Using Art to Teach Critical Literacy Skills
Fusing the study of art and literary texts is a great way to foster analytic thinking in high school learners.
Any high school English teacher will tell you that it’s not easy teaching students how to become effective readers and writers. So it’s understandable that we’re always hunting for new and engaging texts and ways to teach them.
Instead of jumping right into a new book, I began the school year by introducing my students to my favorite works of art. Not as I’ve done in the past, as prompts for narrative writing assignments, but as texts that we would explore using the tools of literary analysis.
This series of lessons builds upon a simple but structured approach to literary analysis. Students identify, explore, and analyze three aspects of literary text: elements of style, important themes, and social/cultural context. But in lieu of literary texts, we use art. Artists whose work I use include Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Deborah Roberts.
Day one: Introduce and/or review with students the three aspects of literary analysis: elements of style, important themes, and social/cultural context.
I use a text that I know students previously read. This year I’m using Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. As a class, we create a chart by dividing a large sheet of paper into three sections, one for each category (I used poster-sized sticky notes). Next, I prompt students to dissect the text by posing questions about elements of style and important themes. This is an effective way to assess prior knowledge, review literary terms, and remind students of what they already know.
When it comes to context, students often need a little help. I review the word context as meaning, quite literally, “with text” and ask them to do a little research on their own about our author. They retrieve information about Cisneros’s perspective and position as an author, as well as her background, her circumstances, and the environment that influenced this book. I ask my students to write a short paragraph for homework, which becomes a segue into the next day’s lesson.
Day two: We begin with students sharing the information they retrieved for homework, using it to help fill in the third part of the class chart.
I introduce artwork (in this case, a collage by Deborah Roberts), and we take a minute to talk about our visceral reactions. Then, we create a new chart, dividing it into three parts, using the previous model as a template. But now, we use art terminology rather than literary, such as medium used, color, style, and tone. Together, we identify important themes.
Then, as we did with Cisneros, we do a brief online search during class to learn about the context of Roberts’s work. I add the class findings to the chart. As facilitator, I emphasize the parallels between our analysis of The House on Mango Street and Roberts’s artwork.
Days three and four: We begin class by reviewing the chart we made about the artwork, reviewing each element, noting that although the terminology to discuss art might be a little different than we use to discuss literature, the analysis is similar. I make the point that in both literature and art, we look for how the author/artist creates the work and what they are trying to say.
Now, I let them practice these skills by working in small groups to create slide presentations. They pick an artist from my list and choose a specific work that is compelling to them. In their groups, they analyze that work of art using the same approach we use as a class.
Day five: The culminating activity for this series of lessons can occur in different ways. One option is to have students present and discuss their slide presentations. Another is a formative assessment, such as the one I created. I share with my students artwork that I know will be unfamiliar to them.
Next, I ask them to analyze the work independently and then draft a three-paragraph essay using our three-pronged approach to artistic analysis. I put this assessment on Google Classroom and invite the students to do research for context.
I noted four things in doing this project with my students:
- Visual artworks are a high-interest and effective tool to engage students, especially reluctant readers.
- Beginning the school year with a non-reading text democratized the classroom by eliminating the emphasis solely on literary analysis and instead offering students opportunities to experience and interpret different modalities of art.
- Students benefit from learning about art in the classroom and, in these lessons, from exposure to seminal artists of color.
- Students were able to implement critical literacy skills to analyze not only literary but other forms of text.
The unit was a total hit. From day one, students were highly engaged in discussions about artistic style, speculations about what was going on in the works of art, important themes, and the artworks’ contexts.
As I walked around the room while students were doing this activity, I was delighted to hear their thoughtful conversations about the artworks and their analyses. Students easily extrapolated that art and literature do similar work in the world and, most important, that the strategies to better understand both are skills that can be improved and cultivated with practice.