Artist, Composer, and Poetry Study: The What


Today I’d like to take you back to some of my summer work with my school’s composer, artist, and poetry study curriculum. In a three-post series, I’ll walk you through the what, the why, and the how of culture studies in my classroom. 

First, the WHAT:

  • I dedicate an hour and a half each week to culture studies, 30 minutes each of composer, artist, and poetry.
  • We study two composers, two artists, and two poets a year. As a school, we select these with several factors in mind: connections with history, literature, and science curricula, age-appropriateness of the works, and significance.
  • I plan 12-15 lessons on each artist..
  • While we may occasionally read brief, engaging biographies or discuss how the events in an artist’s life enter into their work, the primary focus of studies time is the artists’ works, NOT their lives. My students already have art, music, and writing classes, so these are also NOT times to practice their own skills. For at least 10 of those 12-15 lessons, we feature one particular work.
  • Culture studies have no homework component.

I’ll be getting to the WHY of all this in my next post. Right now, I want to describe to you what a typical studies lesson looks like. As with all my lessons, I try to follow the steps of 1) narration, 2) little talk 3) text or work 4) narration 5) discussion .

1. First narration

Here, I  have students tell back what they remember from previous lessons.”Tell me back what you remember about Firebird. Describe the story. Describe the music itself.”

  • Resist the temptation to skip this step. It’s not a wasted lesson if you spend half of it simply remembering what you heard or saw last week.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Often, after I ask what the students remember, we sit in meditative quiet for 30 seconds or more. It takes time to find that box in the attic of your memory palace.
  • Best practice is to choose one student to tell back as much as she can remember, then let others fill in details around that first narration. Try to ensure that the chosen student is successful at remembering at some level, even if it’s just one word or phrase, before letting other students fill in details.
  • Use Socratic questioning and resist the temptation to edit what students remember. If you spend enough time on this step, they usually re-construct accurate memories for each other without your intervention. And if they don’t, that’s okay. We’re thinking life-long habits of remembering and appreciating here.

2. Little Talk

After the students narrate what we learned in previous lessons, I give them information they will need in order to experience the work we will study that day.

BREVITY is key.

  • If you are introducing unfamiliar vocabulary in a poem, choose only the two words they MOST need to know and explain them in one sentence each.
  • If you are telling them the story of how David ended up painting his self-portrait in prison, prepare that story in a paragraph of three to five sentences.
  • If you are teaching the idea of theme and variations for a lesson on the Goldberg variations, give the simplest possible explanation or example of the idea and encourage students to hear it for themselves.

Early in the semester, I occasionally take one whole lesson time to introduce a more complex aspect of the author’s work in an expanded talk, such as Cubism for Picasso, or sonata form for Mozart or Beethoven. In that case, the “little talk” becomes the lesson proper and the subject of next week’s narration, and stretches to 10 or 15 minutes.  And on the other hand, as the semester progresses and students become familiar with the artist and their context, the little talk can become unnecessary altogether.

3. Text or Work

After the narration and the little talk, we experience the work.

  • For art works, I give 3-5 minutes to study the picture in silence. I like a quality print for every two students when I can get it, but we’ll settle for one large version at the front of the room.
  • For poetry, individual students read or I read as they follow along. We often read poems twice, especially short ones.
  • For music, we listen to the piece. Many works of serious music are of prohibitive length. In composer study, then, I tend to present a longer little talk one week, and then dive into listening to the longer work the next. As we become more comfortable with the composer and forms and our listening stamina grows, I may take the whole 30 minutes to do nothing but listen to a symphony or watch a ballet, with no narrations or talking at all.

4. Second Narration

Here the students tell back what they remember from that day’s lesson–the little talk and/or the work.

  • For art, I have them turn their prints over and describe the picture. I ask questions to help them go deeper. I sometimes alternate looking at the work for 3 minutes, narrating for 3 minutes, looking for 3 more minutes, narrating for 3 more minutes. This reinforces the experience of seeing new things in works of art when you spend more time and attention. At other times I have them narrate a work of art by having them sketch what they remember of it on a blank piece of paper.
  • For poetry, traditional narration of texts — everything you can remember, in order, in the author’s own words when possible — is not appropriate. Poetry is too dense, and the exact word choice too important, for this to be a sensible undertaking. Instead, I ask questions: what happened in the poem? Did you notice any repeating words? Did the poem rhyme? Did you notice and similes or metaphors? What images did the author use? What do you think the author’s trying to say? Avoid rambling about poems or interrogating them too closely, a la Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry,” but re-read if you have time and interest. It’s about delight.
  • For music, I have the students tell back what they experienced as they listened, moving through moods in the music or images it gave them, what instruments/dynamics/melodies they heard, or asking them to map it onto the form if I taught them one.

In all subjects, I avoid asking “How did this work make you feel?” For some students who DID feel a work deeply, this question may feel invasive or impossible to answer. For students who DIDN’T feel a work deeply, they begin to assume that engagement with art is only for those demonstrative, dramatic kids in the other seats.

5. Discussion

By this time, I’ve often exhausted my 30 minutes or the students’ interest. If so, I stop.

But other days, that last narration flows naturally into questions from the students. They stop telling back what they’ve heard and start asking things. When was this piece composed in relation to when Beethoven went deaf? If Picasso could sketch so well, why did he choose to paint things more blockily other times?

With poetry especially, this discussion can move to debate. Recently, we had a heated discussion about whether Wordsworth was right that remembering beauty could make you a better person.

But, like I said, if they’re done they’re done. The point is to foster a relationship of enjoyment with the work, not to be able to list the five characteristics of Romanticism.

Sidenote: At this very moment during the lunch break, my student S is doing make-up work in my classroom and I’m playing Debussy, who was one of our composers last year. As the next song just came on, S looked up and said, “Children’s Corner, huh?” YES! That’s what I’m talking about.

Next Post: WHY studies?