Unit 1: Lesson 1

Fertile Ground explores the connections among oral, written and visual storytelling.


In this section:

Goals and Outcomes
Key Questions
Lesson Narrative
Group Activity: How do Artists Sequence a Story?
Group Activity: Giving Fertile Ground a Voice
Assessment Strategies

Goals and Outcomes:

Students will understand the similarities and differences among oral, written and visual storytelling.
Students will be able to describe how artists in different art forms have interpreted the same stories.
Students will be able to identify the story components of character, plot and sequencing.
Students will learn how they can use visual imagery to inspire oral and written storytelling.
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Preparation:Preview the websites given in the lesson. For most sites there is explanatory information about the work and the culture.

Key Questions:

In what different ways do people tell stories?
In what different ways do visual artists tell stories?
What are the elements of a story?
Where do storytellers get their ideas?
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Lesson Narrative:

Telling stories is an essential part of all cultures. Stories are told about people and their actions. The people make up the characters in the story and their actions are the plot.

In what different ways do people tell stories? (Encourage students’ responses.)

Now take a look at these works of art:
Helen Cordero Storyteller Doll
Portrait of an ancient Roman woman
Carmen Lomas Garza, Hammerhead Shark on Padre Island

What are the figures in each of these works doing?
Which of these works is about telling stories?
Which is about writing stories?
Which visually tells a story?

Now compare to oral stories. Play or read out loud a few stories. Here are some suggested resources:

What senses did you use to take in the stories in the Carmen Lomas Garza painting and the audio clips?
What other senses could you use to imagine other aspects of these stories?
For example, what could you hear, smell, touch, or taste if you were in the Carmen Lomas Garza painting?

Other than visual and auditory storytelling, have you thought of these other ways to tell stories?
Look at the following websites:
Indonesian shadow puppets

Wayang Kulit in Central Java is probably one of the oldest continuous traditions of storytelling in the world, and certainly among the most highly developed. The wayang is a flat or round puppet used for shows in Java. The wayang kulit is the flat one and it is made with buffalo leather. They are manipulated behind a white screen with a back light, so the audience can see them as shadow puppets. These puppet shows are accompanied by traditional handmade percussion instruments.

Tchaikovsky, “The Nutcracker” ballet

The Nutcracker Ballet is based on the book called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” written by E.T.A. Hoffman. Tchaikovsky wrote the music for the ballet that was first performed in 1892 in Russia.

Peter and the Wolf

In 1936 Sergei Prokofiev wrote both the music and text for the story of Peter and the Wolf. It is usually performed by a narrator accompanied by an orchestra. The instruments of the orchestra create the sounds of each character in the story. The video on this website presents a short animated visual interpretation of the music and story.
Who are the characters that you saw in the video and what are they doing?

In what different ways are the stories told in each of these examples?
What senses did you use to take in these stories?
Which of these stories made use of physical movement?

The Indonesian shadow puppets are often used to act out traditional Indian stories first handed down orally and then written down more than 2000 years ago.
What story have you seen acted out that you have also read in a book?
Tchaikovsky’s music for the “Nutcracker Ballet” was inspired by a book. Prokofiev wrote both the music and the text for “Peter and the Wolf” at the same time.
Find an illustrated book in your classroom. Did the same person write the book and draw the pictures?

Some stories have been retold many times and in many different ways. The story of Romeo and Juliet, two young people in love, belongs to a tradition of tragic romances going back to ancient times. Its plot is based on an Italian story made into a poem in 1562 and retold in prose in 1582. Shakespeare, drawing on both of these sources, expanded the plot and characters around 1595 to create his famous play, “Romeo and Juliet”.

In 1935 Sergey Prokofiev wrote music for a ballet telling the story of Romeo and Juliet. “West Side Story” is an American musical set in New York City and based upon Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. Three different artists helped to tell the new version of the story. Arthur Laurents wrote the text of the updated story; Leonard Bernstein wrote the music; and Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics to the songs. The musical explores the rivalry between two groups of teenagers of different cultural backgrounds. The young male character, Tony, belongs to one group and Maria, the young female character, belongs to the other. The musical was first performed on Broadway in 1957, more than 350 years after Shakespeare wrote his play.
Here is a very short summary of the balcony scene, one of the most famous scenes from Shakespeare’s play:

Romeo appears and speaks to Juliet under her window, saying “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” By and by they swear their love to one another. Juliet tells Romeo she’ll send a messenger to him the next day to learn the details of their wedding.
Entire play

Look at the following short videos that show the interpretations of the balcony scene from Prokofiev’s ballet and from the musical “West Side Story.”

“Romeo and Juliet” Pas de Deux, composer: Prokofiev

“Tonight “ from “West Side Story” by Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents

In what different ways are the stories told in each of these examples?
What characters and actions match up in the Shakespeare play, the ballet, and the musical?
What senses did you use to take in these stories?
Which of these stories made use of physical movement?
Of all the storytelling methods you have just explored, which do you think told the story the best? Why?

Look at Fertile Ground.
What senses do you use to take in this story?
What other senses could you use to imagine other aspects of this story?
Does Meg Saligman make use of movement? How?

Meg Saligman tells the story of the city of Omaha. In what other ways might this story be told?
If you were going to tell the story of a city what might you do to get inspiration for your story?
In what art form (visual art, creative writing, oral storytelling, theater, dance) would you tell the story of the city?

Group Activity: How Do Artists Sequence a Story?

This activity asks students to consider how artists sequence a story. Do they represent a single moment as we might be able to see it if we were there or do they present a progression of events through time? If they represent a sequence of actions, do they present them in a logical step by step fashion or do they collage the different events incorporating different times in a single image?

Teacher Preparation:

Print out images of each of the works listed below.
For the Bayeux tapestry print several different images and tape together. For Jacob Lawrence download images and print several images from the series on one page.
For younger children give each group several images that take different approaches to discuss.
For older students give each group all the images.
One specific moment
Carmen Lomas Garza, The Fair in Reynosa

William H. Johnson, Going to Church

Step by step
Bayeux tapestry

Jacob Lawrence, The Harriet Tubman Series (From this website choose Harriet Tubman under the series drop-down menu and click submit. If you click on one of the thumbnails you can click through the series.)
Sonja Hinrichsen, Colorado Series
(Click on view images and texts in slideshow)

Overlapping images/Collage
Romare Bearden, Captivity and Resistance

Thomas Hart Benton, The Sources of Country Music
Have the student groups answer the following questions:
Which of these works present one specific moment in time?
Which of these works present the story step by step?
Which of these works present the story in a number of overlapping images?

Large Group Activity:

Have students report the results of their discussion to the whole class.
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Now look at the poster of Fertile Ground by Meg Saligman.
Which of these sequencing methods does this artist use?
Point out some figures in the mural that look like they came from long ago.
What about these figures gives you clues to when they might have lived?
Are these figures from the past the larger or the smaller figures in the mural?

The smaller figures in the background represent the community’s past and the larger figures in the foreground represent Omaha’s present.

Now watch a few minutes of this video that animates the Bayeux Tapestry representation of the Norman Invasion of England in 1066:

The video enhances our perception of the sequencing of time in the Bayeux tapestry.

How is the progression of time in the tapestry different from that in Fertile Ground?

Find the following types of characters in the mural Fertile Ground using the poster and the key.
A particular historical figure
A figure representing a particular event in Omaha
A figure representing a particular ethnic group
A figure representing a particular occupation
A figure representing people of a particular age
A figure representing Omaha’s “Potential” for the future

Are more of the characters in Fertile Ground specific people or figures representing groups of people or ideas?
Where in the mural do you see people working together?
Where do you see family groups interacting?
What other kinds of physical actions do you see?
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Group Activity: Giving Fertile Ground a Voice

Have each student draw a number representing a character described in the mural key. (Leave out the inanimate objects.)
Have the student imagine that they are that character and create a speech bubble to give that character “voice”. Have each student read their speech bubble out loud to the class as they hold it up to the character on the poster, exploring the connection among oral, written and visual storytelling.
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Follow the ribbon in the mural that runs from one end to the other.

Why do you think the artist included this ribbon?
How does the ribbon change and move through the different parts of the mural?
What features of the central figure help her to symbolize Omaha’s potential for the future?

Artists who use overlapping figures in a collage-like arrangement to tell a story still have to organize the figures so that we can “read” the story.
Look again at Romare Bearden’s Captivity and Resistance. It tells the story of the 1839 Mende rebellion aboard the sailing ship Amistad. The hero of the battle is at the center of the painting just as “Potential” is at the center of Fertile Ground and provides both the thematic and visual focus for the entire work.
Instead of a step by step sequence Meg Saligman has used arrangement in space to tell the story of Omaha.

What does her arrangement of characters from foreground into the background tell us about Omaha?
What do her groupings of figures tell us about Omaha?
What do you think the artist is trying to say about the community by using the ribbon that runs through the mural from one end to the other?
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Small Group Activity: Giving Fertile Ground a Voice

Put the students in four or five different groups based upon where their characters appear in the mural (use the characters for which they wrote speech bubbles).
In each group: Use your bodies to create the positions and gestures of the characters from your section of the mural in a connecting group tableau.
In your group share your speech bubble text and create a story for your tableau by deciding on a sequence for your texts.

Is there any other dialogue you would like to add or change to make the story more interesting or clearer?
What gestures or movements could you add to help tell your story?

Using your motionless tableau as a beginning and ending point decide your final dialogue, gestures and movement for your story.

Presentation: Starting at one end of the mural have each group present their story. (Props, such as the ribbon, may be used at the discretion of the teacher.)Back to top


Collage – a form of art in which the picture is composed of a collection of various images

Illustration –clarification or explanation of a story through visual imagery

Narrative – a spoken, visual or written account of connected events; a story

Sequence – a particular order in which related events, movements, or things follow each other

Tableau – a group of motionless figures representing a scene from a story or from history
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Assessment Strategies:

Teachers will develop assessment age-appropriate assessment strategies based on the Goals and Outcomes of the lesson and National Standards of the unit.
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