George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Image Credit: "The Volunteers" ©2012 Denise M. Cassano

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.

As you consider teaching writing through art, I recommend reading In Pictures and in Words by Kate Wood Ray and Beth Olshansky's website.

How have you used the arts to inspire creative thinking in your students? Please tell us about it in the comments.

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Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Denise M. Cassano's picture
Denise M. Cassano
Artist, Educator, Dog Lover

I love The Mysteries of Harris Burdick! One of the reasons that Chris Van Allsburg is a wonderful illustrator is that he leaves something to the imagination -his images may be interpreted in different ways. That's what I do with my illustrations as well. You can see an example here:

Tracey's picture

Thank you - inspiring article. There is a lovely book called 'Dan's Angel' (can't remember the author and the book is at school) about a young boy who is accompanied around an art gallery, and lots of very famous paintings, by an angel from one of the paintings he sees. The angel gets him to look not just at but inside the pictures and it is a great introduction to 'reading' a painting. Aimed at 4-10yr olds I would say, but could easily use with older kids too.

@creativityassoc's picture
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

What's so great about this approach is that it creates a cycle of success. the more students look at art, the more detailed their writing becomes; the more detailed their writing, the better observers they become. I've always thought that professional development for teachers should include more art so that they'd be more comfortable bringing it into their classrooms. Thanks for sharing an approach that's so accessible.

Frances Meffen's picture

As someone who is adamant about talking STEAM and not STEM this post is a perfect answer to all those who ask me why I have the A in the middle. I grew up with art as part of my every day life since my parents owned an art gallery for a number of years. It is sad that so many children do not get to go to art exhibits as a field trip. I will be sharing this post with my STEAM workgroup and buying lots more books! Thanks for all of the suggestions. Denise your work is incredible.

Doris Blouin's picture

I teach a course I call Art & Writing. It is based on the work done at the Hood Museum in Hanover, NH from a course I took there. Additionally, a wonderful book that helped in developing the course lessons is Image to Word by Kathleen Walsh-Piper. It's a wonderful resource! I use it frequently in class, for it also includes a dvd of art to use for writing. The focus in my course is on the connection between art and writing and how examining, observing, and writing about art can help with analytical thinking and learning. I've had fairly good success with it! One of my favorite courses to teach.

CaitD's picture

Thank you for the very interesting and helpful read! It's so important that art integration is done correctly, and this article gives some great advice for teachers!

RebeccaHollingshead's picture

Thank you very much for this interesting read. As a student teacher I have developed my understanding of how art can be used as a stimulus for writing and, like you, I have created my own series of lessons where I allowed the children to look at a picture (although this picture was taken by me on holiday- a sunset in the harbor) and a discussion transpired where the children thought about a character who might be looking at this picture by answering questions, such as 'What is your character looking at?' or 'What is your character doing here'. Then then children created their own short stories through using this picture.

These short stories were so different, from a mermaid finding a treasure chest to a homeless man begging for money. However, it made me realise the importance of using pictures to promote creative writing.

Additionally, I have also been into school where I used the same technique, as above, however provided the children with a wide range of pictures and allowed them to pick a picture that interested them, then they were able to answer the questions based on their own picture and create their own story based on this. The stories created by the children were completely varied and am definitely going to use these strategies once I graduate!

Thank you again for the interesting read!

katelarson's picture

Some great lessons can come of these ideas you've shared! Thank you! I really like how this has students critically thinking without even realizing all the work they're doing. Educators can get so much information about what students know, understand, or still need to know just by trying these fantastic ideas. Thanks again!

Denise M. Cassano's picture
Denise M. Cassano
Artist, Educator, Dog Lover

Yes Doris, I have Image to Word and it is amazing. Looks like the resources and examples on my website could help with your course- because that is what it is about. Rebecca- I found it helpful also to integrate a time period with the writing- i.e. what happened five minutes before, what is happening now, what happens next. It helps with their processing of linear events, cause and effect, etc. World language teachers at my school use this to teach verb tense- it's perfect for it. And Kate- you learn so much about your students because they invariably tie in personal events to the story they write. You find out things you never would have otherwise.

Mrs. Sarah Coller's picture

Thanks so much for offering these ideas. This is a great springboard for the Writing Through Art course I'll be teaching this year.

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