Partly inspired by one student’s “bird journal” (a reference to his sketch journal—All of his entries this year have been about birds), and partly inspired by seasonal migratory patterns, a bird theme emerged in our classroom. After searching for “birds” in the YCBA’s collection, a sweet sculpture appeared: Henry Moore’s “Bird and Egg”. We recorded the children’s observations, which included statements such as “I see two tiny holes” and “It doesn’t have a mouth”. The children then illustrated their observations.
Next, inspired by a previous blog post by James, we had our students look at the sculpture and pretend that the bird and egg were part of a story. As they studied the sculpture, the children collaboratively told the following:
Once upon a time, there was a bird. There was a princess picking some flowers. Some guys were hurting the bird, so it flew away. The bird sat on its egg, and it hatched. A man saw the princess picking the flowers. The man and the princess got married. They got the bird as a pet. The baby bird’s mommy flew away, so the baby bird was sad. The baby bird got attacked, but the mommy bird came back and saved it.
We decided that it would be important for the children to try their hand at sculpting their own birds. We found an old bag of powdered cellulose fiber, which, when blended with water, becomes a sticky, textural clay. It was the perfect base for our bird sculptures. Finishing the sculptures then became a multi-step process, which included painting, feathering, adding eyes, beaks, etc.
Finally, the children wrote facts that they have learned about birds. We displayed these with their birds and a collaboratively created tree sculpture in our “Bird Museum” in our classroom. A trip to the Connecticut Audubon Society capped off our bird study.
The “getting to know you” theme that many teachers engage in at the start of the school year is a natural place to introduce the idea of “self-portrait”. Sylvia, my co-teacher, and I created a display of a dozen self-portraits which show a range of artistic expression for our five year old students to peruse during the first few days of school. Frida Kahlo, Ansel Adams, Pablo Picasso, and Georgia O’keeffe were among those displayed.
After the children discussed their observations of the portraits and we recorded them on chart paper, we invited our students to create their own self-portraits. Once they were complete, we had them write a sentence starting with “I am…” and we posted their thoughts with their portraits. This period of self-reflection was wonderful.
Once this was finished, we thought it would be an excellent lesson to have the children study the faces on the professionally rendered portraits, and decide what the artists would say if they wrote “I am….” sentences. Each child really studied the portraits, looked into the eyes of the artists, and came up with some interesting responses.
I loved noting the time that each child spent, really studying and thinking about each portrait before writing his/her idea. Overall, it was a meaningful way to get to know each other better.
The circle undrawn is never the circle drawn; — Norman Nicholson
The 20th Century British poet knew of the gap between our eye, our mind, and our hands. This gap, quite apparent at the beginning of the school year awaits our response. Integrating a visual strategy into your class can begin anywhere. The point is to start looking and start connecting looking to seeing, seeing to drawing, drawing to words.
For the past two years I have started with Albrecht Dürer’s Melencholia I (Albrecht Dürer – Melancholia I, 1514). I don’t spend a lot of time discussing the work of art as a cultural object; rather, we use the work of art as a beginning of seeing and thinking. I have chosen the print for a variety of reasons. First, it is a significant work of art that continues to inspire conversation. Many have tried their hand at its composition. The image also covers a range of objects and ideas: students can draw the entire piece or focus on one particular element.
“All her life Mary has been strong, confident and smart. Her parents were always wealthy, and had everything she had ever asked for. She had long beautiful silky dresses, and enough gold for the entire kingdom. Yet, she still felt as if something was missing – not something from her extravagant room, but something missing insider her…”
The image can handle sustained observation and the longer you look, the more you see.
“The Story: The woman, her child, and her crew were trying to get to their destination or the light in the distance. Their ship was wrecked and they were the only ones to survive. They washed up on a deserted island and the wreckage came with them. Now they are stuck on the gross uninhabited island and can see their destination in the distance. She is upset and starving. She is afraid she will die before someone finds them.”
The drawing work leads to conversation: What did you see? What did you draw? Why are these objects together? What does melencolia mean? I then can ask the question (and one we will be asking and discussing all year): In what ways is seeing literal? In what ways is seeing metaphorical?
“Two angels were sent to a small island. On the small island there were about 20 people on two boats which have crashed on the shore due to a bad storm. The boats no longer worked. Everyone was hot, thirsty, and hungry. They were so desperate for help…”
Of course, I don’t answer any of these questions, only start the story listening to the new worlds being made. The students are encouraged to speak, to say, and begin ‘showing’ what they see. And this starts our journey for the year. And our conversation…
By Hallie Cirino, 5’s teacher, CHT Preschool, Westport, CT
One of the great joys of teaching in a school which embraces an emergent curriculum is finding artists whose works reflect the interests of the children. Recently, my co-teacher, Sylvia Grannan, and I noticed an emerging curiosity in jungle animals, so Sylvia said, “Why not study Rousseau?”
We hung colored copies of a small selection of Henri Rousseau’s vibrant paintings on a classroom wall, and waited for the children of our pre-K class to take notice. Our students were immediately drawn in, informally pointing and discussing Rousseau’s work. “Look at those monkeys!” “I like the flowers.” “The moon is full.”
The next day, we set out blank white paper, markers, crayons, pencils, and pastels, and asked the children to “write” what they notice about the paintings. Every one of them first drew what stood out to them, and then wrote a sentence about it. The students each took a turn to share what they had drawn and written.
A few days later we revisited their writings, and decided to write a collaborative class poem. The children started the poem by making a list of all the things they noticed in the paintings. We told them that these words are called nouns. The students then added action words to express what the objects/animals were doing in the paintings. Finally, they added descriptive words (adjectives). This was incredibly challenging yet fun for our five-year-olds! Here is their Ode to Rousseau:
Feathered owl resting
Happy monkey swinging
Leafy flower growing
Red plants waving
Tall trees bundling
Round orange sitting
Furry lion sniffing
White moon glowing
Tired girl sleeping
Stringy guitar laying
Serious person standing
Fun city spinning
Along the way, we read parts of a biography about Rousseau, which included the interesting fact that he had never seen a jungle and painted largely from his imagination. At the end of our artist study, we put out paints in the colors of Rousseau’s jungle paintings. The children were invited to use their imaginations, and paint whatever Rousseau had inspired. One of the children wanted to entitle his, and pretty soon they all had titles, from “Beautiful Flowers” to “Hiding Jungle”.
The students of our class are now showing an emerging interest in sharks…
“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!
Here’s a classroom activity using Reg Bulter’s Man (early 1960s) from the online collection.
Lesson: Explore the value of location, view-point, and narration.
Activity: class drawing, reading, and writing
Process: Use all three images from the online collection
Draw image (10 min) whole or detail. Respond in writing to the following questions (5 min). What is the mood? What is the story?
Draw second image (10 min) whole or detail. Respond in writing to the following questions (5 min): What is the mood from this perspective? What is the story?
Draw third image (10 min) whole or detail. Respond in writing to the following questions (5 min): What is the mood from this perspective? What is the story?
Reflection and follow up: If you had only seen one of these images what would you know in terms of mood and story?
In what ways might we use our classwork today towards understanding the effect of location, view-point, and mood when we read literature? When viewing works online? When reading a news story?
Example: Although I generated the lesson for the students and their needs, I too benefit from ‘seeing perspective’ and participating with them. Here’s a clip from my journal covering two of the steps.
Place in the Classroom
The activity generated quite a bit of conversation in the classroom the following day. Students gained perspective on a range of skills and frameworks — from seeing perspective to the role of location in story telling.
Poetry is one of our oldest image-makers. Words paint. Readers imagine the world of the text. What if we tapped into this visual process and redirected the output? What if we began asking readers to ‘give us a picture’ of what they ‘see’ as they read?
What do these words see? And later, how might words show a place or an emotion?
Poetry attempts to alter our perception through words. By asking students to draw what they see in a passage or a chapter we bring them into the poetic process. Creating a classroom where these drawings are shared and discussed situates each member of the class as an image-maker. By establishing various drawing activities within the study of the language arts we encourage students to explore other versions of ‘image-making’. The imagination has another platform. Students have access and place to continue the conversation.
In class students discussed their planning (“pre-writing”) for their design as well as their hopes (the effect on the audience). Everyone had words to add. Later in writing they pursued this question: In what ways did the activity alter or enhance your understanding of the passage or reading itself? You may discuss your own work or work of your peers.
For the assignment the students chose a passage from their reading to draw and provide ‘a visual reading of the passage’. The examples below are from three different sections of the text we were reading at the time (The Odyssey). One student wrote later that the assignment was the most difficult of the unit “because we had to draw a picture of what was going on in the chapter and I didn’t really have a good understanding of the chapter that we had to draw which made it tough.”
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!
After many years in education, it has finally occurred to me that I really need to market the idea of reading and writing to my remedial reading
students. Reading and writing has always been difficult for them and at the ripe old age of 9, they don't choose either as free time activities.
Despite my encouragement of, “practice will make you better” or my pleas:“you’d never say this to your football (basketball/soccer/dance etc) coach," reading and writing remain on the NOT TO DO list for these children.
So, I decided that I would bring sketch books back to the reading room this year. My goal: Let the kids discover for themselves that they ARE creative and DO have great powers of observation and ideas. For the first 15 minutes of each reading class, the students sketch, write and share ideas.
Guess what??? They LIKE it! They are beginning to buy into the idea that they are smart…just in a different way from some of their peers.
Very quickly, after the first 3 sessions, I had students requesting sketching/writing time. In the beginning, I collected images from the YCBA collection, book illustrations, and online images from various art museums. I am storing them in what is becoming a rather large power point. Each slide is an image with several writing invitations.
Van Gogh: Shoes 1888
Students sketch and write for equal amounts of time.
JWMTurner; The Morning After Deluge 1843
Two important observations over the past month:
1) Kids get right to the writing. Not one student (grade 3-5) has uttered the dreaded words, “I don’t know what to write.” Or better yet, “How many sentences does this have to be?”
2) The kids are starting to notice that their writing is getting longer and more detailed. There is pride in their voices when they share. They are excited with the language they are using and making links to literature. They are applying figurative language and making inferences (and actually know what both of those terms mean now!)
This takes very little planning. Just give students time and opportunity and they will amaze you and, more importantly, amaze themselves.
I sketch and write with my students to model and practice what I preach.
“Taking copies of National Geographic, she would cut out pictures of a zebra or a child, and write a story about the picture. “I wrote books in this way, around images,” Ms. Tartt said, something that didn’t occur to her until “The Goldfinch” — a book that surrounds an image of a luminous yellow-tinged bird — was complete.”
One of our goals here at the Yale Center for British Art is to encourage teachers and students to make these connections between image and writing on a daily basis. Novelist Donna Tartt encapsulates this goal with her novel centered around a Dutch painting. Take a look at this article and see how art has influenced this successful writer. You can also buy a copy of The Goldfinchhere.