Teaching with Contemporary Art

When Works of Literature Make The Leap

A scene from My Name is Asher Lev with Ari Brand and Mark Nelson. Image: broadway.com

A scene from My Name is Asher Lev with Ari Brand and Mark Nelson. Image: broadway.com

One of the biggest problems facing teachers today (besides the fanatics who want us to walk around schools with guns) is the fact that many kids just don’t like to read. As excited as I may get about certain books, articles and interviews, it’s the rare occasion when a student goes the distance and actually reads, never mind purchases, a work that is recommended unless it’s assigned and part of a graded project.

Contemporary artists and performers offer pathways into literature for the hard-to-inspire. Artists such as Glenn Ligon, Jenny Holzer, and even performances like the off-Broadway production of My Name is Asher Lev offer students ways to get inspired and involved with literature from different starting points.

Glenn Ligon at work. Image: Art21 production still.

Glenn Ligon at work. Image: Art21 production still.

Glenn Ligon’s appropriated text-based works ask students to look through (and into) quotes by Walt Whitman, Zora Neal Hurston, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin and even Richard Pryor in order to examine the connections between what the quotes say, how the artist frames it, and what the sum of these parts produce.

Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, created by distilling an extensive reading list featuring both Eastern and Western literature and philosophy, allow students to visualize and make sense of the larger meaning behind so many of her “summaries”.

Next week, I am fortunate enough to be attending a performance of Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev at the Westside Theater in New York City with one of my classes. It’s before, during and after this play that I am looking forward to sharing the story about Asher in order to inspire great work and great works of art with them. We will soon be working with quotes from both the book and performance in order to instigate not just works of art, but also debates and discussions around what it means to be an artist today.

When works of literature make the leap to places like canvas, articles of clothing, electronic signs, billboards, subway cards and stages, options for teaching with (not necessarily instead of) the printed page become more attractive.

For more information about teaching with works by Glenn Ligon, download our season 6 educator guide here. Jenny Holzer and artists from the season 4 educator guide can be found here. And for information about current performances of My Name is Asher Lev, please visit asherlevtheplay.com.


  1. dennis says:

    looking at Glenn Ligon this summer inspired me to give my ap students a text assignment. I want to explore and build on the idea to start students down the path of using ideas from literature and words.
    I also gave them an assignment that reflected dystopian literature since Carl and I are working toward that idea.
    This blog inspires me to do more of the same.

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  3. Liz says:

    I showed the Glenn Ligon segment in my freshmen ELA/SS class and had students create works inspired by Ligon’s in response to the film Hotel Rwanda. I’m really interested in this idea of making art in response to literature.

    In fact, I was reading some mindless silliness on Buzzfeed yesterday, one of their many “lists”, and wondered how I could integrate something similar into the classroom. Students are already reading material on sites like Buzzfeed and the format of the posts feels real-world, unlike a traditional writing assignment.

    The article I read was on “23 Songs That Make The World Your Personal Catwalk” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/verymuchso/23-songs-that-make-the-world-your-personal-catwalk). Why couldn’t students do something similar for a character reflection? They could put together a soundtrack for a particular character, revealing their personality, motivations, flaws, redeeming qualities, etc. Then they could find images or gifs to accompany each track and write a caption with some reflection. Then they could post their articles and try to get a conversation started around it.

    Sparknotes.com has created some really fun, engaging articles and activities about classic literature as well.

    I feel like these are the sorts of sites that are accessible and of interest to our students, and if we can find ways to do similar things in our classrooms, our students might engage more in the content.

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