Creativity and Art in the ELA Classroom
In researching tasks writing teachers can use to inspire, motivate, and engage students I found creativity and the visual arts to be an important part of today’s classrooms. Diana W. McDougal in Randi Stones’ Best Practices for High School Classrooms (2002) argues that “matching the Visual Arts Standards with a course structured on the Creative Process is the best way to raise the level of students achievement” (182). Although written over a decade ago, Diana McDougal’s assertion is being advanced by others. More recently teachers like Luke Reynolds and Peggy Albers argue for the value of creativity in the classroom each with a different perspective.
Luke Reynolds’ A Call to Creativity (2012) argues that creativity is one of our most vital needs in the 21st century” (3). He addresses what every teacher needs to know: Does creativity positively affect standardized testing? He also takes a look at the fear that teachers have about creative teaching: “What most of us teachers fear is that by using creative lessons and methods in our classroom when the push for standards is on, we will lose sight of requirements, hurt our students by not teaching them the skills that they need for standardized tests, or ultimately get fired” (7). According to his research creativity enhances learning and meets standards. His findings rely on the research of other scholars in the field like the work of Dennis Shirley and Liz MacDonald The Mindful Teacher (2009).
Reynolds argues we can teach students to how to process creativity. He believes this happens when we “tie art to life and connect the aesthetic to the practical. . . . through three powerful faculties: Compassion, imagination, and trust through experience” (45). Rather than creativity just being something we do with students, we “make creativity a way of being and seeing” (45). He also makes the point that authentic teachers must possess these qualities.
An example of Reynold’s creativity is evident in his view on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. He believes we can challenge students to make personal connections with the theme. He comments: “In an activity like this, all kinds of high-level thinking are occurring. But students’ personal connection to the text, and rewriting of material to reflect their own situations and people they know and love makes Raisin even more powerful for them” (20). He uses “Mama’s speech to Beneatha after her daughter roars that Walter is no good and that she cannot love him–there is nothing left to love” (65)! He instructs students to highlight lines that move them and to take notes about people and problems as well as joy in their own lives. Next he asks students to think about a person in their lives to whom they could make a speech like this and then to write a similar speech to that person. This kind of writing task requires the student to carefully consider the text and make a connection with their own lives
Another task I found interesting is his “Socratic Seminar” on Sharon Flake’s The Skin I’m In. He gives the students three question that they will discuss in the seminar and includes a list of requirements: “their ideas about the question; quotations with page numbers suggesting ideas; and other connections, events, or experiences” (68). He asks the following questions: “What do you think Maleeka should do about Char and John-John? Agree or disagree with the following statement: Students should always talk to teachers when they are being bullied or hurt. Why do many people make fun of what is different from them? (68). Both of these tasks ask students to engage the skills of critical analysis and to make personal connections.
For a look at a work connecting the visual arts to the ELA classroom Peggy Albers’ Finding the Artist Within (2007) offers instruction and insight . She provide readers with a “how to” on the basic skills of creating a visual arts text, as well as how to read and interpret students’ visual texts. If that seems daunting she assures readers that we have what it takes. One point Peggy Albers makes clear is that we are all artists, and notes that “the impetus for the creative often wanes. . . . learners have little experience in art and, overtime, they grow to dislike art as a communicative form largely due to their inability to realistically represent the object they wish to represent. Yet visual arts are continuously integrated into ELA instruction and, more often than not, tied to the learner’s response to literature” (xiii). We can recover the “artist within” and teach our students these same basic skills as an important contribution to what literacy means in the 21st century.
The value of this kind of instruction can not be underestimated. She states: “Research studies in the arts indicate that the arts do not just teach students to feel about the world, or engage the affective, but they also teach students to see, notice, and critically interrogate the world, or engage the cognitive” (11). She notes that the arts teach students to pay attention to subtleties, and involve problem solving and complex thinking.
Peggy Albers works encourages and reassures the reader. She thoughtfully notes: “If you believe that only talented people can make art, your art will never get done. . . . art for me means I am always in a state of becoming an artist. . . . learning to become an artist means learning to accept yourself . . . ” (15). Art and writing are both processes that also teach learners more about themselves and help them answer the core question: “Who Am I?”
In her section of the book entitled “Arts-Based English Language Arts Lessons” I found her task on abstract art and abstract writing to be a creative integration of art and literature . She is careful to include the standards that each of her lessons teach. Her position with this task is that “writers, especially poets, continually push readers to consider abstract concepts through their word choices, their settings, and their characters. . . . Abstract Art, like abstract writing, does not depict objects in the natural world, but instead displays shapes and colors in ways in which reality is altered or reduced in a way that simplifies reality” (203). She cites William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and e.e. cummings “[plato told]” as examples of abstract poems.
The object of this task is for students to create abstract art and to write an abstract piece to accompany it. She suggests that students study texts of a range of abstract writers “such as Sylvia Plath, Mim Fox, Sandra Cisnernos, Nikki Giovanni, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings as well as artwork by various artists like George Barque, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe, William Jackson, Jackson Pollack, Aminah Robinson”(204). She includes a list of questions to discuss: “What abstract concepts do these artists and authors try to embody in their work? How do they make the abstract more concrete through images, words, and symbols”(204). Students chose a concept or idea presented in the works and research how the concept is presented in other disciplines or art forms. They then write their own poem and create a visual text that represents their chosen concept. She suggests that teachers display their work and have students reflect on the themes presented.
Another interesting task is entitled “Language Strategy Lessons Using Colors”. Here she notes that the “recognition and use of symbol and metaphor are complex concepts. Thinking metaphorically and representing symbolically push students to think from new perspectives and in sophisticated ways” (225). For this exercise have students name as many colors as they can. Find out what these words mean to them. Paint swatches from home improvement stores can also be used. Have students discuss how the words for the colors evolve depending on the emotion or idea being expressed. She suggests using Nordine’s Colors (2000). Ask questions about the characters he creates from color, the dialogue, and the meaning he assigns to color. Have students write a story or a poem in which color plays an important role. Another suggestion is to have students create their own set of colors and write jingles like Nordine’s. These can be compiled into a class book.
Both Luke Reynolds and Peggy Alber offer an exciting overview of why creativity is important in the ELA classroom. The tasks and lessons they offer are motivating and inspiring. The challenges allow the ELA teacher to experiment with creativity without losing sight of the importance of meeting standards.
Albers, Peggy. Finding the Artist Within: Creating and Reading Visual Texts in the English
Language Arts Classroom. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 2007.
Reynolds, Luke. A Call to Creativity: Writing, Reading, and Inspiring Students in the Age of
Standardization. New York, New York: Teachers College Press, 2012. Print.
Stone, Randi. Best Practices for High School Classrooms: What Award-Winning Secondary
Teachers Do. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, 2002. Print.