I work with a variety of students, many of whom are English Language Learners or have specific learning disabilities. I have found that these students often have more difficulties with auditory processing and language than other students. Luckily, when one sense is struggling, our other senses come to the rescue: these students are usually visual learners. The majority of my students are so visually acute that if I change one small thing in my room, they will walk in and say, “What did you do? The room looks completely different.” Knowing their visual perceptiveness is such a strength means I can leverage it as much as possible.
Here are three ways that I incorporate all types of art to do just that in my classroom:
1. Reading Strategies and Art
Strong readers innately use the strategies of reciprocal teaching — summarizing, clarifying, questioning, and predicting when they read — but struggling readers need to be explicitly taught this process. Art is the perfect vehicle for these lessons. I love the “What’s Going On in This Picture?” art from The New York Times’s The Learning Network blog. They post a mystery picture weekly, and students are asked to post what they think is going on in the picture, and explain their thinking. Before students write, I have them complete the reciprocal teaching process on the picture. By teaching the process with a picture, I am bypassing any reading difficulties students have, and showing them a way of thinking that can later be applied to the written word so that they can read independently and proficiently.
Another way to use “What’s Going On in This Picture?” is to put it up in your classroom and have it available for early finishers.
2. Translate and Adapt Literature and Art
Many of my literary lessons are inspired by Dr. Jeffery Wilhelm. In his book You Gotta Be the Book, he talks about the importance of using visual techniques to aid in comprehension of literature. Puppet shows are one example of how I use this in the classroom. My classes take literature and “downgrade” it for younger audiences. For example, my ninth grade class is currently reading Trifles by Susan Glaspell, and they are creating a puppet show that includes the main ideas, central themes, and key details of the play, but in simpler language. It leads to a very comprehensive understanding of the text. After all, as Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” In the picture below, you can see my students have mapped out the setting and some of the characters — which are from an old Norman Rockwell calendar.
3. College and Career Readiness for Reading Anchor Standard #1 and Art
The big idea of this standard is to make literal observations and logical inferences based on observations in both writing and speaking. Art can give you very effective ways to teach students the difference between literal and inferential. For example, I have students draw a T-chart with “literal” on one side and “inference” on the other. I show students a picture and tell them that if they can point to it, it is literal. For example, “The fabric of her dress is bright blue, and she is wearing pearl earrings.” They can point to both of those things. After I have students make several literal observations, I have them make an inference based on that observation. I might ask, “What kind of person is able to wear pearl earrings?” When they respond, “A rich person,” I have them write this down under “inference” and draw an arrow connecting the literal observation to the inference. I then ask them the question in reverse: “How do you know she’s rich? What is your evidence?” Many museums have their collections online, and here are some links for art to use in these activities.
And finally, remember: For a visual learner a picture really is worth a thousand words!
Lindsay Young works in Los Angeles, California, teaching high school students who are English Language Learners and students who have mild/moderate learning disabilities. Young’s passion is teaching literacy, and recently the California League of High Schools named her an Educator of the Year.