Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
In my 16 years in the ELA classroom, not a year went by that my students didn’t tease me about my secret desire to be an art teacher. They were wrong about that–I loved my job–but they were right that, for an English class, we spent a lot of time looking at art.
But here’s the thing. Bringing art into your ELA class is AWESOME. It invites many students into the discussion because you don’t have to be a strong reader or writer to discuss what you see. For this generation of students who have grown up in a heavily visual culture, talking about images is second nature and engages them immediately. And they tend to be really good at it–often way better than I was.
Talking about art is also a great way to practice close reading skills: structure, mood, character, narrative tension–plenty of images have this, and when students talk about what a painting is making them feel or think about, they’re analyzing, whether they know it or not.
Want to see it in action? Here are three reasons to use more art in your ELA classes.
A great piece of literature immerses students fully into a new world, but if that world is old or draws on social or political issues far removed from students’ lives, art can be a great way to bring them up to speed quickly.
When I taught Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), for example, students were quick to sympathize with the protagonist but were slower to understand the world she was rebelling against. But after looking at a few paintings of upper-class, white, cosmopolitan women arranging flowers, pouring tea, dressing for dances, and teaching their children, students better understood the cultural norms of nineteenth-century life in New Orleans. Looking at art provided the historical context they needed to understand the text better.
As ELA teachers, we spend a lot of time telling our students to develop their own interpretations. We also tell them that as long as they can support their viewpoints with the text, their interpretations aren’t wrong–even when they differ from those of their classmates.
I loved teaching the power of multiple interpretations in my ninth-grade fairy tale unit by showing different images of Little Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf. In some pictures, she was taller than him or stared him down defiantly. In others, the wolf wore fancy clothes and took Little Red’s arm in a gentlemanly fashion. In other, more typical images, the wolf towered over her while she shrunk away in fright. By examining how different artists chose to illustrate a familiar story, students began to look for (and find!) the nuances in a tale they probably hadn’t thought about deeply before.
3. Art Makes Complicated Concepts More Accessible
Any ELA teacher who has tried to immerse their students in literary movements like Romanticism or Modernism knows how tricky it can be to summarize the advanced philosophical concepts contained in these movements. Using art can help here, too.
When teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, you could give your students a list of the tenets of Romanticism, but you could also show them some Romantic-era paintings. Ask them what they notice, and sit back while they describe Romanticism to you: reverence for nature, solitude, freedom, spontaneity, a romanticized version of the past. If you show your students enough Romantic paintings, they are going to start to understand why Frankenstein is the quintessential Romantic novel. And it will be something they figured out on their own, meaning the knowledge will be more likely to stick, and they’ll feel pride in accomplishment.
Take Art Outside the ELA Classroom
Some of my favorite classroom moments didn’t happen in the classroom at all. They happened at art museums. At the beginning of each school year, I scanned upcoming exhibits at local museums to see if I could arrange our reading schedule to coincide with an exhibit that would enhance the text.
We went to an exhibit of Soviet-era propaganda posters in conjunction with George Orwell’s 1984. We visited a photography exhibit of The Harlem Renaissance when we read Toni Morrison’s Jazz. In another experience I still get occasional texts about ten years later, we went to an exhibit on supernatural art when we read Dracula.
With every field trip, my students left the museum empowered to see the text in new ways and energized to push their analyses further. It opened their eyes to how different mediums inform each other and helped them understand literature and art as part of a larger world.
No need to feel left out if your school isn’t near an art museum. Here’s a list of digital collections you and your students can access for free.
Whether you visit an art museum in person or virtually with your students, add another layer of fun and challenge with our Museum Bingo Card. Students will have fun competing while immersing themselves in some great art.
Pass the Learning on to Families and Caregivers
Museum Bingo is only one of the fun enrichment activities you’ll find in our summer learning kit. Download it today and share it with your students’ families and caregivers. The activities will keep the learning going when kids are out of school, whether over the summer or between semesters.
Now, tell your students it’s time to get artsy. Maybe, unlike my students, they’ll only make fun of you a little bit.
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author