Exploring Edison and Evidence, by Darcy Hicks

Thomas Edison and the lightbulb
A page from Thomas Edison’s journals

This week the fourth graders at the Read School in Bridgeport received their sketch journals, which is a right-of-passage in the world of Visual Literacy… it is treated as sort of a graduation, or an award for engaging in art-as-thinking. The journals are a sign of trust on the part of the teacher that the kids are ready to become gatherers of their thoughts, the world around them, and seekers of evidence.

I started this lesson by telling the kids that Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, left behind over 2,500 journals filled with sketches and notes. Most of the sketches were unsuccessful attempts at various inventions. This helped the kids to see that failure is a necessary step to success – and that their journals are places where they are expected to fail. This dissolved any nerves that may have been brewing among the kids who don’t see themselves as “artists.”

We then talked about scientific inquiry, and the practice of drawing as an observation tool. I handed out various gadgets: staplers, hole-punchers, locks… and they drew them carefully into their journals, looking for clues about how they work.

Observing a stapler
Sketching the hole puncher

The kids talked as they drew, excited to explain what they were discovering about how the gadgets work. This conversation focused mostly on springs, and how they are used to force pressure within a mechanical object. But at some point, the teacher asked if this activity reminded them of the skills they use in reading. That is when the topic of scientific inquiry pivoted to gathering evidence as readers.

Rather than describe this revelation myself, I will let this fourth grader explain:




Reading to the Core – site share

small green picture with text from blog

Special thanks to the literacy specialist who was inspired by attending the Center’s annual Summer Teachers Institute this year. Please enjoy her posts by clicking here.

For more information about the Center, click here.



When Adults Engage in Learning, by Darcy Hicks

Mrs. Romanello sketching and writing with her students
Ms. Williams drawing in her journal with her class
Ms. Mahieu with her class at the Yale British Art Center

This year, the teachers at the Read School in Bridgeport actively engaged in the the Visual Literacy partnership with the Yale Center for British Art. As teachers, we all know how hard it is to let go of the management role…and sometimes it is simply not possible, especially if the students require oversight and assistance. However, whenever possible, the teachers at Read participates in the process of discussing, drawing, and writing with their students. The effect has been powerful: the students take themselves and their creative work much more seriously, and are eager to work alongside their teachers. As a result, less oversight is needed and the role of task-manager becomes a background job in many instances, which is a welcome relief for teachers especially.

In the Fall, when sketch journals were introduced to the students, the teachers began using theirs also. I find that adults are much more nervous about sharing their drawings and writing than the kids, so it sometimes takes courage for the teachers to share their journal entries with their students. But the message the teachers send when they do this is that challenging ourselves, taking risks, and improving our skills is a lifelong journey.

Ms. Scali’s journal entries


Ms. Scali, a fourth grade teacher who came to the Summer Teacher Institute at YCBA last year (http://britishart.yale.edu/education/k-12-and-teachers), shared her journal pages with her students, explaining that there are times when she is proud of her drawings and other times when she is not as happy with how they turned out. But she said, “I never tear out my pages because I always learn from all my work, no matter what.” As a result her kids use their own sketchbooks with pride and care.

When the time came to visit the Yale Center for British Art, the parent chaperones were given their own journals, and asked to participate along with the students. During those trips, one of the biggest impacts was the strengthening of their community of artists/writers/thinkers, and the inclusion of more adults into their creative world.

Parent chaperones drawing with their kids’ class at the Yale British Art Center


At the Read School, parents and students and teachers alike work alongside each other, sketching, writing, and sharing their thoughts. This gives them the powerful understanding that there are many ways to see the same thing. Working together across generations, combats rigid thinking, exercises empathy, and generally opens our eyes to one another. And we all need more of that.

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!

Feb. 11- Family Day at the YCBA

Bring your family and friends for a fun-filled day at the YCBA on Saturday, February 11th from 10:30am-1:30pm! We’ll have storytelling by Tom Lee, dramatic performances by Mystic Paper Beasts, and Celtic music by Ringrose & Freeman, along with gallery activities and artmaking.

YCBA Gallery Visit with 3rd and 4th Graders, by Darcy Hicks


Five teachers from the Read School in Bridgeport, CT brought their students to the Yale Center for British Art last week, as part of their Visual Literacy partnership. They were divided into groups and headed off into the galleries with their parent chaperones and their group leaders (either a docent, their teacher or myself). Each group visited two paintings, and discussed what they saw in the paintings as well as what they thought might be happening.

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The children were equipped with pencils and their sketch journals, which they have been using in the classroom for drawing and writing as they engage in Visual Literacy. They drew what they saw in the paintings into their sketch journals. Drawing the paintings forces them to observe carefully and they see things they would have missed. As Donald Graves said, “We see with our hands.”

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There are a number of things that happen when children talk about paintings. First, as they tell what they see, they share and build vocabulary at a rate I never see in other conditions. One child says “The horse has a seat on his back,” and another says, “It’s a saddle.” I kept notes as they shared new words, but could barely keep up!


The other thing that always surprises me is the easy connections they make to these paintings, which at first glance seem so distant from their lives today. Looking at these scenes allows the children to share their own previous knowledge and life experiences with each other. One little girl said, “I think it’s morning because the sun is shining some pink, and that’s what I see in the morning.” When describing a dog in a hunting scene, a little boy said, “I think he’s trembling because he is about to enter the woods and woods are dark.” Note the vocabulary: words like “trembling” catch the attention of us teachers, who are often surprised that they know these words.

For the last half-hour of our visit, the children met in the Library Court and wrote in their journals about what they saw. They were given choices for writing. Some told a story about a painting, others described it. Some also chose to write from the perspective of one of the people or animals in the paintings. A few wrote poems.


"The sky is blue and the sun is out. It is a sunny day. I'm feeding my horse Pumpkin. But then I began to sweat. It's humid outside. I see the clouds reflecting in the sparkly lake."
“The sky is blue and the sun is out. It is a sunny day. I’m feeding my horse Pumpkin. But then I began to sweat. It’s humid outside. I see the clouds reflecting in the sparkly lake.”

The kids are learning to live in the paintings, and write from there.

"It looks like the horse is trying to turn away because the lion is trying to kill the horse. And the lion is biting his neck and that makes the horse not to breath. And his mouth is open trying to breath. And if I was in that painting I would hear the loud roar and last but not least I would hear him running!"
“It looks like the horse is trying to turn away because the lion is trying to kill the horse. And the lion is biting his neck and that makes the horse not to breath. And his mouth is open trying to breath. And if I was in that painting I would hear the loud roar and last but not least I would hear him running!”

These journal entries are seeds for all sorts of writing: personal narratives, poems, stories, informative essays, expository pieces, etc. The paintings are the bridge to their authentic topics and voices.

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.

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!

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.