A few years ago, I showed my sixth graders The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer. It's an epic painting of a young black sailor in a small broken boat, surrounded by flailing sharks, huge swells, and a massive storm in the distance. I asked my students the simple question, "What's happening?" The responses ranged from "He's a slave trying to escape" to "He's a fisherman lost at sea." The common theme with the responses, though, was the tone -- most students were very concerned for his welfare. "That boat looks rickety. I think he’s going to get eaten by the sharks," was a common refrain. Then a very quiet, shy girl raised her hand. "It's OK, he'll be fine," she said. "The ship will save him."
The room got quiet as everyone stared intently at the painting. I looked closely at it. "What ship?" I responded. The young girl walked up to the image and pointed to the top left corner. Sure enough, faded in the smoky distance was a ship.
This revelation changed the tone and content of the conversation that followed. Some thought it was the ship that would save him. Others thought it was the ship that cast him off to his death. Would the storm, sharks, or ship get him? The best part of this intense debate was hearing the divergent, creative responses. Some students even argued. The written story produced as a result of analyzing this image was powerful.
Since this experience, I have developed strategies that harness the power of observation, analysis, and writing through my art lessons.
Children naturally connect thoughts, words, and images long before they master the skill of writing. This act of capturing meaning in multiple symbol systems and then vacillating from one medium to another is called transmediation. While using art in the classroom, students transfer this visual content, and then add new ideas and information from their personal experiences to create newly invented narratives. Using this three-step process of observe, interpret, and create helps kids generate ideas, organize thoughts, and communicate effectively.
Step 1: Observe
Asking students to look carefully and observe the image is fundamental to deep, thoughtful writing. Keep this in mind when choosing art to use in class. Look for images with:
- Many details: If it is a simple image, there's not much to analyze.
- Characters: There should be people or animals in the image to write about.
- Colors: Find colors that convey a mood.
- Spatial relationships: How do the background and foreground relate?
Lead your students through the image. "I like it" is not the answer we are looking for. Ask questions that guide the conversation. Encourage divergent answers and challenge them. Try these questions:
- What shapes do you see? Do they remind you of anything?
- What colors do you see? How do those colors make you feel?
- What patterns do you see? How are they made?
- Do you see any unusual textures? What do they represent?
- What is the focal point of the image? How did the artist bring your attention to the focal point?
- How did the artist create the illusion of space in the image?
- If you were living in the picture and could look all around you, what would you see?
- If you were living in the picture, what would you smell? What would you hear?
Keep your questions open-ended, and record what students say so that they'll have a reference for later. Identify and challenge assumptions. At this point, we are not looking for inferences or judgments, just observations.
Step 2: Make Inferences by Analyzing Art
Once they have discussed what they see, students then answer the question, "What is happening?" They must infer their answers from the image and give specific reasons for their interpretations.
For example, while looking at The Gulf Stream, one student said, "The storm already passed and is on its way out. You can tell because the small boat the man is on has been ripped apart and the mast is broken." That is what we are looking for in their answers: rational thoughts based on inferences from data in the picture. No two responses will be exactly the same, but they can all be correct as long as the student can coherently defend his or her answer with details from the image. When children express their opinions based on logic and these details, they are analyzing art and using critical thinking skills.
Here are some tips to model a mature conversation about art:
- Give adequate wait time. We are often so rushed that we don't give children time to think and reflect.
- Ask students to listen to, think about, and react to the ideas of others.
- Your questions should be short and to the point.
- Highlight specific details to look at while analyzing art (characters, facial expressions, objects, time of day, weather, colors, etc.).
- Explain literal vs. symbolic meaning (a spider's web can be just that, or it can symbolize a trap).
Step 3: Create
After thoughtful observation and discussion, students are abuzz with ideas. For all of the following writing activities, they must use details from the image to support their ideas. Here are just a few of the many ways we can react to art:
For Younger Students:
- Locate and describe shapes and patterns.
- Describe time of day and mood of scene.
- Describe a character in detail with a character sketch. Characters may be people, animals, or inanimate objects.
- Write a story based on this image including a brand new character.
- Give students specific vocabulary that they must incorporate into their story.
For Older Students:
- Write down the possible meaning of the image, trade with a partner, and persuade your partner to believe that your story is the correct one based on details in the image.
- Identify characters and their motives. Who are they and what do they want? Explain how you know based on details.
- Pretend that you are in the image, and describe what you see, smell, feel, and hear.
- Describe the details that are just outside of the image, the ones we can’t see.
- Introduce dialogue into your story. What are they saying?
- Sequence the events of the story. What happened five minutes before this scene, what is happening now, and what happens five minutes later? How do you know?
- Write from the perspective of one of the characters in the image.
- Explain who is the protagonist and antagonist. What is their conflict?
Thinking and Communicating
We don’t know what the future holds for our students, but we do know that they will have to think critically, make connections, and communicate clearly. Art can help students do that. During this year's commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College, Fareed Zakaria said, "It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them [ideas] and sort them out." Art can be that link to helping students organize their ideas and produce coherent, thoughtful writing.
How have you used the arts to inspire creative thinking in your students? Please tell us about it in the comments.