Aesthetics in the Classroom – Finding the Words

‘Artist of the Day’ video associated with this word cloud: Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates” NYC in a Stowstorm

Next week I plan to start asking the big cahuna art question, “What is Art?”. For six weeks I’ve been showing an ‘Artist of the Day’ with the objective of exposing them to different artists and thinking about the videos they see thematically (last week was stop motion animation, this week installations). I give them a chance to express whether they like the art that day with a show of hands, then we take a vote on Friday to see who the favorite artist is for the week. ‘Artist of the Day’ is intended to get them thinking about the big world of art. Already some of my students have told me they have gone back to find out more about a particular artist that interested them, or they have brought a suggestion for an ‘Artist of the Day’. Yea!

But before we start asking more questions about art, I wanted to spend a little time developing their vocabulary about describing the art and their feelings about it. 9th and 10th graders typically have a narrow range of words to express their feeling about an artist or artwork: awesome and cool to stupid and boring. There are not many words in between. Since divergent thinking is a big theme in my classroom this year, I came up with a classroom activity designed to get them to dig deep and find other words to communicate their ideas and feelings about the art they are seeing.

For three of the five days, after the video was shown, I gave each table a piece of paper (1/4 of a sheet of printer paper). There are about 6 students per table group, so it makes a nice small group activity. I encouraged them to talk to each other about other words they could use (get that collaborative thinking generated), then to list each student’s name on the paper and write down their word. Each day I reminded them about thinking more divergently and suggested that they each come up with their own word within the group.


‘Artist of the Day’ video associated with this word cloud: Cadillac Ranch

I gathered the sheets by period and clipped them together. Great – now what? Quite serendipitously, or cosmically as I like to say, I stumbled onto another blogpost that gave me a fun idea. Innovative Educator Consulting is the blog, with a focus on “Inspired Technology Leadership to Transform Teaching & Learning”. Perfect! This feeds right into our 21st c. learning objective to incorporate more technology into the classroom! The specific post I read is titled “Word Cloud Makers Are Here” and it has a juicy list of free sites that are available to teachers to use as instructional tools in our curriculum. I took the time to go through the entire list and chose mostly because you could put your word cloud into a shape.

You can see the word cloud for each video here and it really was quite revealing. I showed the students the word cloud the day after they saw the Christo video (I chose colors that reflected the gorgeous saffron of his gates) and we looked at what happened. When you type the words into the application (in my case 170 words from my student body), the more frequently a word is used, the larger the font and it’s prominence in the cloud. Contrast and colorful were the most frequent responses. I was delighted to see words like flowing, relaxing, graceful and soul.

I created the next word cloud from their viewing of the video about Cadillac Ranch. The next morning, I put the two word clouds up side by side and asked them what they saw. Colorful and creative were the most prominent words, but this time we had some other words that weren’t in the first cloud: changing, painstaking, unpredictable and representative. Yesterday we watched a video about a very different installation, an Art:21 artist, Pepón Osorio, and we gathered words for our last word cloud of the week. Not much overlap here with interesting, confusing and mysterious being the major ideas. Some nice observations were intentional, reflective, eyeopening and mystifying.

This activity was valuable in getting each student to express their opinion. At the beginning of the week, I tried to generate classroom discussion. My first period class has from the first day of school been unnaturally silent. I can hardly get them to talk! By Wednesday, I came up with the idea of having them write their idea on paper along with their name. Now I could actually see what each one of them was thinking, and it gave them the freedom to be more expressive and candid. There is a large percentage of students who don’t want to speak out in class because they are afraid they will be wrong or the other kids will think they are stupid! It’s hard to overcome. Smaller groups get them loosened up.  One other thing that I think was valuable for them to see was their differing opinions – some thought an artwork was interesting, some uninteresting. Some of their typical language showed up, like weird and awesome, but overall, I was extremely happy in the way they were able to express their opinions, push their thinking and then be able to see their thinking in a visual way. Word clouds are a great way to get a snapshot of collective thinking!

‘Artist of the Day’ video associated with this word cloud: Art:21 | Pepón Osorio (For a longer, more comprehensive look at his work, see the official Art:21 video that is about 15 minutes long. His section of the video is Chapter 13 of 16, 40:09 minutes into the 53 minute video. It’s worth a look!)

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