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Visual PoetrybyTeresa S. Strohl
A speaking picture 1 is a telling phrase that reminds us poetry can take many forms. The common thread between poetry and art is a heightened sense of observation. There is a connection between visual images (pictures) and written text (words): both involve the process of making something creative and transferring your thoughts to canvas or paper. Both poetry and art let us express feelings that may be hard to express any other way. Poets describe the scenery, the texture of an object, and perhaps the author's feelings with words on a page, whereas artists describe these by showing them with color, design, and brush strokes. Both poems and paintings create a sense of mystery and the viewer feels the need to deconstruct both in order to get into the mind of the artist or poet.
The idea of this unit is to see and understand the link between poetry and art. If we understand the elements that go into making art and poetry we will be able to effectively communicate with other disciplines. Reading is pivotal to a student's growth as a learner; if a teacher can encourage students to read small rhyming poems, students will read more. Reading short rhyming poems will give students the confidence to read more passages. The majority of my students struggle to read so any reading will reinforce the importance and pleasure of reading.
In this unit students will be introduced to Stuart Davis, an artist who combines elements of art and words in his paintings. One painting by Davis is a brightly colored canvas called: Combination Concrete #2 that hangs in the Yale University Art Gallery. Students will view paintings that have poems written about them as well as read poems that inspired paintings, a style of poetry called Ekphrasis. The unit is filled with activities such as analyzing poems/paintings, writing Ekphrastic poetry, blogging about their poems and playing poetry games, and as a culminating event, students will show off their hard work in a student-centered Poetry Café.
As I have developed this unit for elementary art students, I wanted to find an artist who epitomizes the "speaking picture" as referred to in an essay called "Accessibility Blues" by Christina Pugh. 2 She refers to how a picture speaks to a viewer without needing words to get the message across. Stuart Davis is an artist that uses simple elements such as lines, repeating shapes, and color, and then adds words. My students will easily relate to his images because the paintings are brightly colored basic overlapping designs. Just imagine how strong the message would be by combining words and images all the while building the desire to read in your students.
My students come from two different socio-economic backgrounds: one group is the inner city and low-income students while the other is predominantly middle class. The extreme differences in my students' backgrounds make them a diverse set of third graders. My school is Barringer Academic Center; it is an elementary school located in Charlotte, NC. It is in the Mecklenburg school district, which is very diverse and includes 178 schools. There are 655 students within my school with a wide range of academic abilities. Barringer Academic Center is a partial magnet school providing specialized public education. Language Immersion Talent Development for the academically gifted is the focus of the school. The school promotes excellence in student achievement and growth. There are 37 classrooms with 100% fully licensed teachers, 85% are highly qualified.
I teach Visual Arts at Barringer Academic Center once a week for 45 minutes to the entire student body. Due to the nature of the topics and the limited time with students, most of my lessons require at least two or more class sessions. This specific unit, "Visual Poetry," will take approximately four weeks to complete. My classroom is a creative space for my students to be inspired. I want to create an environment for my students to feel like artists. I am lucky to have a large art room with eight tables and a large drying rack. I have storage for supplies, three sinks, access to a class set of iPads, and a separate room for the kiln. My students are able to create an array of 2D to 3D projects. I frequently display student work in the community to foster a sense of pride in my students. To further express the value of collaboration in the art community, I will incorporate an interactive blog site for students to comment on each other's work. This will foster a partnership between parents, students, and community. There is a strong belief that students will retain more information if parents are informed and reinforcing what is learned in the classroom.
This "Visual Poetry" unit will be implemented in the 3rd grade. Because I teach both academically gifted and general education students, it is imperative that I differentiate my lessons to keep students motivated and challenged in my art room. Incorporating literacy in the art room is a large focus in many districts across the nation. Some of my students struggle with reading; they rely on visual images to decode what they are reading. Adding visuals to poetry will strengthen their reading skills and build upon a process that is being emphasized in their general classroom. Art brings forth a level of excitement and enthusiasm in most students and these third graders are no exception! Producing art taps into the critical mind-set of students allowing them to describe, analyze, interpret, evaluate, conduct research, make meaningful connections, communicate, show beauty and practice creativity.
My unit will build on the general classroom instruction by giving the students a new way to see poetry and sharpen observation skills. The third grade curriculum ends the school year with a unit on the elements of poetry; I will implement this unit at the same time the general classroom is concentrating on poetry. The general classroom will focus on the styles and mechanics of poetry while I focus on the similarities in the construction of poetry and art. I will focus on elements such as line, repetition, rhythm, observation, white space, and the artists' or poet's intention. Lines written by a poet are broken in specific places to emphasize a point, communicate feelings, or end a sentence. Lines drawn by an artist outline a shape to provide emphasis, create a path, or deliver texture. Repetition in a poem serves the same purpose as in a painting: it provides emphasis and creates rhythm. Observation plays a large part in writing poetry and painting on a canvas. There is purpose on the part of the artist and poet to place or break the line on the page or canvas in a specific spot to create more or less white space.
I am not lucky enough to have a formal time to collaborate with my colleagues so organizing, executing, and planning are done after school hours. In my experience the benefits to students outweigh the challenges of planning a collaborative lesson. Students retain much more content when there is an extension into one of the special area classes, especially art. Students are more apt to remember and make connections to the poetry and art discussed if they create a tactile project. I will demonstrate how adding pictures to their poems will strengthen the message to the reader. The viewer of a painting observes the clues left by the artist to tell a story.
Children enjoy looking at and hearing stories about artists. They also get excited about writing all kinds of poetry. I believe this unit will strengthen the literacy and observation skills in my third grade students. The majority of my third grade students struggle with reading; getting hooked on poetry by reading small passages will establish a love for reading. In short, students will be able to see poetry and art in a new way and share what they have learned with the community, all the while posting to the blog they created to post their poems and pictures from the lessons.
In order to be prepared to teach this unit, a teacher needs to understand the similarities in the vocabulary of art and poetry. While other art images will be discussed, the work of Stuart Davis reflects all of the overlapping elements found in poetry and art. In conjunction with Davis's work I will discuss Ekphrastic poetry and some of the poems that fit into that category.
Stuart Davis (1892-1964)
Davis is considered the forefather of Pop Art. Pop Art is an art movement in the 1960's that simplified popular culture objects. Davis's parents were both successful artists so growing up he was surrounded by the arts. An artist named Robert Henri mentored Stuart Davis in New York City. Davis became very successful and was asked to display his work at the famous Armory Show. Over the years he became friends with some outstanding artists such as Charles Demuth, Arshile Gorky and a poet named William Carlos Williams. He did get criticism from colleagues that his paintings were beginning to resemble a European art movement called Cubism. Some of his colleagues saw him as not being faithful to his roots in America. All Davis wanted was to be known as a modernist artist. He was influenced greatly by Jazz. 3 He displayed Jazz in his work by his use of movement and repeated patterns, giving a sense of rhythm.
Stuart Davis included in his work many basic elements of art such as line, color, and shape his paintings show students how easy it is to include basic drawing skills in their own work. His paintings are simple and similar to a puzzle. The painting below, Combination Concrete #2 that Davis created later in his career, is a great example of shared elements of art and poetry writing.
Davis uses three primary colors red, yellow, blue, with the angular lines to create a path for the viewer's eyes to follow. There are angular, zigzag and curved lines; all examples of lines I demonstrate in the art room. The white space created from all of the overlapping objects sets-up a foundation to make the words visible. His work depicts an urban setting, the lines suggest streets and words are like signs that pedestrians encounter every day.
Artists create art to tell a story, capture a landscape or simply arrange colors on a canvas to create beauty. An artist's canvas is their story; a poet's poem is their canvas. An artist and poet use the paper and canvas to express their thoughts; that is their outlet. By analyzing an artist's work or a poet's poem, students will recognize shared vocabulary between visual arts and poetry, reinforce literacy skills, create their own visual poems, and, above all, use their imagination.
The painting above also has elements that are used in writing poetry. The artist's placement of objects on the canvas is similar to a poet's addition of line breaks in a poem. A poet conveys his personality or identity in his poems; an artist displays the same kind of revealing message in his work. May Swenson, a poet, says about her work: "I want to make my poems do what they say spaces between lines are actively and visually important too." 4 Swenson reminds us that poetry has a visual dimension. White space in a painting and line space in a poem convey breaks in reading the poem or painting, so the reader or the viewer's eyes move easily through the poem or painting
When an artist creates a painting there will be a mark on the canvas. Depending on the piece of art a skillful artist will add color, shape in a repeated pattern, and infuse movement into the piece, all the while being conscious of the use of white space and balance. An artist is observing his or her own work to communicate a message or express a feeling. Artists are looking to fill the canvas with objects and repeat them as needed to create movement and balance. Artists are visual thinkers continually observing, arranging and refining their work. I want my students to gain these important attributes of an artist.
Ekphrastic poetry combines poems and art to convey a powerful message. The word Ekphrasis comes from the Greek, ek meaning "out" and phrasis meaning "speak" — combined meaning out of expression. Ekphrastic poetry joins two art forms together that express feelings either on canvas or paper. An artist claims "I paint what I see," the poet will always see the painting as the artist sees the world that he or she has painted, saying "I see what I say." 5 Pictures answer questions in your mind, always adding more information to the poem. Poems and art share a common language. Connecting the art forms together creates a stronger message. The expectation in the art room is to use art talk (appropriate art vocabulary) when speaking inside the room. When a reader reads poetry out loud, imagery is created in the reader's mind, so complementing the poem with images is a natural progression.
Charles Demuth, an artist friend of Stuart Davis, created a painting called I saw the Figure 5 in Gold. A mutual acquaintance of both men was a poet named William Carlos Williams. Williams was so inspired by Demuth's painting that he wrote a poem about the painting he was familiar with. Williams later reflected about his poem, "I was determined to use the material I knew" 6. Below is a part of the poem that describes some of the images found in Demuth's painting such as the siren, wheels, fire truck, movement, and sounds.
- On a red
- to gong clangs
- siren howls
- and wheels rumbling
- through the dark city.
The painting has repeated diagonal lines to show the movement of the fire truck wheels. The red rectangles depict the fire truck. The grey color represents the metal and the clanging sounds coming from a fire truck. Below is an example of how I would use it in my classroom, by creating a Venn diagram or something as simple as this:
Many artists created paintings or sculptures that inspired poems such as Brueghel's "Winter" by Rutger Kopeland and "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad" by Edward Hirsch. The poem "The Weary Blues" by Langston Hughes did not inspire a painting but did inspire a book cover of the same name. This book cover is incredible for depicting Hughes' poem "The Weary Blues".
- Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
- I heard a Negro play
- Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
- By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
- He did a lazy sway….
- He did a lazy sway….
- To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
- With his ebony hands on each ivory key
- He made that poor piano moan with melody.
- O Blues!
- Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
- He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
- Sweet Blues!
- Coming from a black man's soul.
- O Blues!
The cover was illustrated by a Mexican artist named Miguel Covarrubias. Covarrubias and Hughes enjoyed Jazz music and were aware of the culture in the American South. The book cover illustration and the poem share similar elements such as line, shape, and movement. The cover is cartoon-like, very simplistic with shapes, and has minimal color. The first stanza places an image of a black man playing a mellow song late one night in the reader's mind. The black man is arranged in the position of leaning forward to create movement. The angle of the piano along with the man leaning forward creates the sense of swaying to the music. He is singing out and swaying to the beat, depicting the first line "rocking back and forth". The poem is indented where the song is being sung. Visually, Langston's indentations create the look of the piano keys. The line in the poem "an old gas light" is illustrated by the use of the warm colors yellow, orange, and red. The black man's fingers are crooked, expressing the idea that the man is an older crooner.
The teaching strategies will vary greatly throughout the lessons to ensure all learning styles are met. The students will create an interactive blog to record their projects. This will be a record of their work; our district has implemented a new evaluation instrument called Analysis of Student Work to show measurable student growth. Having all of their work in one place will make it easier to gather evidence of growth.
One strategy that I will use to introduce this unit will be to read aloud many poems, so students will see and hear different poems. I will have handouts of Williams Carlos Williams's poems "The Great Figure," "Flowers by the Sea," "A Red Wheelbarrow" and "Blizzard." The third grades need poems that are fun to read and engaging. I will read aloud poems; I will ask students to memorize a small poem such as the one I ask them to memorize about primary colors. It goes like this:
- Red, yellow, blue
- I hear you
Students will record themselves reading a poem. As a class we will annotate a poem and use interpretation questions to better understand the poem.
Technology will be used as a tool to engage student learning. Students respond well to technology because of the overwhelming use of it in our society today. When using the technology to write a blog and reflect on their work, students will begin to understand the implications of posting on the internet. I will encourage the students to think about what they say before they say it! Blogging is a teaching method that creates meaningful reflections, incorporates reading and writing and the ability to share with others. When students produce something on a technological device they seem to absorb it more easily because students today are modern learners. The best teaching strategies are the ones in which students do not realize they are learning. Students seem to retain the information much more easily this way.
This unit will use cross disciplinary teaching strategies. There will be an integration of literacy and visual arts taught throughout this unit. The students are familiar with this type of integration; it is used throughout the district and our individual school. Classrooms like this require planning and cooperation. Creating integrated lessons gives art education greater visibility in the school and community because it creates a hands-on activity related to content area instruction. Teachers create more rigorous and meaningful lessons by working together. Modeling partnerships for students encourages stronger peer relationships. As teachers, displaying collaboration in their classroom will set an expectation for students to work together and communicate more effectively.
Visual Thinking Skills
I will grab student's attention by demonstrating visual thinking strategies. I will show students a copy of the painting by Stuart Davis Combination Concrete #2. As the facilitator I will ask three questions. What is going on in the picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find? 7 Students are encouraged to back up their answers with visual evidence. The facilitator ensures that every response is heard by pointing to what is mentioned as a student answers, and the facilitator will paraphrase what is said. This approach validates the students answer and lets them know that there is not a wrong answer to these questions. Art is how you as the viewer see the piece. Throughout this activity the facilitator/teacher is never the expert, only there to guide students as they look at the artwork.
Another similar strategy is called I Wonder. The teacher asks an open ended question What do you see? Students will give the answer in their words facilitator/teacher will acknowledge every answer. This will create a safe supported student-centered environment. The next question is I wonder what about the work? Once again the facilitator/teacher repeats back the answer given in the students own words. Both techniques keep students engaged, let them provide their own answers, and let them explore the art at their own pace.
A possible modification to this technique could involve a student writing down the first word that comes to mind when he or she is viewing the painting, then use that word as the first word of his or her sentence, next put the sentence on large paper on the table. This paper would continue being passed around the table until the group has constructed a poem. All three techniques have students engaged in deconstructing a painting on their own without teacher direct instruction.
Throughout this unit I will review previous learned material; this is due to the forty-five minute blocks meeting only once a week. A week is a long time between lessons. All activities are modeled first to demonstrate the art technique; students have greater success during the activity when they see examples. After every visual poetry activity, students will post to interactive blog. This will give students a chance to reflect on their art. Posting to their blog serves as a backchannel for students to develop collaborative conversations they may not be able to have face-to-face.
Throughout the school year I encourage my students to speak using art vocabulary. I call this Art Talk. I feel strongly that students should use art words to analyze art, interpret art and reflect on their own artwork. As I set this expectation year after year I see the students use the words correctly not just in the art room but in their classrooms.
The word wall that is posted in the art room is divided into modes of creative expression such as clay, fiber arts, drawing, painting, and sculpture with art terminology listed under each category. Vocabulary is an important teaching strategy. I start every year with a word wall lesson specific for each grade level. I continually point out the art word that I am concentrating on in the lesson. Students need to be aware that words have different meanings within different content areas. I will also hang the poetry anchor charts throughout the visual poetry unit so students will see the similarities in the vocabulary. I set this expectation in the art room at the beginning of the year while in my room the students will speak using the protocol of art talk. I will remind them to use their art words. This sets an expectation that visual arts matter!
Differentiated learning strategies look different in the art room than in general education classrooms. I encourage creative chatter. Having only 45 minutes proves difficult to help all 25 students. I have 3-4 students assigned to each table. Peer assistance is available at every table because when I assign seats I put at least one student who is able to work cooperatively per group. I frequently roam the classroom to assist students with more support. When a student asks for help in the art room, he or she most likely wants you to draw for them; I solve that problem by drawing with the eraser and not the pencil. The eraser technique assists them by giving them confidence in their own artistic abilities.
Rubrics are a strategy that I often include in my lessons. A rubric focuses on a specific skill and places accountability on the student. I find it easy to measure a student's performance through rubrics. I have students glue their rubrics on the back of their art so students and I can easily see their performance over the school year.
Another strategy for reflection is called two stars and one wish and it is conducted after a student completes his/her work. The students answer two questions on the back of their work. The questions are: What two things did you like best about your work? And What is it that you might change about your work? I lead a discussion on the answers that are acceptable to these questions. The expectation in my classroom is while discussing works of art they must cite supporting information about the piece of art. I want students to be aware of how the viewer analyzes art and that it is an opinion of the viewer there is not a right or wrong answer. My instructional goals for using this strategy are to strengthen public speaking skills, show evidence of answers, and learn to give constructive comments.
The reflection strategy will also be incorporated into their interactive blog on the iPads. Each student will create their own interactive blog to express their thoughts on the unit, to reflect on what they did and comment on the blog posts of their peers, this will be continued throughout the visual poetry unit.
I will use games as a strategy with this unit. Students learn to use their critical thinking skills to solve problems through game play. Students will read aloud a poem; I will display it on the white board then students will come up with a new title for the poem. I will place different poem titles on tables for students to create their own poem using the titles. In this activity, students work together to solve a problem. I will also give them suggested websites for poetry games such as Shel Silverstein's poetry fun and games site, http://www.shelsilverstein.com/.
In the art room, I will start by introducing visual poetry. I will put a concept map on the white board using the word "poetry". Students will come to the board one-by-one and surround the word poetry with words that come to mind when the word poetry is mentioned. I anticipate the students having some prior knowledge of poetry, especially due to the fact that this unit will overlap with their general classroom instruction. They also have the expectation in my class they will have an active and engaging lesson.
Lesson One: Intro to Visual Poetry
Goal: Use the language of visual arts to communicate effectively. After discussing the word "poetry" students will have a chance to view a handout with examples of poems in which we look at together. I will read the poems aloud to determine which ones excite the students and which ones do not. I will be able to tell which poems my students are interested in by their reaction to the readings. I will discuss how the creation of poetry is similar to how artists create a painting. I will point out that the word wall for art and the word wall for poetry share some of the same words. I will introduce some of the shared elements found in visual arts and poetry such as line, white space, repetition, movement, and pattern. I will distribute examples of paintings and examples of poems for each table. I will challenge each table to identify a pattern in the painting and then a pattern in a poem. I will have each table continue identifying elements of art that are shared with poetry. This activity is interactive and engaging at the same time. Overall, I want the students to see that poetry is an artful language.
Poets, like artists, are careful observers so another activity is for students to walk around the school and observe something within the school that no one else will observe and bring it back to share with their peers in the art room. It is funny to listen to what each person observes, it can be quite eye opening. This activity will express to students that poetry and art are about observing the world with new eyes.
The next activity will be to go to the school library and look at the spine of books on the shelf. I want students to put titles of the books together in a poem. Students will work in pairs and construct a poem out of book titles. I want them to draw a visual to go with the poem they created. There will be some amusing pictures created from this activity. The students will then share their poems with the class; this strategy is called think-pair-share.
To incorporate technology into the unit students will create their interactive blog using some pictures of their work and poems created from the beginning lesson and from their general classroom. I will demonstrate how I use my interactive blog and I will assist them in putting their site together step-by-step. We will talk about how everyone will be able to see and comment on the site. The blog will create a sense of community by building better communication between students. Students will update the blog regularly from school and home. We will review the difference between a nice comment and an inappropriate comment. I will discuss the idea of a sandwich: one positive comment then a negative comment then a positive comment and sandwich them together.
Lesson Two: Stuart Davis
Goal: Create art from realistic sources of inspiration. This lesson will be about the painting Combination Concrete #2. I will share the history of Stuart Davis. Students enjoy hearing about an artist's life. During the discussion of Stuart Davis's life I will talk about some of his friends and make a connection to a poet named William Carlos Williams. As a class we will go through some poems written by Williams. Students will take turns reading each stanza out loud to the class. We will talk about the describing words in each poem and what images come to mind.
I will have students write down the words from Davis's painting, drawing, curve, new, and go slow. I will challenge my students to create a poem using these words. The poem could be about urban life, what they see in the painting, or signs. Students will organize the poem using the words from the painting as the first words of the poem or within the poem. I will have students write their poems using free verse. Free verse is poetry that has no rules. Students will write poetry in their general classroom in different styles when they come in the art room they want more freedom of expression. This activity will let them connect to the painting in front of them, hopefully making this a memory.
As a whole group students will look at Davis' painting using a teaching strategy called Visual Thinking Skills. Implementing this strategy is easy; a teacher begins by asking an open ended question, What do you see? The students will answer the question then the teacher will ask another question What do you see that makes you say that? and What more do you see? 8 trying to pull out more information about the painting without the teacher stating the facts about the art. Students are coming up with their own supported answers. The students learn by inquiry and active listening.
There is another Visual Thinking Strategy that could be used with this activity it is called I wonder… The facilitator/teacher asks the question What do you see? The next question is I wonder what about the image? Students answer the questions this begins a critical conversation about the work. The I wonder.. strategy works better on abstract pieces than narrative works. The second question of the What do you see? strategy has a direct response suggesting that there is evidence in the painting that tells a story.
There is another way to make this activity fun. First, define parts of speech noun and adjective then look at a painting. Next, list on the white board all of the nouns that describe the painting then all of the adjectives describing the painting. After the list is assembled on the board, each table will create a poem using those words. The tables will share their newly created poems on their blog.
Lesson Three: Match-up Poetry and Pictures
Goal: What happens to the meaning when visual image and written text combine together? I will define Ekphrastic Poetry. Poems create mental pictures in your mind while you are reciting them. A great example is the poem "The Weary Blues" by Langston Hughes and his book cover of the same name. I will display many famous paintings around the classroom along with poems that may or may not go with the paintings. The paintings will be both familiar and not so familiar. Students will mix and match the poems and paintings. The same images and poems will be on their tables they will come back to their tables and put them together to create their ekphrastic poem. This interactive activity will demonstrate a student's ability to look for visual clues in the paintings to complete the match-up. This will enhance a student's ability to observe their surroundings similar to how an artist and poet observe the world.
An extension for this lesson will be for students to go outside and take pictures then come in and create a poem about their picture. I want student to see how the meaning of the picture changes when they add text.
Poetry Café Celebration
There will be a student-centered Poetry Café set-up in the Art Room as a culminating event to show off their poetry to their parents and the community. I will have the iPads set-up in the room so parents will be able to view their students' interactive blog. I will have Jazz music playing low in the background. Students will display their visual poetry around the room. Students will take turns reciting poetry individually and collaboratively in the front of the room.
- Christopher MacGowan (College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA)
Subject taught: American Literature
William Carlos Wiliams\' poem \"The Great Figure\"
Just a detail: This poem is not based on a painting by Demuth, the poem came first. The painting is based on the poem. See Williams Collected Poems, Volume I.
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