Elementary Arts


Most approaches to arts education, as with typical approaches to literature, are relatively technical. They offer students historical context to help make sense of a painting or sculpture. Ultimately, they often try to teach students something about the technique of the art, such as principles of composition, of materials, or of schools of aesthetics that may have informed the artist.

Our approach to art appreciation minimizes these appeals art history, technique, and aesthetic schools. Instead it teaches students to approach the fine arts in the same way that they can approach books and movies: by directly experiencing the excitement and poignancy of the content of the artwork.

Similar to observation in the sciences, the process of “reading” a painting starts with direct observation, and involves suggesting more abstract possibilities followed by testing those “hypothesis” with evidence from the painting. The microcosm of the scientific method used in “reading” comes in the form of solving the mystery of what is happening in the story.

Similar to literature, visual art has characters and a story. However, while the role of a student reading a novel is to grasp the meaning of the words and imagine the world created, the role of a student reading a painting is the reverse: to grasp the meaning of the images and provide the words—their words—to the world they encounter. There is a clear story in the artwork, but they need to be the “author” to fully read and experience the story.

Students learn a series of techniques—such as attending to and imitating a depicted character’s pose, or following a character’s gaze to see where they are looking, or coming up with a title for a painting, or putting a thought bubble or dialog bubble to a character—that enable them to slowly, observationally piece together what is happening in a work of art. They come to notice that a boy’s posture indicates that he is intrigued, that the curve of his hand means he is nervous, that his facial expression means that he excited—and that this is very different from the other boy he is sitting next to. They learn to observe and analyze the human element in the finest details of a scene, experiencing its meaning by putting words to its story.

To draw students into the work, the art is selected for themes relevant to elementary children. For example:

  • Perseverance in the face of tough obstacles
  • Joy at seeing the return of a loved-one
  • The heartbreak seeing a loved-one depart
  • Being inspired by the tales of an adult
  • Admiring the talents of a friend
  • The sense of pride at accomplishing a goal
  • Being engrossed in a personally meaningful activity
  • The challenge of joining a new, unfamiliar group

As the student comes to appreciate the full meaning of a painting or a sculpture, they personally connect with it. Finding a personal connection to the theme gives students a real understanding of the work and, more importantly, an understanding of how the insight of the theme fits into their own life. Connecting the artwork’s theme to the same kind of moments in literature (and sometimes history) is extremely valuable in the student's understanding of the abstract idea, but a personal connection is what completes the powerfully emotional experience for the student.

This process of self-reflection—of seeing how the abstract meaning contributes insight to one's own life—is also essential to the subject of literature. The difference between art and literature, in this respect, is that the meaning of a novel takes the duration of the work to experience and may take weeks to come to fruition, while that of an artwork can be grasped in one class period.

Program Elements

  • Guided Reading

    A guided reading of the artwork includes a slideshow presentation by the teacher and corresponding written exercises for students. The teacher helps the students read the artwork through a succession of selected close-ups of the artwork (which unfold like the pages of a storybook), while having the students exercise “reading” techniques. The teacher alternates between discussing the work as a class and having the students respond independently to the corresponding questions on their worksheets. In this group exercise, students have the opportunity to hear the variety of insights and eloquence possible in reading the artwork, and they have the opportunity to share their own insights and see those insights contribute to other’s understanding.

  • Group Discussion
  • Design Across Domains
  • Illustrating the Self-Perfection Process


Lower Elementary

Example Art Appreciation Works
The Boyhood of Raleigh, John Millais
Childhood Idyll, William Bouguereau
The Astronomer by Candlelight, Gerrit Dou

Art Context

Art Movements
Study of the Artist's Key Works
Experimentation with Media

Elements of Art
Positive and Negative Line
Shape and Form
Color and Texture

Drawing, Sketching, Painting
Connection to Geometric Plane Figures
Connection to History and Arts
Pencil and Graphite Watercolor Pencils and Paints

Sculpture and Handwork
Connection to Geometric Solids
Connection to History and Arts
Crochet, Knitting, and Weaving

Singing and Pitch
Singing with the Scale
Performance: Memorized Songs

Rhythm and Tone
Clapping Rhythm
Pattern Naming and Notation of Tone Bars

Movement and Dynamics
Body Awareness and Control
Notation and Movement Accents

Upper Elementary

Example Art Appreciation Works
The Rookie
, Norman Rockwell
The Painter's First Work
, Marcus Stone
The Accident
, William Geets
, Michelangelo
Echo and Narcissus
, John Waterhouse
A Reading from Homer
, Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Art Context
Art Movements
Artist Biographies
Study of the Artist's Key Works
Experimentation with Media
Music Appreciation

Principles of Design
Visual Expression
Engineering and Technology
Balance and Unity Pattern
Rhythm and Harmony
Contrast and Emphasis

Sculpture and Handwork
Connection to Geometric Solids
Connection to History and Arts
Crochet and Knitting Weaving

Rhythm and Beat
Written Note Patterns
Naming and Notation of Note Values
Time Signatures

Reading and Writing Music
Naming and Notation of Tone Bars
Degrees of the Scale Intervals
Sequence of Major Scales: Sharps and Flats
Transposition of Simple Songs

Movement and Dynamic
Notation and Movement Accents