Saturday, February 2, 2013

They're here!! China Comes Alive Through Art!

Image 29/ 365: Artistic renderings of the Opera regalia, busy streets in
moonlight, and a nurse taking good care of an elderly grandma when
no family is there to do so.

As promised, our classroom partners in China rewarded us this past month with quite a visual feast of insights into their culture! As mentioned in an earlier post, I worked with Mrs. G’s second grade class to conduct an art exchange, to demonstrate how art can communicate culture. And since most of our students are language learners,  this focus on creating a piece of art, with all of its naturally nuanced details, was a decidedly welcome change of pace. And far less daunting than trying to capture so many aspects of our respective cultures in extensive and detailed writing.

Our exchange partners are 10 years old, 2-3 years older than our 2nd graders, and needless to say, our kids were entranced by the artistic content and skills of our faraway friends.

Image 30/ 265: Some more culturally aware 2nd graders holding art
from their peers in China. 
We placed all the artwork around the room, and had students work with partners to analyze the art as objective observers. We guided them with questions about what they saw, inferences about what was happening in the picture, why that event/ object was important enough for the artist to draw, and what they liked the most.

The next step was to turn the art over and confirm (or not) their thinking. On the back of each piece is an artist bio, or description sheet, with information about the artist and the art—from a description of their picture to their own personal interests and goals. Students were then asked to present their findings to the rest of the class. Our Chinese friends will be reading similar bios about us.

As these discussions and presentations took place, Mrs. G and I frequently pulled up images and further information to clarify or extend understanding of various cultural traditions, like brides wearing red (the girls loved photos we found of exquisitely-dressed brides in red!), and information about the Spring Festival, their sports, food, and writing.

So, what were some observations and takeaways from our analysis of the art? The kids noted some visible features of culture: “they play different games like a stick with a circle”, “they write a different language”, “they have a special color for good luck”, they “use paper lanterns for happiness” and they have “different clothing and hair”. All pretty straightforward, but this was the first time we have discussed features of culture, so it was nice that they seemed to get it.

Image 31/365: Preparing for the Spring Festival, with red as good luck, and
Chinese writing invoking Happiness in what may come!
Invisible features of culture? We thought this would be tougher than it was, but it goes to show that we can’t make assumptions about what our kids will understand! They said that “family is important”, “exercise is popular”, “nature is special”, “shelters are different”, and “celebrations are a big deal”!

As far as values that the child artists believed were important? Our kids thought their Chinese partners valued parties and celebrations, taking care of other people, playing with friends, being able to drive/ travel, and getting married.

Image 32/ 365: Children celebrating Spring Festival with their family,
with red lantern decorations, and eating rice balls. The bottom picture
shows the students' love of exercise and sport at school. Such rich detail.
And some things about the artists themselves that they found most interesting? Most of them had only 3 people in their family (unlike many of our students with large extended families), they don’t like homework (like our students!), a lot like exercise and sport, some like to dance, they are "super good" artists, one wants to be a soldier and another a musician, but almost all of them wanted to be a teacher!

Questions for our partners ran the gamut, from inquiries about the weather, many asking if they could teach us some Chinese, whether they ever eat with a fork, if it snows in China, and if there are black children in China.

One word that comes to mind about their country? Most of our kids wrote “red”. The word that comes to mind about the USA? Interestingly, out of 18 responses from our English language learners, all but 3  wrote either freedom, eagle, or community.

I know this is a long post, but it was a fascinating project, and an unforgettable way to lower our language learners' affective filters, and integrate art into the curriculum.

Image 33/ 365: Preparing for Spring Festival--note the language,
 the red lanterns, the rockets/ fireworks to usher in the New Year.
Top right: a bride prepares for her wedding and she is beautiful in
red, but nervous! The bottom right shows the beloved panda, and
the kids' love for animals...the ubiquitous red lanterns in so many
of the pictures became a sort of "Where's the Red Lantern?" game
for our 2nd grade budding art analysts. 


  1. This is absolutely fantastic! This post warms my heart and makes my day! As the Program Director here at Creative Connections I could not ask for a better summary of what we hope our program offers. Thank you!

  2. Thank you, Polly. It's an exciting project for our kids to work on, and when students produce and receive tangible art products, that art serves as a visual reminder throughout the rest of the year! Thanks for helping make this happen!

    1. It has been my pleasure! I look forward to working with you again next year!

  3. As Chairman of the Creative COnnections board and having been to China, albeit in 1979...a long time ago...I have to second Polly's enthusiasm and delight that our program IS working. Feedback and confirmation is always rewarding. I actually like that there was an age difference, as it provides something "aspiration" for the younger ones...and teaching from the older ones...hopefully you can convey that back to the China classroom.

  4. Thank you for your time and comment. This really is a great activity for cultural learning. And yes, I think the students' comments on our feedback emphasized how impressed they were with their skills!!
    Thank you again.