“Pablo Casals – The Swan”

Great for a winter’s day, watching the snowy landscape drift by outside the metro window.


20 Signs You’re Succeeding in Life! (even if you feel like you aren’t)


Conquering the DBQ

The AP Exams are upon us and many students are wondering the best way to succeed at the History DBQ (Data-Based Question).  This question (worth 25% of the score) asks students to read several documents and:

1) Form a thesis in answer to a given question

2) Support with relevant arguments and details from the documents

3) Touch on intended audience, purpose, historical context, and point of view

4) Further support analysis with historical information 

5) Synthesize into a persuasive essay

Question 1. Analyze major changes and continuities in the social and economic experiences of African Americans who migrated from the rural South to urban areas in the North in the period 1910–1930.

Many students forget to give their essay context by including historical information not found in the given texts.  A student could draw additional inspiration from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, which chronicles the move North.  With half of its panels housed at The Phillips Collection in D.C. and half at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Migration Series is one of the most iconic artistic portrayals of this era.

Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series, Panel 1, The Phillips Collection

Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series, Panel 1, The Phillips Collection




Encourage a hobby, inspire a passion

Students need teachers to help them develop their interests. Sometimes, what begins as merely a hobby can turn into a passion. The teacher is the one who fans the flames and turns that burning ember into a forest fire!

We can inspire students to pursue their interests with more gusto:

Tutor: Ask open-ended questions that help students to identify their interests.

Teacher: Assign work that helps students make connections between schoolwork and their extra-curricular activities.

Mentor: Give students an idea of the careers that are available in their field.

Coach: Challenge students to try for the next level of achievement, testing their commitment – and perhaps fueling a passion!

College Applications for Artistic Students

College counselors aren’t only looking for straight-A students and star athletes.  A background in the arts can also recommend a candidate.  Use your application to highlight some of the wonderful virtues that artists have to offer:


Artists learn to motivate themselves, and to track their progress independently. Dancers have to train on their own for many hours. Even when part of a class, they are constantly monitoring their own work and improving. This is exactly the kind of self-direction that college admissions counselors are looking for!


When studying music, students learn a melody or beat pattern and have to repeat it.  They learn how to store information quickly – and repeat it back under pressure. Musical training can be very useful in those freshman survey courses with stacks of textbooks and grueling final exams.


Marguerite Gerard, Artist Painting a Portrait of a Musician (The Hermitage)


Whether actors on stage, dancers in a company or musicians in an orchestra, art students learn how to work together. They must watch each other, follow along, and lead among their peers. At times, they must even make up the difference when a peer forgets their lines. As group projects become more central to university courses, a student’s ability to work as part of a group becomes more important.


Let’s not forget the most important characteristic that an artist offers their university: heart. Artists do what they do for the love of it. They follow their intuition down paths unknown, searching for new means of self expression and connection. This quality has driven discovery for centuries, and it is at the center of what learning is all about.

From believing to achieving

It has been said that, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” “If you can believe it, you can be it.” This is true, with one caveat: believing it is the hardest part.

Student beliefs about their abilities can be influenced by many factors. For example:

1. Observing a peer’s success or failure greatly influences what a student believes they can do.

2. Past successes or failures influence a student’s confidence – in the subject, himself, and education in general.

Here are some ways in which we can bolster student beliefs – in the roles we inhabit every day as educators:

Tutor: Give a student a problem they can do before moving on to more challenging ones. This will grow their confidence. But also watch for those moments when their confidence is soaring – don’t be afraid to give them a challenge and really show them what they can do!

Teacher: Bring a student to the board who is proficient – but not too advanced. Students will identify with them. When such a student succeeds, they will believe they can, too.

Mentor: Help students to find paper topics in which you know they will be successful.

Coach: Genuine encouragement goes a long way: “Good work.” “That’s great – you used the new strategy!”

Strongly-Worded Melodies

Detecting tone can be the key to understanding an author’s writing. In standardized tests, such as the SAT, AP Tests, or high school entrance exams, grasping the author’s tone can make or break a student’s interpretation.

 Consider the question of tone in the area from which it takes its name: music. How would you describe the tone of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, compared to the tone of another work by Beethoven, Für Elise?


Ludwig van Beethoven, Für Elise

 Beethoven clearly felt strongly about both subjects. Für Elise has a sweet, caring melody that gives way to a more playful theme in the middle, only to return with a deep sense of melancholy. The Fifth Symphony is also strongly worded. Beethoven hammers his subject home with strong, short statements, alternating between loud and soft for emphasis, like a great politician.

 Try This: Play a musical work for your students, asking them to see the work from the composer’s point of view. How does the composer feel about his work? Is he giving an historical account, like Tchaikovsky in his 1812 Overture? Providing a haunting and personal account of the brevity of life, as Mozart in his Requiem? These things are for your students to decide!

Ideas in Flight

One of the reasons that students struggle in the humanities is that they are seeking scientific certainty.  We have true knowledge in the humanities, but it is very different from truth in science. 


When you come across something that you understand in history, the arts, and literature, do not seal it away in a box.  These truths are living; they must breathe. 

These ideas are mid-flight, like the pieces of a hanging mobile from the artist Alexander Calder (Untitled Mobile, 1976, National Gallery of Art).  His mobiles are light, airy, fanciful creations.  They are held together by principles not immediately grasped by the viewer.  And, as you move around them, the relationships between the shapes seem to change, making what seemed true moments before again an enigma.

Marsalis compares jazz improvisation to cruisin’ through town in a beautiful car.

Geography with Flannery O’Connor

The American South is a region with particular customs, geography, and dialect. These specifics of setting have influenced the writing of many a southern writer, but none more so than Flannery O’Connor.Image

Even the opening lines of her iconic and chilling masterpiece, A Good Man is Hard to Find, reveal its setting: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.” (The Complete Stories, p. 117)

O’Connor’s geography also informs her metaphors. She speaks of a young woman “whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on top like a rabbit’s ears.” (p. 117)

Sometimes she is more direct: “[The grandmother] pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground.” (p. 119)

Lesson Plan: Introduce an O’Connor story without giving details about her background. Ask students to collect clues about the geographical setting from the story, considering: desciptions of the land, political references, metaphors, race relations, food, or dialect.

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