Homeschool: Black Mountain College (art, music and dance) for kids

black and white image of woman making art at black mountain college

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Homeschool: Black Mountain College (art, music and dance) for kids

Hi everyone!

In the world that jumped off the tracks two months ago, I would have been performing at the Faith in Arts Institute at UNC-Asheville and the Black Mountain College Museum this week. Since the institute is postponed, they invited the artists to take over the Black Mountain College Museum instagram page for a day instead.

Mornings are pandemic homeschool times in my house, so I decided to create a unit for my kids about the dance, music and art of Black Mountain College. Disclaimer: as a writer/musician myself I have long loved many of the artists associated with this community, but I’m not an expert/scholar. But that’s what homeschool means, right? Teaching things you’re not an expert in?

It ended up being a lot of fun, and a couple people asked me to share what I did…so here it is. Please enjoy and feel free to share!

black and white image of woman making art at black mountain college
Black Mountain College:

A Homeschool Lesson for Elementary School Kids

For context:
My kids are 5 and 8 so this skews towards their ages. I’m an artist and admirer of Black Mountain College, but not a scholar of the movement, so I chose to focus on the kids’ experience of the art rather than BMC. As an introduction I told them: Today we are studying some artists from Black Mountain College, a special school in North Carolina where many artists got together and made interesting art in different forms. They exploring what the rules of art were, and experimented with what happened if they stretched or broke those rules. And then we dove in. You can do any single part or all 3, and I suggest snacks in between.

Computer/ipad/phone to watch videos; I suggest you use a phone to make videos and take pictures to document the art created. Otherwise, supplies are simple and flexible: basic art supplies; anything that might serve as some simple costume if desired; maybe some sticks and plants from outside.


  1. Dance (Like a Bird): Merce Cunningham
  2. Art (Shapes and Patterns): Ruth Asawa
  3. Music (With Sticks and Plants): John Cage
  4. Share (only if you want) what you’ve learned with an “exhibition” for friends, family or on social media

PART 1: Dance (Like a Bird): Merce Cunningham  

black and white image of merce cunningham and dancer, 1977 france

1. WATCH (on Youtube)
this short excerpt of Cunningham’s dance, Beach Birds
Bert’s Pigeon dance from Sesame Street (unless kids are too old for this)
this short excerpt of Cunningham’s dance, Second Hand (not about a bird, but amazing costume design by Jasper Johns, which is what we focused on)

2. DISCUSS the difference in costume between each; similarities and differences in how they were moving their bodies.

3. CHOOSE a bird to imitate! I’d thought we might go outside and observe, but my kids were resistant so we watched this blue jay on Youtube. Or you could probably find any bird there! The nice thing about video is that it’s a quick, guaranteed up-close view for studying its movement and “costume,”.

4. DECIDE whether the students want to choreograph for themselves, or choreograph for the parent/teacher (I like to give the kids the choice, if it’s practical to do so. My kids chose to choreograph for me.)

5. COSTUME DESIGN: kids decide what to wear that symbolizes the bird (can be a whole outfit or face paint, or, keep it simple – in my case, simply a blue bandana for the blue jay)

6. CHOREOGRAPH AND DANCE! Kids make up a dance imitating the bird (teach them the word “choreograph” if they’re young or don’t know it yet.) Dancer puts on the costume, kids come up with a few movements based on the bird, and tell the dancer what to do (or perform the movements themselves). Whoever isn’t performing, films the dance.

Here’s me as a blue jay! 🙂  I’m no dancer…
(Optional add-on: choose some music to go with it that matches the feel you are going for. We didn’t, because for young kids it would have been too many steps; but especially for older kids this could work and could also integrate with other Black Mountain College composers if you cue up some samples and have them choose one. Or if they’re musical they could make their own).

PART 2: Art (Shapes and Patterns):   Ruth Asawa

ruth asawa hanging sculpture made of delicate woven metal

For this one, it’s great to provide a variety of art supplies – watercolors, markers, colored pencils, collage – I like to give them their own choice of medium. But if you only have a pen and paper that works too.

1. OBSERVE: Look at images by artist Ruth Asawa. I suggest you use this great slide show of her work from Black Mountain.
(Full disclosure: we used Josef Albers’ “Homage to a Square” series, because I only had 3 minutes to prepare and had to work with what I already know. It worked great but meant I was only using white male artists – not great. That night I learned more about Ruth Asawa and wished I’d used her art, so I included it here.) 

2. DISCUSS: How does Ruth Asawa use shapes and lines to make patterns? What do you notice? Which is your favorite? (You can keep this short if desired – just a way to help them focus on looking at the art).

3. MAKE ART!: each student chooses what shape or a line pattern (i.e. wavy lines) to use and makes a piece of art using only that element, decorating in any way they choose. I liked giving them a choice of whatever medium or media they wanted.

The final product does not have to look like an Asawa piece (and when my son asked if he could add a couple other shapes to make a robot I said yes). Copying her art is not the point – just experimenting with creating something made almost entirely of a single element and seeing what comes out.


PART 3:  Music (with Silence, Sticks and Plants): John Cage

1. WATCH an excerpt of these two amazing videos of kids playing John Cage pieces:

  •  John Cage’s 4’33”.
    Before watching this one, explain what the piece is (side note, the title’s a nice way to teach about that way of notating minutes and seconds too). I said something like this: “Four minutes thirty-three seconds is a piece where the musicians hold their instruments for that length of time, rather than playing them!  What does that mean the audience hears? Test out yourselves for twenty seconds or so. What do you hear? What does this piece change about what is music and what isn’t music?”
  • Branches (we just watched about 2 minutes in the middle of this one, no need to sit through the whole thing). Here’s another great video of this piece.

2. GO OUTSIDE AND GATHER natural objects that will make noises of any sort. If they don’t get the idea right away, show them some examples: how you can rub leaves together, rip leaves, snap sticks, etc. (If you are unable to go outside and need to modify by using something else (i.e. kitchen utensils) that would work too. In that case, I think having a category would be more successful than grabbing anything).

3. PERFORM “BRANCHES”: if you happen to have a microphone and sound system at home, you can set it up so they can perform into the mic as instructed which adds a little fun since they can hear the amplification in real time. Otherwise you can simply film it with your phone, and the phone mic will pick up the sounds, which you’ll hear when you play it back.


Here’s ours! Note: I filmed from above, focusing on their hands and leaving their faces out – which kept them from being distracted by performing for the camera.



Optional Part 4:  Presentation/Art Show

This is totally optional but it is a nice way to review what you did and share with the world if you want, or if other friends do this unit in tandem.

Mimic the life cycle of art pieces from creation to exhibition by showing your work to someone (in person or virtually) as a final “exhibition” of your Black Mountain College unit – or post online!

If you try this, let me know how it goes! And thanks again to Dr. Richard Chess, Faith in Arts Institute, and Black Mountain College Museum for the inspiration.



Comment (1)

  • Meaghan Mulholland Reply

    Love this, and am so grateful for the detailed curriculum and suggestions ! Will try very soon (7 and almost-four-year-old). So inspired and amazed, as always, by the life you are living And the light you bring to the world. Thank you!

    May 28, 2020 at 2:27 am

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