Today was a really good day.
A few weeks ago, I posted an entry with a picture from an artist named Samuel Bak. It was one of a number of works I’d seen in the art gallery at my university while attending a conference on teaching the Holocaust to high school students.
I decided, standing in front of the enormous – and enormously powerful – paintings, that I would use them in my freshman classrooms. It just seemed too good an opportunity to pass up; the paintings are rich and full of symbols and images and, while I looked at the artwork, I found myself making connections to a lot of the material that I’d covered with the students. I was eager to see what the kids would do with it.
Tuesday, I began the experiment. My wonderful husband made a bunch of overhead transparancies for me so I was able to give the students a sense of viewing in a communal way rather than having to pass out one photocopy to each kid – I think that the act of standing in front of the piece with other people looking on was particular to the experience, and I didn’t want the students to have to look at the work in an isolated way. As I projected the first image on the wall – “Self Portrait” – I instructed the students to remain utterly silent – they weren’t to speak their thoughts aloud, they weren’t to talk to their classmates or to me about what they were thinking. I wanted them to just stand there and absorb the image – to think about what they were seeing, to notice where their eyes were drawn, to really experience the piece. Then, I asked them to return to their seats and quietly write the most important things they were thinking – about an image that spoke to them, about a question they had about the piece, about a theory about what this or that meant.
When they’d finished writing, we started a discussion. I cannot adequately tell you how impressed I am with the work these students did. They noticed SO much – they picked out images and suggestions of images that I was almost certain they’d miss. They made guesses about what things meant in terms of the study we’ve been doing around the literature of the Holocaust (“Wait – is that a Jewish star on the boy in the wall?”) They talked about the implications of some of the ideas they had (“what if the smoke in the background is from the crematoriums?” “What if the boy in the picture is the only one left, and he’s holding a pen because he’s responsible for telling the stories of all the people who didn’t survive?”). I am, even now, astounded at the sophistocated work these 14 year olds did.
I continued the lesson today with two more paintings from the artist – “The Sound of Silence,” which is on the post I mentioned earlier:
and “Adam and Eve”:
I had half expected the students to balk at doing more of the same work I asked them to do on Tuesday, but they were eager to get to it – the hour-and-a-half block of time flew by, and several students were disappointed when the bell rang. When high school kids are sad to see a class end, you know you’ve done a great job as a teacher.