Diego Rivera and Close Reading

Close reading is the new buzz word in our classrooms. It is traditionally associated with literacy, the close reading of text. But text can be many different things, not just a traditional book or article. Text can also be a painting, sculpture, piece of music or graphic. Close reading might be the new buzz word in our elementary classrooms but it is something we art and music teachers have been doing for decades.

Essentially, close reading means reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension. A good example of close reading in the art room is the lesson third graders just finished. They began this lesson with a close reading of the text of Diego Rivera’s labor murals in Detroit.

In close reading, there is a focus on observing and analyzing. The same questions that classroom teachers use to probe for deeper understanding in reading are the same questions we art teachers use as well. Remember, the text is the murals.

  • Who is speaking in the text?
  • Who seems to be the main audience? (To whom is the artist speaking?)
  • What is the first thing that jumps out at me? Why?
  • What’s the next thing I notice? Are these two things connected? How? Do they seem to be saying different things?
  • What seems important here? Why?
  • What does the artist mean by ______? What parts of the mural lead me to this meaning?
  • Is the artist trying to convince me of something? What? How do I know?
  • Is there something missing from this mural that I expected to find? Why might the artist have left this out?
  • Is there anything that could have been explained more thoroughly for greater clarity?
  • Is there a message or main idea? What in the text led me to this conclusion?
  • How does this painting fit into the murals as a whole?
  • What symbols are present? Why did the artist choose these symbols?
  • What images(s) stand out? Why? (typically vivid images, unusual choices, or a contrast to what a reader expects)
  • How do particular images get us to look at characters or events in a particular way? Do they evoke an emotion?
  • Are there any images that could have more than one meaning? Why might the artist have played with images in this way?
  • What one word describes the tone?
  • Does an image here remind you of an image elsewhere in the mural? Where? What’s the connection?
  • How might this image fit into the pattern of the mural as a whole?
  • Is there any repetition within the mural? What is the effect of that repetition?

The questioning could go on forever. Once the students get started in this line of questioning, they get really excited about it. I’m also very excited because students start to see the artwork in a whole new way!

After an in depth discussion prompted by the close reading of the text, students brainstormed what labor they see in their own communities.

From here, students got into groups depending on which labor group they wanted to focus on and started brainstorming the people in those groups. Who collects our garbage? Who grows our food? Who delivers our mail? Who fixes our pipes? Who builds the buildings? etc.

The next class, students started sketches of murals they would then create in groups inspired by labor in their own communities and Deigo Rivera’s murals.

Standards in this lesson:

Common Core Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1 Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.6 Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7 Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)

MMSD Social Studies Standards

Examine Madison’s history (i.e.energy, transportation, communication, art, architecture).
Recognize and interpret how the “common good” can be strengthened through various forms of citizen action.\

Describe the ways people participate in the community in order to provide goods and services whether through paid or volunteer activities.
Explain why people specialize in different occupations and describe how that specialization leads to increasing interdependence between producers and consumers in a community.
Recognize systems that are developed to meet specific community needs: government, transportation, education, communications.
Define a community as an interdependent group of people living and working together.
Demonstrates an ability to interact within a group while performing various group roles (i.e. organizing, planning, and goal setting).
Apply and practice skills of conflict resolution (persuasion, compromise, debate, and negotiation).

MMSD Art Standards

Identify the subject matter or story communicated through art.

Identify and use color, shapes, line, texture, and space in works of art.

Recognize and use previously introduced elements, media, techniques, and processes and will continue to expand their knowledge which includes:

1. Drawing as a planning tool for later use with a variety of media.
2. Drawing with contour line.
3. The techniques and processes of color mixing which include secondary colors
Describe artwork and will continue to develop this skill.
Participate in group discussions describing artwork.
Identify subject matter and feeling found in art. Identify the narrative qualities of artwork, i.e. cultural meaning and illustrations.
Create artwork with various subject matter, symbols, and emotional content.
View styles and techniques of a limited number of artists, and/or cultures past and present.
Start recognizing the principles of art in various art disciplines
Recognize endless relationships between visual arts and other
disciplines, i.e. Observation drawing – social studies, science Landscape painting – science, social studies
MMSD Social Emotional Standards
Students will work cooperatively with partner and in small groups.
Students will identify and practice strategies for resolving conflicts constructively.
Students will recognize that they have choices in how to respond to situations.

Dr. Evermor Fantastical Machines


This last lesson with the 4th graders while student teaching was a lesson that I designed and taught myself. We focused on one of my favorite Wisconsin artists, Tom Every, aka Dr. Evermor.
Many of you have probably seen some of his giant, metal bird sculptures on the roof of Madison’s Children’s Museum or on Patterson Street in between East Johnson Street and Williamson Street. A handful of the students even said that they have had a chance to visit his sculpture park, just South of Baraboo, WI.

Our first day, the students were given a picture of Dr. Evermor’s famous Forevertron sculpture, which happens to hold the Guiness World Record for largest scrap metal sculpture. I asked them to interpret and analyze the picture without giving them any previous information. They discussed with their classmates what they noticed about the picture, what they thought the item in the picture was made from, and what they thought the item in the picture was used for.

FOREVERTRON by Tom Every aka Dr. Evermor

We then had a class discussion about their ideas and I introduced the artist Tom Every and his artwork. We discussed how he uses unaltered recycled scrap metal or “junk” in his sculptures, the importance of recycling, alter-egos, narration in artwork, storytelling, elements of a story, inventing, and the non-traditional art making process of generating the context behind the artwork after it is already made rather than the traditional process where ideas are generated first and turned then into final pieces of artwork. That last topic was something I really wanted to focus on in our initial discussion and following activity because that is exactly how Dr. Evermor works. He begins by welding various scrap metal together without knowing what type of sculpture he is making and lets the artwork itself help determine the content, concept, and story behind the sculpture. Then the students were given their own junk and were instructed to just start drawing using the “junk” as inspiration and begin creating a drawing without knowing what it was and to let the drawing itself decide what it is.


Then the students were asked to create their own Dr. Evermor inspired fantastical machines based off their “junk” drawings and develop a story that explains their machines. The students were introduced to the various graphite pencils that artists use, blending/shading, hatching and cross-hatching drawing techniques, designing mechanical drawings, and even 1-point perspective!


The student’s Fantastical Machines and stories behind them were absolutely AMAZING! The creative and inventive ideas that came from the minds of the 4th grades was absolutely inspiring and everyone one had a fun time inventing their own Fantastical Machines!


Part 3: Poetry

Some students did an excellent job and had a great job creating their collages but then finished before other groups. When students finished early, they became poets.

Students used the words from brainstorming weeks ago then wrote and illustrated poems.IMG_5869 IMG_5877 IMG_5878 IMG_5886 IMG_5887

Some students performed their poems:

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And even a song:

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Eric Carle’s Dream Snow

First graders learned about collage and overlapping with Eric Carle’s book Dream Snow.

On the first day, we watched a short video and saw Eric Carle himself created his art papers. Then we made our own with our own colors and patterns. On the second day we used our art paper to create a collage to tell a story about what we like to do on snow days.

And then we overlapped our collages with a transparency and painted our own white blankets over the collages.

Watch for Josue’s amazing work (pictured above) in February at South West Wisconsin’s Youth Art Month show at Hilldale Mall!



Not white, not black, not blue..

1st grade learned about contrast in this story about a penguin looking for something more.

The penguins discover that everything is black, white or blue. As the story went on, the penguins found something ORANGE and learned blue and orange are complimentary colors and create contrast.

Each student drew their own penguin story with black, blue and white oil pastels. The very last thing they added was their something orange.

1st gr Dots

First graders began their art year by reading this book:

It’s a great book to start off the year. The book begins with a little girl, Vashti. She’s at the end of her art class and still has a black piece of paper. She’s very frustrated! Her teacher encourages her to make a mark so Vishti jabs the paper with her marker and makes a dot. Through encouragement from her teacher, Vishti explores how else she can make a dot and ends up encouraging another young artist to have confidence and make his mark.

*If you are interested in finding this book for yourself, I highly suggest finding your local independent bookstore. (In Madison, I recommend A Room of One’s Own). Chances are if you support them, they will support you and your community! Can you say the same for Amazon?*

Here are some of the Gompers first grade beginning of the year marks:

Each child told me ‘I am an artist!’ Each child was given a compliment. We discussed how to find a specific thing you appreciate about someone else’s artwork and use your words to tell them about it. We had a very positive first grade art discussion!