Table of Contents, Lists, Re-reading

“…those who fail to re-read, are obliged to read the same story everywhere” (Barthes, S/Z 16)

As we end the year I give students an opportunity to revise, add, re-work, any aspect of their journal work from the semester.  And I give credit for any additional authentic work they add.  All I ask is they explain what they added, where, and why.  This practice gives us both an opportunity for reflection and re-reading.

When we start journals at the beginning of the year I tell the students to save the first few pages for a table of contents, to save a couple of pages at the end for lists, and to number the pages.  Like the rest of us, they become busy and forget or I forget to remind them.  So a few weeks before the end of the semester I ask them to work on their table of contents.  This task at first seems too difficult for some, but as we talk they find ways to work. I suggest that a title for a page is like naming a poem or a movie or a chapter in a book.  As they go through their journals, they are also reviewing for their Final exam.  I ask questions on the exam about their journal work, so the task is a way from them to study while also creating their own view of the material we covered.

Each table of content tells a story. They find words to represent and signify. Sometimes the titles are pragmatic, sometimes poetic:

‘Making a Mark’



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‘Art of Story Telling’

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These tables give the students an opportunity of book-making where they are readers and writers, giving a re-reading of pages and pages of work.

In their last entry I ask the students to tell me what was their best, hardest, and most interesting work.  Reading their responses gives me insight into their experience of the year. Sometimes I miss something that was valuable to them, so I can go back and have a look.  Every year I catch something I missed in my first reading or the student reveals a discovery or the journal simply speaks for itself as something wonderfully made.



I had the students draw a painting and tell the story of the painting. This was a favorite for many and at the time I didn’t realize how many loved making up a story to go along with the image they had drawn.


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We end the year re-reading and realizing stories abound: waiting, signifying, and inviting.

–James Shivers

Poetry as Possibility

In a classroom where visual literacy is explored, poetry is another ancient art form charged with potential.  Good poems ask the reader to see and hear. From Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in possibility” to Charles Bernstein’s “Of Time and the Line” poets see the poem as a vibrant opening of the possible.



The exercise of moving a poem to the page is not complicated.  Too often we feel intimated by poetry. We worry about students not getting the sense. Consequently, we look for ‘easy’ poems where we understand every literary element. We can treat poems too mechanistically to the point of analyzing the life out of each line.  Or choose poems we don’t think needs much interpretation, almost self evident. If poetry is an art of possibility, should it be for readers?


Throughout the year I choose different kinds of poems, depending on the class, their interests, grade level, and/or unit we are studying. I typically provide a copy of the poem to the class so we can work the text, annotating, writing, underlining, circling or doodling. I read the poem aloud, we have some class discussion, and I give some cultural context.  I encourage students to observe, interpret, and respond.  I make sure at some level they understand and experience the unique logic and beauty of poetry.


This last quarter we read T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and then I asked them to make a visual interpretation of the poem.  After some basic discussion about components of composition — such as rule of thirds, the numerous ways the page can be divided to create effects, how placement of design, color, and words work to visually persuade — I asked them to make a visual reading of the poem using both text and the page in their journals.  If these pages could sing, what would we hear?

–James Shivers


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:


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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

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






Annotations: A Visual Record of the Reading Experience

When we think of visual design and books, we might consider children’s picture books, or comics. If we have happened upon an exhibit on or offline, we might recall illuminated manuscripts.  We have such a wonderful history of visual texts and the contemporary examples for readers of all ages abounds — think Dr. Seus, Simms Taback, Rosemary Wells or Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi or even Tom Phillips.  Easily accessible, all these words and images can seem distant from any kind of classroom practice.

Years ago in conversation with a friend during a seminar on reading and writing, we discussed a method of annotating texts.  From this delightful conversation, I began to experiment with colors as a way of marking texts.  So, for example, if I were to ask students to annotate parts of the text that seemed difficult I would request highlighting in a particular color with some comment.  As you can see below, the text/ the essay becomes it’s own visual record.  I can’t tell you how many texts I’ve seen highlighted in yellow with little or no explanation.


Student Annotations 2



Annotative student work on Henry Petroski's The Evolution of Useful Things
Annotative student work on Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things


I don’t think the exact assignment or annotative directive is always the key. Even with similar instructions the annotations above are different.  The key is the framework and to think of annotation as a visual record of the reading experience.  Defined in this manner, what a person, a teacher, a student, a reader chooses to annotate and how is open ended.  When I taught our ESOL transitional class I secured the funds to buy students a copy of one of the books we read.  Once the text was theirs, they were free to ‘mark’ the text, to visually interact with the text, to tell the text what they see, feel, think, and/or remember.  When we have a text and the text is ours, annotating becomes our visual record of the reading experience. Here’s a page from my own text:

Odyssey annotation

Strong readers often mark texts and this visual work is deeply linked to the reading experience. Considering annotation as a critical and creative activity, we can design and practice this skill in a multitude of ways.  And, once again, as we link student’s visual experience into their ever growing language arts skills we strengthen their ways of interacting and communicating with the world.

–James Shivers

First Drawing: planning, designing, reflecting

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…

–James Shivers


Seeing Blue

Recently I spent time looking through the archives.*  I was curious about the writer Henry Peacham – his work on rhetoric has had a large influence and in searching the collection, I discovered he also wrote on drawing and painting. In The Gentleman’s Exercise (1694) he covers a range of topics from exercise to illness, from drawing to recipes for creating color for painting.


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Reading his descriptions on how to mix materials to create array of colors I came to a simple realization: when we look at a painting we are often looking at the unique mixing of a particular color. The museum then is not only a place of visual meaning, but also a site of visual making by particular human agents located in a specific time and place. Color here is linked to a person and a composition, not a digital formula. A museum hums conversations of color. In the age of screens (even with retina), paintings –as acts of color making –are translated in a plane of sameness. Machine color is amazing. Human color authentic, located, aging, limited.


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When you have a chance, go to the museum. More than ever, we need to see the physical design of color. Composition and color are structural markers similar to narrative devices. What colors are used for somber, gleeful, mysterious, industrial moments?


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Color is not singular, but plural. When we say ‘blue’ we have a host of blues. Seeing these blues in a museum expands our visual terrain. A place where the constant play of context, space, light, and size of the canvas affects our seeing.  A direct physicality emerges beyond the reach of mediated machines, like this one.  The museum space fuses with our perception, our day and our space. We don’t just see once.


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We can see blue on our screens. Yet, do we ever think of making blue? With making comes choice, volition, effort, trial and error, quality of material products: the variables increase, and now as we look we can see that artists have a certain color design, a certain way of using the canvas, the brush, the elements. We realize that a color like blue is also a multifoliate human narrative.


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*See Rare Books and Manuscripts and the Reference Library and Archives for more information.

All photos were taken on April 16th, 2014 on the fourth floor.  For a wonderful history of the color blue, see Blue: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau (2001).

–James Shivers

Seeing Perspective

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.

seeing perspective example1


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.

–James Shivers


What if? The Odyssey, Bk 5

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?

Crazy how the gods are getting blamed for all this
Crazy how the gods are getting blamed for all this

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.

A Map of Reading
A Map of Reading

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.

Which strengths?
The Underworld
The Underworld

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.”

–James Shivers


We abstract from letters, worlds.

A salient feature of strong reading is ‘picturing’, a fostering of words to create a visual terrain in our heads.  We stroll along in a story, adding detail after detail, slowly shaping, ‘drawing’, or seeing a room, a chair, and conversation. We hear the words in what we imagine. We abstract from letters, worlds.  A process in time. A skill in need of practice.  As teachers we want to cultivate this participation, this move from letters on the page to figures in our minds.

How might a visual activity bring to light the power of words, the power of participation? Even in the 19th Century in our School Readers and Primers we wove together words and images, picturing and story, seeing and telling. Here’s one example from a Appletons’ School Readers Third Primer (1887).


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Continue reading We abstract from letters, worlds.