Growing the Abstract

Integrating visual discourse into a classroom provides multiple opportunities to work on numerous critical skills.  For this assignment, I had the students sketch from a photograph Michael Lyons’  Lady Zhen’s Well: The Final Light (2001).


I had them divide the page into sections, placing the sketch in the middle.  At this point I did not provide the title of the piece.

IMG_6098 (1)

After they drew for some time, I had them describe on the left as much detail what they saw.  On the right, I had them imagine what the piece could stand for, as an idea, emotion, or an experience.  Then, for homework they were assigned a one page written response explaining what the piece stood for using their observation work.

I used the time in class to discuss how abstraction works: we ‘abstract’ from our perception to understand what someone is saying or how someone is feeling. And we do this all day long.  Then, I asked them, what if we wanted to be creative about our daily abstractions?  We could say, our friend was having a bad day and they were ‘stormy’ or our friend was happily in love and ‘light as a butterfly’.  The assignment, I explained, was an opportunity to practice abstraction in another way.

Abstraction always dances with the concrete. By taking more of the concrete in through careful observation more material is available for abstraction.  By combining looking, drawing and writing, students practice the skill of abstraction. The one page assignment gives students an opportunity to create connections between what they can imagine, feel or remember and what they can see.  The process gives each student space to reveal their perspective, their values, and their insights. And literally, they grow the abstract. With the practice-work in place, we are then positioned to discussed the title, the work of Michael Lyons, and the function of abstract sculpture from a unique vantage point.

–James Shivers

Something’s Fishy by Hallie Cirino

How can a scientific study of marine animals become a classroom filled with art and literacy opportunities? Through a very natural course of events. My co-teacher, Maria, and I were noticing a strong interest in marine animals in our dramatic play center. One child in particular was pretending to be a “vet”, and instead of tending to the usual domestic animals, she was taking care of otters, seals, and an octopus. Hence, our study of sea animals began, which naturally led us to the YCBA collection! Therein, we discovered “An Angler’s Catch of Coarse Fish” by Dean Wolstenholme, circa 1850:

cropped to image, frame obscured, recto

The children observed a blown up version of this relatively small (8″x10″) painting on the SmartBoard and came up with the following remarks:

Angler's Catch observations

Their observations made broad strokes: “The fishes are different colors.” “”I see seaweed.” “I see sand.”

A couple of days passed, and I asked the children to revisit the painting for a few minutes, and then sketch it. Here are a couple of examples of the children’s sketches:

Fish sketches

Next, the children made additional remarks about the painting:

Angler's Catch observations 2

During the second round, the children really scoured the painting, trying to find either smaller or much more specific details, such as “the sand is whiter in the middle” “I see the name” (of the artist) and “there is green on the big fish”. It’s important to always make the time to take a second, third, fourth, (or more!) look at a piece of artwork.

After the analysis, we walked the children to the local public library, where they were able to find and check out books about marine animals. The children conducted research by finding interesting pictures about a specific animal and reading about it with an adult, after first telling what they already know about their animal. They then did a watercolor painting of their animal, and cut it out for exhibit on a collaborative mural. They dictated narratives about their animals, which we displayed all around the undersea world:

Ocean mural

Hungry Octopus narrative

Lastly, the children told us what they have learned about their animals, and we published it all into a class book, which is circulated home to all families.

What Luke learned about sharks




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’



Version 2

‘Art of Story Telling’

Version 2

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.


Version 2


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


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.”

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






Revisiting, Revising, and Reflecting

Using Darcy’s idea for revisiting journals mid-year, we had our five-year-old students do just that. I modeled the process for them, looking at a few journal pages, and discussing some possible revisions with the class. My co-teacher advised, “Find a page that gives you an idea, then revise it.” I told them that it is important to have a reason for a revision. As the children looked through their journals, I circulated around and asked them about their thought processes.
As Hudson revisited a drawing of an owl, he said, “I’m coloring in the feathers because I like how it looks with the feathers.” (The original drawing showed a blank white empty circle for the owl’s body.

When he finished his revision, he commented, “I like making feathers. It makes it more good. It was easy to revise.”

A careful eye will also note that Hudson added a sun and sky and flowers to his original drawing.
Beside him, Edward explained, “I added a sky and a dandelion. The dandelion used to be a blue flower, but when I added the blue sky, you couldn’t see it anymore, so I made it a dandelion.” He also added, “I liked doing the revising, but it was hard.”
Pell pointed to his drawing of a planet. “The planet had aliens, but it needed a volcano. The volcano is erupting, so now the alien has to find a new planet.” When asked how the revision process was for him, Pell lamented, “It was really hard. Some of the colors wouldn’t come out on my paper, over the other colors that were already there.”
Harper had found a picture of her family that she had drawn some time ago. I asked her how she was revising it. “I’m making some hearts around it for love.” When asked how the revision process was, Harper said, “I liked that I had a chance to draw different things. My picture is better now.”

Since our first day of revising, we have noticed that many of the children are still going back through their journals, seeking ways to further explain, enhance, and elevate their work.


Physical and Emotional Techniques

Our class has been studying stars and space, and while looking for space themed paintings, Sylvia and I came across John Hoyland, an abstract expressionist.

John Hoyland, “Space Warrior”

After viewing several of his paintings and making observations, the children in our class learned about Hoyland’s techniques. He generally used very large canvasses and “stained” the backgrounds first, and then he poured, puddled, squirted, or splashed paint onto his canvas. He generally did not mix colors on a palette or apply the paint with a brush. In addition, Hoyland brainstormed a list of topics/themes that got him excited about painting. Our students did the same. Some of their ideas included “riding on a falcon”, “water bending”, and “skiing and chairlifts”. Next, we found out that Hoyland’s application of paint tied closely with his emotional state that day. The children brainstormed a list of possible emotions and surprised us by not only giving the expected “happy”, “sad”, or “mad”, but also including “confused”, “frustrated”, and “disappointed”. Our students loved experimenting with new painting techniques in Hoyland’s physical/emotional style.

After painting, the children  about wrote their own titles by stating an emotion and a noun that described their paintings:

Excited Sky by Grace Powerful Abstract by Patrick

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

Bird and Egg

Partly inspired by one student’s “bird journal” (a reference to his sketch journal—All of his entries this year have been about birds), and partly inspired by seasonal migratory patterns, a bird theme emerged in our classroom. After searching for “birds” in the YCBA’s collection, a sweet sculpture appeared: Henry Moore’s “Bird and Egg”.
B1984.6.3We recorded the children’s observations, which included statements such as “I see two tiny holes” and “It doesn’t have a mouth”. The children then illustrated their observations.

bird and egg 2

Next, inspired by a previous blog post by James, we had our students look at the sculpture and pretend that the bird and egg were part of a story. As they studied the sculpture, the children collaboratively told the following:

Once upon a time, there was a bird. There was a princess picking some flowers. Some guys were hurting the bird, so it flew away. The bird sat on its egg, and it hatched. A man saw the princess picking the flowers. The man and the princess got married. They got the bird as a pet. The baby bird’s mommy flew away, so the baby bird was sad. The baby bird got attacked, but the mommy bird came back and saved it.

We decided that it would be important for the children to try their hand at sculpting their own birds. We found an old bag of powdered cellulose fiber, which, when blended with water, becomes a sticky, textural clay. It was the perfect base for our bird sculptures. Finishing the sculptures then became a multi-step process, which included painting, feathering, adding eyes, beaks, etc.

Finally, the children wrote facts that they have learned about birds. We displayed these with their birds and a collaboratively created tree sculpture in our “Bird Museum” in our classroom. A trip to the Connecticut Audubon Society capped off our bird study.