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


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

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.”

Higher Order Thinking

Remember Bloom’s Taxonomy of higher order thinking? Here’s an infographic reminder, just in case:

We are following our extensive study of Beatrix Potter with another woman of about the same time…Georgia O’Keeffe. As is our routine, the children looked at several of Ms. O’Keeffe’s paintings for a few days before noting their observations.

The initial comments that the children make tend to be very concrete (“I see a skull” and “I see lots of flowers”, etc.). When those have been exhausted, they begin to note other compositional elements such as the background (“The peaches are on a towel” and “The skull looks like it is on a napkin”). When those peripherals have all been identified, then the children look deeper, and it is exciting to note the higher order thinking that starts to happen. “Beatrix Potter used water colors, but I see Georgia O’Keeffe uses a different kind of paint.” “That painting (of a flower) reminds me of a red forest.” “The black middle of that big flower looks like a turtle.” “She paints very neat(ly), not like John Hoyland.” The children are making connections in ways that are new, all thanks to their immersion in the visual arts.

We also incorporate other elements of visual literacy in our artist study, such as a Venn diagram. This one asks, “Which Georgia O’Keeffe paintings do you like?” and the choices are “flowers”, “skulls”, or “NYC”:

Georgia O'Keeffe Venn diagram

Next, the children had an opportunity to “paint like Georgia”, as recounted in their “experience story”:

“Georgia O’Keeffe

We looked at Georgia’s paintings. We got clipboards and went outside. We found flowers that were growing, and we chose one to sketch. We studied the flowers. We noticed the colors, the shapes of the petals, and the middles. We drew the middle first, and then we drew the petals. Then we painted the flowers with watercolors. We wrote about our paintings.”

Instead of just titling their paintings, this time we asked the children to tell something further about their process, again reaching for some higher order thinking. Here are some examples:



Digging deeper by reflecting on a creative process, especially when accompanied by full immersion in the study of art or an artist, brings about the higher order thinking skills we all want our children to routinely use in our classrooms.

Into the Wood

Recently, the children of our class became enamored with a large, golden volume entitled Tales of Mischief and Mayhem. It was in this way that we came upon our next British artist, Beatrix Potter. Although her elegant watercolors can not be found at the Yale Center for British Art, her work has been wonderfully documented throughout her children’s books.
Both naturalist and artist, Ms. Potter was also a trailblazer, bucking the trends of Victorian England. Her parents moved her out of London, up to the lakes country, and let her explore the wilderness. Schooled by a governess, Beatrix was allowed to catch rabbits, frogs, and the like, and keep them in cages as pets. She spent a great deal of her time sketching, painting, and learning about the animals that would later become the inspiration for her books’ characters.

As a watercolorist, Ms. Potter would first sketch her animals in pencil, and then add the watercolors. Later, she would “pop out” her paintings by adding black outlines. Our students learned this process, and even created their own watercolors with my co-teacher, Sylvia, before sketching, painting and titling them.

Peter-Rabbit-in-the-Rain Peter RabbitFisher-Wisher




Ms. Potter’s work has not only filled our bookshelves and walls….We found a darling poem by Ms. Potter that the children are working on memorizing as well as illustrating called “We have a Little Garden”.  Two of the children met by happenstance at the public library, and made it their mission to find more books and bring them in to class. One of the children recounted this in her “Weekend News”: 

In addition, many of the children painted gorgeous murals to help transform our dramatic play area into “Beatrix Potter Land”. It’s amazing to see how inspiring simple bunny ears can be:  Playing-as-rabbits


Any classroom can become immersed in the study of an artist, allowing him/her to influence all areas of the curriculum.

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

Starry Night

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is a perennial favorite in our classroom, so it wasn’t by chance that we decided to name our class the “Star” class. The painting was hanging on the wall since the start of school, along with Van Gogh’s quote, “…and what is done in love is done well.”






Poster of “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh

Recently, we had the children sketch their observations of “Starry Night” and write about them. A couple of students noticed the brush strokes:


Others interpreted the content:


We talked to the children about Van Gogh and his techniques, such as using short brush strokes and outlining some things in black. We also told them that he used a thick application of paint called “impasto”. We thickened the preschool tempera with some shaving cream, and the children painted in the style of Van Gogh.

This sparked additional conversations and journal entries about stars and space. The children brainstormed what they know about stars and/or the sun. We noticed that some of the students made statements such as “The sun is the hottest star” and “The biggest star is the sun”. We translated some of these statements into questions for the class: “Is the sun the hottest star?” and “Is the biggest star the sun?” The children made tally marks to answer these yes/no questions. We set out to debunk these myths by asking Google through the computer microphone. The children loved hearing what “she” has to say! We hung the tallied questions up, along with writing that explains the answer.


Next, we found about a half dozen library books about stars and the sun. The children paired up and read through a book together. We taught them how to use small post-it notes to mark the pages that interested them. They then took turns sharing what they found with the class, and we helped them read some new facts. As we move on with our star study, we will be turning our attention to our next British artist, John Hoyland, an abstract painter who sometimes depicted space.