If your calendar is anything like mine, you’re probably just getting back into the swing of things after a couple of days of professional development, which usually means sitting in a dark room, flipping through slide after slide of bullet points. I try to be understanding. There’s a lot of information to get through in a short amount of time, and let’s be honest, there’s not much exciting about the minutiae of tardy procedures and dress code enforcement. But every time I sit in a dark room and have someone flip through slides, my mind wanders, and I only take in about a third of the information. Being lectured to by other teachers always makes me wonder what it’s like to be a student in their classroom, or in mine. We as professionals have to wonder a bit, are our lectures to students received with the same level of apathy by our students?
Sitting there got me thinking about my own high school art history class. My teacher would put a slide up on the board and read a couple of bullet point facts to us while we hurriedly took notes. She would then skip to the next slide, tell us more facts, next slide, more facts, and so on, for an entire class period. I loved art and art history. I was one of those dorky kids that would sneak down on the train to the Art Institute of Chicago on the weekends and just sit in the galleries. I would I would wander around for hours trying to take everything in. But in my art history class, I slept through the lectures. The memory of that class has always stuck with me, and I think about it every time I design a presentation for my students.
Students don’t need lectures, they need stories. Before we developed writing, societies/cultures/traditions were established and passed down through narratives told around a fire. Humans are wired for stories. We’re drawn to them. A good story is captivating. It sticks with us much longer than any list of bullet points ever could. And history, especially art history, is full of some Shakespearean level drama. Modern art is full of egos, scandals, and conflicts. Artist after artist battles to conquer the avant garde. Also, if your students are mature enough, an occasional salacious detail about an artist’s personal life (and artists have provided many) keeps students at the edge of their seats. I still remember the wink and raised eyebrow my high school history teacher gave when explaining that Alexander the Great’s empire fell to pieces because he had too much fun with his male soldiers to ever father an heir. What more could we as teachers ask for than to have a student remember a lecture some two decades later?
So the next time you sit down to design a presentation on the Renaissance, don’t forget to include the battle of egos between Michelangelo and da Vinci, or Michelangelo and the Pope, or Michelangelo and really anybody who had the misfortune of having to spend much time with him. Of course, you want to focus on color when looking at the Impressionists, but let’s not forget that Manet led a group of artists in an intellectual revolt against the status quo as well as a lesser Napoleon, or that everyone had syphilis. Talking about cubism? Don’t forget to include the way Picasso taunted Matisse by remaking his paintings. Did you know that Andy Warhol gave Salvador Dali one of his Marilyn silkscreens? Did you know that upon receiving it, in a crowded restaurant, Dali immediately urinated on it? That’ll grab a teenager’s attention.
These artworks and movements we discuss were made by complex people, and those people were affected by the history being made around them. They interacted with and responded to the same events your students just heard about down the hall in their history classroom. Don’t think of artists just as artists, but think of them as conquering heroes, battling for artistic supremacy. They had allies and villains. They had trials and tribulations. They had friends, enemies, frenemies and infighting. They had winding narratives full of interesting twists and turns. Take the time to get to know those narratives. (There are plenty of great books these days that will lay them out for you). And then craft them into a captivating story for your students. Do it right, and I guarantee you will never hear a complaint from students about having to sit through a lecture ever again.
Here’s a list of a few great books I’ve read recently that present a compelling narrative…
The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance Paperback – August 13, 2013
by Jonathan Jones
The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism Paperback – November 28, 2006
by Ross King
The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art Paperback – May 16, 2017
by Sebastian Smee
In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art Paperback – April 19, 2016
by Sue Roe