Exploring Art, Artifacts, and Culture in the Institute

by Jules David Prown

The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute was established in 1978 as a joint program of Yale University and the New Haven Public Schools. A fundamental principle of the Institute is that the curriculum is initially generated by the school teachers themselves. Yale faculty are then invited to offer seminars in areas of teacher interest. Individual teachers propose topics they will develop in seminar as curriculum units and teach the following year. In response, Yale faculty seminar leaders fine-tune the planned reading and discussions to fit the interests of the accepted participants. Completed units are subsequently published and made available to other interested teachers in the school system (and teachers elsewhere by request).

The seminar leaders from the Yale faculty bring greater subject matter knowledge and expertise; the school teachers bring much greater practical classroom knowledge. The seminars are collegial undertakings conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In working in a collegial way with school teachers, we Yale professors­ more than seventy five of whom, mostly senior faculty, have been involved with the Institute in its fifteen years of existence­learn much about the craft we profess, about what it means to be a teacher. It is easy to teach Yale students­give them the right materials and ask the right questions and they teach themselves. In the Institute we become aware of the extraordinary accomplishments of dedicated New Haven school teachers who work in environments that are often not conducive to learning, and we learn from their sensitivity and responsiveness to the needs of individual students. Like all teachers, we learn through teaching.

I have offered three seminars in the Institute, all of which have had a similar theoretical and methodological underpinning.1 The method, in brief, derives from the concept that all artifacts­that is, all human-made objects, including works of art­are fragments of history that embody the beliefs of the culture that produced them. They are things that happened in the past but, unlike other historical happenings, continue to exist in the present. They can therefore be re experienced, affording a special mode of non-verbal, affective access to other cultures and to our own. Pedagogically, this provides an opportunity for making other times and other places, other ways of life and thought, more comprehensible to students, including those who have difficulty absorbing verbal information, or who are immediately dismissive of cultures different from their own. It also enables young people, including those who lack verbal or mathematical skills, to extract information from things about their own culture, whether their family, their community, or their social, religious, or ethnic heritage. Four out of five school children in New Haven are from minority groups, and units on African, Hispanic, Pre-Columbian and Native American cultures are usual, along with more traditional units on historic Anglo-American culture.

In my seminars, we use close analysis of objects as a means of understanding culture, not only to absorb factual historical evidence but to dig beneath the surface to find unconscious expressions of cultural belief. It involves application of a simple methodology. Teachers from New Haven elementary, middle, and high schools who teach Social Studies, History, Art, English, Spanish, and French (language teachers of a cultural/historical bent experimenting with materials for instruction) have enrolled in my seminars. The first two were enttled "Art, Artifacts, and Material Culture" and "Time Machines: Artifacts and Culture." The seminar I gave most recently on "The Family in Art and Material Culture" was structured around the analysis of images of the family and, to a lesser extent, objects of everyday life. Emphasis was placed on key stages of family life­ birth, childhood, marriage, parenthood, aging, and death.

With the emphasis on methodology, the seminars seem to have been particularly useful to teachers in developing practical aspects of their teaching lesson plans. Each class meeting focuses on the analysis of a single object. In seminar meetings we analyze museum objects, but the teachers are encouraged in developing units to subject everyday materials to the same kind of close analysis. Their students in turn can do the same thing with pictures in magazines, family snapshots, or items of everyday life around them. The museum is used not as a treasure house that contains sanctioned objects of beauty and value, but as a training ground for learning to extract understanding from things. This affective way of learning works for non-literate as well as literate students, and offers opportunities for students who may seem backward to excel through visual acuity or creativity in executing projects in the curriculum unit.

Units developed in the material culture seminars promise an extraordinary range and variety of classroom experiences. They have included "The Native American: Through the Eyes of His Mask with a Special Focus on the Indians of Connecticut"; "Comic Books: Superheroes/heroines, Domestic Scenes, and Animal Images"; "New Haven: Its Ships and Its Trades, 1800-1920"; "Totem Poles of the North American Northwest Coast Indians"; "Mexican Culture Taught Through the Aztec Calendar"; "Body Exterior­The Language of Contemporary Fashion"; "Toys Are Us"; "Cajun Music: The Voice of the Cajun Family"; "Family Life among the Ashanti of West Africa"; "The Heritage and Culture of Puerto Ricans"; "The Inuit Family: A Study of its History, Beliefs, and Images"; and "New Haven Families: Artifacts and Attitudes, 1770s to 1890s." Through the use of objects and a systematic method of object analysis, such units can stimulate and direct students' ability to use their senses, especially their abilities to see; to overcome inhibitions and respond emotionally; to reflect on the meaning of their sensory and emotional experiences; to express themselves orally and in writing with clarity and precision; to make value judgments and decisions. The curriculum units are intended to convert the theory of the seminar into the practice of the New Haven classroom.


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