Guest Blogger: Michelle Kaschak is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley. She teaches IRW courses, first-year composition, and upper-level social science and technical writing courses.
When I was child, I loved connect-the-dots books and worksheets. They helped me learn to see the big picture as I connected each line to the next number or letter. As a writing teacher, I am always looking for ways for students to practice writing outside of the classroom or to help them “connect the dots” to help them understand that writing isn’t always at a desk or on a computer. That we can stretch our writing skills to other locales and other purposes.
In this effort to change locales and make connections, I tried to find ways to utilize resources on our small campus. In my basic writing classes, I started using our campus art gallery to have students practice descriptive writing with a touch of art appreciation.
I am fairly certain many of my students have not spent any length of time looking at or writing about art. Although we have a small campus and a small gallery, we do have rotating exhibits that offer everything from pen and ink drawings to large sculptures and photography.
The class before we go to the gallery is a practice class. I had them look at a sculpture of a dancer and watch a short video of a ballet performance. We wrote down different words to describe both. They even had to stand up to pose like the sculpture, so they could write about the kinesthetic feeling of the movement. It ended up being quite fun.
For the next class in the art gallery, I had them do what I called an “Art Gallery Walk.” I asked to look at three different pieces of art in the gallery and get them to write down as many adjectives as they can for each one. I urge them to think about how a word like small or weird could be rewritten to be more specific.
Some of the adjectives they wrote down were life-like, chilling, weathered, prickly, jubilant, and even ethereal. It stretched their vocabulary skills, though some students were stronger at this than others. After writing their adjectives, they had to turn those descriptors into a short paragraph describing at least one of the pieces of art.
A sample response from one student:
“I believe this is a Cuban woman since cigars are big in Cuba and it still is. Cuba is very old fashioned and this woman shows that; she looks like she’s been out in the sun and is smoking a cigar. Cuba is a part of her and she is a part of Cuba. I really enjoyed this piece and felt a connection to it.”
What the students get from this exercise is the ability to think about word choice in writing. I try to guess which piece of art they wrote about by looking at their paragraph. If I cannot guess, they need to think about how they can be more specific and clear in describing it.
Overall, this lesson provides them with a concrete item to write about. It gets them in the gallery looking at and critiquing art. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I don’t like that.” Or “This piece is weird.” But then they have to learn how to explain why. They learn to use their vocabulary skills to go beyond the typical words. That, to me, is the fun part of doing this assignment.
In turn, I think the students learn to “connect the dots” between what they see, what they think and what they write.
What are your strategies for helping students build vocabulary and “connect the dots”?