Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

“House by the Railroad”: A Painting and a Poem for the Common Core

Created December 26, 2013

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

House by the Railroad, Hopper

Edward Hopper's House by the Railroad

Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia

The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design.—Edward Hopper

When we look at visual art, we can readily see the interplay of form and content, but it may be less easy to see that interplay in literature. We learn to identify poetic devices and listen for rhyme, but we don’t always explore how those elements shape meaning. This lesson begins by encouraging students to observe how certain basic formal elements in the visual arts help a painter to represent a complex emotional response to the subject. The lesson then parallels this artistic analysis with literary analysis, foregrounding for students that writers also use form to shape their content with devices such as diction, metaphor, repetition, and imagery that magnify certain moments, for example, by framing them in a jarring metaphor or echoing them in a rhyme.

This lesson invites a comparative close reading of Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad and Edward Hirsch’s ekphrastic poem “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad” to explore how form affects content. (An ekphrastic poem comments or reflects upon paintings or other pieces of visual art.) Throughout the lesson, students learn to use formal description to provide textual support for their analyses. The summative assessment asks them to demonstrate their comprehension in a final pastiche in which they analyze and imitate Hirsch’s poetic technique in their own creative writing.

Guiding Questions

  • How does form affect meaning in Hopper’s painting and Hirsch’s poem?

Learning Objectives

  • Use textual evidence to support artistic and literary analysis
  • Use technical language to analyze both artistic and literary mediums
  • Synthesize new knowledge and skills in creative writing

College and Career Readiness Standards

Anchor Standard
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words
Individual Grade Standards
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).

Background

Critics tend to note that Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad and Edward Hirsch’s poem “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad” (1925) offer two views of a particular time and place in American history: the tail end of the main industrial movement in the United States, when the traffic of industry aggressively reconfigured the American landscape. Even as that traffic brought work and culture to some parts of the country, it ravished and compelled the abandonment of others. What for some was progress was for others decline. Both works address additional subjects, including the role and impact of the artist.

Edward Hopper’s (1882–1967) approach is consistent with his classification as a realist painter of modern American life in the early to mid-20th century. His subjects include street corners, theaters, and gas stations—wherever common Americans lived out their lives—as well as land- and seascapes. Desolation is a common theme identified by critics, but so are intimacy and human sensuality. On the Picturing America website, go to the English language Resource Book (Image 16a) for basic biographical and contextual information about Hopper and House by the Railroad.

Edward Hirsch (b. 1950) is a contemporary poet known for his advocacy of poetry (and his bestseller How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry). He writes in a range of genres and addresses many themes, making him difficult to classify; he has published free verse and formal odes; and his primary preoccupations include emotional life, history, politics, and most recently, “the divine.” Biographical and bibliographical information on Hirsch, as well as samples of his prose and poetry and a recording of him reciting his poem,“The Widening Sky,” is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website (where you can also access his brief essay “How to Read a Poem”). More information and more links to Hirsch and his poetry can also be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation website.

Hirsch’s poem belongs to the tradition of ekphrastic poetry, which the Academy of American Poets defines as poetry that “confronts” art. The Academy offers a brief history of ekphrastic poetry here.

Preparation Instructions

Some familiarity with the essential formal elements of art and their contributions to meaning will be helpful. The “Basic Elements of Art” handout offers students the vocabulary they need for this lesson, and the “Looking Closely” graphic organizer can help guide the process from description to analysis. Read more about how to do a formal analysis of painting on the EDSITEment-reviewed website of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

EDSITEment’s Literary Glossary provides basic poetic terms and devices. The poem invites the reader to “listen” for elements such as rhyme, repetition, euphony, and cacophony; and asks the reader to “see,” by focusing on diction (particularly connotation), metaphor (including personification and simile), and imagery. Here, the Worksheet 3: Reading Closely graphic organizer helps the transition from description to analysis. Keep in mind that there are no hard rules about the impact of these elements on a painting’s or a poem’s content; the trick is always to ask: to what effect?

With some classes, it might be better to terminate the lesson with the assessment at the end of the third activity. The summative lesson assessment would be especially useful with honors advanced placement classes.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Looking Closely: From Description to Analysis

Have students engage in detailed description of a painting to facilitate supported artistic analysis. Students will cite strong and thorough evidence to support analysis of what the painting conveys explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the painting.

  • Begin by distributing good reproductions of Hopper’s painting and have a class-wide observation of the painting in order to create a list together of the painting’s apparent objects, explicit and implicit. (Tell students upfront that your goal is not to explicate the painting’s meanings at this stage, just to assemble a list of what the artist addresses.) It is likely students will list the house, details of the house, the railroad, the sky, and so on.

    Some students may extend their list to include concepts—e.g., loneliness, isolation, beauty—but if they don’t, you can help them get there by asking them to describe the mood or tone of the painting. (See the Worksheet 2.1 the Teacher’s Version of the graphic organizer for more suggested content, keeping in mind that students may see both different and more.)
  • Next, and ideally in pairs (so they can look together at the painting), ask students to use the Worksheet 1: Basic Elements of Art handout and the Worksheet 2: Looking Closely graphic organizer to begin looking closely at the artist’s use of his medium. They should build or add to their list in the first column of the graphic organizer, and then, in the third column, note everything they can about line, form, space, color, shape, and contrast, eventually sharing out their observations with the rest of the class. When they’re in the sharing-out stage, you can help them extend their observations with these prompts:
    • Where do you find yourself looking most intently? Why? What formal elements are at play?
    • Where do you see indication of movement and/or stillness?
    • Where are the lightest lights and the darkest darks?
    • What contrasts and/or patterns do you see?

Assessment

Exit ticket: Ask students to complete the following (if they can, with an example of their own rather than from class discussion): “Hopper uses [choose a formal element] in relation to [choose an object] to produce [describe an effect].” If there’s time, ask for a few of these statements.

Activity 2. Reading Closely: From Description to Analysis

Have students engage in detailed description of the poem, "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad" (1925) to facilitate supported literary analysis. They will analyze the meanings of words and phrases as they are used in the poem including figurative and connotative meanings to uncover the cumulative impact of Hirsch’s specific word choices on meaning and tone in the poem.

Perform an analysis of Hirsch’s poem as you did with Hopper’s painting. In the same way students were allowed time to look at the painting, have a few students to read the poem aloud and give them a few extra minutes to read it to themselves. (A sample approach follows, keeping in mind that this is not meant to be the final word.)

  • Begin by creating a list of subjects they see in the poem, explicit and implicit. (See Worksheet 3.1: Reading Closely (Teacher’s Version) for examples for this and all that follows.) Remind students that their goal is not yet to analyze or reach conclusions, just to heighten their awareness of the subjects at hand.
  • Next, create a bridge between looking at the picture and reading the poem. As you had asked students what use Hopper made of line, space, color, and form, now shift to the poet’s use of his medium; i.e., ask the students what formal elements Hirsch made use of in the poem. It may be appropriate to make a list of all the poetic devices students see at play, but most helpful in this context would be:
    • Diction (denotation and connotation)
    • Metaphor (particularly personification)
    • Repetition (including alliteration, assonance, and rhyme)
    • Euphony and cacophony
  • If they don’t go themselves to Hirsch’s use of imagery, raise the issue by asking them what the poem conjures in their minds’ eye and ear; what does the poem ask them to visualize and experience with their other senses. Ask about the mood of the poem and where they locate that. Ask what moments in the poem draw their attention over others, and why.
  • Let the students return to their partners to fill out the “Subjects” and “Poetic Device” columns (columns 1 and 2) of the Worksheet 3: Reading Closely graphic organizer, both to capture what the class as a whole has said and to add their own insights. (See Worksheet 3.1: Reading Closely (Teacher’s Version) for support.)
  • Now, ask them to join another pair of partners to develop what they have identified into observations (column 3: “Observations”) in response to the questions embedded there. Give them enough time to grapple with this step; reminding them to consider the questions on the graphic organizer in relation to as many of the subjects they think they are central to the poem. Then, come back together as a class to hear these observations, always asking them to show where in the poem they see support for their assertions.
  • Finally, discuss the effects of Hirsch’s use of form. As per the graphic organizer’s “Effects” column (column 4), always asking students how these devices are affecting their understanding and appreciation of the poem. What do they understand about the poem that they didn’t earlier? How is their understanding deepening?

Assessment

Exit ticket: Ask students to complete the following (ideally with examples of their own, rather than from class discussion): “Hirsch used [choose a device] in relation to [choose a subject] to produce [describe an effect].” As above, if there’s time, let them do a few of these.

Activity 3. Synthesis and Evaluation

Activities 1 and 2 involved an analysis of the representation of House by the Railroad in two different artistic mediums, painting and poetry. That analysis included having students identify what was emphasized or absent in each treatment. 

In this Activity, students are now ready to synthesize their new knowledge and skills by articulating their evolving comprehension of the painting and poem.

Give students time to address with their partners (or pairs of partners) the fifth columns on both the Worksheet 2: Looking Closely and Worksheet 3: Reading Closely graphic organizers.

Come back together to discuss class-wide what the effects of the artists' uses of these elements of art and poetry have on their responses to the subjects of the painting and poem they identified earlier.

Guiding questions for discussion should include:

  • How did the painter and poet treat their subjects differently? Quote the poem and refer to Hopper’s use of artistic elements to support your analysis.
  • Compare the painter’s use of a formal element with the poet’s use of a poetic device. How are they similar and different? How are their effects similar or different? Refer to the sources to defend your assertions.
  • As informed by your close looking and reading, what is the painting/poem about for you? Support your analyses with specific reference to the painting and poem.
Assessment

Exit ticket: Ask students to write a paragraph that provides an answer in their own words to one of the guiding questions above. Remind them that they must refer to the sources to support their answers and be persuasive.

Assessment

Students write an explicated pastiche—i.e., a poem or prose passage that utilizes some of Hirsch’s formal techniques to comment on another painting. To clarify, explain that a pastiche is a piece of writing or other kind of work that includes both others’ thoughts and original ideas. (EDSITEment-reviewed American Academy of Poets offers a number of examples of ekphrastic poetry here: Ekphrasis: Poetry Confronting Art.) Their work should be in two parts:

  1. The first should address what devices Hirsch used and the effects on meaning; culminating in statement describing what the poem says about some of its subjects.
  2. The second part should be a pastiche. This explication analyzes the student’s poetic technique and its intended effects on meaning.

Share Worksheet 4: Explicated Pastiche Rubric with students before they embark on their writing. If there’s time for them to go through drafts, let them use the rubric to self- or peer-critique and guide revision.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Art and Culture
Skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Visual art analysis
Authors
  • Diane Moroff (New York, NY)