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Art + Math = Monet

When I work with K-12 teachers in the museum, one of the most common things we discuss is how to make connections between art works and different subject areas. Although language arts and social studies curriculum connections are seemingly endless (Walter Ellison’s Train Station and the history of the Great Migration, Ivan Albright’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, you get the idea), linking other subjects like math to art can be challenging. Arts integration, instruction that blends content and skills from an arts discipline and an academic discipline, is a buzzword in education, but how does it really work in practice? I had the chance to explore this question recently with a brilliant group of teaching artists from Project AIM, a program of the Center for Community Arts Partnerships at Columbia College Chicago. These artists collaborate with classroom teachers in Chicago Public Schools to teach innovative arts-integrated units, and together we brainstormed new ways to connect the “big ideas” of middle school math— ratios, proportion, series, symbols, measurement, patterns, and relationships—to art concepts.

Leading our discussion was Luke Albrecht, a math teacher at Crown Community Academy. When asked to choose an artwork that represented math concepts, Luke skipped the typical choices (tessellations, works with obvious geometric shapes and angles) and instead went for Monet’s Stacks of Wheat. What do these paintings have to do with math? Well, plenty according to Luke. They are an example of a data set; multiple representations of the same phenomenon at different moments in time. By looking at them as a group we can begin to perceive change occurring over time. By comparing the effects Monet created in each painting we can see patterns and make predictions about the future, just as mathematicians do when they create a graph or an algebraic equation. As Luke pointed out, understanding math is all about seeing relationships; so is understanding painting. “Teaching math through arts integration is an amazing and effective way for students to learn. It addresses math in a social context that kids can really relate to,” he observed. Teachers like this inspire me to think about how works in the Art Institute collection can support classroom learning in increasingly creative and complex ways.

Claude Monet. Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day), 1890/91. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.