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!

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.

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 ( 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


Using the Online Collections — Part Two

Students are accustomed to searching for materials online. Often the search comes from the browser they use. Using a curated collection like the one at YCBA is a different matter. All the materials exist, have been researched, catalogued, placed in the community for viewing and dialogue.  I regularly search the collections and encourage my students to do the same. I have even designed lessons around the searching through the collections.

When we were reading Speak, I wanted a tree the class could draw.  I found James Ward’s (1769-1859) ‘Mr. Howard’s Large Oak, August 5, 1820′ to be perfect for the assignment. As this was our last unit of the year, I was able to ask the students to draw in a different way.  I asked them to draw the image of the tree as they felt at the beginning of the year. In other words, I asked them not to just copy the tree, but to use the tree as a starting point for a visual interpretation of their own experience.  Their images were very personal and full of surprises.  One student drew the tree with very little leaves.  The only leaves he had, he wrote ‘a new hope’ for this year.  The students were able to look back at themselves at the beginning of their High School experience and reflect using their visual literacy skills.  The assignment also stretched their sense of drawing. Instead of drawing as ‘copying’ drawing was a way of seeing. They were free to modify, add, enhance, alter the image in order to communicate a particular experience.

As a general rule, I do the assignments with the students. I decided to draw the tree, but to fill the limbs from some comments written in my journal from quarter one.


Since I do the assignments with the students and tell them if they want to see my work they can.  Occasionally, I will show them what I’ve done. But, I am careful here. I do not want them to fall into the mimetic role: only do what the teacher does, then copy it slavishly, and then you are finished.  More important that seeing my work is seeing me work along side them instead of answer emails, grading, working on something for another class.  Obviously, at times, I need to work the room and take care of paperwork.  However, I don’t ask the students to do something I haven’t done myself.

–James Shivers


Using the online collections – Part One

The Yale Center of British Art has a fantastic collection of materials online.  With each unit I teach I look for images that will enhance the course content and visual literacy practices.  Once I have established a regular classroom practice of drawing/looking and have linked this practice to creative and critical skills, I find students more engaged with any one task.

When we were reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I wanted the students to have a visual sense of the woods as imagined in the play.  I went to the Search All Collections page.  Once here, I clicked on the Prints and Drawings. in the first box, ‘All Fields’ typed in “Trees” and the “forest” to see what would I could discover. I found many wonderful prints.

The first drawing, Ancient Trees, Lullingstone Park (1828) by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) I used with A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  Students drew the image of the forest and then for homework had to imagine the setting for the play.

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The delight of the assignment is that we all began with the same image, but we all imagined various points where this ancient wood fit into the play.  Although the drawing was realistic as you can see students still added their own reading of the image.  Students shared with each other their drawing and their setting, explaining why creating a forest of meaning.

If you search the collections for Samuel Palmer you will find full array of images in various mediums.  A follow up assignment would be to ask students to go through the collection a look for another image they would use for the assignment and explain why.

–James Shivers

Visual Summaries

Reading Shakespeare is a challenge.  Yet, with an annotated text, students find their way.  Along with the normal strategies of reading an old text, in an unusual language, I have also explored using visual literacy skills to enhance meaning and explore the progression of the story.

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Drawing and working with visual mediums as a regular practice affords many opportunities to work on critical and creative skills in order to develop insight, awareness, understanding, and enhance articulation.

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For this exercise, I asked students to make a visual design of the particular act. A design that communicates both the meanings of the play, but also their interpretations and understandings of the play’s story.

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I encourage students to pay attention to the page design, to incorporate place, subjects, people, even conversation that seems significant.  I also suggested that they create a visuals that will tell the story but also remind them of their reading experience. The page becomes a canvas of visual knowledge, open to any arrangement that is meaningful to them. The journal without lines gives us this freedom. A freedom they completely explore. The page in the journal becomes a composition and like all the images we view, discuss and draw, a visual medium awaiting discovery and dialogue.

–James Shivers

Growing the Abstract – Part Two

If we think of abstraction as a practice, we open a way for students to build meaning with themselves in mind, negotiating moment by moment their inner and outer worlds. In an ongoing space of practice, they access and utitlize their own experience of story, viewing, memory and imagination. Their work then becomes a fusion of the old with the new embedded with creative and critical acts of knowing.

“The statue represents the balance between order and protection.”


“As I lay thinking I wonder how to get to the top. There are so many obstacles. I don’t know if I’ll even be able to do it. Once I get to the top should I…what should I do? Life is an obstacle that is hard to get past.”


“Life itself is very boring, but with a little twist and a little bit of personality, life can be something that is spectacular.”

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Each student response was unique.  The next day we had open sharing. Students read their work to the whole class or conversed one to one. Orderly chaos ensued: words and worlds, stillness and laughter filled the room.  As we debriefed on the exercise, discussing why we did the assignment and how we felt, everyone realized that ‘growing’ the abstract opens the door for a seeing and making of the “spectacular”.

The full period was nearly over and we began collecting our bags and journals.  Just before the bell rang– in that one quiet moment before we ended, one student asked with some interest, ‘What are we doing next?’

–James Shivers