Geography with Flannery O’Connor

The American South is a region with particular customs, geography, and dialect. These specifics of setting have influenced the writing of many a southern writer, but none more so than Flannery O’Connor.Image

Even the opening lines of her iconic and chilling masterpiece, A Good Man is Hard to Find, reveal its setting: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.” (The Complete Stories, p. 117)

O’Connor’s geography also informs her metaphors. She speaks of a young woman “whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on top like a rabbit’s ears.” (p. 117)

Sometimes she is more direct: “[The grandmother] pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground.” (p. 119)

Lesson Plan: Introduce an O’Connor story without giving details about her background. Ask students to collect clues about the geographical setting from the story, considering: desciptions of the land, political references, metaphors, race relations, food, or dialect.


Rewrite with Van Gogh

The new van Gogh “Repetitions” exhibit at The Phillips Collection brings to mind one of the most important tools for painters and writers alike: the rewrite. Van Gogh’s repetitions are rare in the art world, because each “repetition” is a fully formed masterpiece.


Road Menders, The Phillips Collection

These “repetitions” are works that writers can learn from. There was an age, from the invention of the printing press until the rise of the personal computer, when writers needed to worry about perfection – even in a first draft. They didn’t have the freedom to write and rewrite as we can now.

However, even with this modern convenience, students still agonize over a first sentence. They try to form the paper in their minds completely before plunking out even a single letter. Of course, we are all susceptible to this kind of perfectionism. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to conceive of a complex argument, complete with introduction and conclusion – before even choosing a font?


Large Plane Trees, Cleveland Museum of Art

Perhaps we can learn something from van Gogh. He saw the merit in painting and repainting the very same subject. This is a wonderfully scientific approach. He maintained a constant: the subject matter, while varying only small aspects of his approach: commitment, viewpoint, and characterization.

Van Gogh’s commitment to the work seems to grow from draft to draft. The first of two works was often more cursory, and seemed to have been completed in haste. By the second time, the brushstrokes were more finished and the lines stronger. Similarly, in the second draft of a paper, we become more confident in our ideas.

Van Gogh’s viewpoint was also revised from version to version. He changed his angle slightly to find a more interesting or compelling standpoint. This happens in writing as well. We may begin a paper thinking that we feel one way about the topic, only to discover midway through the project that our views are, in fact, quite different. In fiction writing, we may likewise begin a story focusing on a certain character, only to find that the true hero is operating in the wings.

A similar shift characterized the collecting of The Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips. He eschewed, even criticized, modern art – until he began to collect it voraciously. He wisely defended this about face, explaining: “Consistency is at best a stiff-necked virtue.

Learning to Leap

At the Washington Ballet open house this weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend an open rehearsal of La Vie en Rose, a new production inspired by French art-song and cabaret.


IMAGE: @TWBallet
The dance was a mad blast of energy. One vignette included three dancers who created a multitude of shapes with dizzying speed and electric precision.

As the rehearsal progressed from a warm-up to a full recital set to music, I was struck by how self-directed, engaged, and friendly all the dancers were.

As visitors filed into the rehearsal room, the dancers were already busy warming up. Some worked alone at the barre, doing pliés and jumps. Others were stretching together. A lead dancer demonstrated a move to her colleagues.

When Artistic Director Septime Webre called the dancers forward, they immediately drew their attention to the music, their steps, and each other. Every ounce of energy was focused on the task at hand. At one point, one of the dancers even had to alert Webre because his heart rate was getting too high!

There was also a beautiful camaraderie among the dancers. All the dancers seemed to be good friends – no doubt forged from many late hours working together on their art. I’m sure they compete for many of the same roles in the ballet, but they clearly respect and honor each other.

These are skills that dancers are taught from the beginning. In rehearsals, dance students are part of the group, but they are monitoring their own progress. These are skills learned outside of school, but which translate well to the classroom, and will serve the dancers in all they do.

Develop Characters with Renoir

The Luncheon of the Boating Party (TPC) is a dynamic work that possesses every possible social interaction. Pastoral dwellers pass the time with Parisians while politicians parley with poets. This picture affords wonderful opportunities to discuss character types.

Imagine that this picture represents a scene in a novel. Who is the main character, and what is their story?


Luncheon of the Boating Party, Auguste Renoir, The Phillips Collection

Try to identify the dynamic and static characters.  Who would the main character’s foil be? 

You might also draw inspiration from the true identities of those pictured.  Each person represents someone in Renoir’s circle.  Visit this page at The Phillips Collection website to learn more.

Ignite Interest in Learning

Have you ever asked a student to write about a topic of their interest only to get back a paper about the recent hot topic, news item, or fashionable cause?  Have you been asked to tell a bit about yourself only to find yourself giving generic information that could be true of anyone? 

 ImageA student’s true areas of interest are closely tied to strong emotions and memories.  Assignments that draw upon personal interests tap into a student’s motivation and sense of self, thereby enabling meaningful and lasting learning.  At the same time, many students avoid these areas and choose to write about something that has little meaning for them. 

Indeed, many students hear the word “interest” and think into the future, considering who they will – or should – become.

True interests are those that students have discovered and pursued on their own.  For example: sports, music, dance, hobbies, languages, and social activities.  As many teachers know, it is often difficult to convince students to talk about these loves. 

As teachers, we can help students to tie their areas of interest into their academics:

  • Use student and parent conferences to identify areas of interest and brainstorm assignment topics.
  • Have students compose resumes, and create assignments based on their experiences.
  • Ask students to provide a rationale for their topic choices, linking them to an activity they are involved in or a goal they hope to achieve.

Of course, one-on-one work affords many opportunities to draw upon student interests.  However, these interests can also be recognized in a classroom.  It only takes one meaningful assignment to help draw students into their schoolwork!

Michelle Kwan discusses balancing school and athletics.

Look to Write


This exercise is included in Looking to Write, Writing to Look, a teaching kit developed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Division of Education.  

Tina Modotti, Woman of Tehuantepec, c. 1929

 Let’s Look:

 What shapes and patterns do you see in this photograph?

From what angle was this photograph taken? How does that affect the picture?

 Let’s Look Again:

 What might this woman be thinking and feeling? What makes you say that?

Imagine the rest of the scene around the woman. What is her story? 

Artful Vocab


First, choose a few words that describe the picture: poise, shadow, cheerful.  Using, find several new words that have similar meanings:

POISE: aplomb, deft, equanimity, serenity, tranquility

SHADOW: penumbra, obscurity, eclipse (v.), veil (v.), obfuscate, murky

CHEERFUL: winsome, effervescent, jaunty, vivacious, sanguine

(Test makers love to throw in verbs typically used as nouns.  For example: eclipse and veil, above.)

Now you can describe the picture in several sentences, making use of your extended vocabulary!

1. The vivacious dancer springs from the obscurity of the shadows with one deft leap.

2. The serenity of the murky corners of the dance studio was soon plucked away by the sanguine scuttling of a thousand toe shoes.


Visual Thinking Strategies and the SAT


Click the picture to view a video about VTS programs at the Boston MFA

As a graduate intern at The Phillips Collection, I was introduced to Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a method for drawing out discussions about art.  The method consists of three simple questions that ask viewers to discuss what they see and what they think it means.  

While there is no visual analysis section on the SAT, many skills employed in VTS carry over to the test.  Critical thinking skills are employed in discussions about visual art.  In fact, you would be surprised how contentious these discussions can be!

Each of the three questions asked of visitors in VTS employ skills found in the Verbal section of the SAT:

VTS Question #1 What is going on in this picture?

SAT Verbal question type: meaning

‘Meaning’ questions ask about the overall meaning conveyed by a passage.  In VTS discussions, viewers uncover the meaning of a work by talking about what they see.

VTS Question #2 What do you see that makes you say that?

SAT Verbal question type: function

‘Function’ questions ask students to examine a piece of information, quote, or paragraph and analyze the function it performs in the passage.  In VTS discussions, viewers are asked to examine their initial statements about a work of art and identify specific visual elements that contributed to their interpretations.

VTS Questions #3 What more can we find?

SAT Verbal question type: detail

‘Detail’ questions ask students to scour the passage for the specifics that drive its meaning. In VTS discussions, viewers are asked to take a second look to find elements of the picture not noticed at first glance.  You would be surprised by how much you miss! 

As a teacher in the video above mentions, VTS also helps students to realize that there can be many perspectives about the same issue.  This skill is helpful in the SAT, where students are asked to identify the author’s viewpoint.

This whimsical performance from a two-person horse was choreographed by Léonide Massine, with set and costumes by Pablo Picasso.

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