This week’s teacher feature highlights a lesson from one of our two year old classrooms. Teachers Javacia Finney, Stephanie Lopez, and Shawna Williams brought their class to the National Gallery of Art’s newly renovated East Building. They used works of art made by Alexander Calder to teach about his life, techniques, and artwork. Below, you can find photos from the lesson and a reflection from Javacia, Stephanie, and Shawna.
Before visiting the National Gallery of Art, Javacia laid out all the artwork that the class had recently made. Since the class had been learning about artists, there was a plethora of work. Javacia led a discussion where the children talked about what they remembered about each artist and work of art.
Rather than dismissing the group as a whole, she called on each child to point to a specific artwork before leaving the circle. This game allowed her to ensure that each child had the opportunity to be recognized as an individual and helped to smooth the transition.
Once at the National Gallery of Art, the class sat underneath Untitled, 1976, by Alexander Calder, a giant mobile that hangs from the atrium ceiling. They made a circle and were encouraged to look up at the mobile as Javacia read the book Sandy’s Circus by Tanya Lee Stone.
As Javacia read, the children were able to take advantage of the amazing space. They continually looked up at the ceiling and pointed to the moving mobile. The class was so captivated by Untitled that Javacia said in her reflection that she believes that this moment will leave lasting memories for her class.
Javacia passed out materials for the class to explore. The materials included pipe cleaners and metal wire. The class was encouraged to manipulate and explore the materials while looking up at Calder’s mobile. Javacia explained that back in the classroom, the children would have the opportunity to use even more materials and supplies such as scissors and glue to create their own mobiles.
To see more examples of Calder’s work, the class went upstairs to the Calder Tower, which houses the largest collection of Calder art. The class walked around the room and described what they saw. Some children were particularly drawn to the sculptures of animals. Others seemed to gravitate towards the mobiles which produced shadows that moved across the space.
After visiting the National Gallery of Art, the class worked on making their own art inspired by Calder, which was later displayed in the class’ very own art exhibition. Manipulating the metal wire provided the children with the opportunity to work their fine motor skills in a new way.
A reflection from Javacia, Stephanie, and Shawna:
What were your topics of exploration?
For the past few weeks we have been learning about different artists. Some of the artists in our unit of study included Henri Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Yayoi Kusama. On this particular day, we were learning about Alexander Calder.
How did this topic emerge?
We noticed that our students were interested in the sculptures that we saw while walking on the National Mall and in the sculpture gardens. We thought it would be a great idea to teach them about the artist who created these wonderful works of art.
Why and how did you choose the visit?
I chose the National Gallery of Art because I wanted to make use of Alexander Calder’s amazing 76-foot-long mobile that hangs from the ceiling of the East Building. The National Gallery has other Calder works, including an entire room in its tower that is completely dedicated to Alexander Calder. In this room, my class was able to see sculptures and mobiles from his entire career. To utilize both spaces, we had circle time under the large mobile in the lobby and then went upstairs to the tower to view more of his work.
What were your learning objectives?
- Learn about the life and work of the artist.
- Observe and speculate about the artistic intentions in specific pieces of art.
- Learn about various processes and techniques used to produce works of art.
- Use a variety of materials to make their own reproductions of the art.
During this specific lesson I read Sandy’s Circus by Tanya Lee Stone. This book describes the story of Calder’s youth and his making of wire circus figurines. After reading Sandy’s Circus, I gave out craft wire, pipe cleaners, and other materials. These materials encouraged group discussion, engaged the senses, and strengthened their fine motor skills. I then explained that the class would have the opportunity to create their own mobiles and sculptures back in the classroom. The children took full advantage of their opportunity to create and craft with the wire, which allowed the children to create without boundaries.
How did you prepare yourself for this lesson? Did you know about this topic beforehand or did you have to research?
To prepare for this lesson, I read several different books about Alexander Calder. The two books that I found most useful were Alexander Calder by Mike Venezia and Sandy’s Circus. I also used the internet as a resource. The National Gallery of Art has a great website and I relied on it heavily. After I had enough information about him, I was sure to visit the works at the National Gallery of Art and looked at all of his sculptures that are outside on the National Mall.
What was successful in terms of your preparation and logistics?
I think sitting and having our circle time underneath the large 76-foot long Alexander Calder mobile was definitely helpful. As I was reading and talking about Calder’s mobiles, I saw the children looking up in amazement. I feel that was a powerful experience that will have a lasting memory.
What recommendations would you have for another teacher trying out this lesson?
For another teacher trying out this lesson, I would let them know that an alternative place to have a circle is on the rooftop off of the Calder tower. This might be helpful if the museum is particularly crowded. My class was lucky in that we were able to sit under the Calder mobile in the lobby with minimal distractions. But since that mobile is in the lobby, it just takes one large group to make the space too loud or distracting for a class of two year olds. I often like to have backup locations for circles in my mind. This helps ensure that I can be flexible and my class can have the best lesson possible.
How did you follow up this lesson? What topics were explored?
Alexander Calder was the last artist we learned about. We had previously done similar in-depth studies of artists and had given the class the opportunity to create their own work inspired by the artists. For example, Claude Monet inspired lily-pond paintings, Vincent Van Gogh inspired Starry night paintings, Roy Lichtenstein inspired pop art, Yayoi Kusama inspired pumpkins and a polka-dot wall, and Henri Matisse inspired cut-outs. After the children were finished with all of their projects, we transformed our classroom into a museum by hanging up all of their artwork. We ended this artist unit of study by having a special art exhibition and invited family members to come view their artwork.
To learn more about how this class studied Kusama, Van Gogh, Lichenstein, Monet, and Matisse, come back to read their round up on artists.