Teaching Kids to Connect to Art

My webmaster suggested that I write some blogs about the teaching of writing as it connects to art, since this is a subject that has interested me for many years, a subject that I concentrated on as a teacher of kids: kids who were gifted; kids who were “average”; as well as some with dual exceptionalities, such as gifted and having Asperger’s syndrome.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art many years ago, I attended a workshop called Writing through Art. We teachers sat on little stools with pads on our laps and took down notes about what we saw and felt in a painting or sculpture before us; then we learned how to take our own words and compose poetry or prose with them.

I took the ideas from this workshop back to the classroom and experimented with them. Over the years, I had great success with the method. I found that any kid could write a good poem.

Here’s one example of how it works:

I blew up Roy DeCarava’s photographs from The Sweet Flypaper of Life, not showing the accompanying narrative by Langston Hughes. These are very engaging portraits of black people living in Harlem: an old woman standing tall and proud against a wrought iron fence, a young family on a Sunday outing at the Hudson River, mischievous boys letting water out of a fire hydrant on a scorching summer day, a girl dressed up all in white for a confirmation, crossing a dirty empty city lot.

The photos were laid out on the floor. (I think there were 40 of them; I duplicated favorites.) Each student picked one he/she liked. Then, on a piece of paper with three headings—seeing words, action words, feeling words—the students studied their photographs and jotted down notes.

Man in a suit
Girl with a bow in her hair
Two boys in shorts

What’s the man doing?
Sitting on a log

What’s the girl doing?
Playing down by the water

What are the boys doing?
Sitting on handkerchiefs on the log

How are the different people feeling?

The man’s feeling proud of his family
The girl’s happy to be by the water
The boys feel good sitting next to their father

And how does the photograph make you feel?

The photograph makes me feel interested and joyful. It’s different from my life, but I’m glad they’re having a good time. I’m always happy by the water myself.

What words on your page interest you the most?

Girl with the bow in her hair

That’s a good title.
Start from there.

GIRL WITH A BOW IN HER HAIR

Girl with a bow in her hair
Plays down by the water
She doesn’t dare get her feet wet
Cause it’s Sunday

Her brothers sit stiff on handkerchiefs
Gazing at the black river
They are still, next to their proud father
On the old log
Having a quiet Sunday time

This technique works with any piece of art that interests kids, but they need choices with which to identify.

I’ve had success using the photographs from Charlotte’s Web and Stone Fox with younger kids because kids have such strong feelings about the characters in those books.