What's going on in this picture?

A group of teachers across North Dakota are asking students to analyze artwork to promote critical thinking and communication skills.

Earlier this fall, 19 classroom instructors from seven cities in the state convened at the Heritage Center in Bismarck for a two-day workshop with South Dakota State University professors and an art museum director, who are trained in this form of teaching, called visual thinking strategies, or VTS.

VTS is the product of collaboration between cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine, who was the director of education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Teachers in North Dakota were trained in VTS by using images on display at the Heritage Center. There were then asked to implement lessons in their own classrooms. At the end of the school year in May, these teachers and the South Dakota trainers will analyze data, including student writing samples, to see whether there has been an impact.

It's a novel way of thinking. The training in North Dakota was made possible through a partnership between the North Dakota Council on the Arts, the Missouri River Educational Cooperative, the State Historical Society of North Dakota and Turnaround Arts, a program founded under former President Barack Obama that promotes arts education.

Through VTS, teachers ask students a series of questions about an image, encouraging them to think critically. Teachers then listen and help facilitate the conversation by paraphrasing what students say.

"I just don't know when do we have those conversations with kids, naturally, at this point?" said Shawna Marion, an instructional coach and implementation coordinator for Standing Rock Turnaround Arts School.

Andrea Vinje, an art teacher at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit Elementary School in Bismarck, was one of the instructors trained this fall in VTS. Vinje said VTS has increased student engagement and improved participation.

"I have done similar things because I am an art teacher, but this is new in the way that you're just the facilitator," she said. "You're not giving information, you're just facilitating how to have a conversation about a picture."

Vinje said she has students sit on a big rug and she shows them a picture and asks them basic questions. The students have a chance to respond for the 15 minutes allotted for each picture. Vinje said she has noticed students speaking more freely and using previous knowledge to analyze the picture.

Rebecca Engelman, arts in education director for the NDCA, said VTS extends beyond art. She said she has seen it used as an entry point to other lessons, for example, to study a specific era. One classroom instructor used it at the beginning of a unit on the civil rights movement, and used a picture of Ruby Bridges.

Kay Cutler, a professor at SDSU's Department of Teaching, Learning and Leadership, and Lynn Verschoor, director of the South Dakota Arts Museum, trained the cohort of North Dakota teachers in VTS.

In 2004, Cutler used VTS with kindergarten students at the Fishback Center for Early Childhood Education in Brookings, S.D. Cutler, also the director of the Fishback Center, said a majority of the classroom instructors there are trained in VTS.

Cutler said the biggest change she's noticed is in how children respond and build on their classmates' comments. Verschoor said she likes how VTS provokes students.

"For me doing tours in the museum, it was just so exciting to see the kids dive into the pictures. The art becomes alive for them," Verschoor said.

Cutler said they have since trained teachers and administrators at the Camelot Intermediate School in Brookings. They're analyzing research data on students' writing before and after VTS, which preliminary evidence shows to be improving.

Cutler and Verschoor said VTS can be used at the elementary, middle and high school levels. It also can be used to improve memory in Alzheimer's patients, and they have done training with a group of criminal justice students in Minneapolis, where students learn more about their preconceived notions.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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Education and Health Reporter