and positive environment praise fosters. The point is to get them to think for themselves, not for the facilitator. "What are 'they' thinking?" not "What do they think I want them to think?"

When I let them tell me what they thought about the painting, they floored me. I did this process in DC with about five teachers and an art history major as a facilitator. I think my kids blew us out of the water. They saw things and made connections I don't think we would have. Some of them would turn out to be wrong but they always returned back to the painting. Here are the responses. (Note that I haven't copied the title or artist information. It isn't shown to the observers until after they've responded lest it influence their comments.)

A sampling of comments:


Since the states are fighting for independence, I think it has to do with the Declaration of Independence.

I think it means that the drippings represent the pain that the US has gone through but we're all still here and its built America to what we are today.


I think the Indians are represented by their wars, words, names and homes. Their emotions could be represented by the dripping paint.

It is a depiction of our modern economy and which states play a more positive role in how the US is connected.


 The white symbolizes indifference, while blue is more bias and red is extremely biased.

The painter is sad and therefore the painting is sloppy.

It looks like a gunshot through Montana.

The United States is falling apart.

Most of the names by the water are no there so maybe that has something to do with it (the ocean) being black.

The Indians were angry at the people for taking their land ... maybe.

Smudged on purpose.

I think the bleeding of the colors represent something of pain. Bleedings are the key word for me.

Do you see what I mean? The link below is for the Smithsonian American Art Museum's page for this piece.  Below the image of the painting is a place to hear more about the painting. Click on it to hear what the artist herself has said about the piece and why she creates the art she does.Quite honestly, I like some of my kid's interpretations as well as the artist's comments.

The bottom line in the classroom is that in about the equivalent of 30-40 minutes, my students were schooled in Indian displacement in a way that causes them to continue to talk about the issue. We just finished talking about Jamestown and Plimoth and they asked about the indigenous tribes right off the bat. It was awesome. When we get to Manifest Destiny, State Names will play a large part as we wrestle with the shadow side of the Northwest Ordinance, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and the Homestead Act.


  1. It's so great to see teachers so excited about their students!

  2. Wow Dave! Thank you for taking the plunge and letting your students dazzle all of us. Can't wait for more updates on using American art in your classroom.