Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), Using Art to Deepen Learning

The season for Professional Development is upon us! AMoA will be participating in a VTS training workshop this August that will give teachers the opportunity to practice their new skills in a museum setting.

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Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a student-centered, research-based teaching method that uses art and photographs to build the capacity to observe, think, listen, and communicate. 

The art education world is ever changing, and it can feel hard to keep up! New instructional techniques and schools of thought are popping up here and there, and sometimes art instructors find themselves just trying to stay afloat.

VTS is one particular teaching strategy that the Amarillo Museum of Art has fully embraced, and uses regularly in tours, and outreach programs. It was developed over 20 years ago by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine, and is used in museums and schools nationwide. It is a great resource for our docents to facilitate conversations while conducting student tours without the need to have a large body of information on every work of art. The goal of VTS is not to teach the history of an artwork, but to encourage students to participate in an open dialogue, and explore their findings by using supporting evidence through observation. These discussions are the avenue to developing an interest in, and curiosity about art because they build on the viewers’ existing experiences.

Originally designed to make museum programs more effective, VTS has proven to develop the kind of self-directed learning that Common Core asks for. Art engagements enhance the experience of learning in a holistic manner, and inform sophisticated thinking. Thus, the techniques can be applied to classroom learning, and are appropriate for a wide range of subjects.

Through VTS discussions, students cultivate critical and creative thinking, inferential reasoning based on evidence, and communication skills meant to inform and persuade. VTS provides an engaging experience for students that jump starts contextual thinking while helping students broaden their vocabulary and language skills. VTS introduces students to “group investigation” of visual evidence. Students evaluate what they see, listen to ideas from their peers, assess the credibility of these ideas based on the evidence, and decide whether to incorporate their peers’ ideas into their own interpretations. Best of all, students are not even aware of all this cognitive development occurring – they’re just having fun exploring “what’s going on in this picture”.

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Dan Traverso. Jack in the Box — Museum Director. 1978. Colored pencil on paper. AMoA purchase with NEA matching funds. 

Getting started is as simple as picking an artwork to discuss that you think will engage students. It can be a painting, photograph, sculpture, or any media that has a visible narrative. The images you choose should increase in complexity as students become more familiar with VTS discussions, and can start to include non objective artwork. It isn’t crucial for students to “get it right” when making observations about art, as this is an approach that does not include right or wrong answers. Teachers are merely meant to facilitate discussions to support student growth.

Here is how it’s done…

After a few moments of slow, silent looking,

Teachers are asked to use three open-ended questions:

What’s going on in this picture?

  • When a student responds, teachers will point to the area of the image being discussed (which builds language acquisition, especially for ESL students).
  • After a student offers a comment, the teacher should summarize and paraphrase the vocabulary with slightly advanced grammar and sentence structure.20160616_103329

What do you see that makes you say that?

  • This question encourages students to back up their comments with what they see in the work of art.
  • Teachers should link comments to build the framework of the discussion (students become aware of how thinking unfolds and meanings are discovered). The conversation should be left open to other interpretations by students.
  • Teachers remain neutral, and non judgmental to encourage participation by everyone.

What more can we find?

  • This continues the conversation, and encourages students to look even further.
  • Let the discussion continue for about fifteen minutes, or until the students seem to have run out of comments. Thank them for participating, and let them know they did a good job looking at the image.
  • Avoid summaries; linking throughout is enough to show how conversations build.

Below is an example of a VTS lesson in action with fourth grade students. (See more videos here.)

In summary, the specific goals for students are:

  • To develop flexible and rigorous thinking skills, including observing, brainstorming, reasoning with evidence, speculating, cultivating a point of view, and revising
  • To strengthen language and listening skills, including willingness and ability to express oneself, respect for the views of others and ability to consider and debate possibilities
  • To develop visual literacy skills and personal connections to art, advancing one’s ability to find meaning in diverse and complex art
  • To nurture problem solving abilities, curiosity and openness to the unfamiliar
  • To build self-respect, confidence and willingness to participate in group thinking and discussion processes

The Amarillo Museum of Art partners with AISD and Region 16 to share pedagogy with educators in the Panhandle. We participate in teacher training, using our galleries for hands-on practice. We hope to be a resource for helping teachers realize the effectiveness of VTS, its low investment of time/cost, and to implement it in their classrooms.


The VTS method can be enhanced with a trip to the Amarillo Museum of Art. The strength of museums is access to objects that are not otherwise available. Children are invited to look at and think about these things firsthand. Our exhibitions rotate frequently, including historical and contemporary works. Self-led tours are free, but reservations are required at least 2 weeks in advance. Visit our website to find more information on tours. Consider visiting the museum in advance to see what is on display, if you are planning a self-led tour. Our staff is happy to address any questions or concerns you may have.


Museum without Walls | AMoA Outreach

The Amarillo Museum of Art offers several outreach programs to schools within the Texas Panhandle.

As our Mission states, “The Amarillo Museum of Art is dedicated to enriching the lives of the diverse people of the Texas Panhandle area, bringing them together for the experience of art through exhibitions, education, and collections.”

Research shows that the study of the arts is linked to greater academic achievement, social and emotional development, as well as civic engagement. Involvement in the arts has also pointed to greater proficiency in math, reading, verbal skills, critical thinking and cultural understanding. Greater cultural understanding through the lens of visual art is the aim of the Amarillo Museum of Art’s ARTifact Case outreach program. This “museum without walls” experience involves specially designed traveling suitcases filled with art and artifacts that AMoA staff brings directly to students and teachers. Students can discuss, handle and examine these art works and artifacts with experienced museum staff – right in their own classrooms.

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AMoA staff works with educators and program directors to provide a 30 minute hands-on discussion session, followed by a 30 minute art activity designed to enhance greater understanding of the group’s discussion and the overall program content.

The ARTifact Case outreach program is currently offered as a school education program through Window on a Wider World (WOWW.)  Teacher feedback from all WOWW site visits confirmed that teachers are less able to take field trips and are truly looking for programs that come to their campus.

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Museum staff conducting ARTifact Case outreach programs have shared that the program opens students’ eyes to different cultures in a way that makes the students feel special, by encouraging dialogue about the artifacts brought to the classroom, handling the special artifacts themselves, as well as the outlet of personal expression through the hands-on art activity.

Another option, if you are interested in incorporating ARTifact Case material into your classroom for an extended time, is to check out a case on a weekly basis. Core Curriculum ties and TEKS connections are provided to educators with each ARTifact Case program. Each case contains complete case inventory and descriptions of each item, presentation highlights, lesson plans, art activity samples, and step-by-step instructions with links to sources for supplies.

Optional pre and post Museum tours are also encouraged for those  programs that represent particular collections strengths at the Museum.

The following ARTifact Cases are currently offered from AMoA to enhance student learning about world cultures:

Art of Ancient Egypt | The Myths and Magic: Explore the land of pyramids, how and why the pyramids were built, what a sarcophagus is and how it was made, the symbolism behind images of humans and animals, and the art of hieroglyphics. As a part of the hands-on activity, students will each create an ornamental scarab beetle necklace.


Native American Art | The Legends and the Land: Your class will explore the great cultural diversity of the American Indians, from the Acoma Pueblo potters of western New Mexico to the stone carvings of the Inuit people of Alaska and Canada. Art is an integral part of their culture, with many contemporary artists still being trained by their family and community. Students will each have the opportunity to decorate their own acoma clay pot in traditional Native American designs.

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Art of Mexico | Mayan to Modern: Students learn about the ancient and modern art from our immediate neighbor, Mexico. Artifacts like masks and sculptures will teach your students about the ancient tribes such as the Mayans and the Aztecs. Modern artifacts such as nichos and retablos will be used to teach students about Mexican folk art and its popularity worldwide. Students will be making their own nichos using images of iconic American people, to help them understand the relationship between a culture of people and those who inspire them.


The Art of Japan | A World of Art, A World Apart: Students begin their journey in the early Edo Period and travel through the marvelous land of the Samurai. Your class will be exposed to the myths, beliefs, and cultural practices, including the Japanese tea ceremony and the world of multi color woodblock prints that depict popular subjects of the day. Students will create an ornament through the ancient art of Japanese marbling.



The Art of India & Southeast Asia | The Dynamic and Divine:
India is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and is rich with a variety of customs and broad range of beliefs. Explore the symbols and philosophies behind Hindu, Jain and Buddhist sculptures, along with the myths and stories that surround these works of art. From dancing Shiva and elephant sculptures, to a silk sari and bindi jewels, students take a tactile journey through this ARTifact case. For the hands-on portion of this case, students will create their own vibrant Rangoli sand painting.


Through the generosity of of Dr. and Mrs. William T. Price, AMoA has acquired a considerable amount of art from India and Southeast Asia; therefore, recommended to be paired with a tour of AMoA’s Asian Art Collection.


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Another option that brings AMoA staff into your classroom are AMoA Art Experiences. These programs are specially designed to discuss monumental movements in art history. Much like the ARTifact Case experience, our education staff will visit your school and provide a presentation followed by an immersive creative project designed to reflect the art and culture highlighted in the lecture.

Impressionism | The Science of Light and Color: Students will learn about the history of Impressionism through the 17th and 18th centuries. Spontaneous and bold, the artists of the Impressionist movement were considered the rebels of their time. They studied light, color, and optics to to improve their ability to capture a “moment in time” with paint. During the lecture, your class will discover the science and techniques behind this Impressionist style of painting, and then create original works of art for each student to take home.



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Modern Art | A 20th Century Movement: We’ll talk about the history and drama of the Modern Art movement in the early 20th century. Influential in the creation of art today, Modern Art is one of the most difficult forms of art to understand. Your class will journey through the social, political, and emotional drive behind the art, as well as the many creative techniques. Then, students will each complete an individual work of art to keep.

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Andy Warhol collage

“Because works of art give form to fundamental beliefs and feelings they serve as conduits for culture; they are, in effect, culture carriers.”

 Ronald H. Silverman, Ed.D.,
Professor Emeritus of Art, California State University

To book an AMoA outreach experience, visit our website, or contact Deana Craighead at 806.371.5052,

What’s Going on in Museum School? (Clay)

20160329_144448The AMoA offers clay classes to young students ages 6-11 in the fall and spring sessions of Museum School. This is a favorite with children, because it gives them the opportunity to create with a medium they may have never experienced!

The kids work with hand building skills (slabs, coils and pinch pots ) to build pots, tiles, and whimsical sculptures. They discover the ‘ins and outs’ of working with clay and pottery tools, how to apply textures, and glazing techniques. Students learn how to join pieces of clay together and how to apply interesting details to their creations.

In addition to the hands-on creation, students also learn the vocabulary associated with clay and glazing, and about firing methods.


These fantastic little creatures were built by forming two pinch pots, and joining them together. Students use tools to model the features and details of their pieces, adding lots of quirky character!

Above are slab pots, with many different textures imprinted onto the surface. The edges are turned up to create a scalloped look on some, and bright, fun colors were glazed over the pieces to finish them.


For Valentine’s Day, clay students made heart tiles with lots of love inspired decoration! These were ready just in time to take home for the holiday.

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(more pictures to be added soon, so please check back!)

What’s Going on in Museum School? (Art Adventure)

Art Adventure is a class we offer for young learners, ages 4 & 5. Students are introduced to materials, methods, and ideas that are applied to a variety of projects throughout the 8 week session. Color, shape, texture, and line are explored through painting, drawing, clay, collage, and printmaking techniques.


We began this project by creating the background for these adorable snowmen. Students used white oil pastels to draw snowflakes, and then painted over the top with liquid watercolor, to achieve a water color resist. Many “oohs and ahhs” were heard, as they noticed the white snowflakes “magically” appearing through the paint!


To create the snowmen, students learned how to draw circles for the heads and an arc to create the shape of the body. Then, they cut them out and pasted them onto the (dried) backgrounds. For many children, this is their first experience with using scissors. The hand-eye coordination is a tough thing to master but by the second or third lesson that requires scissors, they have improved immensely through guided assistance!



The results are always completely unique!



This fun “relief sculpture” project was an adaptation from a lesson by famed art ed blogger, Cassie Stephens. Although the lesson contained some advanced techniques, these little artists were excited to use new, and unfamiliar materials, such as sharpies and tin foil.

We painted lines on the background, with neon paint to really make this project pop! This project fell during the week of Valentine’s Day, so as a class we learned how to draw hearts. Next we glued string to them, and then placed tin foil over the hearts and smashed it down to make the string reappear. Because this was very tactile, the students were concentrating, and excited to rediscover their designs.


These preschoolers never cease to amaze!


We believe strongly in teaching the fundamentals of art. These little art adventurers are already beginning to learn color theory by mixing primary colors to create secondary ones.


We walked through all the steps together, as students mixed their own paint and then created a color wheel umbrella.




In this next mixed media / drawing lesson, our little artists learned about jellyfish, and then created an underwater scene. They used chalk pastels to make the jellyfish appear see-through, and oil pastels to draw spindly seaweed. (lesson inspired by Deep Space Sparkle)




The last step was adding white splatter paint to make bubbles!

This next lesson was also inspired by Deep Space Sparkle. Our goal is to send students home with a wide variety of artwork, letting them explore mixed media over the 8 week session. Although students had used chalk pastels before, we used this lesson to introduce them to warm and cool colors. Plus, bright pastels against black paper is a “win win” for any project!


The pastels were divided into two tubs, making it easier for students to find the warm and cool colors.

We talked about “warm” colors reminding us of things like the sun, fire, and cozy blankets, and how the “cool” colors are like rain, and igloos and grass.

We also talked about landscapes, and the students had fun imagining that the mountains in these were gumdrops, and the sun a giant lollipop!

Even though these children are only 4 and 5, they can grasp art concepts that are not normally taught at such a young age, because vocabulary and techniques are built upon each week. Students work at many different levels, but we feel that these projects are interactive and enjoyable for each child!


And finally, my favorite lesson so far. Many of the ideas and teaching techniques behind this project were also borrowed from Cassie Stephens, and let me tell you – they really worked!


Students used their new-found knowledge of sculpture to create these bright and fun paper line sculptures. In the demonstration, we talked about the difference between two and three dimensional art, and I showed students how to make the paper strips stand up by giving them “feet”. They really loved that one (Thanks Cassie)!!


Students stayed engaged the entire time, and built some pretty amazing paper sculptures!




End of Semester Recap, and A Look Ahead

We’ve had a great Fall semester at the Amarillo Museum of Art! Over the course of 8 weeks, students ages 4-12 mastered hand-building skills in Clay class, and created vibrant artworks with mixed media techniques in Museum School.

In October, the large-scale photographic collages of Chris Jordan were installed on the first and second floors. These works ignite conversation about the ‘waste streams’ generated by American culture and consumerism, making them a top-notch topic on tours. Additionally, in the third floor gallery are AMoA’s New Acquisitions. This collection is unique in that many of the collected pieces incorporate light as a design element, and simultaneously have a connection to the Amarillo area.

Schools from all over the Panhandle have traveled to the museum to tour three floors of gallery space, and immerse themselves in related hands-on art projects. Through the efforts of our education department, and docents, we have had the opportunity to serve over 900 students with tours, and outreach programs throughout the Panhandle this season! Thank you to all the groups that visited, and invited us into your classrooms. There were too many of you to name, but we enjoyed every last one of you!

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We believe that doors and opportunities are opened as children become excited about art! We truly appreciate all who provide financial support in our community – without these businesses, individuals, and foundations, the AMoA would not be able to develop and extend programs that make the experience of art accessible to so many in our region.

We look forward to bright possibilities as we continue to expand our educational programming, and build relationships with area schools. For more information about tours and outreach, visit our website

Coming Soon…


This Spring, our schedule features 8 week technical classes, and a few new offerings… 3 week ‘Creative Clubs’,  a ‘One Day Fun Day’ that coincides with AISD’s early release date in February, and a Mother’s Day activity.

8 Week Classes:
(will not meet the week of March 14-18 due to Spring Break)

  • Drawing & Painting (Ages 6-11)
    Tuesdays, February 2 – March 29, 4:00-5:15pm
    Teachers: Julie Talley & Caitie Quezada
    Members $72 * Nonmembers $80
    In this popular class, students will explore color, pattern, line, shape, light and shadow while using a variety of media. This class may be taken more than once as projects are not repeated and students can expand their skills. 
  • Clay (Ages 6-11)
    Wednesdays, February 3- March 30, 4:00-5:15pm
    Teacher: Carol Snelson
    Members $72 * Nonmembers $80
    Squish it, coil it, roll it and throw it! This fun, creative class introduces children to the endless possibilities of clay. Students will create their own unique ceramic pieces using innovative yet simple techniques such as hand-building, glazing and surface texture decoration.
  • Art Adventure (Ages 4-5)
    Session 1: Wednesdays, February 3 – March 30, 4:00-5:00pm
    Session 2: Thursdays, February 4 – March 31, 1:45-2:45pm
    Teachers: Julie Talley & Caitie Quezada
    Members $63 * Nonmembers $70
    Explore! Experiment! Experience! This introduction to materials and methods is the perfect first art class. Children will learn about color, shape, texture, and line through painting, drawing, clay, collage and printmaking.

    Creative Clubs
    3 Week Classes:
    Members $27 * Nonmembers $30

    These three week sessions explore drawing, painting, mixed media, sculpture, and design as students learn how to look at, talk about and create art. Classes are offered three Fridays in a row.

  • Central and South American Adventure (Ages 6-9)
    Classes meet February 26, March 4, and March 11 at 4:00-5:15pm
    Teacher: Julie Talley
    Bask in bold, exciting color as you discover art from Central and South America! Learn about different countries and cultures as you create beautiful artworks to take home!
  • Keepin’ it Surreal (Ages 8-12)
    Classes meet April 8, April 15, and April 22 at 4:00-5:15pm
    Teacher: Caitie Quezada
    Explore the dream-like paintings of Marc Chagall, Rene Magritte, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dali as you look closely at floating figures, melting landscapes, and mysterious symbols of Surrealist art. Students will create their own interpretations through a variety of media and techniques including painting, drawing, and collage.

    One Day Fun Day:
    $15 / child

  • Artist Studio : Modern Art (Ages 6-11)
    Friday, February 19th (AISD Early Release Day)
    Discover the artwork of famous Modern Artists as you create four different works of art.

    Mother’s Day Masterpieces:
    $15 / child

  • Saturday, April 30th
    Come to the museum to make a gift she will treasure – a portrait of you! Explore the facial expressions and techniques as you create a self portrait using a variety of media and styles.

    To sign up for classes, call us at 806-371-5050

‘Art Ed’ Links We Think You’ll Love

Searching for online art education resources can either be very fruitful… or very frustrating! So we spent some time gathering a few sites that we think offer the very best in lesson plans, classroom management, and other great art ed resources.

The Art of Ed

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This website is truly phenomenal. It is a treasure trove of information for art educators.. from lesson plans, to organizing strategies, The Art of Education has it all! We’re betting this site will quickly become one of your favorites.


National Art Education Association


Looking for the latest in art education? Find all kinds of content here. Aside from some really great current information, this site also offers lesson planning, 50+ links to other art ed blogs, and grant opportunities.

The Artistic Edge

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This link directs you to a blog that focuses on creatives.  Their main goal is to provide children with leadership, communication, and problem solving skills. But keep in mind, the articles are written by many different writers, and contain many varying opinions. Still, a very worthwhile site to explore.

Art Museum Teaching

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An exceptional blog that offers a digital community to reflect on issues of teaching, learning, and experimental practices in art museum education… you won’t know which article to read first!

The Art Curator for Kids

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Here is a one-stop shop for art teachers and homeschool moms! Not only does this website host a ton of great content, it also provides lists upon lists of other resources – like 20 Must-Follow Art Education Blogs. Be careful, or you may find yourself following a rabbit trail of art education topics!


Art. Eat. Tie Dye. Repeat


Check out this fun, tie dyed blog for lots of project ideas, and an inside look at this elementary art teacher’s incredible classroom!


Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

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Crystal Bridges is a leading establishment in US art museum education. Find programs for educators, distance learning resources, and much more on their user-friendly website.

Incredible Art Department


Incredible Art Department includes a diverse range of subjects and topics of interest to art educators, students, parents, artists, and homeschoolers. On this site you can find free art lessons, news, art resources, and help for new art teachers.

Deep Space Sparkle

deep space sparkle

This ‘art ed’ website has everything you’re looking for in the way of project ideas and resources. Plus, it’s beautiful and easy to navigate!

Cassie Stephens Blog

cassie stephens

This lively art teacher from Tennessee has so many good ideas, it’s crazy! Find out what happens in her art room, her favorite DIY’s and keep up with her funky fashion.

About the AMoA Blog!

Hello everyone!!

The AMoA Education Staff has been hard at work refreshing our educational programming.  We are proud of the things we have been able to accomplish the past several years and would like to thank all the teachers and administrators that have allowed us to work with you.  It’s always a pleasure to be in your school, in your classroom and in your curriculum.  We know it isn’t easy to find time for the ‘extras’ and we appreciate the effort.

That said, we think we can do better.  We want to make AMoA a rich educational resource by improving communication, increasing curriculum resources and facilitating the exchange of ideas.   While those are big concepts, we hope to start small…with a blog.  This will be a collection of interesting information on AMoA exhibitions, upcoming events, what’s going on with museum school, tours & outreach, and new ideas in art education.

What better way to improve communication than to share our latest news and ideas?  Check back soon and often to see what we have created for YOU, our partner in enriching the lives of panhandle children.