How art can enhance the social-emotional awareness of our students (and ourselves) | Smithsonian voices – 71Bait

Artworks can serve as avenues for introspection and empathy. This article features two programs from across the Smithsonian that model this practice for students and the teachers who support them.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

The last two years have been extremely trying for the well-being of the class teachers and their students. Teachers feel burnt out, underappreciated, and are leaving the field in record numbers. According to a June 2021 RAND survey, teachers were almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression than other adults. In the past two years, teachers have reported that students are declining in emotional intelligence (the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s emotions) and have difficulty regulating their emotions and maintaining normative behaviors in the classroom. These observations are bolstered by the US Surgeon General’s December 2021 warning of a “devastating” teenage mental health crisis.

Smithsonian educators Elizabeth Dale-Deines and Jennifer Reifsteck recognized that teachers and students need resources to identify and manage their emotions, recognize their resilience, and practice self-care and mindfulness. Each leveraged the collections of their respective museums—Elizabeth at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and Jennifer at the National Museum of Asian Art (NMAA)—and worked with community partners to develop tools for teachers and students to practice social-emotional learning skills develop.

What is social-emotional learning? The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social-emotional learning as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy emotional, emotional, and personal identities goals to achieve common goals, feeling and showing empathy for others, forming and maintaining supportive relationships, and making responsible and caring decisions.” Dale-Deines and Reifsteck used the CASEL framework to develop their resources with their partners.

“In my 25 years of teaching, I have seen the stress/anxiety intensify in my students, who all work and live in a system of high expectations of success,” said a 10th grade English teacher. Add in the social atrophy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we begin to understand why supporting students’ ability to slow down and connect with others is so valuable.

Slow it down

In October 2020, the National Museum of Asian Art, in partnership with mindfulness education nonprofit Create Calm, launched the Artful Movement virtual field trip program for 6th grade preschool audiences. Artful Movement combines breathing exercises, slow viewing of the art, and movement inspired by the artwork. In terms of developing social and emotional skills, students will recognize their emotions, learn stress management techniques and develop their cultural competencies by participating in the virtual field trip. Since its inception, over 800 students and educators have participated in Artful Movement’s virtual field trip.

“We wanted the virtual field trip to recognize our inner strength and resilience at a time that felt so chaotic. We wanted to remind students what they can control, like their breath, and how they can use their breath and their bodies as tools to find stillness,” said Jennifer Reifsteck, education specialist, K-12 Learning at the National Museum of Asian Art.

Lisa Danahy, Founder and Director of Create Calm, notes the skills learned during the virtual field trip: “Artful Movement not only offers students the opportunity to develop reflection and communication skills. The program provides a practice space where children learn to manage their bodies and emotions and become more effective and independent problem solvers.”

Educators from Create Calm and the National Museum of Asian Art selected Hokusai’s thunder god as the focus object for Artful Movement. The background of the hanging scroll shows a large, swirling cloud against a black sky with red laser beams from lightning bolts shooting out of the corner of the painting. The god of thunder hovers in front of the menacing sky, appearing as dynamic and energetic as the background.

The background of the hanging scroll shows a large, swirling cloud against a black sky with red laser beams from lightning bolts shooting out of the corner of the painting.  The equally dynamic god of thunder hovers in front of the ominous sky

Close-up of “Thunder God” by Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849).

Freer gallery of art

Many students see the red, bumpy skin and spiky grin of Hokusai’s thunder god and refer to the being as a demon. After the students share their perspectives, the teacher tells them the title of the painting and that red is a symbol of strength and vitality in Japanese art. Then they metaphorically move their bodies from a raindrop to a cloud, then to wind, rain, cracking lightning and booming thunder. After the storm, they settle down in a puddle with an invitation to reflect on the nourishment they have given the earth. With this new knowledge, they may begin to see the Thunder God as a benevolent, helpful being.

“Slow looking allows one to see beyond what meets the eye. By taking a closer look and getting more information, you can experience a change of perspective. Looking at art slowly is a powerful, transferrable skill that allows one to uncover bias and prejudice,” says Reifsteck.

Connect with others

To address the problem of reduced social skills and behavioral problems, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (VSV) developed a series of journaling exercises in consultation with classroom teachers and art therapists. The approach starts with a check-in, for example by asking a student how they are today. It then offers a framework question: “Describe a time when you had to solve a problem on a team and disagreed with your teammate. How did your disagreements affect the conversation? Your problem-solving skills?”

Try it! How does disagreement affect your conversational or problem-solving skills?

Next, the approach invites students to practice interpersonal skills using artwork as a conversational partner. They start by looking at their own emotional state and then switch to being curious about the perspectives of others. They are always moving on, looking for connections to the community and eventually for the strengths they can share themselves in service to others.

Just like NMAA’s activities, SAAM’s approach depends on looking carefully and developing empathy for an artwork that initially feels strange or unfamiliar. Try it!

Check out the three works below. Who seems least familiar to you? Focus on that…

Carmen Lomas Garza, Tamalada, 1990, Color lithograph, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by John B. Turner, 1997.5, (c) 1990, Carmen Lomas Garza
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Lois Mailou Jones, Les Clochards, Montmartre, Paris, 1947, casein on board, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Artist’s Bequest, 9/24/2006
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Roger Shimomura, Diary: December 12, 1941, 1980, Acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Artist’s Gift, 1991.171
Smithsonian American Art Museum

  • How do you think the characters in the scene are feeling? What makes you say that?

  • If you had to ask three questions to better understand what’s happening in the scene, what would you ask? Write these down, then write down three more.

  • Read through all the questions you asked. Which require only a yes/no answer? Choose one of these yes/no questions and try to ask it differently. How might the answer change?

One teacher reviewer commented, “I particularly enjoyed the section where the students wrote questions about a character in the artwork and then rephrased the questions.” Formulating a question can unintentionally alienate the listener, especially when the question makes an imprecise or off-putting assumption. (Example: Why are you sad?)”

VSV’s latest SEL resource will be available in print and online in Spanish and English in Fall 2022. E-mail [email protected] for more informations.

When you look up from your computer and connect with your students, colleagues, or family members, look for opportunities to check in with yourself. How do you feel? What do you find strange in the world? What could you gain by staying curious?

Editor’s Note: To learn more about using art to support social-emotional learning skills, visit Jennifer Reifsteck and Elizabeth Dale Deins at the Smithsonian National Education Summit July 27-28, 2022. For more information, visit: https: // .

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