Free Students’ Minds with Free Association

poopedSelf. Text. Theme. Free Your Mind.

My 10th Grade Literature/Sociology students are studying classic texts to understand how the ancient questions are still relevant to their lives, and to “mine and undermine” the original for imagery they can deploy in expressing their own experiences.

Their art, therefore, must contain more than recognizable imagery from the text. It must contain artifacts of their lives.

Last year, however, many students balked at this idea, omitting references to their lives altogether or protesting/resisting/asing “is this ok?” over and over.

Q: How do you get students to include imagery in their art about their most significant relationships: friends, parents, frenemies, enemies, and longed-for love-objects? And to include this imagery in a way which is, on the one hand, authentic, and on the other hand, safe (not requiring them to over-expose their private lives)?

A: Free association

  1. triangleI explained WHY we were about to embark on a journey of free association: “Imagery from your own life might be hard to come up with, or it might feel like oversharing – unless your project uses “symbolic code” to depict the people in your lives.
  2. I told students that at any time, if they wanted to lag behind, skip, backtrack or work ahead, they were free to. And that they could interpret or “intentionally misinterpret” the instructions however they wished – the goal was to produce captivating imagery to symbolize important relationships in their lives.
  3. We turned off the lights. Each student had a piece of paper and a marker. I played the music of Tony Scott: zen flute, zither and clarinet.
  4. Students folded the paper in half, creating a 4-page “booklet” or card.
  5. Students write a name of someone on each page. Prompts included:
    1. Someone you have a good connection with.
    2. Someone you’re in conflict with.
    3. Someone who you WISH you had more of a connection with.
    4. Someone you USED TO have a connection with, but no longer.
  6. Students drew a circle around the first name, with three rays extending from the name.
  7. From each ray, students would write a word or draw “an ugly little symbol” (worded this way to reduce art-inferiority complexes) of:
    1. The first word/object to come to mind when you think of that person.
    2. Something that person wears, owns, hangs on the wall, or keeps on a shelf.
    3. Something that person loves or hates.
  8. Students then “mashed-up” two images or words from each page, creating a new word or new image, no matter how absurd.
  9. Students then imagined that new hybrid-concept “visiting” the classic text. Where would it go? What would it do? Who/what would it interact with — no matter how absurd.


Art is very much about images which stand in for complex subjects, often contradictory in their message and use. While experienced artists are practices in developing meaningful, rich symbology, many people find the practice confusing or overwhelming.

By releasing students from any immediate expectation, they could free their minds to create the imagery that would eventually populate their projects.

At the conclusion, I told students that they could rip up their work or take it home to mine for their projects. At the end of class, indeed, a few scraps of paper sat in the recycling bin. But many more went home with the students.

Tonight, while they sleep, I hope their subconscious creativity will inspire them further.

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