Using the visual arts in my classroom helps my students make deeper connections to literature and fosters a richer understanding of the art of writing. The visual arts are integral to the English/Language Arts curriculum as they are already closely aligned with a Humanities approach to learning. By using the arts as a means for student expression and learning, I am moving toward a truer practice of Nathan Blom’s “creative criticism.” In his article “Creative Criticism: Dialogue and Aesthetics in the English Language Arts Classroom,” Blom (2017) argues that English teachers, whether through the pressure of standardized testing or personal choice, limit the presentation of learning too much to verbocentric approaches: We make our students read, write, and talk, and that’s it. While this is a main component of my curriculum, it’s not the sole way for students to show their learning. As Blom asserts, “One of the goals of creative criticism is to use the excitement and engagement that comes from a student’s artistic expertise and translate them into areas where students are not already experts” (Blom, 2017, p. 47). Specifically, this is where the visual arts most support the verbocentric components of my classroom. By implementing visual arts first as sources of exploration and study, by having students talk about and read art as visual texts, students become more familiar with concepts of response, analysis and synthesis, and are readily more able to apply it to literature and their writing. The activities and student examples that follow embrace this practice.
Additionally, inviting students to move from the discussion of visual texts to the actual production of their own pieces of art fully embraces the integrated arts philosophy to increasing student learning. Charles Fowler, in his article “Strong Arts, Strong Schools” (1994), makes the argument that the arts teach divergent thinking: “When we invite students to participate as partners in the learning process…their beings become embedded in the task so that they learn from the inside out rather than from the outside in” (Fowler, 1994, p. 5). My teaching practice embraces this idea. By teaching what needs to be taught, by having students learn the basics of what the curriculum dictates, I feel I offer enough creative opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning on the level that they own it through divergent thinking.
Most importantly, as a teacher of language I feel it’s my responsibility to teach the language of art…as best I can. Art as a visual text, or art as simply art, is worthy of conversation in all English classrooms. I concur with Prince’s introduction to Art Matters(2002) that “one way or another, we are constantly being addressed in the ‘language’ of art, and anyone who fails to study that language will miss a lot of information (Prince, 2002, p. 4). By more fully embracing visual art as a key component for discussion, reflection, analysis, and creative expression in my classroom, my students will be better able to transfer those skills – critical thinking, communication, creativity – to not just their Language Arts skills, but to every facet of their learning.