Using Art to Teach Reading Literature to Students
The Challenge of Engaging Students
One of the problems that we all face as educators is that of decreased attention span among our students. Their worlds are very fast. They live with their devices, devices which ask only for a touch or two in order to transport our students from one world to the next. Messages from their friends — friends who might be sitting only 20 feet away — appear and disappear. Videos, movies, games they take to bed with them, flicker through their minds the next morning.
Especially for English Teachers!
As for the poor English teacher who is trying to explain a dangling modifier or teach them Voyage of the Dawn Treader or Where the Red Fern Grows, it’s almost hopeless. In order to have any sort of appreciation for a novel or poem, the reader has to carry the beginning with him as he moves to the middle and to the end. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we have to remember that the first significant threat to the Dawn Treader’s crew is slavery, which helps us to understand that all the later perils the crew experiences are merely different forms of slavery.
Or let’s say that we are reading The Hobbit. We will not understand the story unless we understand the meaning of the three descents. And, we will not understand the meaning of the three descents unless we can recognize that the elements of darkness, water, discovery, and a confrontation with an alter-ego— all discovered during the third descent to Smaug’s lair — are also present in the first and second descents.
Teaching for Context when Teaching Reading and Literature
The minds of our students, in other words, are trained by technology to flit quickly from one image to the next, there being no carry-over or connection among them. In teaching English, or in teaching anything for that matter, our teaching largely fails when the student cannot think in terms of a context.
The student cannot understand the significance of the Civil War unless he is knowledgable not only of the slave issue but also of how the North and South had developed completely different economies, traditions, and populations. And when a student stares at a formidable algebraic equation, does he take solace in the fact that he’s only being asked to add, subtract, multiply, and divide?
Especially in teaching reading and literature, though, it is important for the student to see the whole. We cannot teach one or two stanzas from Stopping by Woods, or 3 or 4 paragraphs from Hound of the Baskervilles. And with more ambitious projects, full appreciation of Shakespeare’s sonnets doesn’t come until we have some knowledge of all the sonnets.
And it’s not just a matter of requiring knowledge of previous story line: we have to recognize that colors in the fourth part were also there in the previous three. If an image is recurring, we have to know that it’s recurring. If stanza three has 12 lines, did one and two also have 12 lines? If a work ends with a funeral, did it begin there as well?
In other words, beyond the plot, the student needs to develop an awareness of images, structure, and setting. If he can’t make it even to the end of the story or poem, though, how will he ever realize the other elements?
Teaching Reading through Art
A few years ago, then, I began looking for other ways which would require the basic skills of reading, but in a way that the damaged attention span of my students could handle. A method I chose and continue to develop is to teach reading through art. In this method, an image is projected, an image which immediately is all there. Coming to an appreciation of the painting, though, requires an awareness and study of the same elements one finds in literature: setting, images, structure and plot.
Vermeer’s ‘Woman Wearing Pearls’
Vermeer’s painting got the wrong title. It’s called “Woman Weighing Pearls,” but as anyone can see she is not weighing anything. She’s merely holding perfectly balanced scales. The scales themselves create the balance of the picture: the horizontal shadow line on the left side of picture frame marks a line which comes across the center of the scales then continues down the leg of the table.
There is also a vertical line which begins in the folds of the back cloth, comes across the top of the jewel box and continues over the top of the scale pans. The scales, then, are at the center intersection of a horizontal and vertical; they are at 0 in the coordinate plane.
We also notice that the scales are exactly between two…well, containers. The jewel box is one. The other is the woman’s womb. Each holds a kind of treasure. As the woman ponders the scales, which are not yet tipped to either side, it seems that she hasn’t determined which container holds the greater treasure. Notice, too, that she happens to be standing right in the middle of the Final Judgment, between the condemned and the saved, directly under Christ’s arms of judgment. And the floor tiles? Black and white, of course. Look farther, you will see several other black and white contrasts.
We happen upon her, then, as she considers the balance in her own life. How long can she hold the scales in a position of such delicate poise? How long can any of us maintain the balancing act? I don’t think He lets anyone stay in the middle for very long.
El Greco’s ‘St. Martin and the Beggar’
There is inherent in the human condition a sort of tension. Born to earth, we long for heaven. This longing need not be — and usually isn’t — conscious. All his life, man chases happiness, the happiness of having, of knowing, of doing, of experiencing. Every time, he is frustrated. Born to earth, though he may be, earth will not satisfy him.
All great art reflects the same kind of tension. We’ve seen it in “The Scarlet Ibis,” and we see it here in El Greco’s “St. Martin and the Beggar.” St. Martin, at first glance, hardly seems the saint. Astride his steed, he sits above it all; and, verily, he seems above it all, hardly affected by the wretchedness of the beggar. That, however, is only a first impression.
Lines and images will tell us more. As for lines, we could trace a letter A over the painting. The letter A, of course, is constructed of a pointed arch with a horizontal line segment traced across its middle. Regarding the pointed arch, we find its peak at the top of St. Martin, while one leg of the arch then falls along the body of the beggar while the other line falls along the body of the horse. As for the horizontal, it goes from eye to eye—from the eye of the beggar to the eye of the horse. The vision of the beggar’s eye, however—not its position, but vision—travels along one leg of the arch directly to the eye of St. Martin.
Already, then, the geometry of the painting creates a tension. One line travels across from creature to creature, while the other travels up from creature to saint. Images then come into play to reinforce what the geometry has already begun. The horizontal line, from eye to eye, connects beggar and beast. A certain fleshliness does the same. The beggar and the horse are predominantly naked flesh. The legs of each, too, blend together in the same plane. By geometry and by image, then, the suggestion is that the beggar participates in the bestiality of the horse; these creatures share physical qualities and a physical dimension.
While certain lines and associations connect the beggar and the beast, other lines and associations connect the beggar and the saint. We’ve already noted the shared direction of vision between Martin and the beggar. The cloak also connects them; half is clutched by Martin, the other half by the beggar. While the associations between horse and beggar underscore their common bestiality, or fleshliness, the associations with St. Martin underscore what? Note that while the beggar is mostly naked, St. Martin, on the other hand, is heavily covered.
Edmund has taught since 1991 on college, high school and junior high levels. He has written many articles on Catholic education, the first of which were written when he worked as Senior Staff Writer for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. He and his wife, Monica, have three artistic and penniless adult children.