By Matthew Friedrichs
As a second-year ELA teacher, there are so many things that I don’t know. One thing, however, that seemed intuitive when I entered the classroom after nearly 20 years as an editor, was the tie between images and words. Great readers effortlessly form mental images as they dance through the words on the page. Unfortunately, many of my eighth-graders, and even some seniors, struggle with that mental animation. At the same time, my photography students in grades nine through 12, often scuffle when asked to translate visual information into words. As a result, I’ve worked hard with both groups to bridge those communication gaps by juxtaposing and connecting visual and written artworks.
During the fall 2019 KATE conference, Deborah Eades (@DeborahEades10) presented about using portraiture in the ELA classroom. I could only shake my head up and down in violent yeses as she provided a framework for many of the methods I have tried. Eades shared what she had learned during a Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery training on the topic of stimulating nuanced student conversations guided by pictures.
One example of a portrait Eades shared that would spark great conversation in a classroom is Roger Shimomura’s, Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. The painting references the famous image of General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Close study could be paired with art and/or history classes. The image mixes traditional Japanese styles with pop art and more realistic depictions, and also draws upon Shimomura’s personal history of being imprisoned along with other Japanese-Americans during World War II. Including this painting in my teaching excited me, for while it offers strong, cross-curricular ties, it also offers a deep Kansas connection.
Work by Shimomura is on display throughout the state. I am a firm believer that standing in front of art often is more transcendent than looking at an online or print image. Thus, Shimomura, who taught at the University of Kansas from 1969 to 2004, is a great painter for close study and first-hand lessons. These nearby museums hold his works:
In early November, my photography class encountered a Shimomura painting during a visit to the Beach Museum. Martin Cheng: Painter and Fisherman, acrylic on canvas from 1991, fascinated them. They were drawn to the juxtaposition of fishing items, odd text (1+1=3), painting paraphernalia, and the subject’s garb (underwear instead of the mawashi a sumo would wear). Eighth-graders would undoubtedly find it weird, too, a perfect hook for the strangeness they often describe to me in their bewilderment when they read poetry. While I haven’t tried pairing this image in the classroom, the possibilities are infinite. Numbers by Mary Cornish does the math: “I like the domesticity of addition -- / add two cups of milk and stir.” Kansas poet Kathleen Johnson redraws that state connection and highlights the role of sight. “Nothing prepared me for evenings blue as topaz … There’s nothing not stained with color,” she writes in Summer. Finally, since there isn’t space to muse on every line in the canon, Phillis Levin’s Cloud Fishing describes the curiosity that is at the heart of what I teach. “Take care or you’ll catch yourself.”
Physical field trips with our students are regrettably shut down right now. However, we do still have the ability to explore both art and poetry. Some of the most famous art museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, could serve as a graduate program in history, archaeology, sociology, and even art! for the intrepid and curious person willing to read through the galleries over the period of months necessary to closely scrutinize the tiny portion of its holdings. In addition, artists’ sites such as Shimomura’s, and The Gordon Parks Foundation’s are informative. In this digital age, finding images that contextually pair with readings, literary or historical, has never been easier.
Since we shifted to online courses at Marysville Junior-Senior High School, I have been utilizing these online resources to compose a daily email to my English and photography classes. In addition to the links for assignments and our next video class, I connect excerpts from readings, images, Tweets, Instagram posts, and links. As I would do in class, I layer poems, artworks, and my own experiences within these emails in order to provide students a glimpse of the academic path ahead. I supplement the primary materials with some background, usually chosen from details that I think will catch students’ attention.
On April 7, I provided a link to a painting by David Inshaw (found on Twitter), which is an illustration of this Thomas Hardy poem:
She did not turn
by Thomas Hardy
She did not turn,
But passed foot-faint with averted head
In her gown of green, by the bobbing fern,
Though I leaned over the gate that led
From where we waited with table spread;
But she did not turn:
Why was she near there if love had fled?
She did not turn,
Though the gate was whence I had often sped
In the mists of morning to meet her, and learn
Her heart, when its moving moods I read
As a book—she mine, as she sometimes said;
But she did not turn,
And passed foot-faint with averted head.
Like the speaker in this poem, students are consumed with unvoiced longing for a certain classmate to turn their way, to meet their eyes. Our forced seclusion only heightens desires for close companionship, a common denominator of our humanity in all writing. The evocation of an averted head provided hope, to me, that one or more teenagers in the email audience might read and want to know more about the author and painter. As much as students struggle with poetry, when they find the words, the images that resonate with their personal experiences, they embrace the revelation and work to uncover additional meaning.
To the reader intrigued by this poem -there’s so much more to explore! Hardy studied architecture and clambered through ruins (which I noted for my blue-collar seniors). I read Tess of the D’Ubervilles, one of his most famous novels, in college but retain only an impressionistic memory of bleakness (a bit of self-deprecation that acknowledges for the “but I’m not going to be an English major” students that even their English teacher doesn’t retain all of the material). Although Inshaw paints the Wiltshire Downs near Devizes, England, not the Sunflower State, we as Kansans recognize open, furrowed fields; the expansive, dark sky and rainbow combination of thunderstorms; the grassy lane with tracks worn by wheels; and a slightly leaning building. Is the painter as pessimistic or sad as the writer? These are symbols, Inshaw’s site says, “not simply of despair, but also of a hope based on a belief in the depth and permanence of all loving human relationships.”
Once we return to our classrooms and are cleared for trips, I encourage you to take your students to local museums. Katherine Schlageck and the staff at the Beach Museum work well with educational groups. If artwork you want to see isn’t currently on exhibit, they might be able to pull it from storage. They arranged for us to view photos by Parks -- another Kansas cultural and historical touchstone -- for a visit we made in spring 2019.
In the interminable interim, consider what inspires you and your students. Then follow a path similar to the one I walked from Inshaw to Hardy. Search for art that matches your favorite literature and vice versa. What connections do you make? Does an Emily Dickinson poem sprout life when watered with Victorian imagery? Does a Parks photo add depth and nuance to the study of Muhammad Ali? Are there other Kansas artists and writers who foment revolution in your thoughts? I’d love to see the tendrils that intertwine your teaching. Share below your favorite poetry and artistic combinations, the lessons we can learn from them, and what makes them so powerful to you and your students.
About the Author
Matthew Friedrichs teaches eighth-grade ELA, senior English and photography at Marysville Junior-Senior High School. He is a 1995 and 2000 KU graduate who is currently a transition- to- teaching graduate student at FHSU. Before teaching, Matthew worked as an editor at ESPN.com and newspapers for almost 20 years.
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