Rembrandt Teaching Project: Promoting multiple literacies in teaching and learning, The

Rembrandt Teaching Project: Promoting multiple literacies in teaching and learning, The

Piro, Joseph M


(Rembrandt, the miracle of our age).

Inscription written after the name of Rembrandt on a document compiled in 1664 by the scholar Gabriel Bucelinus, listing the names of “the most distinguished European painters.”

The name Rembrandt conjures up the image of an art historical monument, a master who personified the height of creative and artistic powers. As with many human monuments, there is a tendency toward thinking of him and his works as remote, mysterious, even unapproachable. This article will outline how Rembrandt became an accessible, admired, and beloved figure to a group of educators and their students in a large urban school district in New York City. It will discuss the genesis of the The Rembrandt Teaching Project, describing how education generalists were drawn into the artistic world of 17th-century Europe, discovering how it could speak both to them and their students. It will also address multiple literacies (Eisner, 1998) that go beyond basic reading and writing as students learn to understand and decode an entire symbol system. A thorough mastery of this understanding process should include a spectrum of literacies, resulting in what Eisner calls ” a vision of what our schools should seek to achieve.” This mastery was the goal of the Rembrandt Teaching Project.

The impetus for the project came from an Arts Education Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Getty Center for Education in the Arts to design a discipline-based art education (DBAE) project (Dobbs, 1997). I proposed to study Rembrandt in the context of his culture, society, and historical time and produce a curriculum guide for teachers interested in teaching Rembrandt using the DBAE approach.

An important aspect of the NEA Fellowship required an on-site visit to the Netherlands to collect primary source material about Rembrandt. Included in this material were videos, books, maps, postcards, and art reproductions from such places as The Rijksmuseum and The Museum of the City of Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague. I also visited Leiden, Rembrandt’s birthplace. Much of this material was included in the curriculum guide that resulted. The blend of geography and art history in a slide presentation helped provide information about the life and times of Rembrandt for those teachers who became involved in the project

The project’s first task was the formation of a curriculum-writing committee consisting of four classroom teachers and supervisors, either generalists or art specialists. After determining the format of the curriculum guide, the committee constructed a guide that presented a variety of teaching and learning activities about Rembrandt.

At the same time, they studied his art and life. They also learned about the four curriculum content areas of DBAE, including art history, art production, art criticism, and aesthetics and reviewed the curriculum sampler (Alexander & Day, 1991) that served as the guide’s template.

For the first task of curriculum writing, the committee members used the resources of three museums in New York to extend and enrich their knowledge about Rembrandt. The three sites, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, and the Morgan library, all expressed a willingness to assist in the project. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to many great Rembrandt works including Man in Oriental Costume (1632), Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653), and Woman with a Pink (c. 1662-63). The curriculum team spent time at museum’s library and studying the works with museum educator Rika Burnham. Additionally, they made multiple visits to the Frick Collection where they worked with Susan Galassi, Amy Herman, and Ashley Thomas. Using the additional resources of the Morgan Library, the committee acquired an indepth understanding of the works and life of the artist.

Equipped with basic knowledge of DBAE and Rembrandt, the curriculum committee began designing actual lessons for the guide now titled, From the Brush of Rembrandt: Discoveries Through Discipline-Based Art Education (1999). The committee agreed that the teaching guide must be experiential and lead to the construction of knowledge. Inquiry-based lessons that involved hands-on learning experiences were developed. Lessons were designed to promote problem-solving abilities and encourage interdisciplinary connections.

To illustrate the diversity of Rembrandt’s talent,18 of his works were selected for the guide. These included paintings, etchings, and drawings and featured works from museums in the New York City area. Lessons began with a preview and art historical background to each work, followed by the work’s description. After this, the lessons presented suggestions for classroom instruction, enrichment, and assessment.

The guide was discipline-based in structure and designed to include visual arts standards developed by New York State (1996). These standards were included to better inform, support, and guide teaching in the visual arts. This helped equip teachers with a knowledge base to clearly link instruction and didactic assessment (Beattie, 1997) to content standards. As an example, one of the State’s standards recommends that “students will reflect on, interpret, and evaluate works of art, using the language of art criticism” (p. 19). Accordingly, suggestions as to how this process could occur were embedded in lessons.

As an example of construction, a lesson based upon The Polish Rider (c. 1655) is included. This work is a particularly interesting choice because questions have been raised about the accuracy of its Rembrandt attribution. Having been authenticated recently by the Rembrandt Research Project, a group of scholars asked by the Dutch government to determine the genuineness of works by Rembrandt, it raises questions about the artist and his works that can challenge students. These questions include issues in art history, aesthetics, and the process of authenticity.

The Polish Rider and some of Rembrandt’s landscapes and portraits are replete with allegory and symbolism. By focusing teachers’ attention on these aspects, we hoped to encourage an approach that would expand students’ responses from just identifying names and dates to including more analytical readings of Rembrandt’s work (Chanda, 1998). For instance, discussing the symbolism of the placement of light and rider in the painting promotes this type of analytical response, encouraging the engagement and application of higher- level thinking skills such as close observation, prediction, and hypothesis formation, in effect making students think like art historians.

To include the process of reflection about learning as students’ exposure to Rembrandt’s art increased, it was suggested that teachers use a Rembrandt Project Portfolio as an assessment tool. This portfolio not only contained extrinsic assessment evidence such as drawings, sketches, first drafts, and works-in-progress, but also written and spoken reflections about the entire learning process that permitted multiple validations of learning. This particular strategy was an extension of ideas expressed by Soren (1992) in which she refers to the difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how,” as explicated by Ryle (1949). In knowing that, students may increase their factual knowledge in various core competencies, whereas in knowing how, the entire cognitive repertoires of students are enhanced, enabling them to “find truths for themselves and their ability to organize and exploit truths” once discovered (p. 95). Throughout the implementation of the Rembrandt Project, it was important to ensure that both these learning and performance outcomes were pursued and their success appropriately assessed.

Reflection, as described in the New York State Standards, allows both teacher and student to achieve what Burns (1998) described as “felt expressiveness.” This phrase characterizes an aesthetic experience that begins in perception and ends in a personal reflection as these fuse into a single, enduring experience. This experience can then be related to further encounters that will deepen the individual’s understanding and appreciation of a subject as this process evolves.

The first draft of the curriculum guide was field tested using a small group of the district’s educational enrichment teachers who worked with students in grades 3-5. The targeted student population was diverse and included at-risk, English-as-a-secondlanguage, and intellectually gifted students. Based upon their responses to the project’s field testing, a customized plan for the project’s first-year implementation was developed.

Implementation of the project began with a district-wide call for volunteer teachers in grades 5-8. They were asked to complete an application telling why they were interested in the project and how they would use the training in their individual classrooms. Conditions for participation-staff development, classroom implementation, and formative and summative assessment-were outlined. After a group of teachers was selected, the next phase of the project commenced.

In order to capture a high level of teacher interest and continued motivation, the initial staff development session was in the form of a 2-day “Rembrandt Weekend.” One day was spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the next at the Frick Collection. At both sites, the program included presentations by art historians, curators, and other speakers, as well as talks by the project’s director and curriculum writers. It served to introduce the guide to teachers in both a scholarly and enjoyable manner, while paralleling experiences some of the participants had in the district’s previous school– museum collaborations (Piro, 1997).

Training teachers in a museum has several unique advantages. It allows art to be viewed and taught firsthand, and it helps to model future “looking” experiences for teachers if they choose to return to the museum with their students. Most importantly, it serves to provide teachers with greater “content command” of the art and begin the continuing process of expanding their instructional role from that of teacher to teacher-docent. This gave them insights into how to use a museum, effectively transforming the museum into an extension of their classroom, an anticipated by-product of the project.

It was also during this weekend symposium that teachers viewed the slide presentation about Rembrandt This provided them with further contextual information about the artist and enabled them to understand him through the perspective of time and place. A variety of materials was distributed including the curriculum guide, related journal articles, laminated color prints, slides of the works included in the curriculum, and additional museum reference publications.

During the symposium the question “Why teach Rembrandt?” was among those that arose. Several responses were offered. First, because little or no time is spent in elementary classrooms teaching art history-what some art teachers call the “missing discipline”introducing an artist of Rembrandt’s stature could serve to promote the cultural intelligence of students and acquaint them with great works of art. Second, it expanded the recent recommendation by the New York City Public Schools that all students should read 25 or more books per year. In keeping with the spirit of multiple literacies, it is suggested that knowledge of a certain number of books and authors would promote language literacy and also knowledge of artists and their works would promote visual literacy. Visual literacy would be served by familiarizing students with art masterpieces that they would readily identify and intelligently and critically discuss.

Third, Rembrandt was a highly theatrical painter. Many of his works tell wonderful stories. Children love to be told stories, and using Rembrandt’s paintings to tell stories could bridge the gap between language and visual literacies. After all, children do not think only in written language but also in visual image (Broudy, 1987). For example, Rembrandt’s history paintings Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) and

Belshazzar’s Feast (c. 1635) present vivid representations of stories that appeal to children’s imaginations. In the teaching guide, Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro, or light/dark contrast, in these two works is discussed. Not only are students asked to describe the use of chiaroscuro in both paintings, but also how it is used to heighten the dramatic power of the storytelling.

Finally, the roots of much local history in New York are Dutch. Broadening the unit to acknowledge this fact was an effective way to make interdisciplinary connections with social studies, further addressing geographic and historic literacies. Connecting DBAE content to social studies provides a richer, more resonant experience in art. As an example, the painting The Syndics of the Cloth Makers’ Guild (1662) contains images of individuals dressed in what students might call “Pilgrim” clothing, the type undoubtedly worn by the citizens in the city of New Amsterdam, which later became New York. Also, a discussion stressing the historical background of the subjects is included in the teaching suggestions. Information about the role of guilds in 17th-century Amsterdam and how the painting has been used subsequently to sell commercial products could be included to develop economic literacy.

Throughout the 2-day symposium, teachers were encouraged to become more familiar with both museums and their holdings beyond the Rembrandt paintings. They also were encouraged to return with their classes, preferably on a multiple-visit basis, and also to make “virtual visits” to the collections using the museums’ websites. Additionally, passes allowed teachers to return to both museums to explore them independently, ensuring that the museums would serve as a continuing agent of professional development.

An additional staff development session devoted to instruction in DBAE and other issues in art education occurred at the district’s central office several weeks after the symposium. At this session, the teachers received additional training literature, viewed videotapes, and heard presentations further explaining DBAE. They also were given classroom library books (more language literacy links) for their students and a bibliographic listing of information sources in the curriculum guide for their own use that would increase their knowledge of Rembrandt. Prominent among these were technology-based resources such as CD-ROMs and laserdisks encouraging computer literacy and technological integration. A listing of websites for “cyber art” browsing was also included in the multimedia resource recommendations. Also, the curriculum guide contained Rembrandt Activity Sheets for teachers to use with their students. Activity sheets included crossword puzzles, games, mathematical challenges, historical puzzles, and art activities. Suggestions on how to best maximize the potential of these to promote the teaching of multiple literacies were another component of the teacher training. Teachers were encouraged to sample the exercises themselves and then customize them for use with their students.

At present, the Project is operating in about half of the district’s schools and is in the process of being formatively evaluated. It also has the advantage of being connected to Project Arts, an initiative in New York City to establish intensive, comprehensive, and sustainable arts education programs in schools throughout New York. Project Arts has permitted The Rembrandt Project to reach a large number of students and teachers who are introduced to the Rembrandt Project chiefly through curriculum and professional development. Plans are being formulated to continue staff development through a series of workshops for teachers at sites like the Frick Collection and discussions led by university art historians and professors.

Questionnaires, interviews, and an Aesthetic Assessment Inventory have been designed both for teacher participants and students for the purpose of gathering feedback about the project’s structure, implementation, and impact in changing teaching to include multiple literacies. Once these data have been collected and reviewed, additional recommendations for increasing the scope of the project beyond the initial cohort of teachers will be made.

Rembrandt said, “a picture is finished when the artist has fulfilled his purpose in undertaking it. ” much like any picture composed by an artist, The Rembrandt Project has multiple purposes. Scholars, museum educators, teachers, and their students came together in like-minded community to explore the art of one of world’s greatest painters. This successful collaboration makes the point that the path to unity of purpose-defining a vision of what our schools can achieve– can be a joyful and productive journey.


Alexander, K, & Day, M., Eds. (1991). Discipline-based art education:A curriculum sampler. Santa Monica, CA. The Getty Center for Education in the Arts.

Beattie, D. K (1997). Assessment in art education. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications.

Broudy, H. (1987). The role of imagery in learning. Los Angeles: The Getty Center for Education in the Arts.

Burns, E. J. (1998). When 1+1=1: An interartistic aesthetic for opera. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 21 (1), 49-58.

Chanda, J. (1998). Art history methods: The options for art education practice. Art Education, 51 (5),17-24.

Dobbs, S. M. (1997). Learning in and through art. A guide to discipline-based art education. Los Angeles: The Getty Center for Education in the Arts.

Eisner, E. (1998). The kind of schools we need. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

From the brush of Rembrandt: Discoveries through discipline-based art education. (1999). New York, NY: School District 24.

New York State Learning Standards for the Arts (1996), New York State Education Department, Albany, NY.

Piro, J.M. (1997). School-museum collaboration: A passage to Asian study. Education about Asia, 2 (2), 14-20.

Ryle, G. (1949). The concept of mind. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Soren, B. (1992). The museum as curricular site.Journal of Aesthetic Education, 26 (3), 91-101.

Joseph Piro is Coordinator of Cultural Arts for School District 24 in the New York City Public Schools. E-mail: jpiro@nycboe.nycenet. edu


Special acknowledgment is given to Mark Conn, Georgi Gelalles, Roseann Napolitano, and Helen Paladino for their work on The Rembrandt Project

Copyright National Art Education Association May 2001

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