Today was the first day of the YCBA Summer Institute for teachers. As in any classroom on the first day, we began tentatively, looking for familiar faces and settling into listening mode when Tom and Cyra got us started. As we broke into groups, and got into the deeper thinking that happens when we talk about art, we inevitably began to know each other as teachers, learners, thinkers, observers. And in the afternoon when we drew and made our own art, we started a community which will be ours for the week.
I am always struck by the trust and comfort that emerges when art is at the center of a group of people. My son likes to go to jazz clubs in New York because he says no matter who everyone is outside of that club, they are all friends while the music is playing: the common language of jazz brings them together and forms their community. When I watch a group of students gather around a painting or sculpture – even a reproduction – there is a similar intimacy that comes over them. They may all have their differing opinions and translations of the art, but they are brought together by one image.
As we continue this week, I wonder if any of you have thoughts about how to use art to create your classroom community. How could art start your year in September? How can you include visuals to ground your students in safety, so they can think deeply and share courageously? What can you bring into the room? How will you show them how to do it?
As this school year draws to a close, I know a lot of teachers that are looking at their jobs with new eyes. Headlines regularly tell us about young people losing their way, resorting to senseless acts of violence. Social media apps sweep through school communities, allowing kids to anonymously post comments about each other. Many schools are losing recess time and art programs. All the while, teachers are scrambling to adjust to the new Common Core mandates and preparing for the state tests that will follow. And in many cases, kids are having a harder time paying attention to what we are teaching.
As always, teachers go into their summers carrying big questions: Who are we teaching today? And what exactly should we be teaching them? What should we do differently next year?
I’ve described Visual Literacy lessons many times in this blog. We already know that art helps us to increase vocabulary, inspire writing topics, and discover our literate voices. But the bigger picture is that art teaches us how to be empathetic. It requires us to step into each others’ shoes. When we describe what someone else painted, and listen to each others’ varied points of view, and connect to our peers by drawing our stories for them, we are doing what kids have less and less opportunity to do these days: making real contact with each other.
One of my favorite lessons is when I ask students to draw a painting from a different perspective, and then write about the experience. This requires spacial skills, critical skills, and invention. But if you read Audrey’s writing closely, you can also see that it develops the ability to imagine oneself as someone else. As Maxine Greene says, “Imagination is what, above all, makes empathy possible.”
In the drawing below, Audrey, a second grader, finds a new way to look at a picture of a school of fish.
In her writing, she describes how her picture shows “what a fish in that school might see.” She goes on to say that “Through looking at art you can get inspired and have ideas you never thought of. Like trying looking at things through someone else’s eye or just looking closer at something.”
John Dewey defined teachers as the key to community. Learning to see the world through each others’ eyes is key to developing a sense of community, as sense of belonging, and a conscience.
“Once we draw, all of the sudden we begin to see again. Were we blind? How could we have ignored the beauty, the intricacies of these simplest things? The convoluted network of veins in an oak leaf, the graceful curve of a clover’s stem, the starry splendor of a humble dandelion…” Fredrick Franck
When teachers cover non-fiction units, we try to provide field or classroom experiences so that children can engage meaningfully and therefore fully assimilate what they learn. We grow fast plants in the classroom so that their life process can be observed. We lug in boxes of beautiful books about sea animals, icebergs, and cloud formations so that our students can see rather than just listen to facts. We bring in ant colonies, leaves, and rocks – all to bring the outside world into the room.
All of this is brought to a higher level when we draw. I always tell my students that scientists learn by drawing.
Frankie, a third grader, learns about snails by carefully copying a picture out of a book.
In the absence of the real thing, photographs can be helpful. Right now education publications are putting out photo-laden books based on the Common Core, which are flooded with non-fiction. But a rich and detailed painting can provide the engagement we are often looking for when introducing our kids to unfamiliar topics. Looking at art is pleasing to our senses, and creates an environment that is open and inviting. Additionally, the act of drawing is a meditation – and when students create their own reproduction of something, it invests them in the topic. Their pictures also allow us to see what they already know, so we can easily differentiate, allow them to form their own questions, and help them to find the answers they need.
1. Take 15 quiet minutes to copy all or part of this Thomas Barlow painting from the YBCA collection into your journal (no phones, no interruptions). Don’t stop before the 15 minutes is over. During that time, pay attention to what you are thinking and wondering. Make notes right on the page as they come into your head.
2. Now take 10 minutes to label everything you can on your picture. Anything you don’t know, label with a question mark or write down what you are wondering. You have now laid out your own research outline for a study of birds.
I begin all science units by having the students draw. In the past we’ve started by drawing plants, the human skeleton, sea creatures, clouds, trees, earthworms, rocks, ants and owls. Find a painting of what you are studying (I found this bird painting on the Yale Center for British Art online collection)!
Slowing down to draw actually speeds up the learning: you would not believe the mad rush to the books and computers once the students realize they haven’t been able to properly label their beloved drawings! When a child draws, she realizes that she has questions. Those questions become her drive to learn.
“We just had the greatest class discussion! The vocabulary, the ideas, the connections…BUT, when it came to writing it down, they fell apart.” Does this sound familiar? We’ve all seen how easy it is to lose the magic when they face the blank page. How we handle the delicate transition to writing is the key to getting students to transfer their spoken language to the paper.
We often over-structure this transition, offering sentence starters and writing prompts which only serve to limit the children. Just as often, we give too much freedom, trusting that their enthusiasm for the painting will spill onto their paper. Both approaches usually result in blank pages. Offering the right balance of support is key. Here are two steps that ease the path to writing:
1. Allow time for drawing. With limited time in our schedules, I know it is tempting to jump to the writing. But I can’t overstate the value of taking the time to draw first. Drawing helps them – and us – see what they want to say. After discussing a painting, ask them to copy all or part of it, or they can draw something that the painting made them think of from their own lives. This helps them find their own writing voices.
Below, a third grade student has copied a painting from a postcard.
2. Provide Writing Invitations. These are key to helping students transfer their ideas to writing. Below are some Writing Invitations that I have used to guide students, while still allowing them enough choice to use their own voices. I always give at least two invitations, and I always “Your choice” (the child who chooses that one has thought of something I haven’t – and I am usually pleasantly surprised).
Sample Writing Invitations:
– Imagine yourself into your picture. What happens around you? Use all your senses to write a description or a story. (Other ways to say this: “Press play as if this painting is a video. What happens when it starts?” Or, “Start by telling what you smell, hear, see, or feel. Be detailed so I can imagine exactly what it’s like.”)
– Describe this painting. Be as detailed and descriptive as you can, and surprise me. (This is where metaphors and similes begin to show up).
– Write about what you were thinking as you drew. Where did your mind take you? What did you wonder and notice? What was easy or hard about drawing this picture? What surprised you?
– (for masks, statues, or portraits) Can you become this person for a while and write about your day?
– Does this picture/art piece make you think of a real place you’ve been, or a moment in your life? Include the sounds, the smells, the feeling of your memory.
– Your choice
There are unlimited Writing Invitations. You will think of what fits the needs of your class. For young children, sentence starters are not the enemy! Giving them the first few words can kick-start things for them (stick to something open-ended such as “I see/smell/feel/hear….” rather than something more constraining like, “I like this painting because…”).
After copying Hockney’s painting, this third grader reacted to the second invitation from above. She wrote:
“There is a squiggly purple road heading south. On the left there is a crowded tree place with one humpy hill. On the right of the road there is a grassy place with a garden. Down south the road leads to a rural kind of place which looks like precious glass.”
For teachers: Copy a painting into your journal, and use an invitation to write about it. What was your process like? What was surprising? Share your experience with your class – and with us!
What if kids were exposed to writing in the same way a trailer exposes us to a movie that isn’t out yet? How do we create that feeling of anticipation, so that rather than force-feeding our lessons, we are quenching their thirst to communicate?
At the Brennan Rogers Magnet School in New Haven, Daron Cyr sits with her twenty-five kindergarteners on the rug, gazing up at a Smartboard image of Renoir’s painting The Umbrellas. Daron says, “Remember, we read a painting like we read a book.” She tells them to take a Think Minute: “Our eyes are on the painting. I want to know what you see, but also tell me the story that you see. Put your thumbs up when you’re ready.”
The children take turns sharing their thoughts about the painting. They focus on the weather, the characters, the details, what’s going to happen next. After a while Daron asks them to get their sketch journals. They make choices about where to sit, what art materials to use, and whether to copy the painting or make a picture of something the painting made them think of from their own lives. There is no scribbling, there are no blank pages, and the noise in the room is from the kids talking about their pictures, sharing and building vocabulary: pre-writing at its best. I record their quiet chatter in my own journal: “These are the ladders on the playground, and this is where the water goes down the slide.” “It was raining and I saw a rainbow.” “She’s wearing her party dress.” At the end, they share their work by having a Gallery Walk.
If you’ve tried this kind of lesson – especially with a challenging class of 25 four- and five-year olds – you may know how easily it can fall apart (I certainly do). Afterwards, my burning question for Daron was, “How did you introduce their journals to them?” She picked up her own journal, saying, “I started by sharing mine.” Before giving her students their own, Daron spent weeks enthusiastically showing her kids pages of drawings and writing from her own journal. She also uses her journal in class, to scribe what her students say to her, often reading their words back to them. By the time Daron gave them their own journals, “they were so excited. They knew how important they were.”
By sharing her journal with her students, Daron is teaching the most important message to children about writing: that their thinking can be captured, recorded, and shared. This is giving her tiny students the most important ingredient for writing: the desire and anticipation to be a part of the writing world.
Do you have experiences with a sketch journal to share? Please post in comments!
“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.
When a teacher makes the decision to bring art materials into the classroom and actually devote precious writing time to making art, that teacher is showing two things: 1. courage, and 2. a clear understanding of what makes a good writer. Susan Sontag said, “A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.” We ask children to use “visual imagery” in their writing on a daily basis. We tell them to “paint a picture with words.” The one thing we often forget, however, is how abstract words are for children, and how little experience they actually have with writing them down.
Words are a second language to all of us, if you consider the pictures in our minds to be our first language. When I ask you to remember your favorite childhood toys, do you picture the words “slinky” and “Legos?” More likely, you picture a silver coil climbing down the steps, and multi-colored blocks snapping together. As adults, we barely notice the steps we take to describe the pictures in our heads with words. But for children, the task of translating what they are thinking about into words is a challenge. Add to that the added task of forming the letters and sounding out the spelling, and you are asking for a lot of invisible steps to be taken.
Allowing time for making pictures in the writing classroom gives students – and teachers – the opportunity to see what they want to write. This provides opportunities for building vocabulary (“What do you call that color?” “What time of day is this taking place?” “Will you write about that moon?”). It also invests the students in their work, so that they desire success. It’s not always easy to get a student to describe what she wants to write, but ask her to describe her drawing and it is a different story. The time a teacher invests in allowing students to draw (before – not after – writing with words) is more than made up for when the students’ words flow more easily and confidently. Drawing loosens up the inhibitions, opens the lines of communication, and gives the student a voice.
“In my picture I see a yellow spider resting on a cool leaf. The leaf touches the moonlight and the stars. The wind dancing with the sky suddenly dies down into a cool winter breeze. Good night sleeping yellow spider.”