Dyan Branstetter | September 2015

Expanding Sentences with Seurat

I love using the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by Georges Seurat. It is a surefire way to engage students– show them the print, and they are moderately interested. Explain the technique of pointillism and how it was used by Seurat, and they are hooked. I was excited to stumble upon a writing lesson using this work of art when searching on TeachersPayTeachers.

Some of my students were struggling with expanding sentences. Very few of them were taking risks with their sentences; frequently writing relatively monotonous sentences that were similar in structure. The lesson I found, written by Bruce Stewart of Everett, Washington, uses Seurat’s art to teach the skill of expanding sentences to create meaning and imagery. It is geared towards 4th – 8th grades, but I found it easy to adapt for my needs as a 3rd grade teacher, and the concept can be used with many other works of art. Find his lesson here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Expanding-Sentences-Lesson-Plan-Grades-4-through-8-1548300

Here is an outline of how I taught the lesson:

  1. While projecting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, write the sentence, “A dog ran.” on the board.
  2. Ask the following questions, and record student responses:
    1. What kind of dog? Sample response: Terrier, black, small
    2. Where did the dog run? Sample response: In the park
    3. How did the dog run? Sample response: hurriedly or playfully
    4. Why did the dog run? Sample response: for fun
    5. When did the dog run? Sample response: In the afternoon

Example: A small black terrier ran playfully in the park on a sunny afternoon.

  1. Ask students to compare the original sentence and the final sentence, and invite students to share their opinion on which sentence is more interesting, with obvious results. I explicitly state that this is called “expanding a sentence”.

This is a new skill for 3rd graders, so it takes a lot of scaffolding to have students transfer the technique into their own written work. Therefore, I incorporate it as a practice activity, or sometimes as a warm up, using simple sentences about the art, such as A man rested, A couple walked, or A woman stood. Once students see the pattern, they can participate by coming up with a simple sentence for the class to expand, or it can be changed to a partner activity instead of whole group instruction. Not only does this allow students to improve their writing, but they also notice more details in the artwork itself. Eventually, this activity can become a station students complete independently with any work of art that lends itself to this technique.

If you don’t teach writing, there are many other ways to bring Seurat into your classroom. To make this a STEAM project, check out the video series linked below. It gives a background on Seurat and also explains the science behind pointillism. Nate Heck, the producer and host of these videos, is like the Bill Nye the Science Guy for art! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9DX5MhkfYQ. Oh, the possibilities!!

Find the artwork here: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/27992

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–1886, oil on canvas, 207.5 × 308.1 cm, Art Institute of Chicago

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.