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Of Paint and Poetry: Strengthening Literacy Through Art.

“Van Gogh screwed up,” a student proclaimed. “He chose such bright colors and sharp angles so the painting seems full of energy. If he wanted to show his friends how relaxing and peaceful his house was so they’d come visit him, he should have used softer colors and more rounded edges.” Another student agreed, “Yeah, he should’ve done another draft”.

This dialogue did not take place in an art class. Instead these students critiqued Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles in my English classroom. We had just begun a discussion on word choice in poetry. Too often my students use any word their thesaurus supplies or any that serves their rhyming need with little thought of intentionality. Though I have railed against this practice in the past, I made little headway.  The poems created after this mini-lesson linked to art are more successful. Coming at it from another perspective – a visual one- is key to this success. It is not, however, how I ever thought I would teach reading and writing.

Taking the Long View: Lessons Learned from Rocio

“You know how the bus goes?” she asked in a panic. No, but we’ll figure it out together.” I was taking Rocio home one day when she’d stayed after for extra help. Because her family didn’t have a car, she’d never been driven directly to school. As we wended our way through most of the district following the bus route, she pointed the homes of her friends along the way. After driving for fifteen minutes, we found ourselves right where we’d started. We both laughed when she pointed and said, “Look there’s the school again.” Two more turns later and we were at her house.

Rocio was one of 125 eighth graders I taught in a suburban middle school about an hour outside of Philadelphia. English Language Learners comprise about thirty percent of the school’s student body. Most come from a highly impoverished state in Mexico, Guanajuato, to work in our town’s mushroom industry. At the time I marveled not that Rocio couldn’t take us to her house directly, but that the bus route was so circuitous. Now when I look back on my year with Rocio, I more fully understand that learning can be circuitous too.

Remaining Seated: Lessons Learned by Writing

Every time my writing group meets I’m working on something new. That’s not because I’m such a prolific writer. It’s because I’m such a prolific avoider. In the past year I’ve written a first draft of an article on English Language Learners and literature circles, a first draft of an essay on heroism, a first draft of a piece on the potato famine. Even as I sit here now I am avoiding revising an article on using art in the English classroom because I know that it will be hard.

Writing is hard. Professional writers will tell you that. At this moment I am struggling to keep myself from jumping up to find quotes from Patricia MacLachlan and others to support this point. I know Don Murray’s book, Shoptalk, will give me just what I need. But what I really need is to remain at my keyboard and write.

As a teacher of writing, writing is one of the most important things I can do for my kids. I need to put myself in their place on a continual basis so that I more fully understand what I am asking them to do. How can I know what difficulties they face if I don’t face them too? How will I know what strategies to suggest if I have not tried them first? How will I know the joy they experience when they are genuinely pleased with a draft if I have not felt the same joy? English teachers will often say that they are too busy teaching writing to write. For most that means they are too busy grading papers to write. What they fail to understand is that they will produce better writers if they pick up a pen for something more than evaluation. If they do, they will learn far more about teaching writing than any instructor’s manual can ever tell them.


These are the introductions to three articles I’ve had published in the past ten years, articles that never would have been written had it not been for the National Writing Project. Prior to my participation with NWP, I never dreamed of attempting such a thing because I didn’t see myself as a writer. Because I write, I am much more reflective about my teaching.  Moreover, the ideas contained in these articles were grown through my relationship with other teachers across the country in networks established by the National Writing Project.

Simply put, my students are better writers and readers because of my involvement in NWP. We must do everything in our power to see it refunded, so that no teacher is denied the opportunity to better herself for her students. Ever.

Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 12:08 am  Leave a Comment