By pairing contemporary local artwork with ancient artifacts, students see themes emerge in how art is part of everyday life in any era. The concept of rules in society is especially rich for young adolescents to consider critically as they enter a stage in human development known for challenging rules. Students appreciated the opportunity to discuss their opinions about rules in school, at home, and in public, and to share what rules are most important to them in a creative way.
Left: Clementia K., Please Wear Gloves. Right: Layla D., Respect All People.Left: Joy C., Respect All Races. Right: Charlotte G., Save the Turtles.
Students might find learning about ancient history seems old and dusty, so how can we make it seem alive and relevant to them? Artists often look to the past to rework and transform ideas, and so can our students.
In my sixth-grade social studies curriculum, we explore ancient civilizations and world religions. All civilizations generate cultural artifacts, creating lots of opportunities to delve more deeply into art history, craft, and symbolism. One of my favorite units to integrate art with social studies and civics is when we explore ancient Mesopotamia.
Sharing an Artifact
The Sumerians, Babylonians, and Akkadians left behind durable artifacts in stone and clay, thousands of cuneiform tablets, funerary figures, and some of the earliest examples of permanent architecture. A significant artifact I share with students is the basalt stele of the Code of Hammurabi. Originally found in 1902 in Susa, Iran, the monument dates from about 1755 bce. It shows the sun god Shamash handing the laws to the king at the top, and then lists nearly 300 laws and consequences underneath. It is currently displayed in the Louvre Museum.
Reflecting and Questioning
After watching a video about the stele (see Resources), students consider questions such as: Why was the stele created? What information is shared to the public through the stele? Why is that information important?
We then transition into thinking about modern life comparisons and students brainstorm ideas in their sketchbooks. Questions to consider include: Where do you see rules communicated in daily life? How do we know what the rules are? Why are rules important? What areas of your life or daily experience do you think needs a rule? What kind of sign would best share that rule with others?
Connecting to Contemporary Art
To make the concepts of the stele of Hammurabi’s law code more relevant for students, I share with them the work of contemporary Philadelphia street artist Kid Hazo (see Resources). We discuss how street art can be illegal if it’s vandalizing property, but that Hazo is careful to only place removable artworks that cannot damage property. In his work, Hazo uses the visual language of street signs to get viewers to pay more attention to their environment. He also makes viewers question problems in public spaces, such as property owners who don’t take care of their land or advertisers who prey upon the public’s attention.
While looking at his work, I encourage students to note how color, text, and image combine to communicate the meaning of the sign. I ask them to consider why an image is important to include on a sign and how confusing it might feel to be someone who doesn’t speak the dominant language in a country. Many hands often go up at that point, as students of various language backgrounds share stories about challenges their families have faced trying to navigate signage in public spaces.
Students are then challenged to design and create their own “rule” sign in cuneiform lettering, using the graphic design language of signs, and including an illustration of the meaning of the rule. Students sketch out their designs and make them bold with markers, thinking about how color also communicates meaning. For example, danger signs may be red, caution or warning may be in yellow or orange, health-related information may be in blue, and nature signs may be in green. Seeing the message spelled out in cuneiform quickly reveals the importance of clearly illustrating the meaning in images. Hopefully, it also helps students develop empathy for the experiences of those in our community who speak other languages.
Students reflect on their work by writing an artist statement explaining what their rule is, where they think their sign should be installed, and why it is important to illustrate meaning in signage. By pairing contemporary local artwork with ancient artifacts, students see themes emerge in how art is part of everyday life in any era. The concept of rules in society is especially rich for young adolescents to consider critically as they enter a stage in human development known for challenging rules. My students appreciated the opportunity to discuss their opinions about rules in school, at home, and in public, and to share what rules are most important to them in a creative way.
Art teachers develop lessons inspired by contemporary artists and artworks. High-school students interpret contemporary issues through symbolic game cards, middle-school students research common themes found in contemporary art and create personalized landscapes, elementary students illustrate digital compositions inspired by the optical works of Jen Stark, young students use ceramic bowls as a canvas for experimenting with colorful inks, and more.