New UMMA art tours based on AAPS humanities curriculum

Carpenter students tour UMMA on April 17, 2013.
Carpenter students tour UMMA on April 17, 2013.

By Tara Cavanaugh

As Carpenter Elementary fifth graders toured the University of Michigan Museum of Art, they learned about more than sculptures and paintings. They also learned about science, culture and history.

UMMA recently unveiled curricular art tours inspired by Ann Arbor Public Schools’ elementary humanities curriculum. Elementary and secondary teachers, including Carpenter art teacher Meredith Giltner, Mitchell art teacher Sarah Winter and Burns Park art teacher Kate Higgins, helped UMMA create the tours.

The humanities curriculum in the AAPS elementary schools is unique. AAPS Fine Arts Coordinator Robin Bailey worked on creating the new humanities curriculum three years ago, along with a committee of principals and teachers. At the time, the concern was college readiness as well as science and social studies scores.

Sean Slay's fifth grade class and Carpenter art teacher Meredith Giltner in front of UMMA
Sean Slay’s fifth grade class and Carpenter art teacher Meredith Giltner in front of UMMA

“Not all students learn in the same way,” Bailey said. “This curriculum allows for multiple ways for students to get a deeper understanding.”

Bailey gives the example of the life cycle. One way to learn about it is to have a teacher lecture and show kids pictures. “But in the music room they might act it out through movement, and in the art room they might draw or paint,” she said. “It’s multiple ways for students to get a really deep understanding of the content and the curriculum.”

This humanities curriculum has generated interest at the state level. In April three curriculum specialists from the Michigan Department of Education toured the AAPS humanities program, visiting the rooms of music teacher Dan Tolley at Mitchell, Kristie Bishop at Bach, Kate Higgins at Burns Park and Karen McDonald at Pattengill.

So how do the UMMA tours connect with the AAPS humanities curriculum? By helping students look at art for more than arts’ sake.

For example, on a tour for second graders called “Art Rocks,” students learn to connect the rocks and minerals from science class to valuable works of art. “Artists have to use rocks and minerals to make art,” said Pamela Reister, UMMA curator for museum teaching and learning.  “In an oil panting, what’s often in the oil is ground up rocks and minerals. In the art context, those rocks and minerals have all sorts of cultural significance and symbolism.”

A great example of this is the “Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels” by Jacopo del Casentino. The blue on Mary’s cloak is made in part from from ground up lapis lazuli, a recalcitrant mineral that creates a brilliant blue paint when mixed with a binder. The lapis came from an area in what is now Afghanistan, which was not readily accessible from Italy in the fifteenth century.

And the gold background of the work is plenty significant: it creates an otherworldly, heavenly appearance while also showing that whomever commissioned the piece was wealthy.

“Before you talk about who’s in the painting, where it’s from or what it represents, or what culture created it, you can talk about all these cool things that connect to kids’ learning in the classroom,” Reister said.

Carpenter art teacher Meredith Giltner has taught in AAPS for three years, just as long as the humanities curriculum has been in place. For her, integrating art with science and social studies feels natural.

“I think it’s really helpful to the students,” she said. “They get a deeper understanding, and we know that they’re engaged in what they’re learning.”

UMMA has become an integral part of the AAPS humanities curriculum, even before it created AAPS-inspired tours. Each year around 1600 AAPS students tour UMMA, and the museum even offers stipends for bus transportation. “UMMA is a wonderful resource for our students and teachers,” Bailey said.

Tours are available by request at least three weeks in advance. For more information or to schedule docent tours, please contact

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