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.

Version 2

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!

Crystal Craze by Hallie Cirino

Incorporating science vocabulary, sketching, and writing with science experiences is a natural progression in our classroom. While wishing and waiting for winter to truly arrive, we decided to introduce the idea of crystals to the children. We started by exploring crystals such as polyacrylamide, a super absorbent type that can be found in disposable diapers. The children each received a petri dish containing a small amount of the substance, as well as a cup of water and a pipette.

Dutch polyacrylamide

As they dripped water onto the tiny crystals, they noticed that the crystals absorbed the water. We also discussed that, even though the crystals grew and resembled ice, the crystals were inedible. The children became very excited as the crystals grew so large, they overflowed from the petri dishes and filled trays.



The children noted that the crystals were no longer tiny, hard, and dry (think table salt), but were now large, squishy, and wet.

On another day, we gave the children another type of small, dry crystal…Alum. The children were again given a tiny amount in a petri dish. This time they added hot tap water and stirred. The crystals dissolved. Most thought that this was pretty boring, so we set them aside. However, on the following day, we checked the petri dishes. Wow:

alum crystals

The crystals had grown a little bigger, the water had evaporated, and each resulting group of crystals appeared a bit different. This presented a perfect opportunity to sketch and write about our findings:

Harleaux same shapeLuke diamondsJack got big

We also incorporated the math concepts of sorting, classifying, and patterning with artificial crystals. The mirrored work surfaces highlighted their explorations.

Jack crystal mirrorDutch crystal mirror

The Gingerbread Boy

Our class had a blast this past week tying language and visual literacy skills to the story of the Gingerbread Boy. First, we read many versions of the classic tale:

Gingerbread books

Then we visually analyzed the content, looking for similarities and differences regarding the characters and settings, and recorded our findings:

Gingerbread analysis

The children decided that they wanted to bake their own gingerbread person, so they collaborated on putting together the dough and decorating it. We all went down to the kitchen to slide it in the oven. When it was finished, we all went down to take it out, but…THE PAN WAS VIRTUALLY EMPTY! Just some crumbs, and a couple of raisins. Hmmm…Had our gingerbread character escaped?

The children devised all sorts of brilliant traps to catch the little cookie. Here is an example of a picture that Jack and Esme drew to get the attention of our gingerbread kid. Jack hooked a candy cane over the top of their drawing for added attraction. We later found the candy cane gone and what looked like a cookie foot below it. We also got a note on our whiteboard which smugly claimed, “HA! HA! HA! You’ll NEVER catch me!”. “How rude!” the children thought.

Gingerbread trap

Dutch, after pondering whether the cookie had a nose for smelling peppermint, thought to prop up the top of a pizza box with a candy cane to see if we could trap the little fellow. Meanwhile, William placed another candy cane on a nubby seat cushion, which did result in finding one of the gingerbread kid’s hands. (The class split this up and ate it!) We did catch a glimpse of the little fellow peeking out from around a corner:

Peeking aroung the corner

Finally, after a long and thoughtful class meeting, the students devised a wonderful plan…They decided to build a gingerbread house in block center, decorate it with fake gingerbread cookies, and make little heart-shaped cupcakes as a trail for our gingerbread person to follow to the house. Here,  Harleaux and Cassie are preparing some of the “treats”:

Harleaux making cupcakesCassie making cupcakes

Luke and Levi spent their entire center time constructing an elaborate house to entice our cookie friend. They even built a bedroom, complete with a soft mattress, pillow, and “lovies”. They wanted it to be so comfortable that the gingerbread person would fall fast asleep.

gingerbread bed

We went outside for recess, and when we reentered the classroom, the children tiptoed over and pulled off the covers. There it was, partially broken, fast asleep, and ready to be eaten!

Gingerbread boy before eating


Artist in Residence

As a teacher who emphasizes visual literacy, it is always a thrill to find that one of your student’s parents is a professional artist. Our class came to know the abstract painting process of Ursula Lyon when she visited the classroom last month. Harleaux’s mom brought in a large canvas, a HUGE drop cloth, many, many colors of paint, cups, and NO PAINTING TOOLS.

Ursula pushed aside the furniture and spread her drop cloth in the center of the room. She invited the children to remove their shoes and join her around the canvas. She read the fabulous Mix it Up! by Herve Tullet, which asks children to use their imaginations to “combine” paint colors as they read. The kids loved it.

Next, she had the children come up one at a time, and select a cup of paint that exemplified their favorite colors. Once instructed to dump, the children took turns splashing the canvas with color!

throwing paint

Next, Ursula, assisted by her daughter, lifted the canvas and started to spin it.

tilting the painting

The children oohed and ahhed at the transformation.

class painting

Later, the class shared their feelings about this unique and messy painting experience:

how it felt to paint

My co-teacher, Maria, documented the children’s experience for classroom display with the painting:

painting with Ursula

Thank you for this wonderful experience, Mrs. Lyon!

Rollicking Rodents by Hallie Cirino

One day, a student shared an exciting story about a mouse visiting her kitchen. Another student chimed in that his family had recently experienced the same. Afterwards, we went out to recess, and, as if on cue, a squirrel scampered by carrying a large brown nut. We all watched in fascination as it ran across the playground and stopped to dig a quick hole for its prize. Before we knew it, the children were running around outside, “foraging” for nuts, and a rodent study had begun.

Maria, my co-teacher and I, collected both fiction and non-fiction books about rodents, including many by Leo Lionni. Next we scoured the Yale Center for British Art website, seeking paintings that may portray rodents. We found this great one, entitled “The Seven Ages of Man: The Infant” by Robert Smirke.


The children needed to study the painting very closely in order to discover the mouse. They began to discuss why the mouse was there.

“Maybe it smells food,” mused Esme.

“I think it wants to be comfy and cozy,” stated Cassie.

“It might be their pet,” noted Harleaux.

“It wants to see what’s around and get a little crumb,” reasoned William.

“There’s a cat”, noted Jack before adding, “It would definitely grab the mouse if it saw it.”

The children also developed questions about rodents and did visual research—“reading” photos in books— to find the answers. They marked the pages with post-it notes and shared their findings.



Many of the children also created rodent sculptures from river rocks.

river rock mice


Tessellations are starting to appear in their journals now, and we are wondering where this will lead…