“I care about engaging children with the visual arts, and that I believe that things happen in children’s writing when they write through the arts that do not, perhaps, happen through other ways of teaching writing.” Mary Ehrenworth, Looking to Write
It’s Friday afternoon at 12:38. “Gotta get to Leigh-ann’s room.” I tell myself. I grab my giant post-it where I have just listed the choices for Journal Pages. As I make my way to the door, I tell myself “Grab the oil pastels, the sharpies, and the art cards.” I pause for a few seconds, think, “Do I have it all?” and head off down the hall. I’m walking down the hall carrying an overflowing basket, journal clutched to my chest and run into Isla who is heading back to her classroom. “Can I help you, Mrs. Sherriff?” “Thanks, Isla! Can you take the pink basket. When we get in the room, can you put the oil pastels on each table and spread out the art cards?” My request for help is met with an enthusiastic affirmation. When we enter the room, Leigh-ann is in finishing up a read-aloud. I sneak in quietly and listen in. Isla quietly lays the oil pastel boxes on each table and spreads the art cards out on the floor and finds her place on the rug for the rest of the read aloud.
I believe in visual literacy. I believe that there is a place for art and the arts in our curriculum. Art and the arts invite imagination and possibility. In Releasing the Imagination, Maxine Greene writes “imagination creates openings to the unpredictable”. Teaching involves plans. Teachers work together to plan so that children across grade levels have similar experiences. Teachers work to plan out their weeks and days so with the intent of engaged learners. Somehow, in all that planning is the imagination lost?
This year, during Journal Pages in two first grade classrooms and one fifth grade classroom, copying an art card has always been a choice. For years as a classroom teacher and as a Visual Literacy consultant at the Yale Center for British Arts, I was witness to the awakening of many an imagination when a writer reas an art card.
This week, in Leigh-ann’s first grade classroom, I wanted to offer a new way to copy an art card. This class had been offered this choice all year and the choice need to be freshened up a bit. So this week, I modeled how they could zoom into one part of the art card. I told them to be open to what they might think or feel or what idea might come to mind as a result of zooming in. I quickly modeled with a line drawing and an art card. “Thumb on your knee if you are ready to make your choice.” I said. They were ready. I called them one by one and heard their choices – some choose Word of the Day (Wild), others chose the starter “If I could…”, and as always, some chose to copy or zoom in on art card.
I watched as Jack worked with an orange and red oil pastel making what looked like colorful mountains:
I looked over at his work space, saw his art card and asked, “What are working on, Jack?” “I’m copying this art card. I’m zooming on the fire here.” He pointed to the center of the art card.
“Want to hear what I wrote?” He looks up at me, then down to his journal and turns the page. He knew my answer. I lean in closer. I look at his words and listen to him read:
In Releasing the Imagination, Maxine Greene also writes, “Meaning happens in and by means of an encounter with a painting, with a text, with a dance performance.” I believe that Jack’s interaction with the art card, his reading the flame on his journal page allowed him to discover his own word and ideas.
Treating art as text allows for unique perspectives and interpretation. That unique perspective and interpretation is imagination at work. A few months earlier, in a 5th grade classroom, James had copied that same art card as Jack. But the art card invited James into the world of comics. His journal page looked like this:
Back in Leigh-ann’s room on Friday, Isla had chosen to copy the same art card I had used in modeling. She, however, zoomed in on her own part – the trees and the road.
As she read and copied, her imagination came alive in story. She created a character driving down the road. She imagined herself right into her own work and wrote:
Leigh-ann was quick to point out to me that Isla was using the craft that they had been taught in Writer’s Workshop – lists of three. Isla was not only proud of her idea, and story, but her craft in this short piece.
I believe that a journal is an essential tool for a writer. It is a place to play and discover. It is a place to wonder and write. It is a place to observe and sketch. It is a place where the writer can capture their own imagination in pictures and words.
“Art offers life; it offers hope; it offers the prospect of discovery” Maxine Greene