Thursday, January 26, 2012

Explaining the un-explainable

A few days ago, I had another one of those moments to prove again that teaching culture is so incredibly valuable.  As usual, I love to integrate culture into language practice whenever I can.

This time, my 7th graders were learning about famous Spanish artists while practicing vocab for body parts.  First, I gave a little overview of several Spanish artists with a short whole-class discussion about one painting by each artist, where the kids discovered elements of the artist's style and a few major elements of the paintings.  During this part, I got a hilarious contrast between classes based on their personalities: 6th period, apparently NOT artsy, was like pulling teeth, but 7th period was practically (actually, literally in a few cases!) jumping out of their seats to point out things in the painting.  I could barely get them to move onto the next painting each time!  This is a great reminder of the importance of doing a wide variety of activities -- not everybody will love all of them, but everybody WILL find some that they love.

Next, I split them into groups and each group got a closer look at a color print of one of the paintings, with a short description I wrote at the top with a few essential facts about each painting.  Their job was to work together to count up body parts in the paintings and write simple sentences saying how many of each body part were in the painting.  (i.e. "Hay quince cabezas.")  Regardless of their disposition in the whole-class discussion, everybody was quite engaged in this part -- even if they weren't super into art, they had fun searching for body parts and looking at the paintings in more detail.  Some of the paintings (like El Greco's El entierro del Conde de Orgaz) had tons of people with lots of parts to search for, while others (like The Tilled Field by Miró) had more abstract styles that made it an adventure to find the body parts and interpret the painting.

Anyway, the best part (to me, at least) was asking each group to react to the painting and reflect on what it told us about life in Spain at that time.  In 7th period, we ended up having a poignant discussion about Picasso's Guernica. (where, by the way, the little budding art critics even guessed that the light-bulb-sun-thingy could represent the bomb, without knowing that light bulb is "bombilla" in Spanish!)
photo credit: Wikipedia
           C: Why did that Franco guy bomb the town if it wasn't even a military base or anything?
            R: Yeah, that's SO UNFAIR!
           others: Yeah, the people weren't even soldiers!  (etc.)

It wasn't just what they said, it was how they looked while they were asking.  Their eyes were so earnest and innocent, wanting me to explain the un-explainable because I was the teacher.  I didn't even know what to say. I ended up sputtering something like: "Well guys, war is horrible.  Awful things happen.  That's why Picasso painted this: to show how terrible it was!"  Our little class was so filled with heaviness that I just let it hang for a moment before spurring them on.  How do you move right on from that?

Later that day, I got to wondering: How do such awful things really happen?  Were the people who commit them ever wide-eyed, innocent kids with a sense that the world should be a kind and fair place?  What would Franco have thought, if someone had shown him something like this when he was a 7th-grader?  Would he, too, have wondered how anyone could ever do such a thing?


  1. Jen, I love this. This is one reason I miss 7th graders. They are really so open to exploring and learning. When I taught my autobiography unit, we read about famous African-Americans. We started with a video from It never failed to make them question why people treated others that way. I think 7th grade is that "awakening" time in a kid's life.

    Keep doing what you do.

  2. Thanks Deb! I didn't know you had taught 7th grade! :)

  3. I agree - it is fascinating to thing about the histories of individuals who end up doing pretty atrocious things. I am glad that your students were enjoying the art so much (at least in the one period).


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