Social Education 58(3), 1994, pp. 136-141
National Council for the Social Studies
Imagine, if you will, the following scene: a class of 20 eleventh-grade United States history students have spent a week and a half learning about late nineteenth-century European and Asian immigration to the United States. They began by reading the relevant section on immigration in their textbooks. They then worked as a whole class or in small groups, spending three days discussing immigrants' oral histories, two days viewing historical photographs of immigrants, and three days interpreting nineteenth-century poems and cartoons by and about immigrants. At the end of the unit, each student represented something he or she had learned by crafting a story, poem, painting, or other art form. The teacher informed the students that she would judge each work in terms of the content, skill, and expressiveness conveyed.
The notion of having high school students represent their understandings of history through paintings, poems, stories, or songs is hardly new; for years, history textbooks and teachers have encouraged students to creatively depict the past through creative writing or drawing. Few adults, however, have taken the task seriously by recognizing the possibility that students' renderings can represent intelligent or rigorous thought. This especially is true when educators consider the use of artistic forms beyond the confines of the art classroom and in the context of an academic subject like history.
As a classroom teacher and scholar, I routinely have used art-like or nondiscursive primary sources like oral histories, poems, paintings, photographs, and songs to teach about the past; I have also allowed secondary students to represent historical topics through stories, songs, poetry, or painting. Although many students have created historical poems or paintings that fall flat or off the mark, particular students have rendered especially effective examples of what I have come to call historical artwork. In addition, some students have produced paintings, poems, or stories to represent historical knowledge publicly in forms congruent to what they report to have imagined privately. And most significantly, a few students who have had limited success in demonstrating historical knowledge through multiple choice or essay tests have succeeded in representing historical knowledge through a painting or story. Given these examples, teachers who provide students with opportunities to represent history or other social studies subjects through the arts can enable particular students to achieve the kinds of educational experiences and outcomes they cannot capture or craft by completing a standardized test or writing an essay.
Representations of Knowledge In and Through the Arts
In traditional history and social studies classrooms, students express factual knowledge through multiple choice and short answer tests (Goodlad 1984; Ravitch and Finn 1987; Wiley and Race 1977). To represent sophisticated or higher levels of historical thinking, students write explanatory or analytic essays. At the most complex level of historical thinking and writing, as exemplified by the document-based question on the history advanced placement exam,1 a secondary student takes on the role of the professional historian in answering a question open to competing or conflicting interpretations. The student analyzes and synthesizes a set of primary documents and then constructs a logically argued essay, defending the assertion that one historical cause, consequence, or decision, as opposed to the alternatives, was decisive or correct.
Conversely, by representing history and other conceptions of knowledge through paintings, poems, stories, or songs, students can communicate the lifelike qualities of human experience. They can combine and construct the sensory qualities of the arts-like the visual qualities of painting, the audible qualities of music, or the rhythmic qualities of poetry-to produce a palpable dimension to the particular conception of experience represented by the painting or poem (Dewey 1934; Eisner in press; Langer 1942). In addition, students can convey conceptions of human emotions or feeling by shaping an artwork's expressive qualities, like mood or tone in painting or poetry (Langer 1942, 1953). By shaping the structural qualities of art forms, students can represent conceptions of human experience characterized by "lifelikeness" or what Jerome Bruner (1986, 11) has called "verisimilitude."
Students also can represent an empathic understanding of human experience by shaping art forms' sensory and expressive qualities. Historians have said that they gauge or grasp a feeling for the people and period under study by interpreting historical sources such as poems, paintings, and songs (Handlin 1979; Craig 1989). Similarly, students can craft historical stories, songs, paintings, or poems in ways that not only enable them to represent an empathic understanding of the experiences displayed but also enable educated others to gain insight into and empathy for the experiences portrayed (Dewey 1934; Eisner 1991).
In addition, some students can use historical artwork to convey publicly the understandings they have constructed about the past in forms congruent to those they report to have imagined privately. As some students interpret historical narratives, poems, paintings, or songs, they may also construct visual, poetic, or narrative images or understandings. Philosophers and psychologists have noted that thinking or "meaning-making" occurs not only in or through words arranged literally, logically, persuasively, or argumentatively but through spatial, musical, rhetorical, or narrative mental representations as well (Bruner 1986; Dewey 1934; Eisner in press; Gardner 1980, 1983). Students who think or conceptualize visually while interpreting visual, poetic, or narrative forms and who have the talent to represent visual thinking publicly through visual or spatial means can use painting or sculpture as public forms for representing personal conceptualizations.
Finally, my experience as a classroom teacher has confirmed what many consider to be a matter of common sense: some students have a proclivity or talent for representing ideas through artistic forms that may or may not match their talent for taking multiple choice tests or writing essays. Prior training, natural ability, or some combination of both enable some students to construct masterful historical paintings or poems. In addition, some students show a skill and sensitivity in creating historical poems or paintings that they have not or cannot display in writing historical essays. Teachers who enable students to represent historical understanding through the arts may provide rare opportunities for particular students to succeed in demonstrating understanding through talents they can manipulate well.
The Classroom and the Curriculum
The examples presented below are taken from a classroom study conducted during the 1990-91 academic year. The study took place in a middle- to upper middle-class suburban high school, located in the metropolitan area of a large Northeastern city. The high school was one of two in a city of 80,000 residents and was on the less affluent side of town. Sixty-eight percent of the 1991 graduating class continued on to four-year colleges or universities, 20 percent entered two-year post-secondary schools, and 12 percent went to work upon graduation.
The eleventh-grade United States history classroom in which I taught consisted of 20 self-selected college-bound students and represented a middle track in a three-tracked curriculum, between an honors and a general education track. Most of the students were Caucasian; seven or about one-third were first or second generation Americans whose parents had come from Ireland, Spain, Eastern and Southern Europe, the Soviet Union, Lebanon, and India. Students in the class represented a range of motivations and abilities: two graduated in the top 5 percent of the graduating class and three graduated in the bottom fifth. The others fell somewhere in between, with 13 or two-thirds of the students entering four-year selective private or state institutions after graduation and seven or one-third entering two-year proprietary schools or low-paying service-oriented jobs. The distribution of students' grades on multiple choice and essay tests throughout the year followed a consistent pattern: three students received As, seven received Bs, seven received Cs, and three hovered between Ds and Fs.
Throughout the year, I worked with the classroom teacher in presenting to students five two-week, art-based curricular units. I organized each unit around two or three broad questions that related to important themes of the period under study. Each day, the entire class interpreted primary sources such as oral histories, paintings, poems, cartoons, songs, or stories. At the end of each two-week period, students represented something they had learned by creating a story, poem, painting, collage, song, or other non-essay form. For two weeks in February 1991, students worked with the third of the five units on late nineteenth-century European and Asian immigration to the United States. They read the oral histories of European and Asian immigrants, viewed nineteenth-century photographs, and interpreted poems and cartoons by and about immigrants. Before beginning the unit, students read the section on immigration in their textbooks. To assist students in framing their interpretations of the primary sources, I asked them at the beginning of the unit to consider two questions as they interpreted each source:
1. How did immigrants interpret their experiences as immigrants?
2. How did reformers and nativists portray the immigrants and the immigrant experience?
I also explained to students at the end of the two weeks that they were to represent something they had learned about the immigrant experience through a form other than an essay. The classroom teacher and I would evaluate each work by assessing the representativeness and complexity of its themes or concepts, the technical skill displayed in the final form, and the expressiveness of the work, determined by the extent to which a knowledgeable reader or viewer gained insight into or empathy for the historical concepts or experiences exhibited in the work.
Obviously, not all students took well to the task. Three students never completed the assignment, and four produced very poor examples of stories or poems. Another seven students produced drawings, poems, or stories that were adequate in terms of the historical themes or concepts represented but lacked skill in the technical aspects of writing or painting. Six students, however, produced excellent examples of historical artwork. The works presented below illustrate how four students used art forms as vehicles for conveying historical knowledge they would not have been capable of communicating had they written an essay or created some other form.
A student named Hannah wrote the following poem. The classroom teacher described Hannah as the brightest student in the class. Analytically quick and verbally articulate, Hannah also excelled on multiple choice tests and analytic essays. When asked why she wrote a poem, she said she could best represent the ambiguity of, as well as an empathy for, the immigrant experience by writing a poem.
Welcome, To the Promised Land
some with dominating European features
others with flat Asian canvases,
Leaving watery eyes, friends
and close family members behind,
in the comfort of their world;
to experience humiliation
and unparalleled fear
in what was supposed to be
to the promise.
The golden gates of
the budding, flowery flag nation.2
The welcoming Ms. America
waving her eternal flame
across the harbor-
The crowded tenement buildings
the degrading inspection of people
the foreign flesh
sold and bought, in the underground world,3
An unwanting nation
returns to Sicily and Ireland
faces stamped rejection,
bodies marred-not good enough
to have a chance.
stripped of their dignity
and robbed of their dreams
of a life they expected to find,
Welcome, to the promised land,
Hannah uses poetic structure to portray a vivid yet subtle view of the immigrant experience from the perspective of the immigrant and nativist alike. She constructs the verses' contents chronologically, juxtaposing nativist and immigrant perspectives on the physical and spiritual dimensions of migration, the mixed meanings of the promised land, and competing perspectives on deportation. Hannah also employs poetic form to construct images and moods relevant to the historical times she depicts. Graphic terms evoke human images shaped by xenophobic and reformist mindsets; familiar phrases project symbols and moods typifying the best of traditional American ideals and the worst of nineteenth-century reality. Overall, themes, tones, images, and symbols cohere to portray a dramatic and lifelike concept of the historical experience represented.
When asked what she intended to portray in writing the poem, Hannah revealed an empathic understanding. She said she wanted to show that the immigrants risked all they had for a chance to change their lives: "I was trying to show that-that they were thinking, 'Okay, we're going to leave everything we have behind and go to this great big chance' and when they got there they were made fun of and they couldn't find jobs and some of them had to go back home." When asked about the poem's tone, Hannah noted it wasn't exactly "sarcastic," but by using the word "welcome" ambiguously, she meant to present both nativist resentment and immigrant disappointment. Through poetry, Hannah enables the engaged reader to enter into multiple conceptions of the immigrant experience and construe an empathy for the characters and circumstances presented.
A second example illustrates the use of narrative or story form to good effect. A student named Jane wrote a story about the European immigrants' transatlantic crossing. Jane, like Hannah, was a good student, receiving As and Bs on multiple choice and essay tests.
A Painful Journey
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. Mama was so ill, but she tried to say hopeful. Little Lena kept close to her the whole trip. I think she knew Mama would die if we did not get to Ellis Island soon. We were too young to know that even if she had made it to the Island, they would have sent her back to Germany. Oh, she wanted to see America with all her heart!
It was horrible. We all sat close together on the boat, both eating and sleeping in the same place. There was a young girl, maybe twelve years old, and she was quite ill. Her eyes were red and she trembled at her mother's side. I was afraid of being too close to her for fear of catching her illness. The mother would put her arm around her and beg her in a soft and delicate voice to get better. She knew that her daughter would not be permitted into the United States if she remained ill. All their suffering would amount to nothing. The young girl wept bitterly every night before falling asleep.
But my attention was always on Mama. I sometimes gave her my herring, hoping that it would make her strong again. A man sitting across from us, holding a thin, wan baby in his arms, whispered to me that I must take care of myself, if I wanted to get to America. He looked towards my mother and then, looking at me, he said, "She will not get better."
My mother just got weaker and weaker. I can still see her eyes, on that day, when she calmly took my hand and gave me instructions to take care of Lena and to find Uncle Stephan once at Ellis Island. Her eyes were weary but deep inside they shone with hope for her children's future. That next morning, she did not open her eyes.
In this touchingly told tale, Jane has shown a strong grasp of the themes or concepts associated with the European immigrant experience. She brings the reader into the text by weaving together one family's personal and immediate reminiscences with the conditions of late nineteenth-century European immigration. She borrows from the narrative accounts she read in class by recording the crowded conditions on the boat, the prevalence of illness among those traveling in steerage, the fear that illness would lead to detention or deportation, and the separation and eventual reconciliation of family members in a new land.
Jane also constructs a story that enables a reader to grasp a sense of the hardship and hope of the immigrant experience. She uses first-person narrative, thereby personalizing and particularizing the account. She composes caring portrayals of characters, whose thoughts and actions comprise the content of the story. She also creates vivid scenes on the boat, depicting through physical actions closeness and caring, illness and anticipation, relationships characterized by loss and rebirth. She ends on a note detailing sadness and hope, portrayed through the demonstration and then the absence of maternal expression. Overall, Jane has shaped her knowledge of historical experience into a dramatic and personal representation.
In an interview, Jane said she was trying to transmit a feeling both for the difficulty of the journey and for the hopefulness which inspired it. "The trip was a dream," Jane said, "but you'd imagine a dream to be luxurious, wonderful, but inside there was a lot of hell they had to go through." She also noted that she included an optimistic note in the conclusion because she thought it realistically captured a significant aspect of the experience, namely, one generation's hope for the next generation's future. By representing a knowledge of and feeling for the immigrant experience through story form, Jane enables a knowledgeable reader to gain insight into the historical experiences depicted.
Public Representation of Private Conceptualizations
Donald, like Hannah and Jane, did well in history; he received As and Bs on multiple choice and essay tests. After studying immigration for two weeks, Donald painted the picture shown in Figure 1.
The painting, and Donald's comments about it, demonstrate a solid knowledge of the immigrant experience. Similar to one of the historical photographs shown in class, Donald's painting possesses a sense of the immigrant's hope in the physical and figurative landscapes that await him or her in the new world. Donald's wonderful sense of color and perspective draws the viewer into a lively scene, crafted from the immigrants' vivid expressions, the anthropomorphic quality of the Statue of Liberty and the sense of movement portrayed by the water and New York city skyline. Overall, the striking use of color and flow of lines and shapes evoke a hopefulness, optimism, or excitement about arrival in a new land.
Donald's description of the painting underscores his understanding: "I was trying to portray the immigrant coming to America, full of hope and happiness, but still a little intimidating by the huge buildings and by the whole thing because they knew it was going to be a tough time but they still had hope. The buildings represent all sorts of obstacles and even though they weren't that high-it's kind of exaggerating the point-but to them they looked that high."
What is especially interesting is Donald's discussion of his conceptualization and the construction of this and other paintings he completed at the end of each unit. When talking about this particular painting, he said the narratives of immigrants describing their experiences and the photographs of late nineteenth-century European immigration interpreted in class conjured in his mind visual images, which he then translated into a public representation. "I really developed a picture in my mind as we studied the topic," Donald commented. "I knew I wanted to do something about New York. I wanted the Statue of Liberty in there to mean hope for the future. I wanted to show the people . . . like they were excited and maybe a little afraid." And when asked why he chose painting, he simply said, "I'm good at picturing things and then drawing them."
Artistic vs. Analytic Representations of Historical Knowledge
A student named Karen wrote the following story. Karen was an average student in history: she earned Cs on multiple choice tests and essays and was quiet and uninvolved in class. The depth and detail of her story, however, reveals an intellectual engagement with the art-like primary sources she never displayed when working with the textbook (Epstein 1991).
Today is the day when my family is to leave Naples for America.
My parents have been talking about moving for a long time. My father says there isn't enough work here to support our family and the letters he got from his cousin, who left for America two months ago, said that opportunity there was better than in Naples. So after much debate and a long time of money saving it was decided that we would move to America and make a better life for ourselves.
I didn't want to move away, I liked living in Naples. I didn't want to leave my friends and family never to see them again. I would miss our home and the chickens, and Maria our cow and especially my beloved burro Paco who carried our goods to market every week. Now everything would change.
The trip to the coast only lasted a few days and was fairly pleasant.4 The weather was nice and warm and the man that drove the wagon was kind to us. When we reached the port with the boat to America, the people were too many to count and from so many walks of life!
After paying our fare and signing papers and standing in line for what seemed like days we boarded. The boat was huge and confusing. Once aboard we were directed to our quarters where we would wait out the long journey.
The traveling conditions were horrible. Small children were dying everyday, mostly from the measles. I only prayed that my baby sister Lola didn't catch anything and die, because what they did to those that died was monstrous. They would wrap the body in a cloth and throw it overboard without a second look. There were so many people, so much disease, so little help.
One morning when I woke up I went above deck to look around and get some fresh air, when to my surprise I saw land and buildings and bridges. My heart was filled with joy. I couldn't wait to tell mama and papa.
We gathered our belongings and headed up to be let off, along with everyone else. The line was long, slow and never-ending.
We reached the immigration office and were given health exams and written tests of all sorts and they finally let us through except for Lola who had gotten conjunctivitis and had to stay back with mama during an observation period of five days. Once the five days were over Lola was permitted to go and we started off on our new life in a strange and beautiful country.
Karen uses story form effectively to represent her knowledge of the historical experience of late nineteenth-century immigration. Writing from the perspective of a young immigrant, she gains the reader's attention in the first line by setting the scene with a dramatic announcement. She then fills in the background by explaining the family's motivation for leaving Europe and the storyteller's own sense of loss over leaving her homeland. She moves on to describe the stages of the European immigrant's journey: the movement from what she imagines to be the native village to port city and the embarkation and transatlantic crossing, which wrought horror as well as hope. She notes the immigrant's joy upon seeing land and the attending frustration of debarkation and medical inspection. She ends on a note of anticipation and optimism, suggesting to readers that the storyteller found the benefits of the experience worth the cost.
Karen said she wrote the story to show what it "was really like. It wasn't glorified," she noted, and "once they reached the port in America they had to wait and no one understood them." She ended optimistically to convey a sense of accomplishment and resiliency: "if they made it through this, they could make it through anything in America." When asked if she was satisfied with the story, Karen reread it and said if she had it to do over again, she might make it sound less "happy" or optimistic. When asked why she chose to write a story, Karen remarked, "My English teachers have always told me I have a knack for writing fiction. It comes pretty naturally to me. I can think it out and make changes easy. I knew I could write it and do a good job."
As Karen has noted, she has a talent for writing stories. In the essays she was asked to write in history class, she did poorly. She displayed little analytic skill in explaining the causes or consequences of events and little ability in synthesizing information from a variety of sources. Her story about immigration, however, not only reveals a knowledge of the subject but a skill in creating characters and maintaining a narrative flow which brings the reader along from beginning to end. By writing a historical story, Karen demonstrated a solid knowledge of the immigrant experience, something she did not or could not display in essays and multiple choice tests.
Implications for Teaching and Learning
By enabling students to represent what they have come to know through poems, paintings, stories, and songs, a teacher can expand the kinds of historical understanding students can communicate. Whereas essays are appropriate forms for answering arguable questions about the causes, developments, or consequences of historical events, the arts are forms appropriate for representing an empathic understanding of historical experiences in ways which enable educated others to grasp an insight into or empathy for the experiences portrayed. In addition, some students can use the arts as vehicles for representing publicly what they have imagined privately. And for students like Karen, stories or songs enable them to succeed in representing what they have come to know through forms they have the talent to manipulate well.
In this study, the examples of historical artwork students created were influenced by the primary sources they learned to interpret in class. Several students noted they modeled the content and form of their stories or poems after the ones they had read in class. A teacher who uses historical paintings or poems in class has an opportunity to teach students to analyze their forms as well as their contents by pointing out how colors or curves in paintings or symbol and rhythm in poems produce a particular theme or tone. Or a history teacher can teach students explicitly about the structure or elements of poetry or story writing, just as she might teach students to write an argumentative essay.
History or social studies teachers also on occasion can give students the option to determine the form they will use to demonstrate learning. Alternative or authentic forms of assessment have found their way into social studies journals and classrooms; most, however, are based on tasks involving the kind of logical or analytical thinking involved in proving a point or persuading others of a particular position (Newmann 1991; Parker 1991). When students have the power to decide the content as well as the form on which they will be assessed, many may have a greater chance for successfully representing what they have come to know.
The question of evaluating or judging a student's painting or poem inevitably arises. In this study, the classroom teacher and I judged students' historical artwork along three dimensions. First, we assessed each work in terms of the representativeness and complexity of the contents or themes. For representativeness, we used a standard of historical accuracy or plausibility. We judged the representativeness of the work's contents or themes by determining whether or not they represented either a historically accurate or realistic conception of the historical experiences depicted or a historically plausible conception. Overall, Jane's and Karen's stories realistically portray the themes of nineteenth-century immigrant life. Hannah's poem and Donald's painting present more abstract and symbolic representations, yet each projects images and symbols founded in realistic or plausible conceptions of immigration.
In addition, the classroom teacher and I considered a work's complexity. Hannah's poem, for example, is rich in imagery and symbolism and effectively melds content and form to convey complex understandings. The complexity of Donald's painting is projected through symbol and facial expression and gains greater meaning in relation to Donald's comments about it. The classroom teacher and I assessed a work's complexity as fitting into one of three categories. First, there were works which exhibited little or no complexity, as evidenced by the work standing on its own and by the student's explanation of her work. A second category included works that exhibited some degree of complexity, as evidenced, for example, by the details provided in songs or stories or the symbolism portrayed in poems or paintings. The third category included works that displayed complex conceptions or understandings, evidenced in terms of the work itself and the student's explanation of it.
The second general criteria for assessing students' works included judgments about the quality or skillfulness of form. Obviously a student who has gained a great understanding of immigration but is a poor painter will not be able to represent her ideas effectively or even adequately through painting. A student's skill in crafting a poem or painting affects his or her ability to communicate understanding (Eisner 1982). The classroom teacher and I did not use formal criteria in assessing students' work-for example, we did not have a checklist of characteristics constituting poetry writing or painting, or a scale for rating the effectiveness of the elements as a whole-because we did not take time in class to teach students writing or drawing. We considered each work by determining whether the student's skill was inadequate, adequate, or exceptional in communicating the content or themes he or she wished to portray.
The third criteria employed in this study involves the expressive or aesthetic qualities of historical artwork. A primary purpose for representing history through a poem or painting rather than an essay is that art forms enable individuals to communicate an empathic, rather than a literal or logical, understanding of history. Students convey empathy by shaping or exploiting the sensory and expressive elements of painting or song in ways that not only enable them to represent a life-like understanding but that enable knowledgeable others-i.e., her teacher or classmates-to grasp a human or empathic conception of the historical experiences depicted. Thus a student's historical artwork must speak to or convey some understanding of human experience comprehensible not only to the student but to others who have shared the educational environment in which historical meaning-making occurred.
Like the criterion of representativeness, the teacher and I characterized a work's expressiveness in terms of adequacy or inadequacy. We independently determined if a poem or painting, with or without a student's explanation of it, evoked "forms of imagination and forms of feeling, inseparably " (Langer 1942, 397). That is, were we able to construct an image of or feeling for the immigrant experience as the student portrayed it? Were we able to construe or come away with an empathic understanding of the historical experiences portrayed? Or, upon our best efforts, were we incapable of constructing from our engagement with the work any amplified or broadened conception of the historical experiences of others or any increase in insight (Eisner 1991; Goodman 1978) into the topics or themes delineated?
The arts, I have argued here and elsewhere (Epstein, in press), can be integrated into a history curriculum in ways that enrich students' understanding and representation of the past. On the occasions when a student produces a poem or painting that effectively and empathically illuminates her and others' understanding of some historical experience, it is surely a shining moment.
1 For example, the document-based question on the 1988 advanced placement exam in U.S. history reads as follows: "The United States' decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a diplomatic measure calculated to intimidate the Soviet Union in the post-Second World War era rather than a strictly military measure designed to force Japan's unconditional surrender. Evaluate this statement using the documents and your knowledge of the military and diplomatic history of the years 1939 through 1947" (College Entrance Examination Board, 1989).
2 Nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants referred to the United States as the "flowery flag nation."
3 In one of the narratives read in class, a Chinese immigrant noted she had been sold into prostitution in the United States by her father in China.
4 Karen mistakenly refers to Naples as a rural village of some distance to a coastal port, rather than as a major coastal city.
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