If you teach writing at the elementary level, you’ve probably read quite a few student-written “bed-to-bed” narrative stories. You know the ones — they begin with the student waking up, list the events that happened throughout the day, and conclude with the student going to sleep. It is simply a boring list of events, leaving the reader unenlightened. Not only is the focus of this type of story unclear, it has content that is far from developed. Today, we will discuss adding details to writing with Degas.
Helping students develop content for their narrative writing can be challenging. If we ask students to write more, they may continue to add events from the already-too-big topic of their entire day. As they add events, they fail to explain or describe because they are focusing on the big picture. Even after teaching multiple lessons on how to narrow a focus and how to add details, it didn’t click for some of my students until I brought in a masterpiece. While mentor texts are tremendously helpful for students, the masterpiece that helped us the most was not by an author but was by master artist Edgar Degas.
We began by viewing the painting “The Dance Class” (1874) by Degas. I chose this painting because there is a lot going on in the scene. I love this quote from the New York Times: “Even if you’ve been looking at Degas ballet pictures for decades, it remains astonishing how few of his dancers are actually dancing. The rest are stretching, adjusting ribbons and costumes, waiting in the wings, resting, gossiping or watching what performing there is.”
Students participated in a close read of the painting using the See, Think, Wonder strategy. This allowed the students to carefully observe the painting, noticing many details and generating questions and predictions about what was occurring during this dance class.
After the discussion, I shared a non-example paragraph that described the painting without elaborating on any details, and students agreed that this paragraph did not begin to capture everything that was going on in the painting. They also agreed that if we wrote about everything, it would be overwhelming for the writer, and it might be too long to keep the reader interested.
To help narrow our topic, we chose to “zoom in” on the man standing with the cane. We worked together to prewrite a paragraph about this man, listing our ideas of who he was, what he was thinking, how he was feeling, and what might have been happening at this moment in time. After we started together, students continued their paragraphs independently. I encouraged them to write a much as they could to describe that small part of the painting. Once students were finished they shared their work with partners. They found it interesting that the stories differed so much considering we were all writing about the same topic.
Students repeated this process with a partner, zooming in on a new focus within the painting, and finally, they tried it independently. Once student understood the concept of focusing on a small moment and elaborating, they could apply it to writing original narratives.
The arts integration lesson also gave us a common language when discussing writing with Degas. If a student is writing about a too-big topic, I remind him that he wrote about the “whole painting”. The students can visualize what it means to zoom in on one part of their story by thinking of it like a painting. Each time the students focused in on a different feature of the painting, they were going deeper into their observation and wonder of the work of art, and each time, they were stretching their writing with Degas skills. It was the perfect natural connection to help my students become better writers while developing their ability to view and appreciate fine art like writing with Degas.
Resources For Adding Details to Writing with Degas
Degas’s Ballet Students Teach the Lessons of Their Art, New York Times, Sept. 2, 2008
Art Analysis with Degas Lesson Plan