Local teaching star and rap sensation Zach Lehner (aka Zigzilla) is back with more catchy educational content. The lesson: How to read art.

“It’s so easy just to glance at something and then move on,” Lehner told the Outpost recently. Reading art is a multi-step thinking process — one that Bill Funkhouser, an arts learning specialist at the Humboldt County Office of Education, says should be utilized across the curriculum.

“A lot of people think that only creating art is the only aspect of art education,” said Funkhouser, who is a coordinator of the Arts and Creativity Initiative, a federally-funded program that commissioned the videos. “It’s equally important to read art and respond to art. They’re like the three legs of the art education tripod.”

Art, like written text, can be read. How? Through a series of five hip-hop videos, Lehner, who teaches sixth grade at Pacific Union Elementary School in Arcata, models the process. He layered works of art with his own lyrics, all to beats created by his brother, also a musician who goes by 9 Theory. To appeal to a more elementary audience, Lehner rewrote the lyrics and passed them along to his friend, Lauren Nicole, to create a slower version. One other artist, Jesse Wheeler, created a related video independently of Lehner and Nicole.

The series takes viewers on a magical musical adventure outlining the three steps to reading art. Through the first four videos, you’ll learn the nine elements to look for when deciphering art, which is step one. After identifying those details, you’ll be invited to think about what’s going on in the scene, what it’s about, or what messages the artist may have intended to communicate in the fifth and final music video (step 2). The fifth song also includes the third step, which is discussing art. For a more engaging explanation of this process that rhymes, go ahead and click on a video or two already.

To create the videos, Lehner decided it would be strongest to actually demonstrate the process rather than just explain it. “I was really kind of blown away with just how well it works, and how much fun it was for me to look at the art myself,” he said. “I experienced what I really want my students to experience.”

Though it seems simple, the reading art process is very intentional, and drives learning immediately and down the road. Reading art isn’t an art lesson in the traditional sense; it can and should be used simply as a way to introduce students to new concepts in any subject area, Funkhouser says. By looking at a painting and wondering about the backstory, students develop an interest in the topic before the lesson has begun, which serves them well throughout learning the material. As important as the art itself is the thinking process students learn to use when reading it.

“Where we’re trying to get [teachers] to is the ability to use art to teach any subject. So whether it’s, you know, science, social studies, it doesn’t matter. It all uses the same thinking,” Funkhouser said. Once students have mastered the thinking process used to read art, they’re better prepared to handle projects that might be more difficult, like a writing assignment.

The practice is tried and true by Lehner himself, who has integrated reading art across the curriculum for his sixth-graders. At first the process was confusing for them, Lehner said. The students weren’t sure how to talk about the art. But after some practice, they’re accustomed to it. “The songs got them hooked too, they love the songs,” he said.

Lehner recently introduced a lesson about Ashoka, an ancient emperor of India, by showing a few portraits of the figure to his class. “It was just amazing — they hadn’t read a single word. I hadn’t told them who this person was, I hadn’t told him what he did, yet they’re looking at the art and they are just putting together the whole story,” Lehner said. In his experience, leading with art rather than a reading or lecture leads to richer class conversation, and once it is time to read about the topic, students are already invested. “That’s what I love about it the most. They want to learn, they’re hungry. They’re like, ‘Give me the article! What is this about?’”

Lehner has noticed an increase in student engagement with the implementation of reading art, even over distance learning. As a result, the quality of their work has improved. His class recently turned in a batch of essays, which were “the best essays I’ve ever had on this particular lesson, across the board,” Lehner said. It’s “because they already really connected with it.”

Funkhouser and Lehner both stressed that reading art is a way to balance the learning experience for all students. Based on visuals rather than written text, the material becomes more accessible for English learners or students with different reading abilities. Those students “may see an article and kind of freeze up and shut down. But when they see the art they can join the conversation, and they can think about it, and talk about it,” Lehner said.

Though the videos are targeted at students, they’ve helped other teachers grasp reading art as well. The videos have been out for a couple months now, and Lehner said he’s heard a lot of positive feedback. One teacher in particular, who teaches music, didn’t see how reading art could apply to her class and thought the process was a waste of her time. But the final video in Lehner’s series, which is about the second and third steps in reading art — thinking and talking — helped her get it. “Something about hearing it through music in seeing it rhythmically, it just clicked for her, and this teacher now uses images almost like every day,” Lehner said. “Something about music, you know, it speaks to us in a different way.”

“Reading Art Across the Curriculum” is a series of lessons originally produced by Focus 5, Inc, an arts integration consulting group. Funkhouser said he and his team collaborated with Focus 5 to adapt the lessons for the Arts and Creativity Initiative, which is a four-year federally funded grant training about 100 teachers in four counties how to integrate arts into their curriculum. “Reading Art Across the Curriculum” is the project’s main focus this school year, Funkhouser said. The videos, resources, and lesson plans distributed to this group are accessible and free to the public at