As I focus in on writing this year with arts integration, I’ve discovered, as in most things, that the devil is in the details! Last week I was working with a team of elementary teachers to develop a series of arts integrated writing activities that would provide students with targeted practice in informational writing. A chief complaint from the team was that students were coming up pretty short on details in their writing samples. Elementary kids (and perhaps older students as well) need lots of practice in including details in their writing.

Getting the details right is an important part of the Common Core standards. Students, at all grade levels, are expected to be able to develop a topic in writing that includes relative facts, definitions, and concrete details. Since we know that kids are engaged by activities that involve looking at and talking about art, we decided to work on quick write activities that would focus on descriptive (detail) writing inspired by artwork.

Looking at and writing about art is a great way to get our students to develop keener observational skills. We need them to develop these skills in order to be able identify relevant details in the text (art=non print text) and cite them as evidence in their writing. As a big fan of Artful Thinking Routines, I always suggest starting with one of these. The text-dependent questions embedded in the routines are designed to prompt the students to focus in on the details in the art. Asking students to write in response to Looking Ten Times Two or What Makes You Say That? is a good start.

There are a number of other good activities for practicing descriptive (detail) writing with art that are quick. One that always intrigues my students is called Art Recipe. I first learned this strategy at a teacher workshop at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), in Washington, D.C. The activity combines a sequencing exercise along with practice in identifying details. It involves a close observation of a 3-D artwork, such as a contemporary sculpture. It works best when the artwork chosen has a variety of pieces, objects or textures. Some examples might be: the work of El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor whose artwork in close-up is pictured above, Nam Jun Paik’s 1995 Electronic Superhighway (at SAAM), the work of environmental artist Andy Goldberg, or an American or African mask. Here is how it goes:

Art Recipe

Ask students to imagine that he/she is a cook getting ready to prepare a favorite dish (such as popcorn, a sandwich, pizza) and think about: What ingredients would you need? How would you make it? What would you do first, next?

Provide students with a gallery of artworks. Each student selects an artwork, looks closely at all the details and writes a “recipe” for how he/she thinks the artist made this artwork. Provide instructions:
• Begin by listing the materials (ingredients) you would need.
• Then list set-by-step directions for making it.

After completing art recipes, students share them along with images of all the artworks that were used. Have the class guess which work of art they are describing.
Note: the resulting “recipes” may or may not actually describe how the artwork was made. This does not matter. The objective is to have the students notice the details in the artwork and use them in the writing.

Try this activity in your classroom and you’ll see that using art for writing is part of the recipe for success!