The Visual Word

Having established a journal practice in class, I found multiple ways of using it for day to day assignments.  One advantage of the journal is archival.  Students begin with their work at the beginning of the year and keep adding to the pages as the year progresses.  They can look back, refer to their previous work, re-read and use as a source. Students have a record of their ongoing learning, an archive.

The assignment here was to place image work along side their word-work. I don’t do this with every set of vocabulary words.  As a visual literacy strategy, the word and the understanding spill into the experience of learning. Later, the student can look back and ‘see’ what they know. As is the case with drawing and designing, they often feel the urge to re-vise both.  I ask the students for context, part of speech, definition, an example, and a visual.

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Students learn words live in contexts with a narrative.  Students create a unique iconography and links outside the text. The word then has a visual component along side a link outside the reading.  Since the goal is practice and exploration, I can look at their work as a process of knowing and be flexible in my assessments. As their language use expands from ongoing practice in various modalities, students find more nuanced ways of communication. As their journal becomes an archive they see a residue of their growth or even see places where change is necessary. They continue to learn on their own.

–James Shivers

Seeing Perspective – Part Two

Perspective is an essential narrative feature. Each page of a book, each scene with a character provides another way of seeing the story. In many texts, the narrative has recursive features of time and knowing. We see the story different when we have finished and look back.  We see the story different when we are given another vantage point. We see the story from our perspective as we read.

Each perspective generates a narrative of seeing, feeling, and knowing.  If this is the case, then the exercise of drawing a sculpted figure  from different vantage points should generate unique insights (follow the link to see what the students drew).  As with reading a narrative, we see what we are given and what we look for.  So, I asked students to draw the image first and then describe the mood.  The act of description calls forth their own knowledge and experience: How is this person standing? When I stand this way how do I feel? How have I seen this stance before? What does this stance communicate?

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“[L]ost, lonely, depressed. It seems as if this man is outside and is alone and thinking to himself. He is in a situation (stuck) but doesn’t go for help. He is desiring something without reaching out”.

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“Nonchalant. He is on his phone but it’s cold out so he has one hand in his pocket and is wearing a sweater and pants. He must have heard something so his head is turned in a casual way. He is not in any rush. Maybe he is waiting for a bus”.

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“Confused, Pondering. Maybe he’s thinking. I watch this man, he’s thinking or looking for someone. He’s looking for me. He doesn’t know I’m right behind him”.

Each student brings their world to bear on their expression and interpretation.  Students can discuss what they see and why with each other.  Students can also look at the progression of their work. What did they think at first? How do the three perspectives construct a whole?  Some students wonder why I would show the “same” object three times, suggesting nothing is different.  This leads to further conversation and closer looking. What would we know if we only had one of these vantage points? A question like this brings the sense of perspective to the forefront.

But why do this exercise in an English class? Simply, it’s a story of reading.  As we go through a book, we are building a sense of the story. The longer we read, the more we ‘see’, and soon, we are living with a story with various narrative strands linked. Each link has value. Some students will see this quickly. Others, will need more time. If we choose not to ignore this multiplicity, we allow change and growth to occur.  Allowing room for the process of knowing and practicing this skill makes the classroom a rich environment of dialogue and discovery.

–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

Exploring Sculpture Through a Variety of Media by Hallie Cirino

We were learning the phoneme for “qu”, and thought that we could introduce the idea of “quadrangles” and do some shape exploration. After a search on the YCBA Collection website, we found Barbara Hepworth’s “Four Rectangles with Four Oblique Circles”, the perfect sculpture for our needs.


We viewed the sculpture “larger than life” on our SmartBoard screen. Here are some of the children’s comments:

“It looks like a family.” -Dutch

“It’s a metal pig.” -Jack

“The circles look like windows.” -Luke

“The rectangles are made out of rock.” -Esme

The children also had questions:

“Who made it?” -William

“What is it made out of?” -Harleaux

“How did she make the holes?” -Cassie

“What’s it called?” -Levi

So, we “asked Google” about it and we were VERY surprised to find a children’s book with the sculpture featured on the front cover! (Amazon Prime, thank you for your prompt delivery!)

Look! Look! Look! at Sculpture

When the book arrived two days later, we eagerly read it, and the children wanted to try the paper sculpture ideas that were inside:

paper sculptures

We decided to explore more media options for sculpture. My co-teacher, Maria, bought some fabulous natural clay. It was the children’s first experience using this material. As Jack was working with it, his finger accidentally poked through the middle of his clay lump. “Hey, that’s what she did,” remarked Jack, pointing at the Hepworth. In a few minutes, Jack had done this:

Jack's sculpture

Maria and I turned to each other and knew that we wanted the kids to sketch the Hepworth as well. We decided to introduce yet another new medium, charcoal. Most of the children started their sketches with pencil, and then added shading and coloring with the charcoal. What a happy mess!

class sketches Hepworth sculpture William sketches sculpture charcoal sketch Lukecharcoal renderings

Naturally, we couldn’t resist trying sculpting (and eating) with chocolate:

Harleaux and Levi sculpt chocolate chocolate sculptures

We also did sand sculpting and even pancake sculpting! The idea of learning about quadrangles organically lead us to so many new, enriching experiences.

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




When Dads Come to Play by Hallie Cirino

“Working Parents Day” is a fun Saturday morning at CHT Preschool when parents, who don’t usually have the opportunity to come and see the school, spend a few hours working and playing with their children. Typically, in our school community, this tends to be mostly dads, who gravitate toward blocks and Legos. This year, however, our class ended up having only dads. We noticed that most of them gravitated toward PAINTING.

Esme and Dad Dad's choose to paint Jack and Dad paint Luke and Dad

Some dads collaborated on a single painting with their child, while others painted side by side. It was wonderful to see!

At the start of Working Parents Day, we asked a “Question of the Day”: Where would you like to play today? Dramatic Play, Art Center, or both?

SmartBoard dad's day

We also had a father-daughter pair who created costumes in art center, in order to facilitate dramatic play:

Harleaux and dad Harleaux and dad in costumes

Of course, dads found additional ways to connect with their children as well:

Cassie and DadWilliam with dad

The whole day was fabulous, and we loved the spirit with which the dads participated!

The benefits of the YCBA Summer Teaching Institute and the journey

About four years ago this month I heard about the Summer Teacher Institute: Expanding Literacies, Extending Classrooms at the Yale Center for British Art. .  After reading about the workshop I said to a colleague, this sounds really interesting. At the same time I was in discussions with my supervisor about switching courses. I wanted teach our standard level 9th grade instead of teaching AP Literature for Seniors. I was curious about the smart phone cultural effect on students not in an honors tract.

After one day at the conference I realized the emphasis on visual literacy, the power of embodied visual experience, the role of seeing and knowing, and the mindfulness practices were all areas I had been slowly incorporating into my classes.  Yet, I had not thought of placing these various domains together, in a daily way, in the classroom. I left the conference with more questions and quite inspired.  I spoke to my then supervisor about a pilot program where I would take the students to the museum giving them an opportunity to practice what I had practiced myself.  I had no idea where this journey would take me.

After four days of sheer intense encouragement I knew that I had reasons for incorporating visual literacy practices, skills and theories into the classroom.  The following year each student had a journal (without lines) and we visited the museum several times.  Now, four years later, 33% of those students, now seniors are taking our most advanced courses in the department.  Regardless if these students changed tracts, the work they produced that first year still gives me pause. The skills they developed are remarkable. During the first quarter, I asked the students to draw a map of their reading experience.

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I am indebted to the YCBA Department of Education and all those who lead workshops and gave lectures for having the vision of the Summer Teacher Institute . I would encourage you to sign up and join us in June.  You can register here.

–James Shivers



Author Analysis by Hallie Cirino

Our class recently completed a study of Ezra Jack Keats’ work. In summation, we decided to have each child find their favorite book. Once this was done, the children then found their favorite illustration in their favorite book. The children carefully studied the artwork and discussed what media they thought Keats had used. After analyzing, the children worked very hard on recreating the art on 8″ x 10″ canvasses, which pretty much replicated the page sizes in the books. All of the children painted the background of their canvasses first, just like Keats. What struck me the most was the incredible focus that the children had, and the artistic decisions that they made as they worked. All worked a minimum of two sessions on their canvasses.

William chose to paint this scene from Louie’s Search:

William painting He then explained in writing, “I like the part when Louie gets chased.” William’s choice of quick brushstrokes made his painting even more “threatening” than the original.

Levi chose to paint this page from Dreams:

Levi paintingLevi said, “I chose Dreams because I like when he looked out of the window.” Levi further verbally explained that the character, Roberto, “was watching his toy mouse make shadows when he fell,” thereby affirming his comprehension of the story.

Esme collaged and then painted this scene from The Trip:

Esme The TripShe surprised me by writing that she chose this page because “it has really pretty windows.” She spent a full hour snipping tiny windows and painting them different colors before carefully affixing them to her canvas.

Harleaux selected Pet Show and did this abstract, painted rendition, which she first sketched in pencil:

Harleaux Pet ShowShe wrote that she chose this page “because I like the animals in it.” Harleaux painted some wee details that most eyes would likely miss!

Jack used chalk pastels to recreate the windows in Dreams:

Jack Dreams He wrote, “I chose Dreams because I like the windows.” Jack revised his work at least five times, carefully brushing away the chalk, before finally being satisfied with the result.

Dutch chose to paint one of my personal favorites from Louie, wherein the main character dreams of feeding a puppet from a huge ice cream cone:

Louie Ice Cream He surprised me by writing, “I chose Louie because it was the easiest one.” He further explained that it really wasn’t easy, at all. “Just painting the ice cream cone was easy.”

Luke selected this scene from Goggles before painting AND drawing elements with chalk:

Luke Goggles Luke wrote, “I chose Goggles because it is hard and I like to do hard things.” And did he ever work hard, over three days, on this piece.

Cassie painted a different scene from Goggles:

Cassie painting Cassie wrote, “I chose Goggles because Peter talks through a tube.” Cassie spent about 45 minutes painting and repainting and remixing paints on her background. Her finished canvas was so heavy, I wasn’t sure it would hang!

Not only were the children’s artistic choices fascinating, but so were their reasons for selecting which works to recreate. Some children focused on story elements while others looked at the actual art to aide in their decision-making processes. My co-teacher, Maria, and I were very impressed, indeed.


“The Color Blind Artist” by Hallie Cirino

My co-teacher Maria Rosa’s husband, Dr. Paul Rockoff, calls himself “The Color Blind Artist”. He recently paid our class a visit, to share some of his paintings and to demonstrate some of his techniques. He also discussed what color blindness is, and told the children that he thinks of it as an advantage, because he doesn’t have to get obsessive with mixing the perfect colors, and he can ignore color criticisms!

“Doc Rock”, as the children called him, showed the class some of his recent works.

This is “Who”:


The class noted nuances in the paintings as they were shown. Harleaux liked “the owls because they are pretty”. Jack liked “how Doc Rock painted the trees, the owls, and the jeep”. Dutch liked “the dog in the jeep”. Cassie liked “how the owls are holding onto the branch with their claws”.

This one is “Urban Fisherman”:

  urban fisherman

William liked “how Doc Rock painted the buildings”.

Paul explained to the children that he generally paints with black and white, since he is unable to see color. However, sometimes he will add a pop of color, usually selected by reading the color name on the tube.

In contrast, he also shared a painting in which he used many colors. This one is “Card Sharks”:

card sharks

Esme liked how Doc Rock “made the sun rays slant down through the water”. Luke liked how Doc “painted the sharks’ noses and how they drink coffee”.

The children were invited to find Doc’s signature in his paintings, which is the image of his pet Labrador retriever. They loved analyzing each painting!

Doc Rock then demonstrated his painting process. He sketched a whale first, and then used it as a model for his next painting. He covered his entire canvas with gray, and then began to paint the outline of the whale with white.

Here is Doc, working on “Willy the Whale”:

Doc Rock paints

The children were fascinated to see Doc Rock continually step back and look, and then revise, just as they had done in their own journals.

Finally, before Doc Rock left, the children challenged him to a color blind test on the SMARTboard:

color-blind-test - CopyIt was difficult for the children to fathom how and why Doc Rock could not see what they could see. Overall, it was a fun, interesting, and informative visit with the Color Blind Artist. Thank you, Dr. Rockoff!