Art as Argument

By Jessica Salfia

Understanding visual rhetoric is not just an important part of most AP Language and Composition curriculums, but it is an essential skill our students need as members of society. We are bombarded with images—images intended to persuade and influence us. Our students must be able to identify the arguments and claims in both text and images.

I have been crafting visual analysis lessons and units in my classroom for several years, and I have written about the importance of cultivating visual analysis skills for the WVCTE blog before. You can read that post here.

These lessons have taken the shape of a unit in my AP Lang class called “the Argument for Art” that culminates in trip to the National Gallery of Art and a research analysis essay modeled after the essay “The Capricious Camera” by Laila Ayad. Recently, several teachers have reached out asking about some of these activities, so for today’s post, here is an overview of this unit:

Introduction: Appalachian Studies Unit

My students are introduced to images as argument early in the year in our Appalachian Studies unit. Besides numerous written texts, we study several visual texts that complicate and disrupt the single story of Appalachia. We discuss how the Looking at Appalachia project complicates and disrupt the single story of our region. This project was in reaction to the “war on poverty” photos that have become representative of our region.  Karla Hilliard has written about how she uses Looking at Appalachia in her classroom for the WVCTE blog, and you can read that post here.  We analyze how the photography of Builder Levy complicates the idea that the West Virginia coal fields were populated by a white, homogenous workforce, and we study the Appalshop documentary, Sludge, as a visual essay. We then read the illustrated novel, Trampoline, by Robert Gipe and discuss the way Gipe uses his text and his illustrations to create a complete idea or argument.

After this unit, students are primed for Art as Argument.

Day 1-4 Edward Hopper and Joyce Carol Oates

We begin with a painting by Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942.


Students spend a day analyzing and discussing the painting, and then read the poem Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942 by Joyce Carol Oates. We talk about if we think Oates’ analysis is accurate, and we discuss what visual elements led her to those conclusions. Then, students choose another painting by Hopper, and write a poem using Oates’ poem as a mentor text. This specific lesson is detailed in this blog post with handouts included.

Days 5-8 The Capricious Camera

Next, we read, analyze, and annotate the essay, “The Capricious Camera” by Laila Ayad. In this essay, Ayad analyzes  a black and white photo from World War II captioned, “Mounted Nazi Troops on the Lookout for Likely Polish Children.” See the photo below:

capricious camera

Ayad’s essay is an excellent model for visual analysis, but also for how to use research and source material to support your claims. I start with asking my students “What do you notice about the author’s interpretation of the photo? And what do you notice about how research impacted the analysis?” After discussing in small Socratic groups and as a whole class, I tell the class that this essay will serve as their mentor text for their own analysis of an artwork.

(This essay can be found in the ninth edition of the Bedford Reader, but can be a bit tough to locate online. Here is a PDF copy: capricious_camera_essay copy)

Days 9-13: Bansky Does New York

Next, we look at how art of all kinds, not just photography can function rhetorically by watching and discussing the documentary, Bansky Does New York. This documentary focuses on a 31 day self-proclaimed residency and pop-up project that occurred in and around New York City in October of 2013.

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 1.26.59 PM

From the description:

On October 1, 2013, the elusive British street artist known as Banksy launched a self-proclaimed month-long residency in New York City, posting one unique exhibit a day in an unannounced location, sparking a 31-day scavenger hunt both online and on the streets for Banksy’s work.

Capturing this month of madness, Banksy Does New York incorporates user-generated content, from YouTube videos to Instagram photos, from New Yorkers and Banksy hunters alike, whose responses became part of the work itself, for an exhilarating, detailed account of the uproar created by the mysterious artist.

With installations spanning all five boroughs of New York City, and including a mix of stencil graffiti, sculpture, video and performance art, Banksy touched on such wide-ranging subjects as fast-food wages, animal cruelty in the meat industry, civilian casualties in Iraq and the hypocrisy of the modern art world. Daily News reporter Beth Stebner, who covered Banksy’s residency, was struck by the wide array of people drawn to his work, noting, “You had art students, you had plumbers, you had gallery owners. It just brought New Yorkers out.”

The film is wonderful because of all the art analysis, but also because the focus is how Bansky’s work is functioning rhetorically. In the final moments of the documentary, Banksy’s voice over can be heard saying, “The artist asserts…” We try to hone in on the rhetorical elements of Bansky’s project and what he was arguing with the project.

Day 14: National Gallery of Art

The students are ready now to pick out a piece of art to analyze. I give them this handout which details due dates and expectations for the final paper of this unit:

Art Analysis Paper Task Sheet

I live in a place where we can take a 2hr train ride to D.C. and visit the National Gallery of Art, but this part of the project could easily be done at a local small scale museum or gallery, or even online with a webquest or a digital museum tour.

However, one of the most special days of the year with my students is when we get out of the classroom, and set off to explore the museum together. It’s a great community building and bonding experience, and one of the most memorable parts of the course.

Their goal(s) of the day is to pick a piece of art they see functioning as an argument, but also to have a lot of fun. (And I may have given them the challenge of “find a piece of art that looks like you”. Here are some hilarious kids from this year’s trip.)

Days 15-21 (or longer): The Paper

The final product of this unit is a research essay in which the student analyzes the piece of art they have selected on our trip. Again, The Capricious Camera is their mentor text for this assignment. We take this paper through the whole writing process. The final product is a 4-6 page research essay, and I also use this assignment as an opportunity to shore up my students knowledge of MLA formatting, in-text citations, and embedding figures into a paper.


This unit produces some of the most thoughtful analysis and conversations about rhetoric and language of the year, and definitely produces some of the best student writing I get to score. For most students, this paper is always one they select as one of their best pieces of writing and this unit as one of their favorite assignments when we do end of course evaluations.

Do you use art and visual rhetorical in your classroom? Share with us how!

WVCTE is wondering….

How do you incorporate visual analysis into your ELA curriculum? How does art play a role in how you teach English? Message us and let us know, or share with us on Facebook or Twitter!

3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

“When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.”

Here are 3 tips for using the literature you’re already studying to guide your writers. @ncte #nctevillage

By Karla Hilliard

*This post originally appeared on Moving Writers. See the original post here and make sure to follow this INCREDIBLE blog for effective writing strategies for your classroom. 

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response. 
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied: 

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.


He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…” 

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature. 

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice? 

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes. 

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another. 

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own. 

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out. 

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 


Here they are reading like WRITERS.


Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing. 

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals. 

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.morethan unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere. 

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 









How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter@karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook! 


Metaphorically Speaking

Me: “Today we are going to talk about poetry! Who’s excited?”

Every class I’ve ever had: *crickets*

I’m not sure about your students, but mine don’t love poetry.  A few years ago, when we switched to the standards which shall not be named and our focus shifted to informational text, I saw a downward trend in the ability of my students to “attack” a poem.  For a lot of them, even my advanced kids, poetry is challenging and really makes them think.  My students, especially the ones who are used to breezing through with good grades, hate being wrong!  They hate doing work that can be subjective and more open to interpretation.  When the work is more gray than black and white, my students tend to express their vulnerability through negative comments and closing themselves off from peer-to-peer or teacher-to-student interaction.

For years, I’ve taught my students the TP-CASTT method of poetry analysis as one way to attack a poem.  It’s formulaic, but for students who shudder at the mere mention of the word poetry (think of the hyena in The Lion King who shudders at the word “Mufasa”), it provides an icebreaker.


TP-CASTT is an acronym for a method of poetry analysis:

T – Title – Before reading the poem, read the title and consider what the poem might be about.

P – Paraphrase – Put the plot of the poem into your own words.

C – Connotation – Mark the figurative language in the poem.

A – Attitude – Identify the tone(s) within the poem.

S – Shift – Identify any shifts within the poem.

T – Title (again) – Re-examine the title on an interpretive level.

T – Theme – Identify the possible theme(s) of the poem.

For the most part, I can anticipate that students will struggle most with tone and theme when we’re working with poems, but occasionally the figurative language struggle is real!  This has been one of those years.

As my students were working with Plath’s “Mirror,” I realized that a review of simile and metaphor was needed.  While students could rattle off the definitions of the terms, and they could even identify them in the poem, they struggled understanding the metaphor because they were struggling with the context.  When my students came to class the next day, we paused our study of “Mirror” and instead focused just on metaphors through what I like to call an “arts and crafts day.”

As they entered the classroom, each student received a blank piece of printer paper and an index card with a one-line metaphor.  Some of the metaphors I borrowed from other poems or song lyrics: “Hope is the thing with feathers…” and “my heart is a stereo…,” for example.  Others I made up: “Bill is the bacon in my BLT…” and “she is a prime number” were two of my favorites.  My students were challenged to write a poem that included the metaphor and provided context and meaning for it.  Once their poems were drafted, they wrote their final versions on the printer paper and illustrated it to add to the context of the poem.

Xwn770WvQjanv56C54OdMQ        gcQv1pwZRM2ghw4GHmilfQ

9G%Sd+QVRR+K3M1bE7w     xPABCcdvQuGdSwEkUqdrFQ


Once students were asked to create context and meaning for a metaphor, they were able to apply that skill to a reading a “Mirror” and were able to apply metaphor to theme.

I don’t know that I’m ever going to have a classroom full of students who sit and read poetry for fun, but as their knowledge and skills grow and develop, they are less reluctant to interact with a poem.  At the end of the day, I want my classroom to be full of chattering students rather than chirping crickets (metaphorically speaking).


WVCTE is wondering how you engage your students with poetry.  What are the biggest obstacles to understanding and student engagement?  What is your favorite poetry lesson?



Book Clubs and Replicating Experimental Theory

Teaching well means being willing to experiment and then analyze the results. How did the Kittle/Gallagher model of book clubs work for me? Read on, dear reader.

By Adrin Fisher

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is The Big Bang Theory.  I especially love the episodes featuring Beverly Hofstadter, Leonard’s mother, who is a persnickety and emotionally distant neuroscientist.  In Season 2, Episode 15, Leonard, an experimental physicist, has invited his mother to visit his lab at Cal Tech.

Leonard: I think you’ll find my work pretty interesting.  I’m attempting to replicate the dark matter signal found in sodium iodide crystals by the Italians.

Beverly:  So, no original research?

Leonard:  No.

Beverly:  Well, what’s the point of my seeing it?  I could just read the paper the Italians wrote.

Christine Baranski as Beverly Hofstadter <>

Of course, the short answer to Beverly’s snarky question is that replication is the way scientists check their work:  it proves validity, allows for the examination of variables, and inspires new research (  The same can be said in a classroom.  When a working teacher carves out the time to write a professional book, she must draw from years of experience—boots-on-the-ground research—to analyze and translate strategies, methods, content-based approaches, etc., into a digestible schema. 

For the past several years, I have facilitated a Professional Learning Community for my English department.  Recently, we’ve been focused on the work of Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle: Readicide, Book Love, and 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents.  Though I find the schema put forward in the most recent book particularly daunting in the sheer relentlessness demanded from its adherents, I—like Leonard—am interested in replicating results on my own terms.  After all, what’s the point of reading books about education unless it’s to be moved to personal change?

One of the ideas in the Kittle/Gallagher text is to use “book clubs” as a vehicle to expedite independent reading.  Now, when I was in high school, these were called literature circles, and they were guided by the teacher.  Kittle and Gallagher, however, advocate self-grouping and self-led discussions.  Students are expected to read independently, to record their thoughts, and to discuss with their book clubs. 

For my first attempt at the book club model, I followed many of their recommendations for my three sections of 10th grade Honors English.  I put the kids into groups and created a meeting schedule with assigned sets of chapters due each week for a month.  I provided a “thought log” guide called “Track Your Thinking” (found in Chapter 3 of 180 Days) that includes basic question prompts and sentence stems. I asked the students to write one page per about 25 pages of text.  I collected the logs, and showed students strong written responses from their class under the document camera:  consequently, the logs improved on the second round.  I walked the whole meeting period, listening to each group—answering and asking questions.  Twice, I asked students to reflect on the book club process in writing.

Here’s what I varied from the guidelines in Chapter 3 of 180 Days:  I chose a whole-class independent read and I created blended high-medium-low groups.  In addition, I did not take the time to do recommended mini-lessons on how to build on what someone has said in a conversation.

And here’s what I found:

Observation:  Many groups rushed through a retelling of the plot and didn’t get any deeper.

Student comments: “My group needed more prompting for the discussion.” Z.B.  “This process is good, but it can be hard to find things to discuss…The responses didn’t help.” S.K.  “What I wrote was never relevant to the conversation we had in class.” Z.B.

Analysis:  Most of the conversations that I overheard during the first two weeks were boring.  This tells me that some students didn’t connect with this novel on a deeper level; and it may also speak to a lack of preparation.  Some groups didn’t use their thought logs to guide their discussion.

But also: On the other hand, one group fixated on the color red in the novel, and worked together to analyze color symbolism.  That’s pretty good, and it was organic.

Observation:  The social aspect was positive…until it wasn’t.

Student comments: “It helped me understand the book more.  It helped to explain concepts I missed while reading.” J.M.  “Everyone had sort of different interpretations of the passage and it was fun to get a look at someone else’s thoughts.” C.G. “Talking/listening…helps me process.” E.B.

Analysis:  Bottom line, kids like to talk to each other.  Lots of research has shown that the social aspect of learning in a classroom is valuable.  But the supervision of discussions in five different groups at once is a challenge, especially when kids “finish” their academic conversations and switch to other topics. 

But also:  My main instructional mode is whole group discussion, which is a whole lot easier to manage.

Our first Book Club meeting, 2nd period

Observation: The groups with slackers—both in reading and in conversing—suffered.

Student comments: “I was one of the select few in my group that did anything.” C.D. “We must better disburse the extroverts!” E.H. “It’s not as effective if not everyone in the group did the work.” K.M.

Analysis: This is obviously a problem across teaching. Kittle is adamantly opposed to quizzes as a motivation to have students read, but Gallagher says quizzes are good—so even the experts are divided.  Maybe a self-selected title would improve student participation, but there are limits.  I have to provide books for my students that I’ve read and they have to have value and literary merit and relate to a theme and bolster skills and be useful for future AP tests, and I need to organize groups of kids reading the same book—it can’t be a free-for-all.

But also: When I solve this one, I’ll write my own teacher book.

Overall, I’d say my first experience trying the Kittle/Gallagher book club model was a mixed bag.  It wasn’t a loss, but my experiment certainly didn’t live up to the hype in 180 Days.  My kids did not shake the earth’s foundations with keen analysis and sparkling conversation; in fact, a couple of them didn’t even read the whole novel.

Perhaps it was because I adjusted the variables in my trial run.  Perhaps it was because I run my school’s after-school Book Club and, well, it’s the same name but different expectations.  Perhaps the book wasn’t hard enough, easy enough, engaging enough, funny enough, controversial enough, modern enough. Perhaps I expect too much.

Regardless, I’m already planning the second round, slated to begin in two weeks.  We’ll self-select.  We’ll try a little more direction in discussion prompts.  We’ll spot check the thinking logs instead of trying to read all 60 of them word-for-word four times. 

Regardless, I’ll be up all night every weekend re-reading all five novels for this one prep. 

Regardless, this is the way we check our work.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation.  What’s your experience with student-directed book clubs?  What’s your most recent professional read?  Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not stressing about her planning calendars, encouraging and supporting her colleagues or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, ogling spring blossoms, or taking notes on life in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

The Lit Letter: Simple & Effective

The Lit Letter is a simple and effective lesson that strengthens student voice and analysis.

By Karla Hilliard

If you’ve ever received a hand-written letter, you know both the power and simplicity of a person putting pen to paper. My maw-maw was a genius note writer, and I received many from her over the years—notes of encouragement, letters explaining the twenty she’d tucked away in the card, often-requested recipes, brief explanations, a simple hello. Her brief and thoughtful notes accumulated over the years. They meant so much to me that I now have a tattoo with a bit of my grandmother’s handwriting.

Just recently, my dad received a typed letter in the mail from an old friend from high school. He was moved by it—by the expression of the typed word on a page. It was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished through email or messenger, but the time, effort, and thought it took for his friend to sit down, type out a letter word-processor style, print-fold-and-mail it—well, that required something beyond the convienence of our contemporary forms. That sentiment was not lost on my dad. He paid his friend a visit not long after, and according to my dad, he and his old pal talked for hours. The power of a letter.

One of my favorite and most effective lessons in AP Literature isn’t really much of a lesson at all. It’s a call for a hand-written letter. One of my primary goals in AP Lit is to help students develop their own authentic voices in writing. It is an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding endeavor helping a student’s voice to take root and bloom. I’ve found that for these students, most of the time, all I have to do is nourish it.

Just before Mary Oliver’s death, I had experienced a staggering loss in my own life. Like many of you, throughout my life, I have turned to Mary Oliver. To her wisdom, to her simple and profound look at Life.

So I turned to this assignment as well. I turned to a few poems I love, to a form that I love, for these students I love. I gave my students this lit letter task sheet where I write a letter to them, asking them to read and think through three poems. I ask them to encounter the poems as people instead of students in a literature course. That is, to borrow a line from E.E. Cummings, “since feeling is first,” I want students to look to poetry, not at it; explore what surfaces, not mine for it; talk to me about poetry, not at me.

Because the new year was fresh, I asked students to read “At the New Year” by Kenneth Patchen, “Rain, New Years Eve” by Maggie Smith, and “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.

Not only were the results beautiful, but what students wrote in their (what we have fondly come to call) lit letters was some of the smartest analysis I’d seen all year. And I think that’s for a couple of reasons. For starters, the letter provides a safety net for idea exploration. How do you fail at letter writing? Second, and as important, I heard students voices—saw them reach beyond their obligatory “The writer uses x to accomplish y” sentences. I believe the letter provides and enables authenticity in voice to emerge. And I’m in this business for sentences like the ones in these student models…

I hope you’ll find use for this very simple, effective assignment in your classroom with your students. After all, “the world offers itself to [their] imagination”.


We’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections and how this assignment goes in your classroom! Tweet us or connect with us on Facebook @WVCTE or connect with Karla on Twitter @karlahilliard.