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:




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!

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.

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.

Establishing a Pattern of Making Meaning in the Classroom


This week I visited the third grade classrooms at the Read School in Bridgeport, CT to coach teachers and students in Visual Literacy. The goal was to introduce a pattern of making meaning through these three steps: 1. visual experience; 2. picture-making; 3. writing. All the while, the underlying goal is to get them to slow down and focus, so that they can recognize their own thoughts and stories, and develop their writing voices. This pattern of talking about art, drawing, and writing (in that order) inspires them to make connections to their own lives.

As phones, computers and over-scheduled lives monopolize more and more of our students’ time, the practice of making meaning seems to need our instruction. The good news is, children are thirsty for this kind of self-awareness, and are thrilled to discover that they have so many experiences which are worth writing about.

I began in each class by talking about why I draw before I write. I shared my own journal, reading a piece which started with a sketch of a pair of scissors and led to my writing a memory piece about my mother sewing. The idea was that the drawing, in this case, is not for show, or for beauty; we are drawing like scientists draw: to explore, and to pay attention to the world and to our thoughts.

Then, we established the pattern we will practice to make meaning of our own thinking:

A Wooded River Landscape with Fisherman by James Arthur O'Connor
A Wooded River Landscape with Fisherman by James Arthur O’Connor
  1. Visual experience: Discussing a work of art as a class (this painting is on the YCBA website (www.britishart.yale.edu/collections) is an opportunity to: a) focus our eyes and minds; b) share vocabulary and prior knowledge; c) build community.

3rd grade copy of O'Connor paintingcarolinas-pic-3rd-gr-read-sch

2. Picture-making: The drawings above were both done in response to the O’Connor painting. Their choice was to either copy the painting itself (left) or to draw something it made them think of from their own lives (right). Both choices give the student the time to reflect, explore detail, and make meaning.

3. Write: Students can have a hard time transitioning from drawing, where they often feel comfortable, to writing, where they often don’t. But these students are predominantly bi-lingual, and easily understood my explanation that their writing is really just a translation of their drawings. This is where they explore their ability to share their thinking and to develop their writing voices. I wrote their choices for writing on the board:

  • Imagine you are in your picture. Describe what you would see, hear, smell, feel…help me to see your picture with your words.
  • Tell a story about your picture. Pretend it is on “pause,” and describe what happens when you press “play.”
  • Your choice: a poem, a letter, etc. about your picture.

Yadeslie’s poem (choice 1), as read to me:

“If I was in the picture/I would feel the water/and feel the bark of the tree/and hear the leaves crack together/and hear the birds chirping/and I would smell the fresh air and the leaves/and touch the leaves and touch the grass.”

Caroline, (choice 2), wrote about her memory with her uncle, saying that “the tree feels wind in the air.” When I read her piece to my husband, he said it reminded him of Wallace Stevens’ line from Of Mere Being: “The wind moves slowly in the branches.” I will be sure to share that poem with them next time I see them, and point out how similar their writing is to Stevens.

Angie (choice 3) decided to describe her process, which was so helpful to me as a teacher and learner:

“When I drew my picture I thought that it was just sand and chairs and water. But then the teacher said to pretend it is a video. I put it on pause and then I played it. The first thing I hear is birds flying everywhere. I was running in the sand. The sun was shining. It smelled like the sea. I saw a sea star. It felt bumpy…it looked orange. I felt the wind blowing through my hair.”

–Darcy Hicks


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?”

We’ve Been Using Our Journals: What Now?

Re-planting in the greenhouse

Re-planting in the greenhouse


I have a greenhouse, where I begin plants from seeds. It’s pretty experimental…I try to be courageous and grow new things every year. Some things thrive and some don’t. Once things are growing, I take stock of what is useful. Can I make soup from these tiny eggplants? Are these tomatoes good for sauce? Should I combine a few things for a salad?


The sketches and writing in the pages of our journals are just like the things growing in a greenhouse. We pour our thoughts, and sometimes our hearts, into these pages, collecting our memories and ideas like seeds, forming them into pictures and words like little sprouting plants. When we take the time to really look over what we’ve done, certain topics stand out as stronger and worthy of our attention. So we work on those: we re-write, revise, publish, and share. When someone eats a meal I’ve made from the food in my greenhouse, I feel it was all worth it. Likewise, when I re-work a sketch and some words from my journal into a finished, presentable piece of art and writing, I feel all those entries were valuable.


This is the time of year to reflect on what we’ve done and go forward with a plan. As writers in the classroom, journals can provide the rich soil from which we discover our growing voices.

  1. Put aside time for your kids to read quietly through their own journals (and do it yourself). What sticks out as something you’d like to spend more time working on?
  2. Pair your kids in teams of two, so they can read to each other from their journals and begin to hear what others might want to know more about. Give them questions to ask each other that will cause them to stretch their thinking. Teach them to take notes so they are sure to include the information they need.


In the next couple of weeks I will include some examples of revised works from children’s sketch journals. In the meantime have a wonderful winter break!

A Message for Teachers on How to Exist

Kick the Can memory from Darcy's journal
Kick the Can memory from Darcy’s journal


The other day my friend and colleague, Cyra Levenson, said, “Until the teacher has a voice again, no student will either.” I realized that while I coach how to teach writing to children, I have been neglecting to focus enough on the fundamental need for teachers to have a writing voice.


There are always great things happening in education, but for a long time now there have also been constraining mandates taking up more and more of our time. I felt suffocated towards the end of my time in the classroom, and today as a teaching coach I hear too often from teachers that they don’t feel like professionals when so much is decided for them. This needs to change. Obviously, you did not go into this job for the salary–so you deserve to feel happy in your job, as you educate the next generation.


Teachers: this is where I get bossy. If you don’t have a journal, get one. You need to exist on paper. Draw and write in it every day…not just about your students, but about yourself. Who were you as a child? How would you teach your younger self? What made you want to teach? What are your school memories? What do you love to do today? Write about anything.  Join a writing workshop for teachers like the Summer Institute at the Yale Center for British Art (http://britishart.yale.edu/education/schools-and-teachers), or travel – there are teacher/writer workshops out there (like this one in Santa Fe: http://eefstc.sfprep.org/the-way-i-see-it/).

Reading a Degas painting from Darcy's journal
Reading a Degas painting from Darcy’s journal


Share your writing with your students so they see your process, your struggle, your courage, and your voice. And then, watch your students exist on paper too.


When we see ourselves as researchers and learners, we gain a deep understanding of the larger picture. We develop strategies to overcome the oppressive red tape and get down to what matters: learning to love learning.

Portrait of a Summer Teacher


Just a couple of months ago, the auditorium at the Yale Center for British Art was speckled with torn paper, art cards, paintbrushes, cups of water, scissors, glue sticks, items to smell, feel, hear, and see. It was also speckled with teachers – teachers painting, tearing, gluing, drawing – and it was very quiet. The Summer Institute for Visual Literacy was under way. Out of the silence, from the floor between two rows of auditorium seats, comes a voice: “I’m sorry to break the silence, but I just have to say – I could not be happier!”


Carol worked on a collage inspired by the phrase in the text doorway: “Calm Morning.” She finds collage “liberating because it doesn’t require perfection.”



Sabine smelled lemon at the smell doorway, then found an art card to help her picture a place she’d visited. She used chalk to evoke a “blurry memory.”


In the Doorways workshop, everyone found themselves in their own stories. Lindsay was back on a crowded train. Juliet was back in South India with the smell of coconut and Gaugin colors. Joe went back 30 years to share coffee with his brother in Texas. We left behind our fast-paced, distracting lives that week. We slowed down. We paid attention. We relaxed. And like a vacation, we knew it was going to be hard to take it with us.


As the first weeks of school are under way, I hope that teachers have found a way to harness this kind of deliberate, deep thinking and take it with them into the  year. Whether it’s altering everything you do just a little bit by bringing visuals into the classroom, or just keeping a journal for yourself for a while, the end result is better learning – and happier teachers.