Using Primary Sources and the Arts to Teach American History

Hopkins School, Maribeth Tremblay, $4,703

This year, Hopkins 5th graders are going “back in time” to learn about American history.  Along with their textbooks and the Internet, students are using primary sources to learn about Mesoamerica and the Colonial time period.  Primary sources, such as paintings, songs, toys, musical instruments and artifacts of everyday life, provide clues about a society.  They compel students to explore and think critically on why an object or song reflects the time period.  And through their own art projects and music class, they are getting a chance to experience life as it was during these times. 

This exploration was made possible by a cross-curricular grant written by 5th grade teacher, Maribeth Tremblay, along with co-applicants from the Hopkins’ library, art and music departments.  The Hopkinton Education Foundation funded the $4,700 grant this past spring. 

Along with in-school experiences, 5th graders from Hopkins visited the Museum of Fine Arts this winter, to see first-hand many artifacts and paintings from these time periods.  Students were led by a museum docent through several exhibits, including the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs; galleries of portraits from Colonial America and the Revolutionary War; and a Modern Art exhibit.  Students also participated in a teacher-designed scavenger hunt, specifically created to further their understanding of American Art and solidify the links to their curriculum.  

The fifth grade students had an overwhelmingly positive response to the MFA trip.  Will D. and Meghan S. felt this was one of their favorite field trips.   Ellis S. and Tim F. agreed.  All the students found it interesting when the docents on the trip pointed out things that were wrong in various paintings – the favorite being the shark with lips.  Students learned that in art forms people depict things as they understand them to be not as they really are.  In the shark case, the artist had never even seen a shark.  Will also learned that sometimes an artist intentionally portrays things inaccurately to get a message across; art has a purpose. An example he learned is the painting of the Boston Massacre.  The massacre itself was not as large or as brutal as the painting depicts.  The artist wanted to get the colonists mad so that more would join in the fight. 

Another artifact that was a point of interest and excitement for all the students was the Sons of Liberty Bowl.  The bowl has a code on it known only by the Sons of Liberty.   Will and Meghan were both astounded that it was right out in the open but the British didn’t know.  The portrait of George Washington also fascinated all four students.  They shared the stories they learned about the painting and its symbolism.  The painting reminded Ellis that George Washington was such a powerful leader that he could have his picture painted with the horse’s behind!  

During the trip, each group had different leaders and some saw and learned some different things.  Back at school the students shared their experiences with each other.  Meghan’s group saw some workers setting up a gallery and learned a lot about that process, including the special gloves that need to be worn and the care needed when moving the artifacts.  Tim felt the trip to the MFA began his awareness of and appreciation for modern art.  When asked if he looks at artwork differently now than before his studies this year Tim replied, “Yes. It is strange what is considered modern art.” “Is it art or is it just the director’s choice?”  Ellis pointed out that music and art give you information about a culture because you can hear the songs they sang and learn their stories.   You also can see their homes and environments in pictures, drawings and compare them to ours.  

All the 5th graders felt that the trip to the museum brought what they are learning in social studies to life.   Before this trip, Meghan used to think, “Art was art”.  “But now I know there is a story behind it.  In early art, people couldn’t just pick up markers, colored pencils paper and just draw.  They had to figure out how to tell their stories with blueberries and other materials in nature.”  After seeing the exhibits, Will has picked up a book on the Incas to learn more about them.  “Seeing the pictures and artifacts makes me more interested in learning what happened.” 

Since visiting the museum, students are now working on music and dance projects of their own, in order to experience life first-hand in Colonial and Mayan times.