Tuesday, May 12, 2015

#SOL: Artful Rhetoric and Student Response to Literature #engchat #teaching

Last night I joined #engchat for a discussion of two essential questions: 

  • Why does art matter?
  • How can integrating the arts expand learning experiences for students?
It's been a while since I've participated in #engchat. During the chat the discussion turned toward the ways some students doubt their ability to create because they don't fit the common definition of an artist. 

Students don't need to be artists to think artistically and to create what I call ARTFUL RHETORIC. 

For example, today I graded a student reading response to Winger by Andrew Smith. We've been discussing how readers know characters in literature. I teach them the common ways we learn about characters: 
  • What a character says.
  • What a character does.
  • What other characters say about a character.
  • What the narrator says about a character.
  • How a character looks, the character's level of education, the character's age. 
Students have been creating BODY BIOGRAPHIES during our study of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST and will compose an essay in which they analyze the character as their final exam this Thursday. 

Throughout the trimester, as students have read their independent novels, I've asked them to concentrate on character and to write in their writing notebooks about character. One option student had for their final "character analysis" on independent reading is to create a CHARACTER SCRAPBOOK. 

Kyrstin, a voracious reader, chose WINGER by Andrew Smith for her project. Here are images from her project: 

To create her scrapbook, Kyrstin needed to think like character. She needed to make rhetorical choices based on the ones the character would make. She needed to get into the mind of the character so that she understands the character's point of view. Thinking this way, arguably, requires rhetorical sophistication and analytical skills. 

Importantly, artful thinking also requires students to develop empathy for characters. 

As one of the #engchat hosts said, too often teachers see English as not inherently defined as or by art. I'd add that some discount art as a lesser form of rhetoric when we should be thinking more about how art is rhetorical and an important part of student engagement with literature and traditional written analysis. 

On our last day together, I'll share with my graduating seniors advice Neil Gainman voiced in Make Good Art: 

The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked...that's the moment you may be starting to get it right.

And if they find their voices and stories and visions in art, I'll say, "enjoy the view and make good art. Life is a museum. We are the curators."


  1. Kyrstin used transmediation to good effect. Wish more English teachers saw the possibility for it in their classrooms as you do.

  2. I love this idea and would love to do it with my sixth graders as a book project. Thanks for the inspiration, especially at a time of year when we're all feeling pretty drained!

    1. I'll write more during the summer about the assignment and other student responses. I've been finding lots of inspiration from picture books and graphic texts.

  3. This makes me think about how both art and rhetoric, in all their various forms, have in common the goal of creating effects or generating responses. When young writers are thinking in those kinds of terms, good and interesting things will happen. Thanks for your thoughtful post. -- Gary

  4. "Artful thinking" connects me to problem solving and wonder-- such rich processes. The primacy of art as an interpretive tool becomes so clear when teachers employ or integrate arts with sound purposes. I hate that I missed #engchat this week! Thank you for reminding me to visit the archive.