Exploring Edison and Evidence, by Darcy Hicks

Thomas Edison and the lightbulb
A page from Thomas Edison’s journals

This week the fourth graders at the Read School in Bridgeport received their sketch journals, which is a right-of-passage in the world of Visual Literacy… it is treated as sort of a graduation, or an award for engaging in art-as-thinking. The journals are a sign of trust on the part of the teacher that the kids are ready to become gatherers of their thoughts, the world around them, and seekers of evidence.

I started this lesson by telling the kids that Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, left behind over 2,500 journals filled with sketches and notes. Most of the sketches were unsuccessful attempts at various inventions. This helped the kids to see that failure is a necessary step to success – and that their journals are places where they are expected to fail. This dissolved any nerves that may have been brewing among the kids who don’t see themselves as “artists.”

We then talked about scientific inquiry, and the practice of drawing as an observation tool. I handed out various gadgets: staplers, hole-punchers, locks… and they drew them carefully into their journals, looking for clues about how they work.

Observing a stapler
Sketching the hole puncher

The kids talked as they drew, excited to explain what they were discovering about how the gadgets work. This conversation focused mostly on springs, and how they are used to force pressure within a mechanical object. But at some point, the teacher asked if this activity reminded them of the skills they use in reading. That is when the topic of scientific inquiry pivoted to gathering evidence as readers.

Rather than describe this revelation myself, I will let this fourth grader explain:




Reading to the Core – site share

small green picture with text from blog

Special thanks to the literacy specialist who was inspired by attending the Center’s annual Summer Teachers Institute this year. Please enjoy her posts by clicking here.

For more information about the Center, click here.



When Adults Engage in Learning, by Darcy Hicks

Mrs. Romanello sketching and writing with her students
Ms. Williams drawing in her journal with her class
Ms. Mahieu with her class at the Yale British Art Center

This year, the teachers at the Read School in Bridgeport actively engaged in the the Visual Literacy partnership with the Yale Center for British Art. As teachers, we all know how hard it is to let go of the management role…and sometimes it is simply not possible, especially if the students require oversight and assistance. However, whenever possible, the teachers at Read participates in the process of discussing, drawing, and writing with their students. The effect has been powerful: the students take themselves and their creative work much more seriously, and are eager to work alongside their teachers. As a result, less oversight is needed and the role of task-manager becomes a background job in many instances, which is a welcome relief for teachers especially.

In the Fall, when sketch journals were introduced to the students, the teachers began using theirs also. I find that adults are much more nervous about sharing their drawings and writing than the kids, so it sometimes takes courage for the teachers to share their journal entries with their students. But the message the teachers send when they do this is that challenging ourselves, taking risks, and improving our skills is a lifelong journey.

Ms. Scali’s journal entries


Ms. Scali, a fourth grade teacher who came to the Summer Teacher Institute at YCBA last year (http://britishart.yale.edu/education/k-12-and-teachers), shared her journal pages with her students, explaining that there are times when she is proud of her drawings and other times when she is not as happy with how they turned out. But she said, “I never tear out my pages because I always learn from all my work, no matter what.” As a result her kids use their own sketchbooks with pride and care.

When the time came to visit the Yale Center for British Art, the parent chaperones were given their own journals, and asked to participate along with the students. During those trips, one of the biggest impacts was the strengthening of their community of artists/writers/thinkers, and the inclusion of more adults into their creative world.

Parent chaperones drawing with their kids’ class at the Yale British Art Center


At the Read School, parents and students and teachers alike work alongside each other, sketching, writing, and sharing their thoughts. This gives them the powerful understanding that there are many ways to see the same thing. Working together across generations, combats rigid thinking, exercises empathy, and generally opens our eyes to one another. And we all need more of that.

The Music Doorway: Listening for Ourselves, by Darcy Hicks


The Great Gate of Kiev by Kandinsky on the whiteboard, Mussorgsky playing in the background
Kandinsky’s Great Gate of Kiev

I have been using my Doorways approach with the third and fourth graders at the Read School in Bridgeport – specifically, taking in the world through our senses, and deciding what to do with that experience. This is a useful piece to the Visual Literacy experience, which already relies on the visual sense as the way to process the world around us and work towards literacy.

I begin this Sound Doorway lesson by telling the kids about the Great Gates of Kiev. The story is that back in the 1800’s, the city of Kiev, Russia had an exhibition of architectural renderings which were design ideas for their city gate. The composer Mussorgsky went to the exhibit and was so inspired by what he saw that he composed a suite of ten pieces called Pictures at an Exhibition. A short time later Kandinsky heard this suite at a concert, and was moved to go to his studio and paint what he’d just heard: a canvas full of vibrant colors and strong shapes, entitled The Great Gates of Kiev.

We listened to Mussorgsky’s suite as we looked at Kandinsky’s painting, and talked about what sounds translated to what parts of the painting: “The big clank is when he made that yellow sun!” “When they repeat that sound over and over he made a pattern in his picture.”

Then, keeping the music on, I handed out colored paper and glue sticks. I encouraged them to really listen to the sounds and translate them into color and shape.

They loved it. And what was thrilling was listening to their explanations of how the music directly affected their decisions:

Once they had spent a good 30 minutes on their collages, I put up some Writing Invitations and asked them to put their work into words.

Writing Invitations
  • Write a poem (not rhyming). Describe the sounds and colors and shapes
  • Describe what you would hear if you could step inside your collage. What would you feel?
  • Write words to the music you heard. Look at your collage for ideas.
  • Your choice!

In addition to exercising their listening skills (in a really new way), and getting them to stretch their ability to translate one sense into another, they then showed me that they could put this into sensory language.

“I feel when I look in my collage I can feel relaxed, also calm. I hear high pitch and low pitch music and beats and the smooth beat passing along the instrument and to each kid, and the sound is going to the people here and they feel like a smooth beat and they’re relaxed and calm.”

I was especially drawn to this one, where a student labeled each shape with a reason for his decision:

The red wavy shape on the left says, “Red trumpet hitting the concrete floor with extended sound,” and the yellow triangle says, “Lightning filling the sky with yellow light strong enough to outshine the stars.” I was struck by the abstract thinking, and the ability to translate sound to visual art to words. It is surprisingly mature, and yet it was not unusual in these five classes of 8- and 9- year-olds. Music is truly powerful, and an entryway we all too often forget to use!

Feb. 11- Family Day at the YCBA

Bring your family and friends for a fun-filled day at the YCBA on Saturday, February 11th from 10:30am-1:30pm! We’ll have storytelling by Tom Lee, dramatic performances by Mystic Paper Beasts, and Celtic music by Ringrose & Freeman, along with gallery activities and artmaking.

YCBA Gallery Visit with 3rd and 4th Graders, by Darcy Hicks


Five teachers from the Read School in Bridgeport, CT brought their students to the Yale Center for British Art last week, as part of their Visual Literacy partnership. They were divided into groups and headed off into the galleries with their parent chaperones and their group leaders (either a docent, their teacher or myself). Each group visited two paintings, and discussed what they saw in the paintings as well as what they thought might be happening.

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The children were equipped with pencils and their sketch journals, which they have been using in the classroom for drawing and writing as they engage in Visual Literacy. They drew what they saw in the paintings into their sketch journals. Drawing the paintings forces them to observe carefully and they see things they would have missed. As Donald Graves said, “We see with our hands.”

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There are a number of things that happen when children talk about paintings. First, as they tell what they see, they share and build vocabulary at a rate I never see in other conditions. One child says “The horse has a seat on his back,” and another says, “It’s a saddle.” I kept notes as they shared new words, but could barely keep up!


The other thing that always surprises me is the easy connections they make to these paintings, which at first glance seem so distant from their lives today. Looking at these scenes allows the children to share their own previous knowledge and life experiences with each other. One little girl said, “I think it’s morning because the sun is shining some pink, and that’s what I see in the morning.” When describing a dog in a hunting scene, a little boy said, “I think he’s trembling because he is about to enter the woods and woods are dark.” Note the vocabulary: words like “trembling” catch the attention of us teachers, who are often surprised that they know these words.

For the last half-hour of our visit, the children met in the Library Court and wrote in their journals about what they saw. They were given choices for writing. Some told a story about a painting, others described it. Some also chose to write from the perspective of one of the people or animals in the paintings. A few wrote poems.


"The sky is blue and the sun is out. It is a sunny day. I'm feeding my horse Pumpkin. But then I began to sweat. It's humid outside. I see the clouds reflecting in the sparkly lake."
“The sky is blue and the sun is out. It is a sunny day. I’m feeding my horse Pumpkin. But then I began to sweat. It’s humid outside. I see the clouds reflecting in the sparkly lake.”

The kids are learning to live in the paintings, and write from there.

"It looks like the horse is trying to turn away because the lion is trying to kill the horse. And the lion is biting his neck and that makes the horse not to breath. And his mouth is open trying to breath. And if I was in that painting I would hear the loud roar and last but not least I would hear him running!"
“It looks like the horse is trying to turn away because the lion is trying to kill the horse. And the lion is biting his neck and that makes the horse not to breath. And his mouth is open trying to breath. And if I was in that painting I would hear the loud roar and last but not least I would hear him running!”

These journal entries are seeds for all sorts of writing: personal narratives, poems, stories, informative essays, expository pieces, etc. The paintings are the bridge to their authentic topics and voices.

A 3-2-1 Look: Father Time


This 3-2-1 will examine the “Father Time” sculpture, which is located in the center room of the fourth floor in the YCBA. The sculpture was crafted out of Coade stone (a particularly durable material) around 1790 by an unknown artist.


3 important observations about this sculpture:

  1. Father time is holding a scythe and an hourglass, but he holds them rather clumsily. The hourglass and scythe are typical symbols in father time depictions, and together they represent the unstoppable forward movement of time. In this sculpture father time balances the hourglass in his left hand, and hides the head of the scythe below his seat.
  1. Father time’s body is detailed, muscled, and manly. In most depictions, father time wears a long robe, but here the fabric has fallen off his shoulders and hangs around his waist. The muscles in his arms and even the vanes in his fingers are sculpted with incredible detail.
  1. Father time sits on a stone. Usually, father time is imagined in a strong standing position. Here, he is crouched in a seated position. His body weight hangs on the shaft of his scythe.

2 major takeaways from this sculpture:

  1. Father time is disheartened. His seated position shows that he is exhausted, and his weak grip on the scythe and hourglass show that he is not very connected with his own symbols.
  1. Father time is a human, not a mythical creature. Even though he has wings, father time has rippling muscles, and mannish features. The details of his body tell us that he struggles in the same way all mortals do. This, in the context of his rather hopeless demeanor makes us wonder what role time played in humans’ lives. Does time rule humans or do humans rule time?

1 activity to engage students:

  1. Body Language Tableau: In this activity, students will analyze father time’s emotions by examining his body language.
    • Materials: None!
    • Instructions:
      1. First, engage in a brief discussion with students on their observations, specifically focusing on the symbolism of the scythe and hourglass.
      2. Then, have students imitate father time themselves by replicating his posture and body language.
      3. Next, while holding their positions, ask students to show the facial expression best fitting father time in this sculpture.
      4. Lastly, tell students to relax their position, and have them discuss in pairs and then as a whole group what facial expression they believe best suits father time.
    • Discussion Questions: How can we tell that father time is unhappy? Why might father time be unhappy? Is time controllable or uncontrollable? How does time help us understand lives? Depending on age, choose to connect this to the history of the late 18th century: i.e. what does this sculpture tell us about how people (the sculptor and his audience) viewed the passage of time in the late 18th century
      1. First, engage in a brief discussion with students on their observations, specifically focusing on the symbolism of the scythe and hourglass.
      2. Then, have students imitate father time themselves by replicating his posture and body language.
      3. Next, while holding their positions, ask students to show the facial expression best fitting father time in this sculpture.
      4. Lastly, tell students to relax their position, and have them discuss in pairs and then as a whole group what facial expression they believe best suits father time.

A 3-2-1 Look: George Stubbs







For this 3-2-1, we’ll look closely at George Stubbs’ painting “A Lion Attacking a Horse”. The piece is hanging in the Library Court on the Second Floor of the YCBA. Stubbs painted this in 1762.

cropped to image, recto, unframed

3 important observations about this painting:

  1. The animals’ bodies are incredibly detailed. The horse’s muscles and the lion’s claws are lifelike In order to best paint the lion and horse, he studied caged lions at the Tower of London, and observed horses in the English countryside.
  1. The painting captures movement. Stubbs shows motion through the horse’s wobbly back leg and wildly flailing hair and in the lion’s high tail ad sturdy posture.
  1. The subject of the piece is symbolic. Many paintings of lions attacking horses were created; many were made in ancient Rome, and Greece far before Stubb’s day. But in the 18th century, artists returned to the image. In fact, Stubbs made seventeen works on the subject.

2 major takeaways from this painting:

  1. The detail of the horse and lion’s bodies is based on values of the time. . During the time this painting was made, later called romantic period in Europe, artists became really focused on studying the details of the human body in order to capture its’ beauty. Stubbs used the same detail and care when painting the bodies of the horse and lion in this painting. In following this same technique that other artists used on humans, Stubbs makes us think about the differences between animals and men.
  1. Stubbs adds new meaning to this symbolic image of a horse attacking a lion. In Ancient Rome, the lion attacking the horse represented the Roman’s ferocity and domination. In other cultures, the horse’s demise represented the destruction of beauty. In this painting, and in his 16 others, Stubbs recreates an image from hundreds of years before in modern time. In doing so, he asked those viewing his piece to think about how 18th century society was similar or different from ancient society.

1 activity to engage students:

  1. Two- Color Sketch: students will understand the struggle between ferocity and beauty by sketching the animals’ movements in this painting.
    • Materials: One piece of paper and two different colored pencils per student, hard surfaces.
    • Instructions:
      1. First, briefly introduce the painting, naming the artist, time period, and the significance of the imagery (depending on age of students, choose to explain that the lion represents ferocity and the horse represents the fall of beauty).
      2. Second, have students assign each animal a pencil color.
      3. Then, have students sketch each animal using only the color they assigned to it. While drawing, they should focus on shape and movement of the animals. Spend about 8 minutes.
      4. Once they finish their sketches, have them compare with a partner. Each pair should discuss how they drew the movement of the animals and how these movements characterized the animals as fierce or beautiful.
      5. Lastly, discuss student work as a group.
    • Discussion Questions: What do the lion and horse represent and how do we know? Why did you assign the colors you did to the lion and horse? Why would Stubbs have wanted to remind his audience of this image that was used so long before his time?


Announcing The 3-2-1 Look Blog Series!


We are excited to announce our new blog series premiering this winter called “A 3-2-1 Look!” Each post will examine a different work from the YCBA collections. The once- weekly posts will note three important observations of the piece, two major takeaways from the piece, and one activity for students visiting the piece. The blog posts will provide thoughtful ways for teachers to engage students in rich and interactive analysis of the collection’s pieces. We hope you enjoy!


Developing Sensory Vocabulary, by Darcy Hicks


Autumn is a great time to explore our senses, and to build sensory vocabulary in the classroom. Using leaves and branches and acorns gathered from outside, the goal with the students this week was to understand how close scientific observation leads to good writing. I wanted to move them through sensory vocabulary, scientific observation, and poetic observation.

I handed out pine tree branches as we sat together on the rug. “Ouch!” they yelled as they eagerly grabbed them. “Pointy!” “Sharp!” I wrote these words on chart paper, and asked them what else they could tell me about the  branches. “Green.” “Prickly.” I asked them to smell them. “Minty!” “Sweet.” I continued asking them to use various senses to describe the branches, writing get their words on the chart paper. “These are Sensory Words,” I explained as I wrote the title of our list. “They catch people’s attention if you use them when you write.”


Next I had them bring the branches to their seats, also passing out maple leaves and acorns. I asked them to draw “like a scientist,” one of the three items, with as much detail as they could. My goal was to move them through three stages of observation and writing:

  1. List sensory vocabulary (texture, color, smell, shape, etc)
  2. Specific observations
  3. Poetic/abstract thinking

In the above drawing of an acorn, you can see that the student moved through these three stages. She used sensory vocabulary (“bumpy,” “fresh,” “smooth”) and then went on to make scientific observations (“I noticed tiny lines,” etc.. From there, she moved into a more abstract comparison (“This acorn reminds me of a marshmallow wearing a hat”). This is a great time to assess their vocabulary, and to encourage them to share words and ideas with each other.

Inevitably, the kids were chatting about what their drawings looked like. “Mine kind of looks like a cactus,” one said about his branch drawing. “This looks like a fly swatter!” a girl who had drawn a leaf said. I decided it was a window to talk about metaphors. I asked them to all wrote a sentence on their papers, describing what it looks like other than what it really is. Although we did not define metaphors in the true sense (i.e. “the leaf is like a ____”), they were beginning to think metaphorically as they made their comparisons and shared their ideas.

"The leaf is like a bat with smooth wings."
“The leaf is like a bat with smooth wings.”

The students agreed that scientists make good writers. For me, the child who drew and wrote about the above leaf, comparing it to a “bat with smooth wings,” demonstrates the power of close observation.