Hands-on Learning in AP Art History

“How do I make this more interesting?”

“Do I really have to lecture every day?”

These are just some examples of the types of questions that I hear from teachers when I present about hands-on learning in AP Art History. And my answer is always this, “No, you don’t have to lecture every day, but even if you do, you can make it interesting and even fun, easily!” Fun? An AP course? Yes!

Since art history is an image-based subject, it is naturally one that lends itself easily to hands-on, project-based learning where students are given control of their learning and are researching works of art for themselves. One student said, “I like that by doing projects in this class we can get a visual of the art we are trying to study. These projects also give us the initiative to do research on our own about the artworks and therefore learn more about them…When you have to build something you tend to remember then details a little better than just studying them in a classroom. I also enjoy the projects in this class because they give us a lot of freedom in how we choose to do them.”

Incorporating a hands-on component may seem daunting at first, but students will learn the material instead of just memorizing trivia, will enjoy coming to your class, and will gain a deeper appreciation for the history of art by being challenged to think about it in different, creative ways. Another student had this to say, “I learn a lot about a specific piece when we do hands-on projects or research projects. It’s extremely beneficial because you get to learn about an artwork in a more intense and detailed way, which really helps when trying to understand a certain time period.”

In my class, students are assigned a hands-on project once or twice per grading period. Their first assignment is to recreate, in any way they wish, a work from one of our first two units of study. I have created a rubric that evaluates the accuracy of the replica, the appropriateness of the selection, apparent effort and creativity, which I stress. I tell them that they don’t have to recreate a mosaic in mosaic, it could be done with skittles on top of a cake…play to your strengths and surprise me! Every year I am amazed by the projects and students love to see how others have interpreted the same work.

Student-made replica of the Ambum Stone

I also have students research, write about, present, and make a model of one of the sacred spaces from the curriculum, research a specific artist and make a birthday present for them, create a board game about one of the different Content Areas required in the AP Art History curriculum, and make their own Ikenga figure or Lukasa memory board. All of these major projects are done outside of class, are tied to a particular unit of study, are group, partner or individual assignments, and involve research, which is one of the requirements of the course. Research doesn’t always mean writing a paper. It can be much more interesting and thus much more engaging for both the student AND the teacher. I learn as much, if not more, from their presentations and projects as they do.

Finally, while lecture can’t be entirely avoided in this class, it can be spiced up. If I am presenting new material, I usually begin class with a video from Crash Course or smarthistory, a short drawing activity, or a question. Then I make sure to involve the students in the discussion. I ask lots of questions, have them draw in their notes, and stand up to act out works of art, concepts, or poses, which gets their heart rates going and thus, their brains as well. I also use apps, websites, virtual tours, and other technology to make my presentations more engaging and interesting. I’m always surprised when I tell my students that I’m not going to lecture one day and they respond with, “No! We love your lectures!” Music to a teacher’s ears.

“Partner Drawings”

Here are some examples of in-class activities I use to break up the monotony of lecture. In addition to partner drawings and making their own “altarpiece,” I have students to create their own “-ism” by first writing a manifesto and then creating a work that exemplifies their -ism. This is the kind of activity I would do at the end of a lesson, or on a Friday after having covered Later Europe and the Americas.

“Create an altarpiece”

“Create your own -ism”

Below is another example done as a five minute review of the material covered the day before. I asked students how the All T’oqapu Tunic represented the concept of power and then had them design their own t’oqapu, which I incorporated all together in order to form a class tunic.

“Design your own t’oqapu”

Students want to be engaged, challenged, and surprised. Hearing that my class is their favorite is something that never grows old, nor does watching them learn, grow, and express their own love for art by the end of the year. As this student says, “The projects in art history really make me have a more sincere appreciation for the artist, their artwork, and the lengthy, labor-intensive process they went through in order to create it. Not only do I get a more personal experience of what these artists may have gone through in making their works of art, but I have better grasped some of the various styles, forms, and skills that make these extraordinary pieces unique from one another…Likewise, going through the art making process first hand exposed me to a new viewpoint in how I perceive art. It also reinforced my understanding of the artist and their work by trying to recapture their style and emotion they sought to evoke to the viewer. It was really eye opening for me when I saw the contrast in seeing a work of the 250 in a classroom setting and taking it for what it is, and comparing that to trying to recreate it in a way that maintains the integrity of the piece. Thanks to these projects, I have without a doubt gained so much more insight into the mind of an artist and their extraordinary talents in making their respective works, and more importantly developed a greater love and appreciation for art.”

Even though I rarely dedicate time for exam review, my students do well on the required AP Exam. I believe this is because they have internalized the material so well through hands-on learning practiced throughout the year and because they have come to truly love the discipline of art history.


5 responses to “Hands-on Learning in AP Art History”

  1. Julianne Giampapa says:

    I got lost in your site. Taking on the only AP art history program in the county is a bit daunting. Thank you for all of your great content!

    • virginiaspivey says:

      So glad it’s helpful! FYI-we’ll be at the AP Conference in D.C. next month. Hope to see you there.

  2. Ellen K says:

    I do similar hands on pieces when possible to reinforce learning. In one case I handed students rolls of white paper, tape and scissors and told them to “build” the front of a Doric or Ionic Greek temple on the wall. The results were interesting and having them label the parts to compare and contrast the two styles reinforced the lectures.

  3. Sarah Jones says:

    I would love to know more about your ISM project! Could you please share the document?

  4. Angela Guadalupe says:

    I’m a veteran teacher, 30+ years and have recently decided to teach an AP Art History class. Never having taught an AP class, I’m a bit nervous. I’ve taught a Survey Art History class for about 6 years and wnt to crank it up a notch with activities and less lecture. I look forward to more of your inspiration!

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