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Writing through the visual arts: an “in between” unit of study

We are in that in-between stage right now in writing workshop, having  just completed our Personal Narrative unit, and pausing briefly before we begin our unit on memoir.  These in-between stages are often perfect for experimenting with something new.

My kids have been working hard for the past month, and I wanted a “cool factor” to whatever this new thing would be. This led me to remember that  at the end of the last school year, one of the students in my very first sixth grade class dropped by to wish me a happy summer.  She wandered through the room, looking at the familiar and the new, and reminiscing about her life in this room six years ago.  She had not been  a fan of Writing Workshop, so when I  asked her what her favorite memory of “block” was, she astonished me by saying: “Writing Workshop! When we wrote with art! Do you guys still do that?!”

Hayley’s enthusiastic words reminded me that no, it had been years since we had done this.  I’ve added so many new genre studies to our writing workshop (digital writing, the Slice of Life Project, our multi-genre unit) that writing in response to the visual arts has, unfortunately, fallen somewhere by the wayside.  But, I remembered how well the kids responded to these writing experiences and felt that I should not have abandoned this effort entirely – I wanted to find a way to fit it back into our workshop life. Perhaps now is the time?

I pulled out my plan book from that long ago teaching year last week, and went over all the visual arts-inspired opportunities we had shared through paintings, sketches, sculptures we had borrowed, and other artifacts.  No wonder Hayley had remembered the experience with such fondness – we had had a lot of fun, and the art had provided a rich  source of creative energy.


So, I’ve been re- reading Mary Ehrenworth’s marvelous book, Looking to Write and returned to re-read it preparation for the next two weeks.  Mary writes: “When we ask children to write through their engagement with the visual arts, we ask them to both make sense of what they see and to make meaning on the page.  In this way we orchestrate an experience for the children that has aesthetic potential.”

She offers the following ideas for bringing the visual arts into Writing Workshop:

  1. Using portraiture to write poetry. This is a wonderful way to bring art history into the classroom and learn about the context of a painting and the painter himself/herself.  Through interactive writing and examining the picture closely, students have the opportunity to “interpret and reconstruct experience” – which could be their own, or the artist’s, or even that of society as a whole.  Ehrenworth wrote this book right after 9/11, and she describes how movingly her students were able to explore their own experiences and emotions in responding to artwork and creating poetry.
  2. Using American landscape and history paintings to write imagined vignettes and  history journals, and  to  practice oral storytelling.  As with  studying portraiture, studying these types of paintings allow our students to look closely and mark small details to generate their written observations – a wonderful way to get  reluctant writers started.  I can imagine using this in Social Studies as well, when students can examine John Trumbull’s famous painting of the Declaration of Independence, for example, and write from the perspective of one of the men depicted there.
  3. Using artifacts to tell stories of the world.  This would involve finding artifacts from a particular culture and doing background research on that specific culture to provide both context and information.  Students then move to a series of centers where they examine the artifacts and draw and write in response to questions.  These notes and drawings lead to creating story elements, which are then extended in the form of short stories.

We began the week with a discussion about art and the  artist’s perspective by viewing several versions of a night sky as painted by Vincent Van Gogh:

images (1) Cafe_Terrace_at_Night_by_Vincent_van_Gogh Van-Gogh-Painting-1

We talked about how the sky, always brilliant and star studded,  had shifted in each of these paintings – the central focus of one, and then just part of the landscape in another.  And then we examined a recent  post by the artist Cynthia Rosen on her blog about how to proceed with a recent painting:

“I have read that a number of painters use their plein air pieces as studies for further studio work.   Once I turned a sketch into a painting, but never used a painting as a basis for another.  NOW is the time.  This is my ‘chosen image’.  And, I plan to use it to paint several images in the studio.  I want to paint an abstraction of the scene.  I want to move into the buildings and paint a smaller piece or two of just the buildings.  I want to do a slightly more traditional piece of the scene, probably a little sketchy and loose but one that plays with the depth of the scene and focuses more on value.  And then I will either make some changes to this piece to make it work properly or do another impressionistic piece that is wholly consistent.  I could likely do a dozen works from this image, but one step at a time.”

Our next step, of course,  was to draw parallels to writer’s workshop – how writers, too, take can take a  piece of writing and shift its focus to discover new angles  and perspectives.  My students went back into their writer’s notebooks and selected an entry  to look at through another lens, to play around with as Cynthia Rosen hopes to do with her “chosen image”.  Here are a few  examples of this:

K. chose to re-write an entry about her trip to the beach from the point of view of her Golden Retriever – left behind for the day, and none too happy for it. This was hilarious.

G. rewrote an entry about visiting his grandparents in Spain from the point of view of his older, more “mature”, teenage brother.

L. re imagined a writing entry about her first day as a sixth grader from the point of view of her locker – the one thing that gave her the most anxiety on that first day.

We are moving next to examining artwork from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online collection, to try and discover what writing adventures may be hiding in this vast collection.   And, we are excited about this opportunity to integrate art into our writing curriculum – bring on those virtual museum tours!


Tara Smith View All

I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.

10 thoughts on “Writing through the visual arts: an “in between” unit of study Leave a comment

  1. How lovely that she shared her nostalgia for this writing with you! Our school is partnered with a local art gallery and the elementary classes work hard to integrate their writing with art. It is an extraordinary combination – as your students reveal. I love how they wrote from different perspectives – especially, the locker!


  2. I use the book “Heart to Heart” compiled by Jan Greenberg to have students write ekphrastic poetry. Great models for different ways to enter a painting. We also write in the gallery. Art is a wonderful source of inspiration for writing.


  3. I have been using the Met’s Artwork of the day for the last year as an inspiration for writing and I’ve also used the art as a way to explore Kaplan’s Depth and Complexity Icons with my gifted and talented students. It always amazes me how much my students see in a piece of art. They are willing to explore and share their ideas. As adults, I think we can get hung up on what the label says it’s suppossed to be!


  4. Great work, Tara!

    I feel like we’re on an artsy theme right now since I’m preparing a blog post about visual thinking strategies for this-coming Monday. (I learned about VTS and the Whole Book Approach to picture books when I attended a workshop at the Highlights Foundation this past weekend.)


  5. Tara – have done this for years and kids love it. Writing in the museum/ art galleries is amazing as well if you can plan a field trip. Some art museums have small activity packets with writing ideas for their collection. I helped develop some years ago for the Weismann gallery at the U of M called Artful Writing. Have fun!


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