Crystal Craze by Hallie Cirino

Incorporating science vocabulary, sketching, and writing with science experiences is a natural progression in our classroom. While wishing and waiting for winter to truly arrive, we decided to introduce the idea of crystals to the children. We started by exploring crystals such as polyacrylamide, a super absorbent type that can be found in disposable diapers. The children each received a petri dish containing a small amount of the substance, as well as a cup of water and a pipette.

Dutch polyacrylamide

As they dripped water onto the tiny crystals, they noticed that the crystals absorbed the water. We also discussed that, even though the crystals grew and resembled ice, the crystals were inedible. The children became very excited as the crystals grew so large, they overflowed from the petri dishes and filled trays.



The children noted that the crystals were no longer tiny, hard, and dry (think table salt), but were now large, squishy, and wet.

On another day, we gave the children another type of small, dry crystal…Alum. The children were again given a tiny amount in a petri dish. This time they added hot tap water and stirred. The crystals dissolved. Most thought that this was pretty boring, so we set them aside. However, on the following day, we checked the petri dishes. Wow:

alum crystals

The crystals had grown a little bigger, the water had evaporated, and each resulting group of crystals appeared a bit different. This presented a perfect opportunity to sketch and write about our findings:

Harleaux same shapeLuke diamondsJack got big

We also incorporated the math concepts of sorting, classifying, and patterning with artificial crystals. The mirrored work surfaces highlighted their explorations.

Jack crystal mirrorDutch crystal mirror

The Gingerbread Boy

Our class had a blast this past week tying language and visual literacy skills to the story of the Gingerbread Boy. First, we read many versions of the classic tale:

Gingerbread books

Then we visually analyzed the content, looking for similarities and differences regarding the characters and settings, and recorded our findings:

Gingerbread analysis

The children decided that they wanted to bake their own gingerbread person, so they collaborated on putting together the dough and decorating it. We all went down to the kitchen to slide it in the oven. When it was finished, we all went down to take it out, but…THE PAN WAS VIRTUALLY EMPTY! Just some crumbs, and a couple of raisins. Hmmm…Had our gingerbread character escaped?

The children devised all sorts of brilliant traps to catch the little cookie. Here is an example of a picture that Jack and Esme drew to get the attention of our gingerbread kid. Jack hooked a candy cane over the top of their drawing for added attraction. We later found the candy cane gone and what looked like a cookie foot below it. We also got a note on our whiteboard which smugly claimed, “HA! HA! HA! You’ll NEVER catch me!”. “How rude!” the children thought.

Gingerbread trap

Dutch, after pondering whether the cookie had a nose for smelling peppermint, thought to prop up the top of a pizza box with a candy cane to see if we could trap the little fellow. Meanwhile, William placed another candy cane on a nubby seat cushion, which did result in finding one of the gingerbread kid’s hands. (The class split this up and ate it!) We did catch a glimpse of the little fellow peeking out from around a corner:

Peeking aroung the corner

Finally, after a long and thoughtful class meeting, the students devised a wonderful plan…They decided to build a gingerbread house in block center, decorate it with fake gingerbread cookies, and make little heart-shaped cupcakes as a trail for our gingerbread person to follow to the house. Here,  Harleaux and Cassie are preparing some of the “treats”:

Harleaux making cupcakesCassie making cupcakes

Luke and Levi spent their entire center time constructing an elaborate house to entice our cookie friend. They even built a bedroom, complete with a soft mattress, pillow, and “lovies”. They wanted it to be so comfortable that the gingerbread person would fall fast asleep.

gingerbread bed

We went outside for recess, and when we reentered the classroom, the children tiptoed over and pulled off the covers. There it was, partially broken, fast asleep, and ready to be eaten!

Gingerbread boy before eating


Artist in Residence

As a teacher who emphasizes visual literacy, it is always a thrill to find that one of your student’s parents is a professional artist. Our class came to know the abstract painting process of Ursula Lyon when she visited the classroom last month. Harleaux’s mom brought in a large canvas, a HUGE drop cloth, many, many colors of paint, cups, and NO PAINTING TOOLS.

Ursula pushed aside the furniture and spread her drop cloth in the center of the room. She invited the children to remove their shoes and join her around the canvas. She read the fabulous Mix it Up! by Herve Tullet, which asks children to use their imaginations to “combine” paint colors as they read. The kids loved it.

Next, she had the children come up one at a time, and select a cup of paint that exemplified their favorite colors. Once instructed to dump, the children took turns splashing the canvas with color!

throwing paint

Next, Ursula, assisted by her daughter, lifted the canvas and started to spin it.

tilting the painting

The children oohed and ahhed at the transformation.

class painting

Later, the class shared their feelings about this unique and messy painting experience:

how it felt to paint

My co-teacher, Maria, documented the children’s experience for classroom display with the painting:

painting with Ursula

Thank you for this wonderful experience, Mrs. Lyon!

Rollicking Rodents by Hallie Cirino

One day, a student shared an exciting story about a mouse visiting her kitchen. Another student chimed in that his family had recently experienced the same. Afterwards, we went out to recess, and, as if on cue, a squirrel scampered by carrying a large brown nut. We all watched in fascination as it ran across the playground and stopped to dig a quick hole for its prize. Before we knew it, the children were running around outside, “foraging” for nuts, and a rodent study had begun.

Maria, my co-teacher and I, collected both fiction and non-fiction books about rodents, including many by Leo Lionni. Next we scoured the Yale Center for British Art website, seeking paintings that may portray rodents. We found this great one, entitled “The Seven Ages of Man: The Infant” by Robert Smirke.


The children needed to study the painting very closely in order to discover the mouse. They began to discuss why the mouse was there.

“Maybe it smells food,” mused Esme.

“I think it wants to be comfy and cozy,” stated Cassie.

“It might be their pet,” noted Harleaux.

“It wants to see what’s around and get a little crumb,” reasoned William.

“There’s a cat”, noted Jack before adding, “It would definitely grab the mouse if it saw it.”

The children also developed questions about rodents and did visual research—“reading” photos in books— to find the answers. They marked the pages with post-it notes and shared their findings.



Many of the children also created rodent sculptures from river rocks.

river rock mice


Tessellations are starting to appear in their journals now, and we are wondering where this will lead…

A Fall Visit by Hallie Cirino

One day last week, I invited two students, who were in my class last year, to come in a share a sketch journal page with my new class. The two graduates (who happen to be twin brother and sister) are currently in Kindergarten. Each had looked through their journals at home and selected a favorite page to show and talk about with the new students. I’ve never done this before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. Hudson showed his revised owl, which happens to be a topic I covered in a blog post last year.

Hudson's revised owl

Sienna shared a “trail to a tree”.

Sienna shares
Sienna shares

With incredible grace and aplomb, both talked about how hard they worked on those journal pages. They asked my new class for feedback, and students made comments such as, “I like how you filled your whole canvas”, and “That’s a really good owl”, and “I like the colors that you used”. The comments were a bit cursory, but it is only the beginning of the year with children who are mostly still four years old, with little experience.

After our visitors left, the children went to work in their journals. As I circulated around the room, I asked the children about what they are drawing/writing. One little girl, Esme, said, “I’m making a path to a rainbow circle.” I asked where she got her idea, and her response was, “From the girl that came and shared her journal. She did a path to a tree, but mine is to a rainbow circle.”

Esme path to a rainbow circle Esme with journal

A simple visit from an “expert” can be all of the inspiration our budding artist-writers need.

Reflecting on Their Reflections

Sylvia, my co-teacher, and I, had the children reflect back on their learning for the year. We had studied trees, birds, stars and space, flowers, and octopuses, along with the artists Henry Moore (“Bird and Egg”), Vincent van Gogh (“Starry Night”), John Hoyland (“Space Warriors”), Beatrix Potter, and Georgia O’Keeffe (“Red Poppy”). Here are some of their reflections regarding artist studies:

Henry Moore (2)

Although their statements may seem concrete and basic, the children are accurately applying new vocabulary that they learned this year (abstract, fiction).  They are also visually expressing their learning through their illustrations, which they all created first, before writing their statements. They are showing that they understand the “big picture” of each artist.

Some children wrote about other areas of their learning:

Birds use their tails to balanceHummingbirdsLeaves make food


It is interesting for us to see which facts “stuck out” for the children. We also had the children reflect on the things that they will miss about our class.

We also asked what they WON’T miss:

won't miss so much writing (1)

We were sad to see that “messy art” and “so much writing” were in this set of reflections. Ah, the realities of teaching your passion…


Higher Order Thinking

Remember Bloom’s Taxonomy of higher order thinking? Here’s an infographic reminder, just in case:

We are following our extensive study of Beatrix Potter with another woman of about the same time…Georgia O’Keeffe. As is our routine, the children looked at several of Ms. O’Keeffe’s paintings for a few days before noting their observations.

The initial comments that the children make tend to be very concrete (“I see a skull” and “I see lots of flowers”, etc.). When those have been exhausted, they begin to note other compositional elements such as the background (“The peaches are on a towel” and “The skull looks like it is on a napkin”). When those peripherals have all been identified, then the children look deeper, and it is exciting to note the higher order thinking that starts to happen. “Beatrix Potter used water colors, but I see Georgia O’Keeffe uses a different kind of paint.” “That painting (of a flower) reminds me of a red forest.” “The black middle of that big flower looks like a turtle.” “She paints very neat(ly), not like John Hoyland.” The children are making connections in ways that are new, all thanks to their immersion in the visual arts.

We also incorporate other elements of visual literacy in our artist study, such as a Venn diagram. This one asks, “Which Georgia O’Keeffe paintings do you like?” and the choices are “flowers”, “skulls”, or “NYC”:

Georgia O'Keeffe Venn diagram

Next, the children had an opportunity to “paint like Georgia”, as recounted in their “experience story”:

“Georgia O’Keeffe

We looked at Georgia’s paintings. We got clipboards and went outside. We found flowers that were growing, and we chose one to sketch. We studied the flowers. We noticed the colors, the shapes of the petals, and the middles. We drew the middle first, and then we drew the petals. Then we painted the flowers with watercolors. We wrote about our paintings.”

Instead of just titling their paintings, this time we asked the children to tell something further about their process, again reaching for some higher order thinking. Here are some examples:



Digging deeper by reflecting on a creative process, especially when accompanied by full immersion in the study of art or an artist, brings about the higher order thinking skills we all want our children to routinely use in our classrooms.

Revising the Task of Revision

I can still hear the collective groan from my third grade class when I first announced that we would be “revising” our writing. The task of going back and re-considering, re-thinking, and changing something we wrote is not always a pleasant idea, even for the best of writers, and for a bunch of elementary students it’s even harder. Kids this age are not used to slowing down (we don’t often get a chance to let them), and I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who has heard her share of the phrase, “I’m DONE!” after only five minutes of writing. They are all about moving on to what is next.


The last time I wrote I talked about the importance of sketch journals for students and teachers, as a place to collect ideas and about drafts the way a greenhouse is used for nurturing young plants. Revision can be seen as the moment to harvest what we’ve grown, and create a meal to share with our readers. After using our journals for a couple of months, there are enough entries from which to choose. Because each journal entry consists of a picture and writing, we became committed to honoring the picture in our revision process in my classroom. Going back and re-drawing something became the first and most important step in our revision process. There are many ways to revise a picture: 1. use a different art material; 2. take a different perspective; 3. change the setting; 4. zoom in; 5. zoom out; 6. add more details or characters.  The kids came up with countless ways and were happy in this stage of the process.

Marc’s first picture


Marc’s second picture

What they didn’t realize as they re-made their pictures was that they were already beginning to revise their writing. All these changes led to re-thinking what they wrote. And it made it easier for me as the teacher to conference with them, pointing out that changing perspective might mean a change in voice; a different material might change the mood (one child decided that using pastels turned her picture into a “long ago fuzzy memory” and re-wrote it accordingly; and certainly more details meant more description. And the revision just happened, pain-free. I don’t know if it’s the fact that the pictures kept them engaged and committed to their work in a deeper way, or if the visual stories they made helped them to see what they needed to do – or a combination of both. Below you can see the explosion of writing that came from the child that drew the islands above: the original writing as compared to what he wrote after revising the picture:

Marc’s first writing


Marc’s second writing: “I thought there was a shark under us because it was all bumpy because we were going so fast. We finally reached the island. We all got off the boat and set up our tents…we were able to see the sunset. It looked beautiful. The color in the sky filled my eyes.”


The collecting of little drawings and short spurts of writing which were filling our journals became clear when we chose a piece to revise. And instead of hearing, “I’m done,” I swear I started hearing the occasional, “Can I revise this?”

Into the Wood

Recently, the children of our class became enamored with a large, golden volume entitled Tales of Mischief and Mayhem. It was in this way that we came upon our next British artist, Beatrix Potter. Although her elegant watercolors can not be found at the Yale Center for British Art, her work has been wonderfully documented throughout her children’s books.
Both naturalist and artist, Ms. Potter was also a trailblazer, bucking the trends of Victorian England. Her parents moved her out of London, up to the lakes country, and let her explore the wilderness. Schooled by a governess, Beatrix was allowed to catch rabbits, frogs, and the like, and keep them in cages as pets. She spent a great deal of her time sketching, painting, and learning about the animals that would later become the inspiration for her books’ characters.

As a watercolorist, Ms. Potter would first sketch her animals in pencil, and then add the watercolors. Later, she would “pop out” her paintings by adding black outlines. Our students learned this process, and even created their own watercolors with my co-teacher, Sylvia, before sketching, painting and titling them.

Peter-Rabbit-in-the-Rain Peter RabbitFisher-Wisher




Ms. Potter’s work has not only filled our bookshelves and walls….We found a darling poem by Ms. Potter that the children are working on memorizing as well as illustrating called “We have a Little Garden”.  Two of the children met by happenstance at the public library, and made it their mission to find more books and bring them in to class. One of the children recounted this in her “Weekend News”: 

In addition, many of the children painted gorgeous murals to help transform our dramatic play area into “Beatrix Potter Land”. It’s amazing to see how inspiring simple bunny ears can be:  Playing-as-rabbits


Any classroom can become immersed in the study of an artist, allowing him/her to influence all areas of the curriculum.

Drawing Inspiration

Sometimes the authors of our class need a bit of encouragement to either begin or continue writing. The other day, I noticed that several of the children were drawing inspiration from sources that had never before been tapped. Nicolas came to me and said that he was “done” writing, but his journal page looked only half finished. I was in the midst of asking the class if they had any suggestions for Nicolas, when suddenly Hudson’s page jumped out at me. He had a circular design that he had been working on, similar to Nicolas’. However, Hudson’s was much more detailed and colorful. I suggested to Nicolas that he sit beside his friend and see how he might continue to add to his page. It was just the influence needed.

Nicolas inspired by Hudson

Some other children had brought stuffed animals to school that day, to take to the “vet”, Sienna, when they played in the dramatic play center. I noticed several had sneaked them over to the tables during journal time. Instead of being the distraction  I feared, they also served as a positive catalyst to some children.

More frequently, we see books, paintings, and art cards being utilized by our students.

Edward copying bird

Seeking new ways to inspire journal entries keep our writing experiences fresh and interesting.