Teaching Beyond Sight
Updated: Apr 8
My students often struggle with describing pictures. They seem to be pretty good at using the correct grammar and phrases but...
what about the tiny details/feelings/those things that the artist has left for us to uncover.
Do your students have the same problem?
So I was really pleased when one of the recent episodes of my favourite podcast MEDITATIVE STORY featured the famous scholar Siri Hustvedt’s story “Learning to see what is in front of me”. I knew her beautiful picture description was perfect for my advanced students. So today I am sharing the lesson plan that I created for them.
You can find the episode on any podcast app as well as on the MEDITATIVE STORY website where the script is also available.
Here's my lesson plan.
Play the beginning of the episode until 1:22 and ask the students to listen and try to draw what they hear.
Show Giovanni Bellini´s picture St. Francis in Ecstasy.
Ask the students to compare it with their drawings. What details do they notice? How does St Frances feel?
Explain that the story they´ll hear is told by Siri Hustvedt, a novelist and essayist. She is known to be able to see the tiny details in a painting, things that most of us often miss. In this particular story, she is about to see the painting for the first time. Ask the following question:
How do you think she´ll prepare to see this piece of art?
Then play the episode to check the students´ answers.
Play from 3:40 to 6:06.
1. Why does Siri tell herself to slow down?
2. How does she “take” the listener into the gallery?
3. What details does she capture?
Play the recording from 6:06 to 6:24. The host Rohan asks us to pause and feel the carpet, the soft light. Ask the following questions:
Can you see it?
Can you picture the man and the woman speaking Italian?
What else can you see?
Give the students a minute to close their eyes and imagine this picture. Then ask them to share what they´ve seen.
In the next part, Siri describes the painting further. Ask the students to match the objects with the adjectives she labels them with.
big, peculiar city
delicate tree trunks
curling rock cliff
cool pale foliage
cerulean blue vines
Then play from 6:43-8:30 so that the students can check their answers.
big, peculiar landscape
slender tree trunks
cool pale turquoise
steep rock cliff
cerulean blue sky
Play the next part (from 9:12-12:22) and ask the students to answer the questions:
1. How does Siri imitate the saint´s posture?
2. What does Siri notice when she sees the saint´s right hand?
3. What animals are depicted in the picture?
4. Why does the woman mention a wolf?
5. How does Siri feel while drawing the objects from the painting?
6. What do the saint´s sandals and walking stick make Siri think of? Why?
1. She straightens up, inhales, and expands her chest
2. He has the wounds of Christ.
3. a donkey, a rabbit, a heron
4. It is believed that the saint tamed a vicious wolf.
5. As if she´s touching them.
6. She thinks of ordinary life and ordinary death. “Everything that is alive will die. Our things often outlive us.”
After checking the students’ answers play until 12:39. The host Rohan asks the following question:
Imagine you were captured in a painting, just as you are right now, wherever that might be. What story would that painting tell?
Give some time to the students to think and then let some of them share their ideas. Enquire why they have made this choice.
Play the episode until 15:59 which marks the end of Siri´s story. Discuss the following questions:
How does Siri feel before she leaves the building? Why do you think she feels grief?
Later on, in the episode Rohan says:
“When we look at the world with relaxed, sustained attention, then our experience is different to when our attention is more scattered and loose”.
Ask your students:
Can you think of a time when you looked at something in a more relaxed manner and noticed details you hadn´t spotted before? What was this experience? What new things did you notice?
Let´s see beyond the visible:
Split the class into four groups- A, B, C, D
Show groups A and B John William Waterhouse´s painting The Lady of Shalott
Show groups C and D David Hockney´s painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy
All groups work separately. They have to describe the painting trying to capture as many details as possible: Setting, colours, mood, objects, feelings
You may wish to review some vocabulary used to describe pictures, such as:
In the foreground...
In the background...
In the distance…
To the left/right of…
At the top/bottom of the picture ...
In the middle of the picture ...
On the left/right of the picture ...
Give the groups at least 5 minutes to write as many sentences as possible. Then put Groups A and B together and Groups C and D together to compare their descriptions and see what details they´ve managed to capture.
Other options for paintings to discuss:
1- Our English Coasts by William Holman Hunt
2- Flatford Mill by John Constable
Or you can choose any famous paintings in your country.
During the closing meditation Rohan Gunatillake says:
“One of the most important things I've learnt through meditation is that how we see things, changes what we see. When we look at the world with relaxed, sustained attention, then our experience is different to when our attention is more scattered and loose. So let’s turn inside, and bring our attention to the canvas of physical, felt experience. What is painted here?”
Ask the students to look inside their heart and soul and describe what they see there. They can write a poem or an essay with the following title: Looking within
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Have a great weekend, Marusya Price