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Using Art to Reach and Teach
Share Voice of Experience

Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in the Education World Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Kathleen Modenbach reflects on how art projects can be a great bridge between some students and difficult content. She recalls how an art project constructed around Romeo and Juliet spurred one special education student to ask "Did Shakespeare write anything else?" Wow! Included: Modenbach shares sample art project ideas plus a message board where you can share your pet art projects!


Although I appreciate art, I'm no good at it. In fact, I can draw only stick people. I confess this to my high school students whenever I assign an art project, which I do from time to time to motivate their understanding of literature.

I've been assigning art projects for years. I realized long ago -- long before it was fashionable or mandated -- the benefits of teaching to student learning styles and strengths. Back then, as a novice special education teacher, I discovered that a large percentage of my learning disabled students were good artists and that their artistic talents weren't being nurtured -- or capitalized upon. It was then that I started using art projects to reinforce everything from Shakespearean drama to modern literature.

I'll never forget Richard. Richard was in my special education English I class. After the class read Romeo and Juliet and students drew or made collages of their favorite characters, Richard raised his hand and asked with excitement, "Did Shakespeare write anything else?" Wow! I've never had that response from my regular English III and IV students!

The enthusiasm that Richard and his classmates showed about William Shakespeare has never left me. Today, I run my junior and senior level classes on the same principle I used with those special ed students: teaching to students' learning styles, strengths, and interests can motivate them to understand and appreciate literature at all levels. Like me, many of my students can't draw, but they can express themselves artistically. They can create computer-generated art, collages, or memory boxes to show their understanding of themes in poetry, drama, or novels. And there are added benefits to assigning curriculum-based art projects: My classroom is beautifully decorated, and the kids are proud of their efforts. In addition, at open house, parents see creativity that many of them had never seen before in their children.

I have a couple of favorite art projects that I use to get students thinking about literature in new ways:

  • Memory boxes. Students work individually, in small groups, or as a class to decorate and fill a "memory box" with objects that are significant to a novel or another piece of literature. For example, my English III students decorated boxes with river scenes and placed in them fishing tackle, cotton, and pictures of riverboats and rafts that were significant to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Students in my English IV class are reading Kafka's The Metamorphosis. In this class, students will decorate a box; they are generating a list of memory box objects as we discuss the novel.
  • Movie posters. Students create movie posters for a novel or play. The posters feature student art or computer-generated art of characters from the story. The students include an original movie title and cast their movie with current movie stars! After reading Beowulf, my English IV students designed posters that featured either Grendel, the monster, or Beowulf, the hero who defeats him. Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, and Russell Crowe are some of the screen stars in the posters.

The variety of possible art projects is endless. Sometimes students even design their own projects. One English III class, for example, decided to act out scenes from The Scarlet Letter. This is a difficult novel for many students, but they had fun and found appreciation for Hawthorne's words by dressing up in costumes, creating a script, memorizing lines, and presenting their effort to the class. They even videotaped the performance so I could show it to other classes. Another class sang and played musical instruments to accompany their readings of the poetry they wrote for class.

And the Internet has opened up even more options. This spring, all of my English III and IV classes will put their poetry online.

I am always surprised by students' creativity -- it has no limits! These hands-on, arts-based projects, which may appear to some to be simply fun, are really enrichment that use students' strengths and intelligences -- and higher-level thinking skills -- to bolster their understanding of complex material.

Some things haven't changed in the 20 years since Richard expressed interest in reading Shakespeare's other plays!


Kathleen Modenbach is an English teacher in Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish Schools. She teaches at Northshore High School and writes for The Times Picayune in New Orleans.