Ask me what I want for my writers, and here’s what I’ll tell you. I hope they recognize and appreciate good writing when they see it. I hope they can voice their opinions and ideas about writing using the language of craft. And I hope they can fasten themselves to a vision for their own writing, and make it happen for their audience.
That’s not so much to ask, right?
Actually, it is. It’s a LOT to ask of student writers. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
To know me is to know that I live in metaphor. That I teach in metaphor. Any time I teach difficult concepts, I consider what I can use as a comparison. For my fourth grade writers, that comparison is art. If kids see writing as just another avenue of self expression, if they realize that craft and skill are necessary for all areas of self-expression, then perhaps they might use these understandings as a foundation for their writing.
The Set-up: Not Even Magic is Magic
Even the most breathtaking and wondrous effects are accomplished through craft and skill. Knowing the language of a particular craft makes us better able to appreciate – and perhaps begin to replicate! – such work. It’s true across all avenues of self-expression: music, cooking, yo-yoing, hockey, coding…you name it.
Art is particularly powerful, transcendent. It resonates, broadens our perspectives, and allows us a greater connection to ourselves and our world. We began our study, then, by deeply examining several pieces of art made available through the Google Cultural Institute. What were the details we noticed? What was interesting or exciting about it? How did the art make us feel? (Here’s the feelings chart we used to help us articulate our thoughts.)
Then, using a resource that outlined simple concepts of art, we began to name what it was exactly about the pieces that stood out to us, that created the magic we felt. To be fair, students did not understand all of the terms or always use them properly. It was still helpful for them all to have a guide to help build and expand their language.
Time to Explore: How Do You Feel Today?
Looking back at the emotions chart and the art concepts resource, I gave students paper from a notepad and had them write down:
What emotion are you feeling right now?
Brainstorm all the art concepts that might convey that emotion to someone else.
It was then time to create! I gave students about an hour to develop a piece of abstract art designed to convey the emotion they were feeling.
Now, let’s be real. Whenever you have a group of ten-year-olds, not everyone is developmentally ready to make the leap into abstract art. There were plenty of flowers and trees and sunsets. But there was ALSO this:
Letting Go: Releasing Our Work Into the Wild
At the beginning of our next class period, I laid out the artwork, along with blank paper and a guide to writing about art. After a brief introduction, we spent the rest of class rotating from piece to piece. We spent roughly four to five minutes at each spot. We didn’t get to see everyone else’s work, but it was worth it not having to rush our thinking. Each rotation looked something like this:
- A full minute to see and appreciate the artwork and the skill that went into creating it – no notebooks or supplies yet, just…looking.
- Another full minute to examine the emotions chart and art concept page to put words to what we saw and felt.
- Another couple of minutes, as students were ready, to write observations on the blank page (I had students turn them over when done, both as a visual for me, and to avoid other answers biasing student responses).
After rotations for comments and observations, students returned to their own work to read what others have to say. Students experienced a whole range of reactions, as they realized that their audience may have:
- Completely understood their intention
- Experienced a different feeling entirely
- Noticed something that’s even deeper than what they set out to do
- Missed an important detail, or read too much into an unimportant one
It’s equally scary and thrilling to know that when we release a creative work into the world, we let go of any control over how people perceive it. But regardless of whether their audience saw what they intended as artists, my students’ work caused someone else to FEEL. It’s exciting and humbling to realize that others are emotionally moved by something we have created.
THAT, my friends, is the power of self-expression.
Circling Back, Looking Ahead
Our work is now in the reflection phase. Students completed a reflection form on the process. For the most part, I’m pleased and proud that the students have brought such a level of care and insight to their responses:
“Something I enjoyed was that nobody saw this the way I saw it. I liked looking at someone else’s work and thinking about it deeply. “
“You can describe emotions with both words and pictures.”
“I enjoyed that we got to draw and through our drawings, convey a feeling. I liked the fact that we could share our feelings through a different way and also share our art styles with others.”
“ I think that art and writing are very similar because it’s like drawings through words and I definitely think about the feeling a lot more then now because I think my story’s can be a bit boring because I never think about how others might feel when reading my story.”
“I will write with more feeling than ever and will show emotion and detail. I will take my time and never get bored because if I’m bored it means I’ve haven’t captured what I’m imagining in not my brain but in my heart.”
We will use these reflections to build artist statements to hang alongside their work in the school hallway.
What’s next? A transition into creative writing. Using mentor texts and guides to writer’s craft, my students and I will repeat the process of noticing and articulating the effects that a given work has on us. As we gain confidence, we’ll begin to use one another’s work as the mentor text more often.
Hopefully, this approach will leave my students with both the motivation and the tools to use writing as a means of self-expression.