“The arts have a central and essential role in achieving the finest aspects of the common core…
…the standards call on so many things the arts do well. The tradition of careful observation, attention to evidence and artists’ choices, the love of taking an artist’s work seriously lies at the heart of these standards.” – David Coleman, American for the Arts
The Common Core Language Arts Standards present us with a somewhat paradoxical situation. On the one hand they cause us to tighten the focus on purpose while on the other hand they broaden the content of the curriculum. Presenting an instructional design from K – 12, the Common Core is intended to prepare students for both college and career requirements toward ongoing students’ mastery of the standards. This is not a new concept—lesson-planning has always involved achieving new skills that build on previous objectives. The standards provide a convenient source for articulation of the reasons why we do what we do.
There is the need to create the kind of scaffold in which every lesson is clearly oriented. And we are not the only ones entering the classroom with one or more purposes. The students whom we try to prepare for college and career experiences also arrive with goals. While English teachers are riveted on textual support, themes, and structure, students are focused on concerns ranging from family issues to the demands of part-time jobs, athletics, and social networking. It is important to create bridges to connect our goals with theirs.
Visual Art is a powerful tool for building bridges between these conflicting agendas. This is articulated in College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading » 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
What exactly does this Anchor Reading Standard 7 mandate? In the language of the ELA Standards, the first step comes in kindergarten, as children “describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear.” Making such connections between visual images and text continues throughout elementary and middle school years. In grades 9–10, the connection is reformulated as: “Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums … determining which details are emphasized in each account.” In essence, students’ sophistication continues as they evolve to see and “to read” visual media as texts in their own right.
Value of mixed media for ELA
The value of art works can be demonstrated through a task faced by many secondary level literature teachers: distinguishing between Romanticism and Realism. Mixed media sheds lights on questions such as: How does Wordsworth’s world view and literary style contrast with those of Matthew Arnold? Why does the early Whitman sound so different from Stephen Crane?
Once students get past the idea that Romanticism was/is focused on the dating game, art works provide contrasts between romantic perspectives (idealistic, emotional, imaginative, imbued with a love of nature in its wild state) and their opposites. The Internet provides instant access and resources that depict of the contrast between Romanticism and the styles that precede and follow it.
Start with John Constable’s Hampstead Heath and ask for a show of hands whether students think the painting is essentially Romantic. Emphasize the wilderness, the dramatic sky, and the country workers. To contrast, have students view Edward Hopper’s New York Street Corner, with its urban setting, anonymous crowd, and hazy city in the background. Then show Asher Brown Durand’s The Catskills, emphasizing the presentation of majestic nature untouched by technology. Finally, use George Bellows’s Stag at Starkey’s and point out its clearly urban setting and vivid depiction of a boxing match. (Search Tip: Just use the key words: artist’s name + title of painting.)
After such a media-rich explanation, students will have little trouble recognizing patterns of idealism, love for nature, and spontaneity that characterize Romanticism in works from centuries ago to the present day.
Art as entry points into individual authors
The arts can also prove invaluable with close readings of individual writers and literary works.
Before reading a single word by William Blake, discuss the incredibly intricate illustrations he included as integral parts of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The illustrations give students a window into the contrasts the poet saw between innocence and experience as facets of life. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Before studying Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, have students examine Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Looking at the Moon, a painting that inspired the playwright’s presentation of the characters, Didi and Gogo. Note the near darkness and the barren landscape. Where do students think the two men have been? Where are they going? What is the subject of their conversation? CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work.
Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus accompanies a study of mythology to precede reading and discussion of W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Though it usually takes a while for viewers to notice, upon close examination they will observe the tiny legs in the lower right section depicting Icarus’s plunge into the sea because of his failed wings. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment.
In looking for artistic bridges to connect the new standards to students, remember that photography is also an art. Whether the Great Depression is at the very heart of a work, as with The Grapes of Wrath, or looming in the background the way it does in many other works such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, photographs bring human dimensions of a narrative vividly to life. Just about any text, literary or informational (or both), has a geographical setting, and relevant digital images can be found to enhance discussion around location.
These are just a few ways visual arts can contribute to the teaching of language arts by creating bridges with students’ natural interests. Reading Standard 7 invites teachers to engage students in reading more than just printed words. It encourages young people to make tangible connections that lead to vibrant learning.
Visual Literacy Resources
- Ekphrasis: Poetry Confronting Art from the American Academy of Poets
- Hopper’s House by the Railroad: Visual Literacy for the Common Core (coming soon!)
- It Came from Greek Mythology: Myth as an Inspiration for Art and Poetry
- John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: Verbal Pictures
- Lessons of the Indian Epics: The Ramayana: Showing your Dharma
[Image: English: Circle of Bruegel the Elder " The Fall of Icarus ", around 1590-95. Museum Vanbuuren]
Note: The author of this post is Mary Anne Kovacs who holds an M.A. from the Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College (Vermont). She has taught grades 9–12, including AP English, in both urban and suburban schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mary Anne has authored many curriculum units, marketed both nationally and internationally.