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.

Annotations Part Two: A Story of the Story

Each year after we finish a book I recollect them.  Each time I collect the books the students have to remove their annotations.

Usually when I collect The Odyssey from my 9th grade English class,  I can see all their various vibrant sticky notes.

Student Book

 Last year as the class began removing their ‘reading work’ notes I knew then I wanted to do something more with the process. I took a few photos.



I was dissatisfied. So, I played around with the table, the light, the annotations, and asked the students for help: a collective visual of their reading experience. I liked the photo, but…


Still, I was sorry they were losing all this work.  When we own and mark texts we also have a range of visual reminders. I have had students annotating texts for years, using a variety of methods, styles, structures, and designs.  Marking a text, making a visual mark. Getting rid of the annotations seemed problematic. If reading is an ongoing experience where we never know how long a word, a phrase, a dialogue, a description will linger with us, could we find a way to have fuller reminders in class, for individual readers?

As the time approached this year to collect their books I kept wondering,  Is there a way to re-view, to-regain, to create? Then, I thought:  Why not use their journals? Why not make a visual of the visual? A story of the story? I then wrote the following assignment:

Homework for the Weekend

I will collect your book on Monday.  Over the weekend I would like for you to create a work of art using your sticky notes from your reading work.  The work should be in your journal. The art should tell the story of your journey reading The Odyssey.  You will need to use all your sticky notes. You may additionally draw, glue, and/or design. I will need to see specific details about your annotations in your work of art (the type, the book references, the purpose, etc).  When I collect your books on Monday  all sticky notes should be removed.

 I wondered over the weekend how the assignment would be realized. I was very confident in them, but less confident in my idea. Was this too much?

On that Monday a few students shared their work and I quickly realized they had gone beyond anything I had imagined. On their own, without any additional instruction each student had continued the story of their reading. By shaping a visual mark of their reasoning and experience on the page they ‘made’ an argument about their reading experience. Sound familiar?  Here’s a sampling:










Students provided explantations of their argument, of their design methods and their aims.  As seen above, many found ways to weave together the story of The Odyssey with the story of their reading process.

Reading as a boat, a maze, a tree, a change, a journey.

And like Odysseus their annotations found a place to rest, to live. They took the opportunity to abstract their reading work even further in remarkable ways. This story of the story teaches and delights– not only their audiences and themselves, but now also the world, our world.

–James Shivers