Closer Readings Commentary

The Arts: Central to the Common Core

Mary Anne Kovacs holds an M.A. from the Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College (Vermont). She has taught grades 9–12, including AP English, in both urban and suburban schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mary Anne has authored many curriculum units, marketed both nationally and internationally.

“The arts have a central and essential role in achieving the finest aspects of the common core …”

—David Coleman

The students whom we try to prepare for college and career experiences arrive at the classroom door with their own goals. While English teachers are riveted on textual support, themes, and structure, students are focused on concerns ranging from family issues to the demands of part-time jobs, athletics, and social networking. It is important to create bridges to connect our goals with theirs.

Anchor Standard for Reading 7

Visual Art is a powerful tool for building bridges between these conflicting agendas. This is articulated in College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading » 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

What exactly does this Anchor Reading Standard 7 mandate? In the language of the ELA Standards, the first step comes in kindergarten, as children “describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear.” Making such connections between visual images and text continues throughout elementary and middle school years. In grades 9–10, the connection is reformulated as: “Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums … determining which details are emphasized in each account.” In essence, students’ sophistication continues as they evolve to see and “to read” visual media as texts in their own right.

Value of mixed media for ELA

The value of art works can be demonstrated through a task faced by many secondary level literature teachers: distinguishing between Romanticism and Realism. Mixed media sheds lights on questions such as: How does Wordsworth’s world view and literary style contrast with those of Matthew Arnold? Why does the early Whitman sound so different from Stephen Crane?

Start with John Constable’s Hampstead Heath and ask for a show of hands whether students think the painting is essentially Romantic. Emphasize the wilderness, the dramatic sky, and the country workers. To contrast, have students view Edward Hopper’s New York Street Corner, with its urban setting, anonymous crowd, and hazy city in the background. Then show Asher Brown Durand’s The Catskills, emphasizing the presentation of majestic nature untouched by technology. Finally, use George Bellows’s Stag at Starkey’s and point out its clearly urban setting and vivid depiction of a boxing match. (Search Tip: Just use the key words: artist’s name + title of painting.)

After such a media-rich explanation, students will have little trouble recognizing patterns of idealism, love for nature, and spontaneity that characterize Romanticism in works from centuries ago to the present day.

Art as entry points into individual authors

The arts can also prove invaluable with close readings of individual writers and literary works.

Before reading a single word by William Blake, discuss the incredibly intricate illustrations he included as integral parts of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The illustrations give students a window into the contrasts the poet saw between innocence and experience as facets of life. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Before studying Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, have students examine Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Looking at the Moon, a painting that inspired the playwright’s presentation of the characters, Didi and Gogo. Note the near darkness and the barren landscape. Where do students think the two men have been? Where are they going? What is the subject of their conversation? CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work.

Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus accompanies a study of mythology to precede reading and discussion of W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Though it usually takes a while for viewers to notice, upon close examination they will observe the tiny legs in the lower right section depicting Icarus’s plunge into the sea because of his failed wings. 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.

These are just a few ways visual arts can contribute to the teaching of language arts by creating bridges with students’ natural interests. Reading Standard 7 invites teachers to engage students in reading more than just printed words. It encourages young people to make tangible connections that lead to vibrant learning.