Thursday, May 7, 2015

Bringing Visual Art into the English Classroom

Vivi's poem will rest under the horizon
I love getting hands-on with literature. My creative writing students are currently taking their favorite poem or an original verse and creating a visual representation of the lines.  I shared with students one of my favorite series from the New York Times T Magazine, "Picture and a Poem." Then I asked students to think how they might use a variety of mediums to depict their lines. Some snatched their Prismacolor pencils from the depths of their backpacks before I even finished explaining. My artists had been longing for this assignment. But other students looked at me confused, not sure where to begin or what medium to use.  This was what I was hoping for.  Their hesitation was the start of a very important conversation.

For the last week, we've been examining verse in a variety of ways. Students have been contemplating the importance of titles, reflecting on Dana Gioia's philosophy of lineation, and playing with form.  But now I've tasked students with creating three poems for publication, three pieces that we'll be submitting out into the world and sharing with others on our online portfolios. This is scary for some most of the students sitting in my room. Sending our work out for publication means that we need to spend time with the lines, carefully considering each rhetorical choice.  But mention rhetoric to high school students and immediately eyes start to glaze over. So as a way to begin a conversation about rhetorical choices, I first ask students to create a visual representation of a poem.

Kat's illustration of Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus"
We are visual creatures. When I ask students why they are making particular design choices with their visual representations, they clearly articulate their thinking. I selected this program or this medium because... I selected this image and placed it to the right of the screen because it represents... I elected to use this color theme because....  And all of these are rhetorical choices. By beginning with conversations about visual rhetoric, I can easily guide students into making connections to the rhetorical choices they are making in their own writing. Selecting a medium for their visual representation is much like selecting the form a poem will take. Talking about the placement of an image translates to talking about line spacing, line breaks, and white space on the page. Suddenly students understand how the choices that they carefully consider with their visual work connect to the choices they are making as they revise their original poems for publication. Instead of me defining all those rhetorical decisions, students discover them for themselves as they make connections between their visual creations and the poems they are crafting with words.

And along the way, I am not teaching design or tech.  I let the students figure that out as well. For those students interested in creating in a digital space, I share a few user-friendly programs that students might consider. Animoto, Haiku Deck, and Canva are all versatile and easy to navigate, which ensures that students stay focused on the creation decisions and not on problems learning a particular program. As they create, we talk about what works visually and why. We search for mentor texts, both for our visual creations as well as for the poems we are crafting.  We discuss the decisions made by artists, why they work and when they don't.  By focusing on rhetoric, both visual and written, I am asking my students to engage in close reading. Okay, and it is a lot of fun to create our visual pieces, too!

Here's a Haiku Deck creation by Nick:

Nicosia Poem - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

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