Tag Archives: art

Literature or Art Class?

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Why not both?

One of the unorthodox ideas I tested in the last school year was a “Through the Lens” concept. The idea was to read literature, write a short essay, create a digital art piece (based on student photography), and give a presentation that incorporated both the essay and the art. For 2011-2012, the theme was American Literature. It was an easy place to begin for me, as I had already put together a curriculum for a thematic approach to American Literature with a fellow teacher several years ago. American literature also lends itself to images that are approachable by most teenagers who have some interest in visual arts.

I began with the Transcendentalists. Who better to photograph than Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson?  The nature element alone makes for good images. All I asked the students to do was to connect the photo to some quote or poem from the readings.

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Opening with such obvious connections allowed me to also discuss photography as storytelling and somehow reaching all five senses with imagery. I used PowerPoint to let me illustrate each point, and I encourage the students to learn PowerPoint for their own presentations. The first semester I allowed them just just share their images and discuss them, but by the end of the each all students were adept at full presentations with multiple slides.

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I will teach a similar course for the 2012-2013 school year, this time centered around the work of C.S. Lewis. If that isn’t unorthodox, I don’t know what is!

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The Logical Conclusion by T.S. Eliot

Altered Books (blasphemy!)

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Before anyone panics, altered book are not purposefully destroyed! The Altered Book art form rescues books from the dumpster and upcycles them into masterpieces. It’s a beautiful combination of expression and repurposing what some might consider trash.

There are dozens of web sites and books about Altered Art and how to create it, so my intent here is to simply share how I use it in the classroom.

One of the books I use in my World Lit class is Adeline Yen Mah’s Watching the Tree. I know of schools that use her Chinese Cinderella , but I wanted a book that would illumine the Chinese culture and mind. What better than a book of philosophy as a woman searches for her spirituality? There are too many chapters in the book to teach them all, so I teach–and we discuss–the fundamentals of Tao, I Ching, Buddha, Confucius, Zen, and Silence. Other chapters in the book incorporate elements of these: food as medicine, yin/yang, fung shui, etc. Those are the inspirations for the altered books.

Each student is responsible to read one of the chapters we do not discuss together and create a two page spread in a book destined for the incinerator. The size of the book is unimportant. Students may use any other materials. The goal is to create a symbolic representation of the most important element in the chapter. This, of course, varies, so grading is based solely on thoughtfulness and effort.  When the projects are due, students give a short (as in 2-3 minutes) informal presentation about the chapter, their interpretation, and the methods they chose to symbolize it.

Some of the pages are simple, but some students allow their creativity to take over, and the work is spectacular. Some are funny, some profound, and most are ideas I never could have imagined. Unorthodox teaching allows for surprise and growth for both teacher AND student.

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Gothic Poetry, Mary Shelley, and S’more

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Frankenstein is just one of the most fun books to teach, particularly for me. As we finished the book this year, I decided that we would do two fun projects that would make the Gothic study a lasting memory for the students. It also gave the students time to complete their essays before launching into the next book.

The first project was to create an image of any scene, event, character, or quote from the book. Since they had to use the book for essay quotes, they were already looking at specific areas, so it was a natural extension. Most chose to draw a scene, and to their credit, they opted for obscure selections or unusual perspective rather than try to imitate an actual word picture. Then I showed them my picture, with the quote, ” I shall be with you on your wedding night” from chapter 20.

I shall be with you on your wedding night

Macabre? Yes. Out of the box? Naturally? Effective? Absolutely. Students saw that an image can be as simple as paint on wallpaper to create an emotion, especially in context with the reading. It’s a fresh way to look at artistic representation of classic literature.  It fit the gothic genre by appealing to emotion rather than reason, and referencing the “otherworldliness” of Shelley’s book.

The second project was a poetry unit in disguise. Teaching poetry as a unit make no more sense to me than vocabulary lists. Context gives both meaning that lasts long after the class is over.  I prefer to slip poetry (and vocab) into literature as I teach. For this particular class, I gave each student a poem that met the standard for Romantic/Gothic poetry. Each student had 15 minutes to analyze the poem before reading it to the class and explain what elements made it Romantic/Gothic. In one class period students heard a number of poems and reinforced the definitions of the genre.

Students then had until the next class period (our school has classes two days a week) to learn the poem in order to present it as a campfire “ghost story.” Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge to tell the best ghost story in a small group during a stormy night in Vienna. If it was good enough for Shelley, it is certainly good enough for me.

On class day, I brought in tealight candles, skewers, miniature marshmallows, jumbo chocolate chips, and animal crackers. I had a tin with water prepared for our “campfire.” After all, what is a campfire without s’mores?  As we toasted marshmallows over tealights (with the overhead lights off, of course), students told their poems, with as much drama as they could muster.

Ghost stories and Gothic poetry

My class is small, so we finished the day with a serial ghost story. I began the story and we took turns adding bits until time was up. The only stipulations were that the story had to make some kind of sense and each person had to use the word “foul.” (I used the word “fowl” at one point, just for fun.)  The class was memorable, and one student posted on his Facebook status that it was the best literature class ever.

Literature never has to be boring. I have some advantages in having a small (okay, tiny) class, but the ideas are easily adapted for larger groups. It just takes the willingness to be a little unorthodox.

“Your Class is Working”

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Those are words to delight any teacher, especially one who loves to test new ideas. This comment was from a student in my Through the Lens American Literature class. A glutton for punishment, he is taking a traditional American Lit class as well as my experimental class, but he said he finds himself constantly creating images in his head for the books he reads in the other class. I love that; it validates my approach using the visual to analyze the written word.

I’ve had similar comments in the past. I have ruined movies, pop music, formula fiction, and bad art for multiple students because I teach them to think, analyze, and decide whether what they choose to see, hear, and purchase is worthwhile.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German philosopher/scientist/literary genius (1749-1832), is my hero for providing all thinkers with three simple questions for determining the value of any art:

  • What is artist trying to do?
  • How well does he do it?
  • Is it worth doing?

I have used those questions in theater appreciation classes, literary discussions, composition workshops, and now in my experimental class. Without fail, students who internalize those three questions find themselves unwilling to spend time and/or money on things they decide don’t meet the standard of value. The beauty of the questions is in the fact that the first two are generally objective, but the third is completely subject to a personal paradigm. This requires students to identify and define their owns world views, and decide their own priorities. This requires high level critical thinking and introspection that many adults believe is out of the intellectual grasp of most teenagers. I disagree. There are those who cannot think for themselves, but there are plenty of adults who want to be told what to believe, too. I prefer to err on the side of higher expectations for my students, and I am generally justified.

What is the artist trying to do?

This the the theme/message/purpose of the artwork.  It’s often a challenge to find this concept without a sense of context, so history becomes important. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a great book, but it becomes powerful when put in the context of the Cold War, and prophetic when brought into the 21st century. Even without a historical context, great literature (and music and art and dance) always presents some universal message that can be identified and understood.

How well does he do it?

This second question is about technique. Does the artist follow the rules of his form? Are the rules he bends beneficial to the form? Is the language clear? Does shape and color and pitch and tone promote the message? Does each element work together to support the whole?

Is it worth doing?

This third question is the one that separates the artist who has a message to communicate from the one who just wants to sell something. Even the Absurdists wanted to shock and stun audiences into some new understanding. This question requires considerable time and thought. At first glance my students are disgusted by Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but once they dig into the message, the context, the powerful symbols, and the brilliant technique, they come to appreciate it. Some even come to like it. It may not be a favorite genre, but it becomes valuable because its message and the method of presenting it create enlightenment.  Other art pieces (literary, visual, or performance) may not be deemed worthy because either the technique or the message is lacking.

Worthiness is also highly subjective.  Students in high school are beginning to discover who they are, what they believe, and how they want to approach life. It is the time of life when they begin to separate themselves from parents, looking for their own answers to life’s great questions. As they begin to form their own world views, worthiness becomes a variable, not a constant.  It may be disturbing to hovering parents, but it is exciting for this teacher to watch teens find value in something for themselves.  I love to hear, “I love this book” from the students whose parents say, “They’re reading what?”  It’s even more fun when parents tell me about lively dinner table conversations about whatever book is currently under scrutiny.

Being unorthodox as a teacher means taking risks, and teaching high schoolers to think for themselves is certainly that. I am convinced, however, that students benefit immediately from coming to their own conclusions, and society benefits ultimately as these same students become adults who work, vote, and lead the next generation.

Transcendentalists 1

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I’m developing a new approach to teaching literature by making photography/digital design an essential element. The last few sessions we’ve studied the Transcendentalists with an emphasis on Whitman and Thoreau. Emerson became the source for journaling.

The students had to choose a selection from either Thoreau’s Walden or a selection of Whitman’s poetry (Dover has a little book of them, which oddly, leaves out some of my favorites.)
I pulled a section of Thoreau called “Solitude.” It reads, in part:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can “see the folks,” and recreate, and as he thinks remunerate himself for his day’s solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and “the blues”; but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.
Thoreau was, of course, talking about the benefits of solitude. As an introvert, I identify with the idea that society can be exhausting and that a respite is refreshing. However, I also identify the idea that it is possible to be lonely in a crowd, and so I used that idea in my piece. I used a student from another class as my model and took a timed exposure (without a tripod, by the way), having her hold still while other class members walked around her. I desaturated her image and increased saturation on the background students. The digital papers are from my collection (mostly Faith Sisters and DigiDesignResort). I decided to add some word art, play with blending modes, and call it done. It captures the essence of being lonely and I think illustrates Thoreau’s concept of social fatigue.

My students have done some fantastic work with this challenge; I’ll share some eventually.

Unorthodox but Effective

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Years ago a principal wrote “Her teaching style is unorthodox, but effective.” I took that as a tremendous compliment and I’ve made it my teaching mantra.

Why unorthodox? Well, I have some unusual philosophies about teaching literature and composition. I don’t believe in tests. I use tests only as a consequence of non-participation by a class on any given day. The test covers the material that the Socratic discussion should have done more effectively (and interestingly.) Generally, if I give a test, the passing rate is low: students who came to class prepared pass, those who hoped to ride on the backs of their prepared classmates, fail. As a result, I rarely have to give a test to any given class–and if I do, it’s only once.

I encourage students to use the study tools available to them. Those tools are always insufficient for class discussion, but many students find that reading the material, reading the notes, and re-reading the material is an effective method for them. I also encourage audio book use for my auditory learners.

I don’t teach grammar or vocabulary. By the time a teen is a sophomore in high school he should understand the basics of mechanics. If he doesn’t, there are plenty of on-line sources and tutors available. I also use peer editing to strengthen those skills for both writers and editors. Vocabulary is best learned by reading good literature, not by matching unrelated words to definitions. I expect my students to look up words they don’t know. By the second month of school, they usually do. Students will rise to elevated expectations.

My primary form of evaluation is the essay. My students read and write a lot. They are required to keep a daily journal (ten minutes per day) and I walk them through the essay writing process from thesis to works cited. By the end of sophomore year, my students write a highly developed, well-researched 10-12 page paper with confidence.

I also integrate art into literary analysis regularly. Too much of school is relegated to left brain activities: lists, memorization, numbers, facts, etc. Good thinkers use the creative right brain to formulate ideas before engaging the left brain to organize them. Altered books, altered puzzles, photography, digital art, paintings—all of these have a place in my classroom.

Effective? Yes. In 20+ years as an educator, my students have consistently outperformed their peers in college courses that include writing. A number of my students have determined to pursue writing and communication in their careers, based partly on strategies learned in my class.

This blog will be my place to share these strategies and to share a new approach to literature I am currently developing. Test these ideas in your own schools (whether large private school or home school) and see whether or not unorthodox can be effective.