George Lucas Educational Foundation

Using Art to Teach Critical Thinking

PrintPrint
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Students Looking at the Mona Lisa

Art is one of the most underutilized resources in today’s ELA classroom. The Roman poet Horace claimed, “A picture is a poem without words” meaning art and written word are different mediums of expression. Art offers students a break from written words while continuing to develop the same skill set needed to be successful readers through challenging students to think both critically and analytically.

Here are a few examples of how I use art:

1. Nighthawks by Hopper

Nighthawks by Hopper is analyzed to introduce the modern period. I give students time on their own to study the painting analyzing color, lines, and shapes and then use this discussion to determine mood and tone. If time allows, students write dialogue between the characters. Their only instruction is the dialogue will serve as characterization of one of the subjects in the painting and must match their prior analysis of the picture as a whole.

 2. Marriage a la Mode: The Marriage Settlement by Hogarth

Marriage a la Mode: The Marriage Settlement by Hogarth is shown after a satire unit composed of short pieces and videos. Students work in groups to identify the satirical elements of the painting and how they are characteristic of the time period. I am always amazed at what my students see in this painting such as the groom looking at himself in the mirror, the bride and groom uninvolved in the contract, the dogs chained together, etc. We can easily spend an entire class period talking about this painting which leads perfectly into Pride and Prejudice. The painting is then revisited after reading Pride and Prejudice, where students always have further insight. Student groups then compose their own satirical picture based on a passage in Pride and Prejudice using Marriage a la Mode: The Marriage Settlement as a model. Like me, you will be completely blown away by what students produce.

3. Impression, Sunrise by Monet and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat

Students often have a difficult time grasping the ambiguity in Heart of Darkness and why Conrad would use this style when writing. I often pair this novel with Sunrise by Monet or A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat. Both of the pieces are very difficult to view and understand when looking up close but make sense by stepping back and looking at the piece as a whole. We spend time discussing why an artist would create a piece that is confusing up close but that makes sense when seen as a whole. The same is true with Heart of Darkness, and when students are confused or bogged down by passages in the novel, I remind them to step back and view the passage in light of the novel as a whole.

4. The Scream by Munch

Art is a great tool to work on sentence style and variety. Instead of rote grammar lessons, we use art as an inspiration piece and write sentences based on the work. Typically, we use the same image for a week as I prompt students to write a sentence about the piece with a participle phrase, an adjective clause, an introductory adverb clause. Sometimes I prompt them to review sentence types such as periodic sentences or the overlooked but powerful simple sentence. One of our favorite pieces to use for this activity is Scream by Munch because students love writing bizarre explanations for the subject.

5. Collages 

Students can collect art for a culminating project. Through digital displays, students are able to share with the class a collection of pieces that they feel best captures units, time periods, or novels we have studied during the year. I often ask them to pair the pieces with either quotes and defend why the piece was chosen.

Just like reading and writing, allow ample time to view a piece; analyzing art takes time. Offer guiding questions or thematic suggestions as a lens for students to use with viewing, while they are still getting use to art analysis. Also give students opportunities to view pieces without a specific focus though. The possibilities are limitless, and you and your students will reap the reward.


This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

Comments (27) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (27) Sign in or register to comment

Susan Barber's picture
Susan Barber
High School English Teacher & English Department Chair

I love this idea and will be using it! Thanks for sharing!

Sarah Dugan's picture
Sarah Dugan
Artist * Photographer * Visual Art Educator

I appreciate your efforts to bring visual art to your classroom (noted in both this article and your other article "Arts Integration...") However, I still remain distressed by educators that do not mention anywhere the need to include a certified art educator in this mix. By omitting this very important element, educators continue to diminish The Arts' role in education and continue to view them only as handmaidens and a supplemental to the "major" subjects. At the very least, think how your efforts would be only improved by bringing in an expert in the field.

Terri's picture

Thank you for sharing this excellent post, Susan. I am an ed curator at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, NC and would love to make the images in our collection more available for teachers to use in their classrooms! http://weatherspoon.uncg.edu

(1)
Rochelle's picture

Excellent article and suggestions! I also used the Mona Lisa to teach students how to think critically. There are many internet resources that discuss the secrets found encrypted in the painting and other controversies regarding this most famous work of art. Students comment on the woman behind the painting (or was it Leonardo Da Vinci's self portrait?), the connection to the Church, and the value of this masterpiece. Thanks again for your ideas!

(1)
Susan Barber's picture
Susan Barber
High School English Teacher & English Department Chair

This is an excellent point, and I certainly value our art educators and often collaborate with them for insight. We have six visual arts teachers at my school with a very strong program which infiltrates our curriculum as a whole. Thank you for the reminder to seek out experts as we incorporate other disciplines into our own.

Susan Barber's picture
Susan Barber
High School English Teacher & English Department Chair

This is an excellent point, and I certainly value our art educators and often collaborate with them for insight. We have six visual arts teachers at my school with a very strong program which infiltrates our curriculum as a whole. Thank you for the reminder to seek out experts as we incorporate other disciplines into our own.

Natalie Durham's picture
Natalie Durham
Piano Teacher at Hoffman Academy

I deeply appreciate your article. As art is so often undervalued in our society, I think it's so important that articles like this are written and shared!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.