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10 Ways to Integrate Art into Your Classroom

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My name is Mary Goldthwaite-Gagne and I am the Visual and Performing Arts department leader at ConVal High School where I have taught since 2007. I feel passionate about helping students find their way into art; I wholeheartedly believe that art is for everyone. Many of my students come to high school somewhat estranged from artmaking after a middle school loss of confidence and my role is to help them find their way back to art. My students are encouraged when they see that there are myriad ways to be a maker.

Throughout my teaching career, I have emphasized the importance of teaching within a historical context as well as considering contemporary art. PBS provides a wellspring of information that I can integrate into my classes. I use art21 and The Art Assignment because these resources represent a wide array of artists.

Helping my High School Students Find their Way Back to Art

Art21 and The Art Assignment are resources that have enriched my teaching practice and made it possible for me to integrate contemporary art and art history into all of my classes.


I have used Art21 in my class since I began teaching in 2007. I have come to depend on this resource for 4 key reasons:

  • It shows my students that there are myriad ways that one can make a living making art
  • Artists are shown in the context of their exhibition spaces and in their studios. You get an intimate look at their creative process. I have felt very validated by seeing Trenton Doyle Hancock’s piles in his studio mounds. My desk tends to pay homage to his work.
  • The episodes are curated thematically and more recently by place. This allows you to see that artists are capable of approaching similar themes from different perspectives, materials, and techniques without giving the illusion that art follows linear movements.
  • The studio assistants, fabricators, and networks of support show how artists are supported by the work, skills, and input of other people. It dispels the myth of solitary genius.

The Art Assignment

This series from PBS Digital Studios was first shared by a former student who posted I Could Do That. Once I watched that first video,I was hooked. The series shares many great qualities with Art21 with the addition of a participatory element. I love that my students can follow the prompts and arrive at vastly different final products. The assignment videos have become part of my classes for 4 reasons:

  • Amplifies  the voices of traditionally underrepresented artists. Most students enter my class being able to name the “Ninja Turtle” artists (Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael) and usually Picasso. It is empowering to be able to broaden the definition of what it means to be an artist, and connect that to the present moment.
  • Accessible language. Host Sarah Urist Green engages the audience and expertly explains sophisticated art terminology and concepts in ways that make sense to my students. As a viewer, you feel like you are in conversation with the hosts and featured artists.
  • Contemporary Art is put in historical context. I love The Art Assignment tee shirt, “All Art Was Once Contemporary.” In my teaching, it is very important for me to show students that there is not just one correct way to make art, while also showing them how people in the present are building upon the work of the past. The dynamic animations explain art history in a way that is fun, and the videos themselves are works of art and excellent examples of visual storytelling. They bring history to life!
  • Participatory element.The Art Assignment encourages viewers to make work in response to the assignments and post them on social media. Since I started using these assignments in concert with an Instagram account, I have noticed that my students continue to interact with the content that I am sharing long after their course has ended.

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are 10 ways that you can integrate the work of female artists into the classroom.

10. Kiki Smith in “Stories”(Art21)

This is the first episode of Art21 that I ever used in my classroom. Smith draws upon mythology and embodies endless curiosity. She has explored so many different processes throughout her career, and is an excellent example of an artist who is constantly learning. In this episode she remarks, “I just have this inventory of images and I can start mixing them up.” She continues, , “Basically, I think art is just a way to think, it’s like standing in the wind and letting it pull you in whatever direction it wants to go.”

9. Robyn O’Neil’s Psychological Landscape (The Art Assignment)

I have used this assignment with students for the past few years, and it is the perfect way to bridge abstraction and surreal representation. O’Neil expertly teaches the terms picture plane, ground, and figure. This is an assignment that would be appropriate for younger students as well.

8. Janine Antoni “Loss & Desire”(Art21)

Janine Antoni introduces student artists to working with unconventional materials: chocolate, soap, cow’s milk. Antoni incorporates her own body into her work and challenges the viewer to expand their view of what artmaking looks like. It can be a bath, a meal, or handwashing, but there is a twist in each scenario.

7. Fierce Women of Art 2 (The Art Assignment)

This video is part 2 of an excellent series that is full of women artists who deserve recognition. It notably features the artists Artemisia Gentileschi, Mona Hatoum, Frida Kahlo, Hannah Höch, and Yayoi Kusama. My students have really responded to the work of Kusama, and I shared my 3,000 mile road trip to see Kusama’s show Infinity Mirrors this past summer via Instagram.

6. Nancy Spero “Protest” (Art21)

I have been inspired by Spero’s dogged pursuit of her artistic practice until the end of her life. She was a pioneering feminist artist who used her work to explore the horrors of war and violence. This episode demonstrates how Spero found her voice while also being in a marriage and creative partnership with the painter Leon Golub. She developed an incredible wealth of imagery over her 50+ year career, and this video shows how she would return to earlier imagery and make something entirely new.

5.  Lenka Clayton Lost Childhood Object (The Art Assignment)

This assignment has become a staple of my 3D art curriculum. It is a project that builds relationships in the classroom, and challenges students to dive into using unfamiliar materials without being too precious. One of my favorite examples of a solution to this project in my class was a set of army men made of hot glue, the tiniest bit of chipboard, and acrylic paint (pictured below).

4. Margaret Kilgallen “Heroines” (Art21 Extended Play)

Though women artists are underrepresented across the board, this is particularly true in street art. This film captures the tension and fear in the process of drawing on trains, and also explores how folk artists and musicians inspired Kilgallen’s work. This video contains beautiful musings from the artist, “And I especially hope to inspire young women because often I feel so much emphasis is put on how beautiful you are and how thin you are and not a lot of emphasis is put on what you can do and how smart you are. I’d like to change the emphasis of what’s important when looking at a woman.”

3. The Case for Yoko Ono (The Art Assignment)

“The Case For...” serious tackles artists and movements that tend to be divisive and are excellent examples of persuasive, well-researched, and succinct arguments for the given subject. Many of my students know the name Yoko Ono, but few know her because of her long and rich career as an artist.

2. Elizabeth Murray “Humor” (Art21)

Many of my students come to class resistant to abstract art, but Elizabeth Murray’s work serves as a gateway. Along the way they also learn the definition of the term “scatalogical.” This video highlights her process, which includes preliminary sketches, work, feedback from her daughters, revisions, and ultimately the gallery installation. She talks about how she found her community in art school at the Art Institute of Chicago and revelled in the fact that, “you didn’t have to be a nice lady anymore.”

1. Sonya Clark’s The Art Assignment Measuring Histories

Saving the best for last, I tend to use this assignment at the end of a semester so that students can choose whichever materials or process best expresses their concept. One of my students made a series of hand modeled fox sculptures. Each animal represents a year of their life and the foxes change colors based on major life events. This student was able to share with our classroom community their journey towards accepting and sharing their LGBTQ identity.

Mary Goldthwaite-Gagne

Mary Goldthwaite-Gagne Artist, Community Organizer and Educator

An artist, community organizer, and educator at Contoocook Valley Regional High School in Peterborough, NH, she was named a PBS Digital Innovator representing the state of New Hampshire in 2017. 

Instagram @goldgagne_make_teach

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