February 14, 2014

How to Use Narrative Art to Teach Elements of a Story

In San Francisco recently, a man boarded the subway, brandished a gun for a few minutes, walked up to 20 year-old Justin Valdez, aimed and shot the young man dead.  The subway car was full of passengers, but not one person on the train said or did anything, because not a single person on this packed train noticed.  They had their heads buried in their ‘devices’.

This is the world we live and teach in. We are evolving into an oblivious society.  The good news is that this is a learned behavior, and it can be unlearned.  We need to reteach children how to look, how to observe and how to think critically about the world around them. We need to teach them to see and think like artists, only then will they be able to truly observe and interpret the world we live in.

Looking at art is an experience. Use this experience to inspire your students.

We can harness this experience to teach children to observe and become critical thinkers.  In this five part series, we will look at how narrative art can be used to better understand these elements.  By teaching children how to observe and interpret art, we are teaching them how to increase their perception and understanding of their environment.

Gulf Stream Story Starter

Winslow Homer, Gulf Stream



Narrative Art is particularly useful in this aspect. Narrative art is art that tells a story– it may be a particular moment, or a series of events over time. Powerful images can be analyzed for their storytelling qualities.  By analyzing how artists approach issues like setting, theme, and point of view, we can help kids be critical of their own writing.

Just look to the Americana themes of Norman Rockwell, the fantasy world of James Gurney’s Dinotopia, the isolation of Edward Hopper, the storytelling of Winslow Homer, Jacob Lawrence and Thomas Hart Benton, the photojournalism of Dorthea Lange or the powerful Artemisia Gentileschi who was ahead of her time. Then there are more contemporary artists like Chris Van Allsburg and Shaun Tan, who in my opinion, beg for a story to be written about any of their illustrations.

Dinotopia Story Starter

©James Gurney, Dinotopia, A Land Apart From Time

Narrative artists have to deal with many of the same issues that writers do. You can see this clearly in picture book art, where the picture carries the story.  However, in art the illustrator must include all of these elements visually as opposed to using words. Artists must address time of day, shifts in color, light and shade, mood, proportion, composition and perspective, just to name a few.  All of these elements change the way a viewer interprets the story, just as a writer influences the reader’s interpretation by her choice of words and sentence structure.

Let’s see how elements of narrative art can be used to teach elements of a story.

Story Element= Setting

Hailstorm Story Starter

Thomas Hart Benton, The Hailstorm

Artist: Thomas Hart Benton

Image we will use to study setting: The Hailstorm, 1940

Teacher Guidelines: Student objective: observe details closely, interpret a meaning and create a written response.  There are guiding questions and writing prompts below.   By studying the image, thinking about the questions, and writing a story about the image, students are using details in the image to help them understand setting and how it may be represented. Use the discussion in class to generate lists of responses which children can draw from when writing their stories. Document their answers, as this will become a reference for them later.

Discussion Questions about The Hailstorm:

Use these questions to discuss the art with students.  Then encourage close observation and critical thinking.  When answering, be sure to look carefully at all of the details.  Sometimes the smallest detail can change the meaning of an image. Use these questions about The Hailstorm to engage students, and then let the conversation evolve. You may be surprised at their answers.

  • Look at the color or lack of it- how does that influence the mood of the image? How do you create mood in your story using words?
  • Where are you? Is it past, present or future? How can you tell? What details do you use in your story to give the viewer a sense of place?
  • Is it day or night? How does the time of day change how the viewer/reader experiences the story?
  • What is the weather like? How can you use weather to foreshadow events to come?
  • Describe the setting using your senses.  If you were in this image, what would you  hear, smell, see, taste, feel?
  • How did the artist use lines to bring your eye around the image? How do you lead your reader from one location to another in your story?

There are many parallels between visual art and writing. Analyzing narrative art teaches students how to observe and think critically about the world around them.  By using art we can give students opportunities to think critically and engage in higher order thinking skills.  These experiences are particularly helpful with reluctant students- I’ve seen it happen.  Let me know how you use art in your classroom in the comments section below.

For further discussion: Narrative Art Part 2

Download my free eBook, "How to Use Art to Inspire Creative Writing". I hope it helps you the way it has helped my students.
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