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Discussion & Activities

Use these activities before, during, or after your video-based lesson on The Arts in Pittsburgh.

If you haven't read our Tips for using video in the classroom, we suggest you take a look there first, then come back here to choose materials to construct your lesson.

The Arts in Pittsburgh


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Learning Activities

What is art for?

bullet It's an honor

Look up all the synonyms you can think of for honor or tribute. Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com are fun online sources to use. Word Menu is What are the differences in meaning or connotation between all of those terms? [Honor, tribute, memorial, commemorate, remember, observe, etc.]

Find out how the state goes about naming highways and bridges. What guidelines are used to nominate someone for these official honors? What does it take to have an official proclamation made by the city or state? Who has received these proclamations? Are they usually living or dead?

Sometimes honors are built in bricks and mortar or are cast in bronze or carved in stone. Oakland is full of such honors. Look for them and keep a running list on your next Oakland field trip. Check out the It's an Honor activity for some of them.

What people and events have been honored in Oakland? [Carnegie, Phipps, Frick, Stephen Foster, Back, Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Robert Burns, Soldier from Spanish-American War, George Westinghouse, Henry Heinz, Soldiers and Sailors Hall] Research what these people did to earn their honors (how many were built by others and how many were built by themselves?).

Sort your list of honorees into some logical categories. What categories have you come up with? [Examples: People and events; Pittsburghers, non-Pittsburghers; Famous, Not Famous; Scholars, Business people, Religious leaders, Artists, musicians, authors; Everyday people; Before and after death, etc..]

How many were Pittsburghers? [Foster, Frick, Heinz, Carnegie, Phipps] How many lived elsewhere? [Bach, Burns, Galileo, etc.] What are some of the less famous names you have seen?

How are buildings named after someone different from statues and other kinds of memorials? What is a bigger honor?

What do these tributes tell us about our values? What kinds of people do we admire? What do the statues and memorials in Oakland tell us about what that place is about? Would you have chosen the same people to honor? Who would you add? Is there anyone you think did not deserve this honor? Who? Would you choose different people to honor in Oakland than you would for your home neighborhood?

What makes a good memorial? How would you like to remember someone? Who would you like to remember?

To explore these ideas and honor someone you admire, see the It's an Honor activity below.

[Back to Oakland Special Edition]

bullet It's an Honor activity

This activity makes a great follow up to a Walking Tour of Oakland. Throughout your tour, keep a running list of people and events that have been commemorated in Oakland.

When you are walking in Oakland, you will find yourself bumping into many tributes to people who have earned the admiration of others. Enough admiration that they commissioned statue, carved a stone, cast bronze plaques, built walls and whole buildings. Who have you seen honored in Oakland? Begin this activity with the It's an Honor discussion questions. Then use the It's an Honor activity to explore some of the many people and events we have honored in Oakland.

Looking at, categorizing, and discussing memorials, students are asked to investigate what it takes to have a memorial created in Schenley Park, design and write a proposal for the memorial to be "judged" by the class.

video icon Related video stories:

[Back to Oakland Special Edition

Who does art? Who loves art?

bullet Interview an artist, musician, or performer

Interview a contemporary or traditional artist, craftsperson, musician, dancer, actor, or other performer.

After a school performance, demonstration or during an artist residence arrange for the artists to stay awhile to be interviewed about what they do, how and why they do it, and how they learned their skills. See one of the arts organization in The Arts in Pittsburgh resource section to arrange to find a contemporary artist to talk with. To find traditional artists and performers, ask around your community at clubs and congregations for craftspeople, ethnic dancers and musicians.

Use this Oral History Interview process to learn how to conduct your interview: Asking the right questions will help you get better stories and not just "yes," "no," and "uh-huh" answers! Be sure to get a signed release form so you can save the tape and use guotes from the interview. What questions could help you find out this information about your artist or performer, especially traditional artists:

  • What processes, skills, and/or materials are involved in this art form?
  • What is the origin of the art form? What is the craft's importance to its culture or community?
  • How has the tradition been passed along? How did the artist or performer learn the craft?
  • What is the importance of the craft to the artist? to the culture of the community?
  • How is quality judged in this craft tradition? What makes a piece or performance "good"?

bullet Collecting Ourselves discussion

See also, Collecting Ourselves activities

Pittsburgh's museums, libraries, archives, and individual collectors are keepers of our cultural and natural heritage. Are you one of those packrats--ahem, collectors?

What do you collect? Why?

What fascinates you about your collection? What is your favorite piece in your collection?

How do you decide what to add to your collection? Do you go for quality or quantity? Why? How is "quality" judged for the things you collect? Is that the same criteria you use to judge the quality of your collection or to make buying decisions?

How are the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Phipps Conservatory, and the Carnegie Library different? How are they the same? How do you think the curators and librarians there make their collection decisions?

What are the special challenges in collecting living (or ex-living) things? Is it right to collect living things?

What are the special challenges of collecting art works?

What are the special challenges of collecting books that are available for loan?

What are some of the "rules" museums and libraries have about their collections? What are the reasons for those rules?

In "Something about Oakland," Richard Armstrong, Director of the Carnegie Museum of Art called the museum the "Palace of the Imagination across from the Cathedral of Learning." What would you call the Carnegie Museum of Natural History? Phipps Conservatory? The Carnegie Library?

What other interesting collections are in Oakland? [Nationality Rooms, the Center for American Music at Stephen Foster Memorial (library and museum), Hillman Library and its Archive of Industrial Society, Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation at CMU, Rodef Shalom's Biblical Garden, etc.]

What other collections do you now about in our area? [Heinz History Center, the Pittsburgh Zoo, the National Aviary, Clayton and the Frick Art Museum, Old Economy are just a few.] For 65 museums in our area, visit the Greater Pittsburgh Museum Council's web site.

Follow up this discussion with these "Collecting Ourselves" activities below.

bullet Collecting Ourselves activities

Pittsburgh's museums, libraries, archives, and individual collectors are keepers of our heritage. Are you one of them? Let's talk about collecting, learn some tips from the Pittsburgh professional packrats, and visit some of Pittsburgh premiere collections!

Begin with Collecting Ourselves classroom discussion above. Follow up this discussion with these "Collecting Ourselves" activities:

  • Have students share what they collect in our Collecting Ourselves Gallery and read about other Pittsburghers' collections.
  • Caring for your collection. Help students start off on the right foot with their own collections. Learn how museums decide what to collect and care for their collections.

video icon Related video stories from "Something about Oakland":

video icon Related video stories from other programs:

[Back to Oakland Special Edition]

What is art for?

bullet Symbol-eyes: Tile a wall with symbols of great ideas

This activity is an ideal follow-up to the Nationality Room Symbol Search or online symbol match-up or the Oakland Treasure Hunt. Any walking tour can be adapted to be a symbol search, as well.

After a discussion of symbols, students will design a symbol representing an idea important to them, then create the tile in clay, polymer clay, or mosaic. Finished tiles can be installed in the school.

Begin with a brief introduction of the concept of symbols by asking students to give examples of symbols of the United States (flag, eagle, Great Seal of the United States, Uncle Sam, the figure Statue of Liberty, the Capitol, the White House, etc.). Ask them:

  • What do each of these symbols mean?
  • What is their purpose and where they are used?
  • Which started out as symbols and which became symbols after a time?

Symbols are images, figures, or shapes that stand for a complex idea, object, person, or group. What other kinds of symbols can you think of?

  • What are some religious symbols? [cross, menorah, lamb, fish, torah scroll, Islamic star, etc.] What do they stand for?
  • What are some non-religious symbols? [school mascots, math symbols, What character traits or ideals have symbols? What are some practical symbols? [chemical symbols, traffic signs, poison labels, red cross, dollar sign $, etc.]
  • Why do you think we use symbols when simple words would do?
  • What real objects have become symbols? What plants, birds, or animals have become symbols? How many can you name with their symbolic meanings? [lion =courage, elephant = Republican, donkey = Democrat, dove = peace, hawk = war, lily = purity, poppy = World War I and veterans who have died in all wars, daffodil = cancer, etc.]
  • What makes a good symbol? [Easy to recognize and remember, simple shape or able to be made abstract] Look for all the symbols in your classroom -- check pockets, inside books, etc., for all the places symbols hide. Which symbols "work" -- are easiest to see and understand? Which don't work as well? Why?

Nations, religions, cultures, and organizations have all adopted symbols that stand for important shared beliefs and ideals. Make a list of some of the important virtues and ideals that you believe in. Which of these would you choose to symbolize?

Design a symbol representing that idea and create a tile with the symbol. For inspiration, review the Nationality Room Symbol Search and Oakland Treasure Hunt photo cards.

Symbols often find their way into architecture, especially religious, nonprofit, educational, and government structures. Install your tiles at your school by combining all the class tiles as a tile mural or as a border on the wall of the classroom or hall. Mosaic stepping stone tiles can be installed as a walkway outside the school.

For permanency, make your tiles out of one of these media:

Ceramic clay

Polymer Clay


video icon Related video stories:

[Back to Oakland Special Edition]

bullet Pysanky: Ukrainian Easter Eggs

Though many European immigrant groups brought egg-decorating traditions with them to the Pittsburgh area, none is more intricate and beautiful than pysanky, Ukrainian expresions of faith and friendship. Although now an Easter tradition, egg decoration began in the Ukraine in the year 988 A.D., long before Christianity came to the Ukraine. What was once the symbol of the coming of longer days and new life in the spring became the Christian symbol of spiritual rebirth. Try Pysanky-writing with these directions after viewing the video story from Holy Pittsburgh:

video icon Related video stories:

bullet Mural telling the story of working Pittsburghers

Heroes tend to grow bigger than life, so when artists memorialize their heroes, they often work bigger than life! When canvases aren't big enough to hold their heroes, artists turn to the walls. Murals are a favored way to tell the story of people and events meant to inspire.

Clyde Hare for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Maxo Vanka's mural inside St. Nicholas Church in Millvale.


Maxo Vanka told the story of Croatia's tragic heroes through war, and immigration, and work on the walls of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. These murals are definitely not just for decoration like the murals in homes. What story do they tell?

The 1930s were a great era for murals because President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program of the New Deal, employed artists to create murals for public buildings all over the nation. The Allegheny County Courthouse and many local post offices built in the 1930s are graced with these murals. Almost always these murals made heroes out of common everyday people working hard to make a life for themselves and their families.

Plan a mural to honor the hard work of Pittsburghers throughout the its history:

  • Develop a story: Who do you think built Pittsburgh with their hard work? What story do you think should be told about them? What kind of work did they do? Where? What was heroic about what they did?

  • Find a place at school to paint the mural and decide whether to do it on paper (temporary and portable), canvas (permanent and able to be reworked and repainted), or fresco (permanent and challenging);

  • Break the story into "chapters" and assign person or team to each "chapter;"

  • Design the mural to scale on paper;

  • Enlarge to actual size on large mural paper (called a "cartoon") and decide on colors;

  • Transfer the cartoon to the wall or paper with charcoal;

  • Paint the mural.

For information about fresco--painting with egg tempera right onto wet plaster--visit the Fresco workshop at the Arts Foundation of Michigan.

video icon Related video stories:

Where art lives

bullet Details-Details Treasure Hunt

This is a simple, effective and fun generic treasure hunt game that can be done anywhere to increase students' powers of observation and description. Depending on your goals students can either draw or write their descriptions. It also "self-adjusts" to any age-group third grade or older.

Use Details, Details to demonstrate that art is all around in your school or on a neighborhood walking tour. On a field trip it ensures that students really are paying attention, honing their skills, and learning something. You can even use it to focus attention when showing the Downtown Pittsburgh video.

bullet All-Purpose Instant Museum Treasure Hunt

Visiting a museum or art gallery can be much more than just a snakeline tour through the hallways. On your next group museum visit, drum up more fun and more learning with a gallery game. This game is easy--it just takes a piece of paper and pencil for each person--and it encourages visitors to both browse the whole gallery and spend some quality time focussing on one object.


  1. Define the boundaries of the Treasure Hunt within the museum (an area that includes two different rooms is ideal).
  2. Assign an area as "base."
  3. Distribute a piece of paper and pencil to each participant.
  4. Pair up the group: one person will go to one room (or one side of a large single room), the other person to the other room (or other side of a large single room).
  5. Explain the directions below.


  1. Start at base with your partner. Split up, each going to different rooms (or areas of the same room.
  2. Look at the objects or pictures in your area of the museum or exhibit. Find one with plenty of details. Remember its name and its maker's name, but don't write them down.
  3. Choose a small section of the object and draw it large enough to completely fill your paper.
  4. Return to base after ten minutes. Switch papers with your partner.
  5. Browse around your partner's area to find the object or picture his/her detail came from. The drawing is like a puzzle piece--your job is to find out where it goes.
  6. When you think you've found the object, write your guess -- the object's title or description and the maker's name -- at the bottom of the drawing.
  7. Return to base and check your answer with your partner. If you guessed right, congratulate yourself for having good observation skills. And congratulate your partner for having good detail-drawing skills!

Language arts variation:

Instead of drawing a detail of the object or picture, write a detailed description that partners can use to find the object.

video icon Related video stories:

bullet Taking a Closer Look

It can be challenging enough to look at art from our own culture! Art from other cultures and traditions is even more challenging to understand and appreciate. But students can learn to explore art from their own and other cultures-- reading images is a skill that can be developed just like reading books.

Taking a Closer Look (off-site link-- use your "Back" button to return to this site) is a systematic way of looking at art from any tradition, but it is especially useful for looking at art from non-Western traditions. When you visit the wonderful collections and special exhibits at one of Pittsburgh's museums or galleries, take this quiet activity with you and let students get to really get up-close and personal with a work of art!

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