At the Museum

Have students choose paintings.
Take the students on a brief tour of the museum, pointing out several works of art that you find appropriate for the activity. During the tour, tell the students to note the names and locations of those works that interest them. Explain that each person will be writing about one of the paintings. Then have each person choose a painting for the assignment.

Have students make lists of the details in their paintings.
Give the students about fifteen minutes to get to know their paintings. To do this, they should observe the work they've chosen and make a list of as many details as possible describing its appearance. Explain that they should limit their lists to physical aspects of the painting itself. For example, they might list "orange flowers in background by stone fence" or "silver earring shaped like a teardrop." But they should avoid listing any emotions that the painting evokes or any judgments or assumptions they might have about the work. For example, they could write something like "hands folded, eyes closed" but should avoid such language as "lost in prayer" or "sad and downhearted." Making judgments about the relationships between people in the pictures, e.g., "mother and son," is also inappropriate.

Items that students can count ("three trees on left" or "four waves to left of boat," for example) are good candidates for listing. So are physical aspects of the painting that aren't visible, e.g., "left hand behind back."

Have students write descriptions of their paintings.
Gather the students in the lesson area you identified during your preparation for the activity. Give them several minutes to write descriptions of their paintings, using the list of details they created in step 2 and their memory of the work as a whole. Explain that they should describe their paintings in such a way that a person reading their description could easily find the work in the museum. Students should not try to list all of the details that they collected; instead, they must decide which ones would be most important to include in a description that gives readers a good idea of what the painting looked like. Also tell students that they should avoid using language that makes assumptions about what's happening in the painting (e.g., "sadly looking for lost love") or that expresses their own opinions in any way (e.g., "ugly red barn"). For now, the point is simply to describe what physically appears in the painting.

Have volunteers read their descriptions aloud.
After each reading, ask the listeners to name whatever details they remember. If two or more students write about the same painting, discuss the similarities and differences in the two descriptions. Also discuss any judgmental language that may have slipped into the descriptions, explaining that the subject here is "just the facts." Ask students how judgmental language can portray more than just facts. (It conveys the viewer's interpretation of the painting and possibly his or her feelings about it.)

Have students create drawings based on a partner's descriptions.
Assign students into pairs, making sure that the members of each pair did not work with the same painting. Have the students in each pair read each other's descriptions. Then, using the descriptions as a guide, they should try to sketch what they think the described painting looks like.

Give students time to find the paintings.
Give the students in each pair ten minutes or so to try to find the paintings their partners described. (Partners can accompany those searching for the paintings, but they mustn't give any hints.) Allow students to take the descriptions, as well as their drawings, with them as they search.

Have students evaluate their descriptions.
After they have had time to find the paintings their partners described, gather the students together to discuss the effectiveness of the descriptions. Start by asking how many of them found the paintings their partners described. Have volunteers discuss the aspects of the descriptions that helped them find the correct painting.

Then ask several of the students to re-read the descriptions they wrote. Have their partners share the sketches they created. Based on the sketches and the ease or difficulty the sketchers had in finding the correct paintings, do the students who wrote these particular descriptions think the descriptions "work"? How might they be improved? (Remind students that not everyone is an artist, so they can't necessarily expect that their descriptions would result in highly detailed drawings. Nevertheless, a good description might lead the person doing the drawing to include some of the highlights of the real painting.)

Give students time to write stories about their paintings.
To help the students combine the visible aspects of art with the feelings and ideas art inspires, give them thirty minutes or more to write stories about their paintings. Explain that the students should use their descriptions of the paintings as a basis for creating their stories, but allow them to revisit the paintings if they want to. Tell the students that, unlike their descriptions, the stories need not be limited to physical facts. Any emotions or judgments the students wish to incorporate into their stories, as well as any way they wish to interpret what's happening in the paintings, is fine.

One way students might want to approach their stories is to concentrate on what's currently happening in the painting. Explain that if they take this approach, it might be helpful to treat the painting as if it were a frozen frame in a movie. To set the painting into motion, they can mentally "unfreeze" the frame.

Other approaches to telling the painting's story include writing about what has just happened or about what is going to happen. Explain to the students that whatever they write, they must not contradict any factual information about the painting.

Have students share their stories.
If possible, have students read their stories to the group in front of the painting they chose as their subject.

Last Modified September 19, 1997