Date of Award

Spring 5-12-2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Middle and Secondary Education

First Advisor

Peggy Albers

Second Advisor

Teri Holbrook

Third Advisor

Miles Irving

Fourth Advisor

Philo Hutcheson


The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore what 4th-grade teachers could learn about African American students’ knowledge of social studies content through children’s drawings and to understand what they communicated through visual texts. This study was grounded in social semiotics and critical race theory (CRT). Social semiotics allowed for close readings of children’s drawings and interpretation of teachers’ interests in using art as an assessment tool. CRT challenges applying the experiences of White people as the standard by which others are measured. CRT was used to analyze structural barriers, such as high-stakes standardized testing, as primary in determining what students knew. Research questions were as follows: (a) When teachers are instructed in how to read images structurally and semantically, what do they learn about their low achieving African American students’ understanding of a social studies text through their drawings? (b) How do teachers understand and talk about images through the lens of sign systems? (c) How do low-achieving African American students demonstrate social studies content knowledge in a written assessment compared to how they demonstrate content knowledge in a visual representation of a social studies text?

The setting was in an urban elementary school and the study involved 4 teachers and 7 students from their collective classes. Analysis of data included constant comparative analysis and visual discourse analysis (VDA), including student drawings and teacher/student interviews. Three findings emerged from teacher data analysis. Teachers varied in their beliefs about art as a communicative system; teachers intentionally studied their children’s visual texts differently after professional development; teachers intentionally integrated visual arts as a part of assessment in social studies. Two key findings emerged from student data analysis: Students visually represented key concepts in social studies in their visual texts and they found art to be a “fun” way to demonstrate social studies learning. The significance of this study offers insight into other communicative systems-art and specifically drawings—as a viable way to assess students’ knowledge and skills in content areas.