Eyes-On Thinking

I had long known that roughly 65 percent of my students were visual learners. Still, for way too many years, I asked them to think mostly about words, not images. It was Kaylene who finally pointed the way for me. With Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” spread before us, we had discussed how Frost shows two different paths, each path representing a different decision. By placing these paths beside each other, Frost shows you can’t have it both ways.

“This is juxtaposition,” I told the class. ”Two unlike things or ideas bumped right up against each other.”

But Kaylene, who probably had half her mind on that night’s volleyball game, still looked mystified.

Stumped on how to help Kaylene, I paused. And in that instant, I noticed the Van Gogh poster I had hung on the wall.

“Look at Starry Night, Kaylene,” I said. “You see how the big sky comes right down to the earth? Why did Van Gogh bump them right up against each other like that?”

Kaylene edged up in her seat.

“I get it,” she said. “That wild sky smacks that puny town right into place.”

“And that’s a juxtaposition,” I said.

“Get with your talking partner,” I told the class. “Find other ways Van Gogh painted opposite things together to make each one stand out more.”

Van Gogh kept helping me teach. We found hyperbole in Starry Night with Van Gogh’s exaggerated brushstrokes, foreshadowing in the creepy cyprus that looms over the drowsy town, and tone in his rough bold painting style. Van Gogh made ideas visible. We could see them up there on the wall. Seeing Van Gogh’s ideas, helped visual learners like Kaylene to take these concepts back into literature.

Talking about art, I could tell, helped students externalize their thoughts, become more confident in their thinking. And even the students seemed to notice. One day I found a gift box on my desk. I lifted out a replica of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.

Rodin shows in this sculpture how hard thinking really is. Rodin’s thinker knits his brow, distends his nostrils, compresses his lips, and clenches his fists. Taped to the sculpture was a note: Thanks, Mrs. Swartz, for helping us think.

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