Saturday, December 10, 2011

Visual Poetry inspired by Austin Kleon

I first learned about Austin Kleon when his "Steal Like An Artist" essay was being posted all over the place last spring. (By the way, the book version is coming out in the spring.) I explored the website of the "writer who draws" and saw his newspaper blackouts, like the one below, Overheard on the Titanic, which are super cool!
Source: via Katie on Pinterest

Kleon makes poetry by starting with a newspaper and blacking out the words he doesn't need to make a new meaning.

I decided it would be fun to try the technique with my 6th grade students. Because I wanted to make it a one class period project, I chose about 20 newspaper articles/horoscopes/editorials with interesting words and photocopied them. Part of me wanted to just give the students a newspaper but I knew I would end up with students who had not chosen an article to work on by the end of class. I suggested that the students scan the article for words that jumped out at them and underline those words with pencil. That way they could see their choices and construct their phrase or sentence while still being able to fix mistakes. Next, they were supposed to draw a box around the words with sharpie and black out the words they didn't need anymore. By drawing the box first, the students were less likely to get in a hurry and black out an important word. Quite a few are pretty hard to read because they still got too close to the words. If you do this with your students, make sure to remind them to leave as much space around the word as they can. I didn't say that had to, but most of the students checked with me before starting with sharpie. I was able to give some advice, like to make it shorter, or construct a new meaning because some were basically summarizing the article. Another thing the students have to think about is how to direct the viewer/reader's eye. If the article has columns based on how they use the sharpie, the students can make you read left to right or down each column.
 Before I presented the lesson to the next group of students, I found one of Kleon's newer blackouts that makes a subtle picture with the negative space. I encouraged the students to think more about the negative space and the overall design. I'll admit that a few students were a little confused as to why we were doing this in Art class. I told them that it was part poetry and part visual art because of how they created the design with sharpie.

You all know how I love bulletin boards. I was ready to switch out my design and thought this would be a good opportunity to explain what the artwork was all about. Plus, I was excited to use the old joke. I covered the background in newspaper first. I don't have many borders so I put out an email to see if I could borrow a red border from anyone. I got some offers but the reds were all more red-orange, not what I had pictures. So, I decided to just dry brush a red tempera paint border on. Then I used some of the leftover red paint to make a frame around the explanation. I had die-cut letters for "What's black and white and 'read' all over?" and glued them to black construction paper so I can reuse the title some day and not have to worry about keeping all the letters together. I filled in the extra space with some student work. Also, I was relieved to find out that most of the students still know this joke! Or at least some silly version of it.


  1. oh wow, i love this! i had seen his work before but hadn't really thought of using it in the classroom. i love the way you presented it too. thanks for the ideas!

  2. Love, love, love! I want to do this myself. Katie, you inspire me!

  3. They are pretty fun to do! Sometimes I do it instead of doodling if I have a some disposable text with me. And I just saw this, how to do a blackout on the iPad!

  4. I love this idea! Definitely trying it with my 5th graders!

  5. I haven't seen Kleon's work before (and am a little late to the party, so to speak, with commenting on this post -- just discovered your blog last week), but I am SO doing this with my 8th graders and using black paint. 8th graders at our school do a lot of poetry reading and writing, especially in the English 1 Honors class. We have state testing coming up in March and I always need shorter projects to do with my students during this time. Also, I am required by my school to have a certain amount of writing in my curriculum, so I could definitely count this as a writing assignment, too. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Was looking for a fun way to process the end of school testing as a way to make something beautiful out of something dreadful. Thanks!