Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Putting the "Art" into "Communication Arts"

Last week, we had an inservice presentation from Carol Jago, the president of NCTE. Ms. Jago spoke with us about the Common Core Standards that will soon be implemented. One of the fears of standardized testing and the budget crunch is that the arts will be pushed to the side in favor of more reading, writing and math. Ms. Jago demonstrated a way we can bring art into Communication Arts classes, and tie it in with deeper reading.

Ms. Jago asked us study a painting. For two minutes. Without speaking. This is the painting she used:

After studying the painting, we were asked to discuss it in our groups. This led to a fantastic discussion in our small groups about what we saw, and our own interpretations of the artwork. It was a great exercise that forced us to make interpretations, guesses, and look at the small details of the painting.

I decided to try this out with my sophomores to see what would happen. I chose a piece of art from Salvador Dali:

I went through the same procedures with my students. They came up to the screen and studied the painting for two minutes, and returned to their groups to discuss what they saw. What happened next blew me away.

Almost with exception, every student was actively discussing, interpreting and debating the painting. Several students were pointing things out to their group, and some even came up to the screen to show their group what they saw. Students who rarely take chances in book discussions were making interpretations. I let the discussion go on for literally 10 minutes, and it did not die down.

After letting students work it out on their own, I asked individual students to share their interpretations of the painting. Virtually every student saw something different. It was fascinating to watch them go beyond the painting to think about what the author meant or intended.

This led to a discussion about what they had to do in order to interpret the painting. It required them to:
  • Look at the painting several times
  • Study the small details
  • Think about symbolism
  • Question why the author made the choices he made
  • Interpret what they saw
  • Reinterpret what they saw
Ultimately, we discussed that these are all the qualities of a good reader. Good readers are constantly:
  • Going back to re-read something two, three or more times.
  • Studying the small details
  • Questioning why the author made specific choices
  • Making interpretations of what they read
  • Changing or modify their interpretations
This was a great activity to work on getting students to take chances and think deeper about something. I am going to continue doing this activity to help build this skill, and hopefully it carries over to their reading.

Do you have suggestions for other pieces of art for this activity? What are other qualities of a good reader that this activity works to build?


    1. Did you view the painting on Google's art project (http://www.googleartproject.com/)? I haven't used it yet, but I can't wait to use it for the zooming feature. I'd love to analyze this one, although it's not abstract: http://www.googleartproject.com/museums/altesnational/forest-path-near-spandau

    2. That is a great one! I will add that to the list. Thank you.