Originally published 24 October 2016
I cannot even begin to unpack all the things I learned in my week with Lincoln Center Education—my first week this summer in the MA English Education program at Teachers College. Each day after class I would go home to the small apartment I rented with a few other girls from the program and practically collapse from mental exhaustion. To write about everything I learned would take a novel-like production! Instead, I want to touch on a few big ideas that I took away from the brilliant program and teachers they have there at LCE: engaging with ideas of a work of art, line of inquiry, questioning, some activities, and the Capacities for Imaginative Thinking. Really, I’m just glossing over the information, but talking about even the basic idea of these concepts allows me to remember, and might spark someone else’s interest and possible investigation of these instructional approaches.
With classes at Juilliard, the Met, Central Park, and of course historic Teachers College, there was no shortage of wonder. My classmates & I saw an unforgettable performance by Urban Bush Women, and closely examined the music of Coltrane, some classical sculpture, modern painting, and Mid-Eastern architecture. LCE partners with schools and educators so that students can have the kind of experiences and “encounters with art” that we were able to have. Of course, none of our students will go into these encounters having actually studied art, literary, and pedagogy theory. Early on LCE realized that the encounters with art were not having the kind of indelible impression on students, nor were they able to produce and sustain a depth of discussion that was needed or that an encounter with a work of art deserves. Their next move was to incorporate into the curriculum a series of lessons where students would engage with parts of the idea or ideas surrounding the work of art before they encountered it.
I wondered, how many times as English teachers do we just jump into concepts and ideas? Or jumping right into a work of art (text) without engaging students in any of the ideas that surround that particular piece? And, how much better would our instruction and student engagement be if we got students involved and interested in the ideas before hitting them with the key text?
Why This Approach?
To do understand this approach better as learners as well as teachers, we were led through some LCE workshops in which we engaged with ideas and concepts surrounding the work of art before, during, and after we actually encountered it. As I mentioned before, one of the effects of this was that by the time we came to the central work of art—painting, poem, essay, novel, music, dance, etc.— we were much more engaged and even excited to discuss and examine the ideas, artist’s choices and craft, and implications of the work of art. Discussions following the experience were also much richer, had greater depth, and not anything we will soon forget.
We also developed lasting knowledge and critical thinking because of our engagement with the central ideas. This is a huge plus, because engagement with these ideas can lead students to be more thoughtful people, more involved citizens, and lifelong learners.
Here’s an example: in a series of lessons we created, students would—through various activities—engage with the idea of borders and boundaries before their encounter with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Making a Fist, in which physical and abstract borders play a central role. They had the opportunity to examine and develop critical thinking skills about borders— how they work in society and their personal relationship to borders. This experience can then refine and inform their future actions and thoughts as they engage with literal or abstract borders they encounter.
As an English teacher, this is what I’m after! Critical thinking and engaging with ideas to help students become active citizens and thoughtful people. Additionally, lessons that involve different modes of learning, activities, or art often appeal to a wider range of students and can be an entry into the ideas and work of art being studied.
How to Do It
Line of Inquiry
So what are the practicalities of accomplishing this? How do we plan lessons to this result? One essential element to lesson planning—the essential question— is not unfamiliar to most teachers, but LCE has a slightly different take on it. Called the “line of inquiry”, it is a question specific to a work of art, but that addresses ideas that can be examined outside of the context of that particular work. It spawns other questions that can be used on a more daily basis in class. For me, the biggest realization of using a line of inquiry (or essential question) is that the teacher should not have an overwhelming sense of the answer. This is good for a number of reasons, but primarily because it allows for student directed learning— authentic learning— and for students to have more ownership over what they are learning. Here is an example of the line of inquiry—developed with a group of teachers in the LCE workshop—based on the poem mentioned above by Naomi Shihab Nye: How does Naomi Shihab Nye in “Making a Fist” use motifs of movement and location in time and space to explore the idea of borders?
A lot of time could be spent analyzing and discussing what makes a good line of inquiry, but for the sake of brevity, this and other good lines of inquiry are specific to a work of art, address writer’s craft and choices, doesn’t lead to a specific interpretation, and allows for students to arrive at the “So What” by themselves; all important things to consider when designing an essential question.
Importance of Questioning
When ready to move past the starting point of choosing a work of art and designing a line of inquiry, consider the instructional strategies you use in encountering the work and working with the line of inquiry. Perhaps the most crucial strategy that I learned about in greater depth with LCE and at Teachers College, was questioning— it’s absolutely vital! Teachers should use questioning in every capacity: as an instructional strategy, for discussion, and as an affective goal for your students to turn into critical thinkers by questioning what they see, read, and experience. Questioning and dialogue have an essential place in teaching. So, when examining a work of art, having a discussion, doing an activity, etc., use questions to help students notice, explore, and analyze a work of art.
Still on the practical side of things, I was introduced to some activities— maybe some teachers already use these— that are conducive to engaging with ideas and encountering works of art. There are of course many more activities that allow students to engage with ideas of a work of art, but these are a few of my favorites:
Students in groups create a frozen scene that depicts a concept, idea, character, or anything else the teacher thinks is something that needs to be explored. Students are given time to figure out how they are going to embody that idea and why, after which they perform for a class (and hold that position) while others observe, ask questions, and analyze. It can be useful to first analyze as a class before asking the participants of the tableau what they did and why. Check out this video from Teaching Channel that shows this activity, along with a few other good ones, “Wall of Silence” and a small group discussion: https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/increase-engagement-and-understanding
Teacher hangs pictures around the room that illustrate an idea, concept, etc.; could be abstract or more concrete visualizations of the idea. Students then walk around the room and take time at each picture to look, notice, and write down something that stands out to them about that picture. They write this on a sticky note or a piece of paper/poster hanging next to the picture. Allow students the chance to view most or all of the pictures before beginning a discussion about what they noticed. Often students will begin to connect the content of the individual pictures to a larger concept, but teachers can prompt students to do this as well with questions like, “What do these have in common?” The gallery walk is a great way for students to be introduced to ideas in a work of art before they encounter it; they can also start to think critically about those ideas.
Using a variety of mediums to make art that illustrates a central idea or concept is a great way for students to begin engaging in that idea and thinking critically about it. Students can create drawings with crayons, markers, pastels, scissors and paper, and more. After students are done creating is the time to begin questioning and examining what they created. If the teacher wants to take that a step further, changing the art by combining it in some way, for example a collage, then examining that can help students to come up with new observations or ways to think about the idea.
GOLDEN LINES There are a variety of ways to do this, but the basic idea is that students share a sentence or two— either from a text or from their own writing in response to a work of art— and then share it out loud. It can be done “Quaker Meeting” style, where one person starts and everyone shares at the time that they feel like they want to, or going around in a circle, in small groups, etc. Doing this allows students to think about ideas and artist’s craft as they are entering discussion or preparing to encounter another work of art. Noticing commonalities or often repeated ideas or lines is a good place to begin discussion. _______________________________________
At The Core of LCE: The Capacities for Imaginative Thinking
Finally, when talking about Lincoln Center Education, I have to mention the Capacities for Imaginative Thinking, the core of LCE’s approach to aesthetic education. Each capacity, and the accompanying questions, help students approach and encounter a work of art with greater critical thinking, perception, and understanding. Using these capacities as I think about how to plan lessons where students transact with a work of art has been transformational to my teaching. See also a printable PDF of the capacities.
Thinking About . . .
Questioning and the role it plays in learning and instruction. Also, imagination— as described by Maxine Greene, the founder of LCE— and the dynamic between student choice, empowerment, imagination, literature and other text . . . the power of literature when seen through the lens of imagination and empowerment underlies just about everything we do in the Language Arts classroom and in aesthetic education.