Painting Poetry: Using Visual Representation as a Response to Literature


Interpreting a poem using visual representation encourages students to think critically about what a poet is trying to say and the means he or she uses to convey these ideas. It also helps students better understand their own beliefs about a poem. As students create visual art and then write interpretations of the completed pieces, they enter into a relationship with the poem and construct meaningful connections by integrating personal experience, language, writing, reading, and creativity.

From Theory to Practice

Bustle, L.S. (2004). The role of visual representation in the assessment of learning. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47(5), 416–423.

- Creating visual representations in response to curriculum content connects students to subject matter and deepens their understanding of it. However, recent emphasis on traditional approaches to reading and writing means that visual modes of content area interpretation are not often used as teaching tools.

- As students move into the older grades, right at the moment when they are becoming more critical and frequent consumers of mass media, their participation in visual forms of literacy decreases in their classrooms.

- Visual representations are a powerful form of communication and students must be challenged to think critically about the role of images in their lives, as well as their ability to use images to construct meaning.

- Teachers need to explore new ways of using visual representation in the classroom, and look at ways they can incorporate student visual representations into their assessment and evaluation practices.

Student Objectives

Students will

- Identify the components of a poem, including the poet's strategies and techniques

- Visually interpret their emotional and critical response to a poem

- Demonstrate comprehension by writing an explication of their artwork

- Analyze and compare their artwork with that of other students in the class

Instructional Plan


1. You may want to work on this lesson with your school's art instructor. He or she will have a definition of the term "mixed media" that you can use with your class and may have suggestions about the kind of guidance you might give students when they are preparing to create their artwork. You might ask him or her to coteach one or more of the sessions.

2. Assemble your paper, paint, and mixed-media art supplies. (Again, you may do this with the help of the art instructor.) These can include, but are not limited to, ribbon, magazines, glue, scissors, paper scraps, bottle caps, cellophane, feathers, sand, toothpicks, and crayons.

3. Transcribe the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams onto chart paper.

4. Visit On "The Red Wheelbarrow" and William Carlos Williams to help you prepare background and interpretive materials about William Carlos Williams and the poem. These will be for your own use in discussions with the students. You may also want to prepare your own answers to the questions in Session 1 (step 3). (The websites provide some help in answering them.)

5. Visit Eyes on Art and familiarize yourself with the ArtSpeak 101 activity. It provides instructions on how to look at paintings and interpret them using key art terms, which are introduced in a Visual Glossary.

Give students time to work on this online activity individually or in small groups prior to the lesson. It will give them language they can use for the written response at the end of the lesson. You might also want to have a class discussion about what they learned from the online activity prior to beginning this lesson.

Instruction and Activities

Session 1

1. Introduce the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" to students. Conduct a choral reading of the poem by assigning each of the four sections of the poem to different volunteer readers.

2. Provide background about the poem for students. Explain that William Carlos Williams deliberately chose everyday subjects that his readers would be familiar with because he wanted his poems to be both accessible and meaningful. Ask students to look at the structure of the poem—it is a single sentence broken into parts. Emphasize that because the poem is so short, the poet had to choose his words and description very carefully in order to create an image.

3. Ask for student responses to the poem. Some suggested questions are as follows:

What do you think this poem is about?

Why do you think Williams chose to use one simple sentence?

What does the poet mean by "so much depends upon?"

What do you imagine when you hear the words "glazed with rain water?"

Where would you expect to see a wheelbarrow?

Is a wheelbarrow an image from nature? What about chickens?

Why do you think the wheelbarrow is red?

What do you think the light in this image is like?

What does this poem remind you of?

What do you picture in your imagination in response to this poem?

You might write some of the student responses on the board or on chart paper that you leave up for the duration of the lesson.

4. Explain that students will each be creating an original piece of artwork based on his or her interpretations of the poem. Emphasize that they are to create the image as they see it, not how they imagine the poet or one of their peers would create it. Tell students that when the pictures are completed, they will be asked to explain in writing the reasons behind the imagery they created in response to the poem.

5. Talk about the term "mixed media" and tell students that although they will be using paints, they can also choose from a variety of additional art materials to create their pictures of the poem. If you are working with the art instructor, he or she may wish to provide students with some definitions or examples of mixed-media work.

6. Before students begin their artwork, discuss some questions they might think about while they create. For example:

Will the wheelbarrow in your picture be larger than usual or smaller? Will there even be a wheelbarrow?

Will there be anything in the wheelbarrow? If so, what?

What will the background be? Will it be the country, a city, or just space?

Will they use colors that are not in the poem or only those that are mentioned?

7. Once discussion is complete, students can begin working on their visual representations.

Session 2

Note: You and the art instructor may agree to coteach this session; he or she can do the same kind of observing and may also have some helpful suggestions for students.

1. Allow students to continue work on their mixed-media responses.

2. Move around the classroom and talk with students about their pictures as they work. Give them opportunities to explain why they are using certain materials and images. You may find it helpful to direct their attention to the questions you posed in Session 1.

3. As students finish their visual representations, instruct them to write paragraphs explaining their use of materials and images in relation to the poem. Questions for them to consider in writing their paragraphs include:

Why did you use a particular material or color?

Why did you place objects in specific areas of your artwork?

Why did you use certain images?

What meaning did the poem convey to you and how did you represent that meaning in your artwork?

Did you interpret the poem at face value or did it symbolize something more to you?

4. Students who do not finish their visual representations or paragraphs should do so at home.

Session 3

1. Display students' mixed-media artwork and their interpretive paragraphs around the classroom. Ask students to briefly share the ideas behind their pictures, making connections between the poem and the images they used.

2. Give students the chance to walk around and look at each other's artwork. Tell them to take some notes on works they find especially compelling or those that are the most similar to or the most different from their own.

Session 4

1. Students' work should still be on display in the classroom.

2. Guide students through a discussion of the different perceptions they had of the poem. Have them compare and contrast their ideas and reflect on the diverse interpretations. If the interpretations are not particularly diverse, have students discuss this aspect of the lesson and why they think the pictures were so similar.


Have students write their own poems in the style of "The Red Wheelbarrow." Instruct them to compose one sentence with specific and descriptive word choice. Have them divide the sentence into three to four parts. You might ask students to share their poems and discuss them. Compile an anthology of the poems for students to take home.

You might also consider the ReadWriteThink lesson "Is a Sentence a Poem?" as an extension to this lesson.

Student Assessment/Reflections
Look at students' completed artwork and use your classroom observations to assess how much effort students put into their creations.

Check completed paragraphs for comprehension. Were students able to analyze their own work and explain their artistic choices? Were they successful at connecting their own visual representations back to the poem?

Observe student participation in both the pre- and postproject discussions. Did students understand the techniques and strategies Williams employed in the poem? Were they able to think critically about the works of art and draw connections between their own work and that of the other students in the class?

- Erin Lassiter
San Diego, California
Copyright 2002–2009, IRA/NCTE. All rights reserved.

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