Artist, Composer, and Poetry Study: The How


This is the last of a three-post series about what cultural studies are, why we teach them, and how to go about it. Here’s the how. How do we go about connecting students with beautiful art? How do we make an introduction that encourages friendship?

I can think of a few elements of a first experience that will make it more likely for students to be able to receive beautiful art, music, and literature. These elements are probably what make us truly love whatever it is we love, whether that’s high school football or baking or monitoring the stock market:

  • The real thing, in the best version available. The Iliad is far more compelling than a summary of The Iliad or anything that’s been written about The Iliad, assuming that you’re reading a sensitive, artful translation, or, better yet, if you can read the original Greek. Beethoven’s 9th is more full of pathos and drama than Beethoven’s biography, assuming you’ve chosen a spirited recording and you are playing it on good speakers or, better yet, you’re hearing a skilled orchestra play it live.
  • Modeling by people students admire (that’s us!). A great deal of education is enculturation, and affections are catching like the flu. No matter what we say, students watch what we do, and they’re not fooled. They know what we’re passionate about. If we truly believe in the soul-enlarging, God-reflecting power of art, music, and literature, we will seek them out and love them ourselves, not abstractly but as individual works. In introducing students to our “friends” we will not be able to contain our affection and it will be contagious. This can be as simple as presenting each composer study as a treat instead of a chore – “I’m excited about what we get to listen to today. It’s glorious, and it’s rare to get to listen without distraction.”
  • Time and consistency. Relationship happens on a concrete and experiential, not an abstract, level. Development of a personal relationship with artworks, appreciating them for oneself, must happen work by work, piece by piece, poem by poem. This takes time, “a little bit often.” Students unused to contemplating art (especially serious music) may only be able to engage in the process in short bursts, which means that we should fill our scheduling nooks and crannies with them. Consider having two 15 minute picture studies a week, for instance, instead of one 30 minute block. But however you chunk it, keep that art coming!
  • Familiarity. We all know that we can develop affection for something simply because we recognize it (listen to the Top 20 station often enough and you’ll soon find yourself singing along happily to songs that once annoyed you). Children are particularly susceptible to this. So if the first exposure to a piece or a painting daunts your students, don’t worry and don’t force it. Consider hanging the painting up for a while on the board. Play the piece frequently during quiet works times, mentioning its title and composer. Often students will develop appreciation for initially challenging pieces over repeated exposure.





CC image courtesy of melintelinas on

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