Visual Art, Adventures in Teaching in Learning

The Ithaca City School District counts arts learning as important. Students have access to art instruction taught by certified teachers throughout their grades K-12 experience. One fine arts credit is required to graduate from high school. Arts instruction during the school day, graduation requirements and certified teachers reinforce the value of arts learning.

Our district has benefited from seasoned teachers, many of whom are also practicing artists. Elementary art teachers have the distinction of instructing every student every year, developing relationships over time. In addition, elementary art teachers are often collaborators with general classroom teachers to reinforce learning in other subjects. Middle and high school art teachers can allow students to delve into areas of personal interest, enabling exploration of “voice” and identity, such as in Ithaca High’s Studio in Fashion Design and Illustration or Studio in Sculpture or LACS’s Mixed Media Landscaping.

Over the past two years, the district has welcomed new teachers. With each teacher, as with each learner, comes a different approach to tackling the ICSD/NYS Visual Art Curriculum Core Standards of creating, knowing/using, analyzing, and understanding cultural dimensions. (

Read about some of the ways our new and seasoned teachers are tackling teaching art, including a Choice-Based approach.

Caitlin Chan, middle school: Caitlin is turning her art classes into a Choice Based Art program, where students propose their individual projects guided by themes/big ideas (nature, identity, community, literature etc.) There are media centers and research stations set up around the room, students track and document their ideas and progress along with weekly demos, critiques and slide shows. ”In our choice-based classroom, students work to discover their own artistic voice. Students take risks, creating art at their own pace exploring ideas independently. I see my role as a teacher-mentor to introduce history, media, and techniques. We work together to develop a visual vocabulary to facilitate art appreciation and critique”, observes Caitlin.

Callie Bryant, elementary:
At the elementary school level artwork is based on themes/big ideas (nature, identity, community, dreams, literature etc.) while connecting these big ideas to what is being taught in the classroom. Cayuga Heights Elementary School follows the Choice Based Art programs approach. At the primary level (grades K-2) students explore big ideas and themes in a variety of mediums. Media centers are set up around the room that includes drawing, painting, sculpture and collage. Students first are introduced to the big idea through literature then create artwork based on that theme at the different media stations. The end result is artwork created based on one theme in at least two or three different ways. At upper elementary grades (3-5) a research component is added to the process. A big idea is introduced.

Students then research and draft ideas of the project they want to complete based on the theme and explore different materials and techniques they want to use. Students use peer critiques and personal reflection to track their progress and edit their work. The final result is multiple works of art based on the same theme that are completely different and personal to each artist who created it. Callie states, “Students are engaged and learn in a way that connects back to the classroom and is personally meaningful”.

Gina Cacioppo, high school: At Ithaca High School, the classes themselves are reflective of a “choice-base”. Gina teaches a Fashion Illustration Studio Art class where students can delve deeply into art skills via fashion. This year a Fine Arts Booster Mini-Grant helped Gina bring various designers to class to discuss their visions. Sarah Locke-Mountin, a seasoned elementary teacher, will apply her wealth of curriculum ideas to English Language arts on a 2014-15 sabbatical project. Sarah’s project is “Strengthening Student Thinking and Learning, A Visual Arts Approach”. Through research, field work, curriculum development, Sarah will use works of art to develop critical thinking skills and align NYS Art Standard Three (responding to and analyzing works of art) with the NYS Common Core ELA (English and Language Arts) Standards.

The Fine Arts Booster Group and the district view the arts as an important subject for student growth and learning. In the ever increasing visual culture of symbols and icons, students benefit from learning about concepts and connections through their own creativity.