The Aurora: Inspiration for Art and Poetry Integration

The aurora is a phenomenon most frequently observed in the Arctic (the aurora borealis, or northern lights) and in Antarctica (the aurora australis, or southern polar lights). Interactions between the electrically charged solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field produce dazzling bands of color — pinks, reds, whites, greens, and blues–that move across the sky. Subject of countless myths and scientific studies, the aurora is a well-known and engaging polar phenomenon.

The northern lights in Greenland

The northern lights in Greenland. The light on the horizon is a fishing boat, and the smaller one behind, the entrance to the fjord into Tasiilaq. Photo courtesy of Nick Russill.

While the science behind the aurora is quite complex, the aurora does inspire the use of children’s literature, mythology, poetry, and art in the elementary classroom. In this article, we’ve highlighted lesson plans for using a variety of art techniques (watercolor, impressionist painting, crepe paper blots, mosaics, resists, and collage) and poetry types (cinquain, acrostic, diamante, and haiku). This issue’s feature story, The Aurora: Fire in the Sky,  discusses the aurora. Additionally, the Virtual Bookshelf highlights several outstanding books to introduce the aurora to elementary students.

The following YouTube video shows the beauty of the aurora australis, or the southern lights. Filmed at and around McMurdo Station in Antarctica, it uses a time-lapse video function. Simply put, the camera takes images every few seconds and then “stitches” the images together into a movie. While neither images nor videos come close to experiencing the real thing, they are still engaging for students and teachers alike.


Depicting the Aurora: Art Techniques

Before beginning any of the art projects listed below, introduce your students to the aurora through children’s literature, expository articles, images, and video. If you are fortunate enough to have an art educator at your school, you can collaborate on an integrated unit. If not, don’t worry – the activities below provide step-by-step directions for each art technique. Most of the lessons and activities featured do not specifically reference the aurora, but are general instructions to be used with a wide variety of subjects.

Artist in Residence: Watercolor Lessons
A comprehensive guide including watercolor techniques, defining, finding, and painting the horizon, and silhouette techniques. This guide is especially helpful for classroom teachers without an art background or an art educator to collaborate with. The “wet-on-wet” technique is most suitable for painting the aurora.

Painting Like an Impressionist
A lesson plan on painting in the impressionist style, which could be easily adapted to paint a scene depicting the aurora. This lesson refers to a color wheel and the use of complementary colors (colors opposite one another on the color wheel). It would also be helpful to have images of impressionist paintings on display. Many of Monet’s pieces would introduce students to the soft swirls and dabs of paint that defined the impressionist style.

Crepe Paper Blots
A lesson plan for creating  crepe paper blots. Students could use crepe paper in the colors of the aurora.

Pumpkin Seed Mosaics
In this activity, students use dyed pumpkin seeds to create a mosaic. This could be adapted to depict the aurora.

Crayon Resist
In the crayon-resist technique, students use light-color crayons to draw the shimmering bands of the aurora, stars, and the landscape (horizon, mountains, trees). Students then cover their drawing with watered-down black tempera or watercolor paint. The crayon resists, or shows through, the black paint. Perfect for depicting the aurora against the night sky!

Torn Paper Pictures
This document describes the process of creating a torn-paper collage. The irregular shapes of torn paper reflect the irregular shapes of the aurora.


Describing the Aurora in Poetry

Use the featured lessons to help students write poems about the aurora. Poetry can be written before, after, or independently of the art projects listed above. The aurora is also a natural springboard for descriptive writing and pourquoi stories, in which students explain how or why something exists in nature.

Composing Cinquain Poems: A Quick-Writing Activity (Grades K-2)
Cinquain (pronounced “cin-kain”) is a five-line poetic form, using a wavelike syllable count of two-four-six-eight-two. In this lesson, students write simple cinquain of their own as a follow-up to a subject they have been exploring in class.

Composing Cinquain Poems with Basic Parts of Speech (Grades 3-5)
Students learn about cinquain poetry and write their own cinquain poems.

Acrostic Poems (Grades K-5)
This interactive resource guides students through brainstorming about a topic and then writing original acrostic poems. The finished poems can be printed.

Dynamite Diamante Poetry (Grades 3-5, modify for grades K-2)
In this lesson, students review nouns, adjectives, and verbs and learn about gerunds. They then practice using them as new vocabulary words by composing structured diamante poems as a class and independently using an online interactive tool. The poems can be printed and displayed or published as a class book or magazine.

Reading, Writing, Haiku Hiking! A Class Book of Picturesque Poems (Grades 3-5)
Using One Leaf Rides the Wind by Celeste Davidson Mannis as an introductory text, students learn to identify elements of haiku poetry. Students go on a class hike to observe nature in their own neighborhood, and collect “picturesque” words in their writer’s notebooks. (Instead of a hike, students could view images of the aurora in a video or on a web site.) They explore syllable counts in their word collections and use descriptive words to compose original haiku. Students then use print and online resources to locate facts for informational notes on the topics of their poems. Finally, students work collaboratively to publish their poetry and notes in an illustrated class book.

Seasonal Haiku: Writing Poems to Celebrate Any Season (Grades 3-5)
In this three-part lesson, students write and illustrate haiku depicting seasonal images. First they use their observation skills, real-world knowledge, and knowledge of parts of speech to help them create seasonal word charts. They then listen to and read samples of haiku to identify haiku criteria, followed by a writing session where they create haiku that depict seasonal images. Finally, they publish their poetry mounted on colorful backgrounds that illustrate the images in their poems.


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright May 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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