New to the city and looking for enriching things to do, I came across the site Connect Savannah.  On its home page, it has an events calendar of music, arts, and culture.  Last night was the kick-off of deFINE Art, a weeklong event of lectures and exhibitions featuring contemporary art.  We attended the Jack Whitten lecture at the SCAD Museum of Art and then attended the reception afterwards and viewed his exhibit "Erasures" in one of the museum galleries.
Artist Jack Whitten
Going into Whitten's lecture, I had the theme of erasure in mind: the act of erasing or the place left where something once was but was later erased.  When I attend art events or visit museums, I'm there to learn about, appreciate, and experience the art, of course, but I'm also always thinking about applications for integrating the art into my English and Social Studies classes.

During the lecture, I made the following notes about potential teaching themes, strategies, and activities:

Thinking About Appropriation as Taking Away and Not Just Adding to Something Pre-Existing: I guess I've always looked at appropriation as making additions to existing works in order to create something new.  However, appropriation can also involve "erasing" or removing.  

"Stopped Calling in Painting and Started Calling it Making":
In his lecture, Whitten talked about semantics in relation to his craft.  He stopped calling what he was doing painting, because, in fact, his process involved so many different acts that all later resulted in a "painting" or work.  He decided, instead, to call his process "making."  "Painting" assumed a particular technique and certain pre-existing notions of what the process of painting entails. If you just employ the processes already in existence, true innovation can become stifled.  But if you look at what you're doing as making, experimenting, and creative, those terms are so loose that your confines for creation are loose and therefore you become more able to create something truly unique.

Leave No Stone Unturned:
Whitten also talked about content and how artists should be encouraged to explore all topics, taboo or not, in their works.  It is the artist's responsibility to question and explore and to create a work that allows the viewer to also question and explore.  I believe that as educators we also have a responsibility to help our students explore difficult, taboo subjects in a safe, orderly, and empathetic environment.  It's common knowledge that student learning increases in proportion to student engagement, and if we truly want to engage our students, we need to confront them with topics that are relevant to them and the human condition.  Teaching literature is a great outlet for this, but it's not enough to simply teach the plot and characters of a book that contains themes of discrimination, loss, and identity without explicitly teaching about the themes and how they connect to real life.  This is the reason that I will never develop curriculum by units on novels, short stories, poetry, grammar, etc.  I believe that units should be thematic and that throughout a unit students explore a single theme through various, contradictory lenses.  Within each unit, students should read a novel, short stories, poetry, and various other genres to look at how different author's tackle the theme in different ways.  By looking at how authors and artists question and explore different themes, students will begin to question and explore themselves, and hopefully become more practiced, active readers, viewers, and citizens.

Looking at Layered Meaning: When studying both visual art and written texts, we often study layered meaning and how multiple symbols work together.  It might be interesting to ask students how meaning changes when certain symbols or motifs are removed.  I often have students write or create works where I ask them to intentionally layer symbolism to create meaning.  On the flip side, students could look at an existing work or one another's works and play around with analysis by eliminating different symbols or content.

Work Fast: Whitten talked about challenging himself to work incredibly quickly and to finish things fast.  Typically in an English class, essay writing takes place over several days with several self and peer-editing sessions.  It's a long process full of revision.  Repeating this process with each essay helps students to really nail down the organizational format and to develop their ideas thoroughly.  And there's definitely merit in that.  However, several studies say that frequent, short writing has been shown to dramatically increase students' writing.  Daily timed writes, that are short and fast, get students writing more often and wake up their minds.  I think it's also good brain food to have students write on the spot.  They don't have time to be self-conscious or to over-think what they're going to write about.  They don't have to obsess about developing a compelling thesis.  They just need to put what's on their mind on paper, or, if you're assigning a specific prompt, spark their thinking about a particular topic and have them document their initial thoughts.  

Ongoing Revision: Have students write a timed write as an intro activity.  Teach a mini-lesson a particular concept that variety of sentence lengths, and then have them go back and revise their timed writes while applying what they've learned about sentence variety.  Cover another concept like using descriptive language and have students go back and revise their second timed write.  After covering several concepts that you have students apply to their initial timed write, give them the same prompt again and see how much of the concepts they can apply in a single shot.

Intentional Awesomeness vs. Happy Accidents: When covering elements of craft (literary devices like metaphors, similes, imagery, poetic diction, etc.), I ask that students practice intentionally using them in their writing.  I figure the more they practice with it and see how it livens up their writing, the more natural it will become.  But I've also asked that they take a second look at their writing to explain where they intentionally used devices and also where figurative language and stylistic things crept in without them doing it intentionally.  This is a good starting point for a discussion about authors and artists and how we as the viewers often make more meaning of a work than was originally intended but how that's part of the fun of reading and viewing art.  

Erasure in Literature: When helping students to craft their writing style, it's helpful to study a variety of authors and mimic their style.  Give students a literary passage but remove a chunk of it and ask students to fill it in.  It will demonstrate how well they understand the writer's style and gives them a structure to work within that's a little less intimidating than asking them to write something off the top of their heads.

Construction, Deconstruction, Reconstruction: Whitten talked about the creative process as one of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction.  I think this can also be applied to the writing process but also to the learning process.  Students learn concepts, but then you have to address misconceptions and wrongly learned content, and from there you have to reconstruct their understanding.

Throw a Little Hip-Hop into the Boogie-Woogie: Whitten talked about being inspired by historic works and wanting to re-present them with a modern edge.  Shakespeare is often seen as dry and boring which is such a shame considering the plots and characters are so rich and complex.  If you're studying the story more than the language, it can be engaging and helpful to translate the language into casual, everyday speech.  It's also fun to look at classical works and modern adaptations of them and have students study the changes in the adaptations as well as question why those changes were made and how it affected the story's meaning and relevance.

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    About Me

    A lover of literature and the arts and an advocate for global awareness and active citizenship, I spend my days with high school English and Social Studies students exploring why it all matters and how they can have a voice in the world.  This is my space to document and reflect on my practice, note happenings in education, and share my appreciation for the arts.


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