Mona Voelkel

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Reflections: NGA Summer Institute

             National Gallery of Art Online Summer Institute for Educators

Art and Thinking

July 6-10, 2020



In the middle of the pandemic, I received a glorious package of cardstock, collage papers, watercolor markers, glue, crayons and a craft knife.  These materials would be used during the National Gallery of Art “Art and Thinking” Online Summer Institure.

The goal of the Summer Institute was to empower teachers to teach critical thinking using works of art in an exemplary online format.   There were daily live synchronous events, both large and small group, and asynchronous self-paced components.  The 163 participants ranged from early career to veteran teachers, including K-12, College, Art and Museum educators, administrators and consultants.

It was an incredible learning experience, with workshops guided by master teachers and researchers.  I learned so many new thinking routines, became familiar with amazing works of art and explored new modes of creative expressions.

A few highlights:


Arzu Mistry showed us how to make accordion books using paper bags and and covers. These books become magical tools for recording, reflecting and adding to our thinking.  Arzu showed us how to create books that adapt and expand to our thinking through added flaps, pockets, extensions and pop-ups.  As I documented my thinking throughout the week, my accordion book grew in all directions and became a treasured map of what I learned during the week.  Arzu also shared some ideas about how to revisit an accordion book and code thinking using a personalized legend and visual metaphors. 

Arzu has also generously shared a series of instructional videos for accordion books here.


Shari Tishman of Harvard Project Zero and the author of Slow Looking, shared the Artful Thinking palette that was the framework of the week.  (The thinking dispositions of observing and describing, reasoning, questioning and investigating, exploring viewpoints,  comparing and connecting, and finding complexity are explored through various thinking routines over the course of the Summer Institute week with a different thinking disposition highlighted each day.)

Shari guided us in looking fast and slow at the image, Winged Ones, by Joanne Leonard.  She asked us (from an activity by Ruth Slaven, University of Michigan Art Museum)  two questions about the image:

What does your heart know?

What is your body telling you?

Shari also gave us a framework for designing learning using art:

  1. Set expectations and time frame.
  2. Use simple observation strategies.
  3. Give time to dwell. (describe/experience using words, sounds, tableaux etc.)
  4. Discover how others see things.
  5. Discover how you see things.

Shari also reminded us about the skill that is needed to manage information, response and feedback.  My own experience with using art to teach critical thinking has also highlighted the need to carefully plan enough time for each phase of the lesson, when to give background information and use a variety of response modes (oral, written, think-pair-share, whole group, drama etc.)

One question that she asked was, “What does (this element) mean to you.”  Such a powerful question to explore viewpoints and metaphor!  Shari also gave some tips with exploring metaphor with younger children by asking:

               If this artwork was a flower, what flower would it be? 

              If this artwork was an animal, what animal would it be?

I also realize that one of the benefits of the Zoom experience was that everyone was able to respond at the same time and that we had a front-row seat to the artwork.

Shari emphasized the simple yet profound key tenet of Artful Thinking and using artwork in the classroom: slow looking: “taking the time to notice that there is more there than meets the eye at first glance.”  


                                                                  Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Liz Diament, NGA Educator, guided us through the Looking 5 x 2 (Far and Near) as we explored The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole.  I have used this activity before, where you ask students to name 5 objects they see and then look again; naming 5 additional objects but I loved how Liz used the zoom tool on the NGA website to slowly scan over a close-up of the work before we named 5 new objects.  She further guided us to “step in” to the artwork and tell her something that we might…hear…smell…touch…taste…see…here.

I loved two questions that we were asked that encouraged me to think metaphorically and plan on using these questions with my students:

     1. Choose one main element.  What might this mean or symbolize in the painting?

  1. What if this element was a metaphor for our hopes for this week together?  What might that mean to you?

Jessica Ross, Harvard Project Zero, and Deirdre Palmer and Dina Rappaport, NGA Educators, explored recognizing perspectives using art.  One of the ideas Jessica highlighted was for us to see observation and interpretation on a continuum:


Observation                                                                                                       Interpretation

This is so important because as human beings we sometimes think we are just making an observation when we are actually making an interpretation and it is important to know the difference for ourselves and our students.

I was most excited about thinking routines that Deirdre and Dina used shared using an incredible image by Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson (1942):

Screen Shot 2020-07-21 at 2.56.53 PM

                                            Gordon Parks

First, we took time to just look at the image by asking,

What do you see?

We took time to list the people and objects in the image.  It was so interesting to see how much there was to see and notice and one of the benefits of our Zoom chatbox was that we could instantly read other’s observations.

Then, we were given the title of the photograph and just a little background information on Ella Watson, Washington D.C. and the photographer, Gordon Parks.  You can read some background here.

Next, we participated in a thinking routine, Step In, Step Out, Step Back, that is designed to nurture cultural perspective taking responsibly.  We were also asked to make personal connections and share a headline after small group discussion.  We also took time to make a sketch of the artwork which helped us slow down and really see the image.

This was such a timely activity because it highlights the importance of context and asks us what we know and what we may never know.  This activity resonated with me because it emphasized taking the perspectives of others responsibly.

I am looking forward to exploring more of Gordon Parks’ images and the Gordon Parks Foundation (Pleasantville, NY), with the Step In, Step Out, Step Back routine.  I would also like to explore more of Gordon Parks’ powerful images with other Artful Thinking routines.


Mary Hall Surface, playwright, director, author and educator,  guided us through an amazing sequence of activities based on Pablo Picasso’s, Family of Saltimbanques during her “Monologues from Art.”  We started by slowly looking at the image and then choosing a character from the artwork for our focus.  She then showed us how to do word sketching, where we did quick sketch of the selected character and then labeled our sketch with what we saw and later, our wonderings.  We explored the character through a series of dramatic activities and explored our interpretations of the character’s feelings.  Through a series of whole group and small group exercises, we “wrote out loud” and then acted out  a “3-emotion, 2-turning point” monologue.  The depth of the interpretations, the quality of her instructional sequence and graphic organizers was so exciting that I can’t wait to recreate this lesson in the future.  We were also invited to draft a monologue after the experience and here is mine:

Boy with barrel speaking to his mother (red skirt):

I am so alone here.  In this world no one cares if I live or die.  Anything I eat, everything I do depends on the sweat of my brow.  The days are so long; my burdens heavy.  It wasn’t always like this.  Mother, remember when you were here with me.  I took laughter and ease for granted then.  Remember when you brought me to the circus for a lesson with the acrobats?  After we spent the day with them and they showed me their secrets, I said it must be a hard life for them, always on the road, and you said,  “They are following their hearts, Andre, and that is the best thing any of us can ever do.  There will be hard days but always, my dear son, follow your heart.”  I think of your words, Mama, and they give me all the energy and hope that I need to take this next step.

Mary Hall Surface also shared a wonderful way to give feedback when we read our colleagues’ monologues.  She said, “Respond by asking the character a question you are curious to know the answer.  Then, offer a wish or hope for the future.”

Mary Hall Surface also guided us to use the wonderful See/Feel/Connect routine to become familiar with Sigmar Polke’s, Hope Is: Wanting to Pull Clouds, explore feelings that emerge and frame a response that helps us connect to the work and each other.  We were skillfully guided through a series of questions, a freewrite and then given the title of the artwork and a sentence frame to “talk to the painting.

My “talking to the painting”:  I see hope in your beautiful colors on the horizon because, I, too, try to clear away the clouds of today to reveal all of tomorrow’s possibilities.  

I am excited to use this routine with some of the other recommended works of art.  As educators, we are look for ways to deepen thinking and this routine is a powerful way to encourage connection and inferential thinking.


Nathalie Ryan, NGA Educator and Manager,  guided us, after looking at artwork by Pierre-Henri Valenciennes, through a visual metaphor drawing/writing activity that asked us to consider our roots, strengths (trunk), connections/impact (branches), and what we need to survive and thrive.  It was a very moving and powerful exercise and though it was targeted for teachers, could be adapted for any setting.  Nathalie shared her process of creating a visual metaphor and  I am interested in exploring more visual metaphors as it spurred thinking and connections. 

Over the course of the week, the presenters grounded us in the research behind the lessons, shared ways to adapt lessons for diverse populations and made available a wealth of additional artwork and lesson resources.  I have participated in several courses in Artful Thinking/ Visible Thinking but this Summer Institute was one of the most meaningful and enjoyable professional development experience of my career.  

Consider this a brief overview- there were so many other incredible workshops.  We also received access to view workshops we did not attend and revisit resources until October, with the option of staying in touch with attendees throughout the year on an informal basis.

 My deepest thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Summer Institute, the incredible presenters and the facilitation team: Sophia Howes, Amanda Beck, Genesis Flores, Heather Hinish, Jessica Metzger and Julie Carmean.  

For more information:

Summer Institute for Educators: Art and Thinking (Overview)

Information about the Institute.  Check back here in February 2021 to sign up.

National Gallery Online Course: “Teaching Critical Thinking Through Art”

This free online self-paced course is an excellent introduction to Artful Thinking.

I have taken in once but am retaking the course using an accordion book to document my thinking and revisit this wonderful course.

National Gallery of Art: Educator Resources

Download images and explore these incredible lessons from across the curriculum. 


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