Brush Up on Your ABC’s: NMWA’s Teacher Institute

This year marked the seventh Art, Books, and Creativity (ABC) Teacher Institute at NMWA. For one week this past July, 18 teachers from New York to North Carolina came to NMWA to explore ways to combine the arts with other classroom subjects.


ABC participants; Photo: Casey Betts, NMWA

The ABC curriculum encourages growth in students’ visual literacy and critical thinking through the creation of artists’ books. It also incorporates the cultural contributions of women artists and provides teachers with resources to help them integrate the visual arts into their classrooms.

Participants began this year’s program with a visit to the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC), where they were able to view a selection of artists’ books from the museum’s collection. After seeing examples of the different techniques, participants buckled down to create their own books.

A tunnel book creation (left); Carol Barton assists with paper folding techniques (right); Photos: NMWA

A tunnel book creation (left); Carol Barton assists with paper folding techniques (right); Photos: NMWA

Over the course of the week, participants created a portfolio of artists’ books and writing samples to use as future classroom models. Highlights included the opportunity to learn pop-up techniques from paper engineer Carol Barton. Attendees also experimented with printmaking methods by designing journal covers inspired by the exhibition Alison Saar In Print, currently on display in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery. Over the course of the week, the teachers also learned the basics of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a method of facilitating discussions about art that encourages close looking and engaged thinking.

ABC participants practice Visual Thinking Strategies in the galleries; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

ABC participants practice Visual Thinking Strategies in the galleries; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

At the end of the week, teachers brainstormed ways to adapt the presented book formats for students of varying ages and abilities. Each teacher completed the program by submitting a lesson concept that incorporated one of the book forms for their own classroom. Ideas ranged from using accordion books to compare French and English fairy tales to flag books examining the similarities between ancient and modern symbols.

These creative lesson concepts showed the many cross-curricular applications of the ABC curriculum and left the participants excited to adapt the ideas for their own classrooms. One teacher commented, “The course gave me wonderful ideas to use in my classroom. It introduced me to new concepts, and got me excited to use more art and creativity in my classroom.”

To access the free curriculum, visit the ABC website. To learn more about the annual ABC Teacher Institute, check out NMWA’s Teacher Institute page.

—Hannah Page was the summer 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

ABC’s of Art: The 2015 Teacher Institutes

NMWA offered the week-long Art, Books, and Creativity (ABC) Teacher Institute for the sixth year, and for the second time also held the Advanced ABC course for returning teachers. Participants spent the dog days of summer, July 13–17, 2015, learning arts-integration techniques. The ABC curriculum is ideal for third- through eighth-grade educators. During the program, teachers explored new avenues of creativity.

Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

One teacher’s book art project; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Made possible through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, ABC encourages growth in visual literacy and critical thinking, while also highlighting women artists’ achievements. In particular, the work of Maria Sibylla Merian inspired “bug books,” which encourage students to focus on insect life cycles and habitats.

As NMWA’s education intern, I learned as much as the enrolled teachers. I was largely unaware of the many challenges educators face—particularly in issues of literacy in D.C. schools. The Advanced ABC participants discussed ways in which artists’ books could provide visual literacy as a pathway to reading.

Unfamiliar with artists’ books, I was not aware of their practical applications. Teachers found new ways to incorporate concepts into their own curriculum plans. One educator based his flag book on famous women of the American Revolution. Another teacher said these techniques would allow her to “feed the artist in my classroom.” Ranging from investigations of traditional Native American cultures to literacy interventions, many advanced lesson plans were ready to be shared with colleagues by the end of the week.

Teachers wear their hats; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Teachers with their hat creations; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Participants also constructed sculptural hats and “star books”—books with complex folds and covers that demonstrate knowledge of shapes and primary colors.

The Advanced Institute teachers delved deeper and experimented with circuits to add lights and motorized elements to their books.

Toward the end of the program, the two groups converged during a crafty happy hour at the museum. Program participants enjoyed wine and refreshments and then experimented with paste, marbling, and watercolor techniques during a paper-making activity.

While creating personal portfolios of artists’ books, teachers learned the basics of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)—a method for facilitating discussions about art.

VTS encourages close looking and deep thinking, where each student feels his or her opinion validated. This method provides an equal playing field for art appreciation and creative engagement. As an art history student, I often ask about a work’s title, artist, or time period. However, I was exposed to new points of view through hearing participants’ personal connections. VTS creates a culture of thinking where students work together as storytellers.

To access the free curriculum, visit the ABC website. To learn more about the ABC Teacher Institute, check out the museum’s website.

—Brittany Fiocca was the summer 2015 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Visual Thinking Strategies: What’s going on in this picture?

What’s going on in this picture?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can we find?

These three questions are at the heart of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a teaching method that is revolutionizing the field of art education. On December 4 and 5, NMWA hosted a VTS practicum led by Oren Slozberg, Executive Director of Visual Understanding in Education (VUE). More than 25 classroom and museum educators from across the country and as far as away as London attended the practicum. Participants learned about the development of VTS, saw the method modeled, and—most importantly—tried it out!

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Love’s Young Dream, 1887; Oil on canvas; 21 1/4 x 32 1/8 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Love’s Young Dream by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe is one of the works discussed using VTS. The role of the educator is to facilitate conversation (using the questions above), validate responses through paraphrasing, and ask viewers to support their ideas with visual evidence. Because of the open-ended nature of VTS, each conversation takes a unique direction. During our conversation about Love’s Young Dream, viewers focused on the figures in the painting and their relationships. We discussed the young woman and her possible relationship to the figure in the distance on horseback and her relationship to the two older adults. Through VTS, the narrative qualities were explored in depth just as Brownscombe intended.

Over the course of an intense and rewarding two days of training, participants led VTS discussions about many other works in NMWA’s collection. Along the way, professional relationships were formed, and future collaborations, both individual and institutional, were explored. Participants left the experience inspired and eager to share what they learned.

Developed by Abigail Housen, a cognitive psychologist, and Philip Yenawine, a veteran art museum educator, VTS is a learner-centered strategy designed to help beginning viewers access and make meaning of art. Additionally, VTS facilitates students’ development of critical thinking, language and visual literacy, and interpersonal skills.

VTS has been adopted by museums and schools both nationally and internationally, from Boston Public Schools to the Seattle Museum of Art to the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Even Harvard Medical School has explored the power of VTS in increasing the observation and diagnostic skills of its students.

NMWA staff send our thanks to VUE and hope to host additional trainings in the future! To learn more about VTS, please visit

-Anna Allegro is Associate Educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.