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Connecting with the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

Revealing Character

A language arts teacher and a visual art teacher ask eighth-graders to demonstrate their understanding of a novel's characters by creating unusual ceramic place settings.



Mineral Springs Middle School


Winston-Salem, NC




Visual Art, Language Arts


Students create ceramic place settings based on literary characters.

The Integrated Instruction

Kathy Adams, 8th-Grade Language Arts Teacher

Cindy and I had been looking for a way that we could create a fairly complex unit together. And when I told her about a novel that I intended to use with the kids called The Weirdo, she was really excited. I had in mind to find out what the students knew about character development, theme development, and even plot development – from a visual product that they would produce.


Cindy Ellis, Visual Art

So we took the idea of the place setting, like Judy Chicago used with The Dinner Party, and asked the students to represent characters in the book. And they were able to see how they can manipulate, mold, and form different materials to express the different characteristics of that character. I was trying to get them to think in terms of how they can use elements such as color, shape, form, and texture to help create the message – the feeling – they want to send.

Watching the Video

Boy holding ceramic art workBefore You Watch
Respond to the following questions.

  • How do you connect with another teacher in order to develop projects that meet both of your goals?
  • If students have difficulty expressing themselves in language, what are ways to help them gain confidence in this area?
  • What advantages might there be to infusing art-making into a literature study?

Watch the Program

As you watch take notes on the collaboration between Kathy (language arts) and Cindy (visual art). What goals, knowledge and skills do they each bring? How are their teaching styles similar and/or different? Write down what you find interesting, surprising, or especially important about their collaboration.

Reflect on the Program

  • What struck you about the collaboration between Kathy and Cindy? How did their roles change as they moved from their own into one another’s classrooms?Reflect on the Program
  • What elements of the study made it possible for students to delve into challenging emotional subjects in their art work?
  • What evidence did you see that students were able to apply what they were learning?
  • What role did Judy Chicago’s work The Dinner Party play in the project? Many people would find the subject matter of her work – which often deals with the details of human anatomy – challenging material for adolescents. Would you use an artwork of a controversial or explicit nature, and if so, how would you prepare students to view and discuss it?

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice

  • What challenges do your students have in reading and making sense of works of literature?
  • How can you use artworks to provide inspiration for students, or as models for the ways they can express themselves?
  • Who in your school might you collaborate with on a project that fuses story interpretation and visual art making?
  • What constraints of time, scheduling, and resources would you face in trying to collaborate closely with another teacher? How might you overcome these obstacles?

Adaptations/Extensions To Consider

Scale it back: Use less elaborate materials – ask children to paint round wooden plates or paper plates representing characters and themes in a novel.

Connect to your interests: Choose a different artist whose work speaks to you and share it with students as the model or inspiration their own creative work.

Additional Resources

Selected Unit Materials

Who’s Coming to Dinner? A unit overview including a book summary, themes, learning goals, materials, activities, and national standards (PDF)

Art Project Planning Sheet: A graphic organizer for planning and designing place setting projects (PDF)

Print Resources

Chicago, Judy. The Dinner Party. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. ISBN: 0140244379 (paperback); ISBN: 0670859575 (hardbound)

Lippard, Lucy, Lucie-Smith, Edward, & Thompson Wylder, Viki D. Judy Chicago. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2002. ISBN: 082302587X

Taylor, Theodore. The Weirdo. New York: Harcourt Children’s Books, 1991. ISBN: 0152949526

Web Sites

The Artchive
An archive of images, text, and articles made available for educational purposes

The Web Gallery of Art
A virtual museum and searchable database of European painting and sculpture of the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods

Art in Context
This site provides public access to information that is added by curators, dealers, artists, writers, and others from around the world

An art search engine for locating images and museums

Judy Chicago: Through the Flower Homepage
An organization dedicated to creating a cultural legacy built upon the vision embodied in Judy Chicago’s work through education, exhibition, and preservation

Faces, The Ultimate Composite Picture
Composite picture software (CD-ROM) containing a database of 4,000 facial features that can be used to create endless combinations of faces

About the School

Mineral Springs Middle School, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Mineral Springs Middle School is located in Winston-Salem, N.C. Its 410 students are mostly African American, with a growing number of Hispanic students and a minority of students of Caucasian and racially-mixed backgrounds.

Arts play a fundamental role at Mineral Springs. Mineral Springs is one of more than 30 A+ Schools, all emphasizing the arts across the state. The philosophy of the A+ Schools derives from Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences: a belief that the arts stimulate in-depth learning and holistic knowledge in students, resulting not only in higher achievement, but also in lowering the incidence of behavioral problems and absences from school. The staff at Mineral Springs includes full-time teachers of dance, vocal music, instrumental music, visual art, and drama. Through the creative use of allocated positions, Mineral Springs has resisted arts funding cuts and maintained a high number of professional arts faculty to carry out its mission.

The Mineral Springs curriculum includes classes for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders in visual art and photography, orchestra and band, choral music and piano, drama and video production, modern dance, and performance arts. Artists who have state teaching certification and professional status in the arts community teach these classes. Collaborations among arts faculty include student exhibits, concerts, performances, demonstrations, and “informances” scheduled during the entire school year. In addition to this selection of arts courses, the non-arts teachers routinely include the arts in their instruction.

School information compiled from the Mineral Springs Middle School Web site:

Q&A With Teachers

Kathy Adams, Language Arts

How long was the study of The Weirdo in language arts?

The unit of study on The Weirdo took approximately four weeks. This class met daily for 65 minutes each day. I try to teach one novel each grading period – this unit took place during the third quarter and was the third book we had studied.

How would you describe the academic level of the students in this class, and the challenges they face?

The academic level of this class ranged from students reading on approximately a third-grade level to those reading well above eighth-grade level. These students face the challenges of most working poor families in the U.S. Most of my students’ parents work at low-wage jobs and have little formal education. Most of these students have limited experience with art and literature outside the walls of the school. I chose to do this unit with this particular group because they had expressed interest in creating visual art products, and they were very interested in the novel we were studying.

How had you collaborated with arts teachers before, and what did you learn that influenced this project?

I collaborated with the dance teacher extensively the previous spring to create an integrated unit on the Harlem Renaissance. I enjoyed the challenges and rewards of working with a gifted arts teacher. This experience led me to seek collaborative projects with other arts teachers. I admired the work of our visual art teacher, Cindy Ellis. Cindy and I collaborated early in the year on a smaller project involving the Underground Railroad and quilt making. Our project on The Weirdo grew out of lunchtime conversations and a deep desire on our parts to have a chance to do a major project together. I love the novel The Weirdo and I thought Cindy would have exciting ideas on how to incorporate visual art into a collaborative effort.

You use technology very seamlessly and naturally as part of your teaching. How did that come about?

I laughed when I read that I use technology “seamlessly and effortlessly.” I struggle to include technology in my classroom because I believe that it is a “hook” to get kids excited about activities that they might otherwise consider mundane and boring. I do not consider myself to be technologically savvy; however, I strive to keep abreast of new ways of teaching and learning. Although I have taught for almost twenty-two years, I am constantly discovering new and better ways to inspire students to learn. If that means I have to break out of my “comfort zone,” then I do it.

What preparation for this unit had students already had in language arts classes?

We had worked on characterization and theme all year through novel and short story studies. The students were quite comfortable with studying themes, as we had sought to identify the author’s messages in each work that we read. Both of these objectives are a part of the North Carolina Standard Course of Study for language arts.

Prior to the art activity, students read the novel and completed several written assignments designed to address the concepts to be explored through art. They completed several graphic organizers created to encourage exploration of the characters in the novel and the ways in which each character changed as the story progressed.


Cindy Ellis, Visual Art

How did this project fit with your goals and standards for eighth-grade art?

Students met a number of arts standards in this project. First, they planned, organized, analyzed, and refined solutions to solving a creative problem, which is our first state competency goal. They met the second goal by selecting various media for their effectiveness in the artistic solution, as well as by applying techniques and processes with each material they selected.

By creating their place settings, students used subjects, themes, and symbolic representation to communicate intended meaning, another state and national competency goal.

Finally, when students “set the table,” presented their works, and examined the work of their classmates, they were involved in our sixth competency goal (fifth in the National Standards) – assessing the merits of their work and the work of others.

The student work is beautiful. What previous arts learning (particularly in ceramics) did these students have before undertaking their projects?

Most of Kathy’s students were enrolled in my regular art class and had some exposure to the media and processes we used in this project. But there were a few students who had not had an art class since the fifth grade, and we felt they would benefit from a hands-on introduction to clay modeling techniques. So the day before, students experimented with manipulating, joining, and carving the clay. Potential problems were confronted, and the students were able to reach a comfort level using the medium.

What tie-ins with the community did you find for this project?

During this project some of the students were working on bowls to donate to the Empty Bowl event. This event raises hunger awareness as well as money for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Western North Carolina.

In conjunction with the Empty Bowl event and an exhibit on shelters, The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art invited all the art classes in our system to submit a place setting (one from each school). I chose our place setting from Kathy’s group.

What other artists would you like to use as a basis for collaborative projects?

To examine themes such as identity, I would focus on artists like George Segal, Frida Kahlo, and Chuck Close. Collaborating on the theme of conflict, I may use Pablo Picasso. Most recently, I used the Hudson River School artists as we examined nature and our environment.