5 Works of Art to Teach Critical Thinking

With the emphasis on high rigor in today’s class, the English class sometimes becomes repetitive. Reading, writing, and discussion are the staple of a successful class, and these must be done. Art, however, is one of the most underutilized resources in today’s AP class. The Roman poet Horace claimed, “A picture is a poem without words” meaning art and written word are different mediums of expression. Art offers students a break from written words while continuing to develop the same skill set needed to be successful readers through challenging students to think both critically and analytically.

Here are a few examples of how I use art in class:

1. Nighthawks by Edward Hopper


Nighthawks by Edward Hopper is analyzed to introduce the modern period. I give students time on their own to study the painting analyzing color, lines, and shapes and then use this discussion to determine mood and tone. If time allows, students write dialogue between the characters. Their only instruction is the dialogue will serve as characterization of one of the subjects in the painting and must match their prior analysis of the picture as a whole.

 2. Marriage a la Mode: The Contract by Hogarth


Marriage a la Mode: The Contract by Hogarth is shown after a satire unit composed of short pieces and videos. Students work in groups to identify the satirical elements of the painting and how they are characteristic of the time period. I am always amazed at what my students see in this painting such as the groom looking at himself in the mirror, the bride and groom uninvolved in the contract, the dogs chained together, etc. We can easily spend an entire class period talking about this painting which leads perfectly into Pride and Prejudice. revisit The painting is revisited after reading Pride and Prejudice when students always have further insight. Student groups then compose their own satirical picture based on a passage in Pride and Prejudice using Marriage a la Mode: the Contract as a model. Like me, you will be completely blown away by what students produce.

3. Sunrise by Monet and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat

 Claude_Monet,_Impression,_soleil_levant    1280px-Georges_Seurat_-_A_Sunday_on_La_Grande_Jatte_--_1884_-_Google_Art_Project

Students often have a difficult time grasping the ambiguity in Heart of Darkness and why Conrad would use this style when writing. I often pair this novel with Sunrise by Monet or A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat. Both of the pieces are very difficult to view and understand when looking up close but make sense by stepping back and looking at the piece as a whole; we spend time discussing why an artist would create a piece that is confusing up close but makes sense when seen as a whole. The same is true with Heart of Darkness, and when students are confused or bogged down by passages in the novel, I remind them to step back and view the passage in light of the novel as a whole.

4. The Scream by Munch


Art is a great tool to work on sentence style and variety. Instead of rote grammar lessons, we use art as an inspiration piece and write sentences based on the work. Typically, we use the same image for a week as I prompt students to write a sentence about the piece with a participle phrase, an adjective clause, an introductory adverb clause, or possibly to review sentence types such as periodic sentences or the overlooked but powerful simple sentence. One of our favorite pieces to use for this activity is Scream by Munch because students love writing bizarre explanations for the subject.

5. Collagescollage

Students can collect art for a culminating project. Through digital displays, students are able to share with the class a collection of pieces that they feel best captures units, time periods, or novels we have studied during the year. I often ask them to pair the pieces with either quotes and defend why the piece was chosen.

And don’t stop at viewing art. Encourage students to create their own pieces. This past week my AP students created pieces from passages they chose by McCarthy from All the Pretty Horses that reflected his syntax and explained how the syntax help reinforce the meaning of the passage. Since students struggle with McCarthy’s postmodern style, this project offered them a way to study syntax and creatively express what they learned.

Just like reading and writing, allow ample time to view a piece; analyzing art takes time. Offer guiding questions or thematic suggestions as lens for students to use with viewing while students are getting use to art analysis but give students opportunities to view pieces without a specific focus also. The possibilities are limitless, and you and your students will reap the reward.

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15 thoughts on “5 Works of Art to Teach Critical Thinking

  1. Great post, Susan. I have used art, especially when we transition from the Age of Reason to the Romantic era. It is so great to see through the visual image what writers were doing with words. E.g. Jacques Louis David, v. Caspar David Friedrich. Stark contrasts, readily translatable to the movements in poetry and prose.

  2. Love your art choices! I do something similar with Michelangelo’s Pieta and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to The Mission. I love hearing where their minds travel…

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been working as Visual Arts teacher in a high school while studying English Literature at uni and have found the two so complimentary as Rose mentioned above. I actually wondered if Roland Barthes was influenced by the Surrealist movement when he wrote “The Death of the Author”.

  4. I’ve started to make art a part of my regular routine for a variety of purposes. However, you’ve presented some new ideas for my toolbox…thanks for sharing your genius!!!

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