Illustration from Cloud Dance by Thomas Locker
“The sky settles everything – not only climates and seasons but when the earth shall be beautiful.”
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
The background of a painting is much like a setting in writing: it pulls you in, and puts you somewhere specific. We tell our students that “setting” is the time and place in a piece of writing. But it is more than that: it is an anchor for the reader. I like teaching setting by focusing on the sky. The sky is a great equalizer: we all see it, at all times of day and night, in all kinds of weather. It affects our moods and our actions. The collection of paintings selected by Sara Torkelson in this pinterest board are a perfect way to show students of all ages how powerful the sky can be.
1. Turning images into words: Select a painting here and look at it as a whole class. Ask your students what they see, and lead into how it makes them feel. How would they describe this sky? Make a list of words generated by your students to describe it.
2. Turning words into images: Define the term “setting” as the part of writing that helps the reader know where and when things are happening – but also as a way to communicate the mood of a piece of writing. Read the beginnings of books to show the power of the sky as a first sentence. Examples include: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Cloud Dance by Thomas Locker, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, and the second paragraph of A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. Because you are only reading the beginning, the age-appropriateness of the book is not important. Ask your students to react to the parts you read. What do they think the book will be like based on the sky description? What mood does the author communicate? What do they envision?
3. Create a visual setting: Have them paint or draw the image of one of the sentences you read. Sometimes I print out the sentences from the books ahead of time so they can see them while they paint – or they can make their own sky from a story they want to write.
4. Create a written setting: Have your students write a description of their painting. Depending on the age of your class, they can write one sentence or a whole page about the sky. This can stand alone or serve as the beginning of a longer story. As you conference with your students, use their paintings as a way to see what they need in terms of vocabulary. If your student included a moon, come up with a list of words to describe it in writing (bright, glowing, shiny) or work on similes (shining like a sequin, like a drop of milk in the sky, etc).