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The Picture Lady


Last week I wrote about how looking at pictures informed the way I thought about teaching and learning. I’ve been thinking about The Picture Lady ever since.

The Picture Lady came to visit us in fifth grade. I think The Picture Lady was probably a Junior League member and her traveling art exhibit was a community service project. Each visit, she brought us a new picture – a large nicely framed copy of a famous work of art – and she gave us a little 15-minute lesson on the artist and some aspect of art appreciation.

After her visit, the picture took up residence on the far right end of the chalkboard rail. I sat right in front of the picture. There were no art museums in East Texas, but I had a front row seat when The Picture Lady came, and it sort of felt like she'd left the picture there just for me.

Last week I sat down and tried to recall the pictures and the lessons she taught. While I had to goggle around to find some of the titles, these are pictures I can still see in my head, quite a few decades later.

Vermeer: Maid with Milk Jug
Van Gogh: The Starry Night
Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Gainsborough: The Blue Boy
Renoir: Girl with a Watering Can
Van Eyck: The Arnolfini Marriage
Mary Cassatt: The Child’s Bath
Rembrandt: The Man with the Golden Helmet
Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Creation
Picasso: The Three Musicians
Sargent: The Wyndham Sisters
Wood: American Gothic
Da Vinci: The Last Supper
Velasquez: La Meninas
Whistler: Whistler’s Mother
Monet: Water Lilies
Hopper: Cape Cod Morning

I can recall lessons on impasto, fresco, pointillism, chiaroscuro, vanishing point, symbolism, impressionism, realism, portraiture, perspective, line, color and composition. I remember Van Gogh’s ear and Wood’s dentist, Vermeer’s preference for lighting from the left, and Da Vinci’s failure to anticipate the failure of egg white emulsion. For all these years, I’ve wondered whose back is that reflected in Van Eyck’s convex mirror? What is Whistler’s mother thinking about? Who is the rather sinister man at the doorway in La Meninas? Why is Hopper’s woman so happy and Wood’s woman so dour? How long did it take Seurat to make all those little dots? What did the artists, particularly the portrait artists, think of their subjects?

If The Picture Lady had not come to my fifth grade classroom almost 50 years ago, I would not have known those pictures existed. I would not have learned how to look at them or appreciate what I was seeing. I would not have taken advantage of living within driving distance of the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The Picture Lady Day and her pictures opened up a whole new world to me. She taught me to see differently and deeply. She gave me a gift that has lasted a lifetime.

I wonder, would The Picture Lady be welcomed into our schools today? Would we spare 15 minutes for a Junior Leaguer who wanted to introduce kids to culture? Or would she be viewed as an imposition or a distraction or just a waste of time that could be spent doing something more valuable?

And I wonder, exactly what could that something possibly be?


Oh, of course there would be no time for the Junior Leaguer. Nor would we have time for my favorite substitute, who clearly went off lesson plan when she would read the Braer Rabbit stories to us in storyteller fashion with all the voices and actions. I loved it when that lady found her way to our classroom! It was magical.
Nor do we take time (and money) for field trips, which is where I encountered, and fell in love with The Girl with the Watering Can. I did live near an art gallery, The National Gallery of Art, and purchased a copy of that painting with my meager elementary-school allowance. It hung over my bed from then on and later in my children's room. The lesson that went with it - impressionism - is just as indelible as my purchase. That painting made me feel special because Renoir chose a little girl as his subject.

Susan -

You've identified an important issue and I agree wholeheartedly. The research-data-test scores-standards-accountability crowd has no interest in conversations about whether or not kids like school, like their teachers, and feel anything in school tugging at their souls. Anyone who thinks it's unimportant whether or not the kids like their teachers just simply doesn't know enough children. Lest I be misinterpreted, I am NOT saying that teachers need to be their students' friends. They don't need to think we're cool, but they need to know we care, and that we value them. A relentless focus on measurable outcomes does not communicate that we care - quite the opposite.

In my subject area, English Language Arts, I'm fortunate that I'm dealing with skills-based standards rather than content standards. So, when the standards tell me that it's a good idea to link literature to its time period and the major ideas and issues of that time period, I can open up all sorts of creative avenues to do that. My sophomores are currently reading Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir, Night. How shall I teach them more about people's responses to the Holocaust? Well, rather than stick to text after text after text, we mix it up with videos, a guest speaker, music, and art. All of these activities change the ways students read, write, and speak about the content - and reading, writing, speaking and listening are the skills areas I need to teach and assess. I know that I am not unique in finding creative ways to address standards and not be confined unnecessarily by them. I hope that teachers and schools feeling constrained will take a broader view of what matters and how to reach children. Some say that we need to measure learning in order to guarantee that students have the requisite skills to learn beyond what is measured; if we only teach and assess with measurable outcomes in mind, however, students will be less capable of going beyond those measures, less motivated and less inspired.

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  • David Cohen: Susan - You've identified an important issue and I agree read more
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