Reading by Candle Light

O the delight of reading and marking a text! Each year I try to transfer this delight over to the students by establishing a range of annotative practices. I explore the many ways we might fused together words and markings, how we might give a visual record of the reading experience.


Our day to day world is filled with visual, textual, sound, and interactive ‘texts’.  This multimodal discourse dominates student lives, and is also a part of the history of books and reading.  In fact, we still have ‘visual’ books everywhere — from children’s books, graphic novels, to vibrant digital nodes.  So, a question arises for me: Is there a way to weave together critical and creative annotative skills with the history of the book and ancient practices of reading?  A further question also arises which the students may not ask, but one that I ask myself: Why do this at all? What is the purpose?  We are all about words and deeds in our daily life, so why not in reading and writing? What happens when we see what we say?

Although the thought of teaching Shakespeare may seem daunting, I have found curious ways to enter into the text that adds a visual dimension to the task of reading. We read A Midsummer Night’s Dream using various literary strategies that foster creative and critical experiences.  We annotate, discuss, write, listen. We are not seeking a perfect understanding of all of Shakespeare’s nuanced story-telling, but rather a level of authentic participation where students find ways to enter into the story.  After we finish reading (using our loaned books), I photocopy the entire play and give a copy to each student.  As a side note: one problem with reading in High School is that students don’t own their books. In the real world, real readers mark their texts in a variety of ways.

By second semester the students comfortably and confidently annotate texts.  But, I want to keep the story going and not wax into a dull, mechanical practice.  So, I give them an assignment that simply asks, ‘What if we made art out of our visual record of reading?’  You can imagine their first responses!  I won’t go into all the details of the assignment, but here’s a glimpse.

To introduce the assignment, I show a wide range of texts: the works of Tom Phillips, some children’s books, artist books and contemporary novels.  Each example delights in the dance between word and image.  Then I ask them to make a visual reading of the play.  As a first step, the whole class does the first page.  Then we show and tell, discuss and wonder.  No two pages are the same.  The larger assignment asks them to choose one page from the play as a focus. Other aspects of the assignment ask them to create a gloss and commentary (yes, just like the ancient manuscripts I’ve shown them throughout the year). The work is always unique, engaging, nuanced, unchained. Here are a few examples:


Version 2


Each visual work was unique. Some students drew; others wrote and pasted.  All of the students were thinking how the text could be imagined (as we do when we read). Upon completion of the assignment, each student holds in their own hands, their ‘reading’ of the play.  The word on the page hums and the work of the heart and mind fuse into unique physical book.  Below, we see the word and the design in a new, yet old light.

These wonderful students working at their desks at home, bringing their work into class, showing their peers, step into first hand the joy of the book, the page, the word. Now, click on the image.  We are still reading by candle light.  O the delight!

–James Shivers

One Student’s Journal

On the first day of using their sketch journals this year, one 4-year-old student sketched a bird in a nest. When he told me about his picture, he stated, “This is going to be my bird journal.”

bird nest

I didn’t really understand what he meant. However, each day that we had a writing time, he would pick a specific bird book off of the shelf and copy a picture of a bird from it into his journal. He would then ask which words on the page described that particular bird, and he would copy the words from the book onto his journal page. We became fascinated with his process. When he finished every single bird in the book, he asked for help in finding a new bird book and completed the same process.My co-teacher, Sylvia, then found a folder with copies of beautiful watercolors of birds. The boy went through the folder, piece by piece, drawing each bird.

Edward copying bird

After that had been exhausted, he started asking for pictures of specific birds. “I want to draw a kiwi today.” “I think I’ll sketch a white peacock, but it is going to be hard on the white paper.” “Today I will draw the daddy peacock.” For each of these specific requests, we pulled up a Google image on the class laptop for him to use. He learned how to tap the touchpad on the laptop to regain the image when the screen faded to black, and kept working. Over time, his illustrations became more and more detailed.

peacock spreading feathers
Other students in the class couldn’t help but notice this child’s process. Some student’s followed his lead and drew from books, while others copied his work:

Interestingly, his twin brother also wrote a “themed” journal. His was all about monsters! Every page that he created came from his imagination: baby monsters, swimming monsters, monsters with three heads, etc.

Now that our school year is coming to a close, I asked him why he decided that his journal should be all about birds. He simply stated, “Well, my brain told me to draw a bird in a nest on the first page, and that told me that this should be a bird journal.”

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.