Stepping In: Billy Collins and Building Interest

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SWBAT understand, explain, and interpret visual art and a poem in an evidence-based discussion.

Big Idea

What do you see, think, and wonder in a piece of art? My students will tell you!

Unit Introduction-- Stepping in to a new kind of writing

Welcome to this new unit on Writing about Art!  On a deeper level, we're not just focusing on the art itself--although we will explore several iconic pieces of art as we visit one of our world's great institutions, The Art Institute of Chicago--but we are focusing on the process of being truly observant in and through the writing process.  Also, I am not planning on teaching a genre of writing.  We have focused on argument (W.9-10.1), informative (W.9-10.2), and narrative (W.9-10.3) on previous lessons and units.  Here, though, we are going to focus on practicing these various modes of writing, and we are doing so by examining challenging prompts that are novel and that require a new level of observation and thinking through consistent practice (W.9-10.10).  

Observing and Writing.  A truly thoughtful, observant writer will be more effective across genres!  Early in  my career, I realized that writing (i.e. the act of transcribing words) is not easily improved or crystallized without two key moves by the writer: thinking/drafting before writing, and observing a subject firsthand.  In my teacher training, George Hillocks and others influenced me to consider the importance of observation in my teaching of writing as a part of an authentic inquiry-based writing process.  In my previous unit on narrative writing, we explore these ideas in depth.  In the present unit, we'll focus these powers of observation on exciting works of art.

Fieldtrip Focus.  This unit does focus heavily on a fieldtrip experience, and I do think that seeing art first hand (i.e. the actual brush strokes on the canvas) has unique benefits.  However, depending in your location, an online visit to a great museum or several museums may be most feasible.  In person is better, though!

Goal and Intent.  At the end of the  unit, I hope that the students will see new levels of interest in practicing the kinds of writing that we have already worked on this year.  I hope that they will get better and more independent with these types of writing, and indeed, less scaffolding exists in this unit than exists in earlier presentations of each of the three modes of writing.  And if you decide to run this unit earlier in the year, I would easily double the amount of scaffolding that is present here.  As it is, we are running this unit at the beginning of second semester, after semester exams, and it functioned as a nice, creative break in the year.  

Finally, I would love your feedback on this unit or any of the lessons.  Please offer alternative ways of doing any of the assignments or comments about how it went for you and your students in class!   

Stepping in to a Painting

10 minutes

Accessing Art Through Discussion.  I want to have the students become interested and comfortable with approaching art work, so I have selected a piece of iconic but still weird art, "The Persistence of Memory," by Salvadore Dali.  I have selected this piece also because it has a lot of concrete details, a facet of visual art that seems to lend itself well to a high school classroom discussion (another favorite is the complicated set of line drawings by Hogart, but that is for another time).  I want to teach the students an approach that we will do throughout the unit: 

1.) Don't judge the work (yet).

2.) What do you see?  

3.) What does it make you think (interpretation)?

4.) What does it make you wonder about?  

If relevant, we might begin "stepping in"... 

5.) What would it be like to be inside this painting?

This is a great, evidence-based discussion platform (SL.9-10.1) that opens up students to divergent thinking while still helping us to stay grounded in a "text," a process that will help us as we examine literature also.

I am endebted to my colleagues for developing this approach with and for me, and I also have been heavily influenced by the visible thinking routine called "See, Think, Wonder," which has served me mightily to help create respectful, evidence-based discussions.   Visible Thinking Routines through Project Zero at Harvard. 


Explaining the unit to the students--Making the pitch for art and writing about art!

15 minutes

The Pitch.  I will explain to the students that the focus of the unit is to learn about imaging when we read and to write about art.  Using my Big Enthusiastic Teacher Voice, I will explain why I think this short unit is really the cat's meow and how it can be a lot of fun to work on writing.  Honestly, we have focused a great deal this semester on reading with The Kite Runner, so it will be great to focus on Writing narrative (W.9-10.3), Informational styles (W.9-10.2) and Argument (W.9-10.1).  I am genuinely excited to let them know that the focal point of the unit is a fieldtrip, as well, so there is much to look forward to.

Activating Prior Knowledge.  I want to get a greater sense of how the students have viewed, appreciated, liked/disliked high art paintings and photography.  

- What types of art fieldtrips have you been on?  What did you learn?  

- What types of art do you enjoy?  Find interesting or difficult?  Do you like art that looks pleasant (like the Impressionists) or jars your thinking (like modern and contemporary art)?

The Assignment.  Once we have begun to create a shared understanding of the process of viewing art, I will share this assignment, English1WritingAboutArt, and talk my students through the three assignments.  Our first paper will be a narrative essay that will be modeled after the ethos of the Billy Collins poem that we are about to read, so I will only briefly suggest that they will write a story based on a piece of art work... the idea of stepping into the art work will emerge when we read the poem together.

Poem Reading: Billy Collins' "The Brooklyn Museum of Art"

20 minutes

Stepping In.  This is a powerful idea in this unit, that we can literally enter into the art, step into the fantasy world created and move around.  I have students access the poem below online, since it suggests that each person can enter that secret world.  Students will read the poem out loud in groups of four and annotate it with questions about the details or interpretation.  We will then share these questions in our follow-up discussion (SL.9-10.1).



The goal here is to develop a strong affective valence around entering in to art work and to see how the writer used strong, affective word choices to create this effect (RL.9-10.4).  It's essential for the unit that students find this to be an interesting and engaging thing to do.  I will be moving from group to group, reacting excitedly to their observations and giving them as much positive feedback and encouragement that I can.  The opening day of a unit is a golden opportunity to build student interest, and I think that we are set up for a strong opening experience by examining the Dali image as well as the poem here.