Saturday, October 13, 2012

Developing Writing Fluency through Art-Based Methods

Note: from Deepening Literacy Learning

 “My students have doubled their output of writing by using art,” John Francis tells me with great excitement the day I arrive to do a follow-up workshop at his school. Francis teaches third grade at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, which is located outside an urban area in upstate New York. Sixty per cent of the 500 students attending the preK-5 school qualify for free lunch. For five years I partnered with the principal, staff developers, and preK-5 teachers, as an external literacy consultant, providing on-site professional learning through modeling, coaching, direct teaching, recommendations for materials, and assisting with the revision of curriculum and assessment practices.

Prior to the start of the project, the principal, Susan Moore, explained that retention rates were as high as fifty percent in first grade and that one-third of the students enrolled at the school were classified and received special education services. Both of these figures greatly concerned her and well they should: We have one hundred years of research that, although social promotion is bad, retention is worse (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 1999, 2001; Jimerson, Anderson, & Whipple, 2002; Shepard & Smith, 1986, 1989). By the end of the project, retention rates were a mere one per cent and 12 percent of the students received special education services. In every measure available to Principal Moore, she indicated that progress had been made.

“Our retentions are nearly nonexistent now, our special education numbers have been reduced, and our ELA (English Language Assessment) scores are greatly improved with slightly more than 75 percent of our students scoring at levels 3 and 4,” reported Moore at a research conference (Reilly, Shields, Deso, Cummings, & Winaroski, 2009). “In the last five years our poverty level has increased, our language diversity has grown, and we have met these challenges by changing the way we teach, the books we use, and the way we assess.”

Although teaching through the visual arts and using global multicultural texts were not the only new practices undertaken during those five years, both nonetheless greatly influenced teachers’ choices with regard to pedagogical practices, as well as the content to be taught and the classroom materials to be used. Moore suggested that significant changes in how teachers perceived their work and their students occurred during the five-year period, as well.

For example, Francis, who self-described himself as a teacher who is "rigid", explained, “I used to say to my students not only what I wanted them to write, but how many sentences that writing should be, exactly. Not one sentence more or less. Now, I see that they are so excited to be writing in connection to art that they just seem to have more to say. They don’t need me to tell them then what to write or how much to write. I now see that they can take charge of those decisions themselves. It makes for better writers and writing.”

Prior to Francis’s understanding of how he and his students had changed, I had introduced Francis and eight of his colleagues during a 2-day in-service to transmediated teaching. I engaged teachers in creating visual art and poetry by reading and discussing poems, making collage, participating in improvisation, writing, and speaking as potential ways of learning. The movement between and among these sign systems provided teachers with multiple means of representation. The teachers then tried the poetry and collage work we had done, as well as the improvisation work, with their 3rd-grade students.

In this post, I specifically describe the visual arts and poetry workshop I conducted with the teachers, and the work Francis subsequently did with his third graders. I offer these as examples of powerful teaching and learning that can significantly enhance students’ literacy performance.

Composing Collage
During a two-day in-service, I engaged Francis and the other teachers of 3rd-grade students in an arts-based project. During the initial day, the teachers and I worked in a studio atmosphere using different materials to create visual, spoken, and written art. I asked the teachers to consider the benefits of a studio approach to literacy that embeds both reading and writing along with performing arts as a means for deepening, complicating, and recasting the language arts block, instead of the traditional readers’ and writers’ workshops. I introduced the teachers to the idea of a studio approach to literacy modeled after work done by Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema, and Kimberly Sheridan (2007) and illustrated in their text, Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of ArtsEducation, as well as studio work described by Peggy Albers (2007) in her text, Finding the Artist Within: Creating and Reading Visual Texts in the English Language Arts Classroom.

A typical 90-minute studio literacy block includes a brief teacher-led demonstration-lecture (15-20 minutes), followed by a dedicated block of time for students to work (50-60 minutes) and the teacher to assist, and concludes with a 15-minute critique where the teacher and students discuss and reflect on the work that has been created. Underpinning the work that is privileged in a studio course are eight habits of mind that Hetland, Winner, Veenema, and Sheridan (2007) discuss. Specifically they suggest that students develop craft, problem solve, envision, express, observe, reflect, stretch and explore, and come to understand historical and current art practices.

This initial day of exploration allowed us to participate in theatre improvisation by participating in the exercise “Sorry, I Must Be Leaving” and then viewing a video of third graders performing the same theatre exercise (Levine Production Group, et al, 2003), responding to a photography experience through art conversations, and engaging in readers theater and choral reading. These initial engagements helped teachers to consider the possibility of including arts-based teaching within the literacy lessons they were designing.

On the second day of the in-service, the teachers and I created poems and visual collages. I began the session by inviting the teachers to view a collection of children’s poetry books (see this post for a bibliography of works) I had brought with me. For twenty minutes, the teachers browsed through more than 50 global multicultural poetry books, eventually selecting one poem with which to work.

Throughout this process, the teachers intermingled, read poems aloud to one another, read quietly to themselves, studied illustrations, and commented sometimes to another participant and at other times to themselves. Some of these comments included:
“Look at the beautiful illustrations in this one.”
“Wow, I can’t believe the diversity in poetry books.”
“These books are beautiful.”
“This book looks like my kids in class.”
“Why can’t I find these books in my local bookstore?”
“I remember loving this poem from when I was a child.”

In determining which poetry books to bring, I made the conscious decision to include as many global multicultural texts as I had, knowing the importance of mirror books (Bishop, 1990), especially for children of color who often do not see themselves represented in classroom collections (Gangi & Ferguson, 2006). One-third of the students attending school at Thomas Jefferson are children of color and teachers had indicated a desire to add to existing classroom libraries with books that better reflected their students.

Next, I asked the teachers to partner, read their poems to one another, and to then discuss why they had chosen each poem. For the next ten minutes the room buzzed as teachers read aloud and discussed poetry. In debriefing this opening activity, I asked the teachers to comment on what they had heard their partner say. Teachers remarked that they heard their partners mostly discuss personal connections they had made to the poems.

Then I showed the participants an example of the work I would be asking them to try. I read aloud the haiku, “Spring Song,” that I had selected from Mingfong Ho’s (1996) Maples in the Mist: Children’s Poems from the Tang Dynasty (illustrated by Jean & Mou-sien Tseng). I explained to the teachers that by my creating a visual collage in response to the haiku, I had come to better understand Ho’s poem.

To help teachers recognize and understand collage, I began by offering them a simple definition of collage. I explained that collage derives from the French word, coller, and means to paste. “Today when we make collages, we will be pasting different papers on a piece of cardstock. A collage,” I told them, “is a picture or a design where papers and/or objects are pasted over a surface.”

At this point I shared several children’s picture books that incorporate collage (see post) using a document camera to display the image and passing books among the teachers. I specifically included some of the poetry books I had shared with teachers such as Eloise Greenfield’s (2007) When the Horses Ride by: Children in the Times of War (illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist), Nikki Grimes’s (2001) A Pocketful of Poems (illustrated by Javaka Steptoe), Langston Hughes’s (1995) The Block (collages by Romare Bearden), Alice Walker’s (2007) Why War is Never a Good Idea (illustrated by Stefano Vitale), and Ed Young’s (2005) Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem about China.

By studying these examples, teachers quickly saw how layers are used in collage compositions. For example, after browsing through Joan de Déu Prats’ (2005) picture book, Sebastian’s Roller Skates (illustrated by Francesc Rovira), Sarah Darwin, a 3rd grade teacher, remarked, “It’s like a big puzzle—all of those layers. This work reminds me of something Picasso would make.”

“I can see why you might say that. Picasso did make collages in the early part of the twentieth century. Later while you are working, I will find a collage by Picasso on the Internet and display it. In many ways, the layering of papers, photographs, and other objects that are used to make collages is similar to the layering process used when we compose meaning as readers,” I explained to the group. “Each new layer of meaning potentially alters our understanding. It is this similarity that we will be using when we create collages in response to the poems we have chosen and then write a poem of our own after creating the collage. I am interested in seeing what happens as we move from reading to collage making to writing.”

 I then shared the collage I had made with the group in response to Ho’s haiku (see Figure 4.3).

March (2008, M.A. Reilly)

I explained that I reread the poem several times and then selected tissue paper and newspaper that related to the Ho poem in some manner. I next began tearing the tissue and newsprint and layering pieces on a 12” x 12” section of cardstock, removing, adjusting, and adding more pieces. As I worked, I explained to the teachers, I needed to reread the poem again. Eventually, I began to understand the emerging art I was creating and could then work more deliberately. By rereading the poem several times I began to see that the poem suggested the change in seasons as one of layers. I thought about the way spring first arrives and how winter can still be seen beneath the first signs of spring. This understanding helped me to think of my work as layers. As such I began to paste strips of torn tissue paper and newspaper onto the cardstock. After working for about twenty minutes, I was fairly satisfied with the collage I had made. I next photographed the work, imported it into Adobe Photoshop CS3, and then used this software to revise and finish the collage.

I then spent some time looking at the collage and thought again about the haiku, “Spring Song.” In response to Ho’s poem and the collage I had made, I wrote a hakiu, “March.”
“Shadows of color/Rest beneath winter’s last breath—/Veiled before your eyes.” I based my poem on the form of the earlier poem, but focused on the end of winter, as opposed to spring, trying to highlight the change between seasons.

After modeling the process and showing teachers a completed product, I asked each participant to choose one or more pieces of 12” x 12” textured cardstock to serve as a substrate for their collage. I made sure that teachers understood that their collage could extend beyond the borders of the cardstock. On tables in the classroom where we were working were glue sticks; cups of glue thinned with water; paint brushes; scissors; tissue paper of varying sizes, colors, and prints; and many magazines and newspapers for the teachers to use. I also invited teachers to make use of any of these papers, along with any found papers (receipts, notes, wrappers, etc.) they might have brought with them in pockets and pocketbooks or ones that might be found in the room where we were working. I reminded the teachers to have the poem they were working from in front of them so they could reread as they created their collages.

Still-Life with Chair-Caning
As teachers worked, John Coltrane and Miles Davis’s (1997/reissued) Kind of Blue played in the background—a choice made by the participants. On the Internet, I found a copy of “Still-Life with Chair-Caning,” Pablo Picasso’s 1912 collage and displayed this for the teachers to view as they worked. I assisted teachers as needed, photographed them at work, and then photographed their final collages. Throughout this 45-minute period, the teachers spread out in the room so they could more easily compose, but interestingly remained close enough to intersperse some talk within the silence as they created their collages. During this time, the teachers assisted one another—suggesting colors or shapes, moved around the room to get more materials as needed, often worked standing up, and shifted the perspective of the work by rotating the cardstock or moving around the table to an alternate side and looking again.

After completing their collages, half of the group immediately began composing poetry. One participant would later explain that she had been writing lines while composing the collage. I invited the remaining teachers to bring the original poem, their notebook and collage and join me in another section of the room so as not to disturb those writing. There I introduced them to visual thinking strategies (VTS), an inquiry-based method of viewing adapted from Abigail Housen’s (1996) and Philip Yenawine’s (2005) strategies for viewing art. VTS is a facilitation technique that uses art and artifacts to teach thinking making use of non-directive questions to guide viewing such as: What’s going on in this picture? Or What more can we find? Using the collage I had created, I modeled VTS with the teachers. Placing the collage on a chalk ledge, I asked the teachers to study it with me.

“Let’s look carefully at the colors I used, the forms and the lines employed, and the movement in order to describe what we see going on.”

Through this description process, we began to build an array of potential narratives connected to the art. As the teachers described what was happening, I began to record their words on a piece of chart paper. By the end of a six-minute session, I had filled two large sheets that I then posted next to the collage.

I told the group, “Our words that I recorded on these sheets can help me to compose a poem. I can borrow the words and make a found poem (Dunning & Stafford, 1992), select some of the words to use in my poem, or reread what has been recorded here to help me think about possible themes for the poem. Find a place in the room to reread the original poem you brought today, and then look carefully at the collage you made and ask what’s going on. Try to record what you see.”

As the teachers worked on this task, I returned to the group of teachers who had been writing poems. I asked them to place their collages on the table and place a piece of paper next to each collage along with a pen. Then teachers did a gallery walk, cycling to each collage and recording words and phrases that came to mind as they viewed each collage. Teachers spent about one to two minutes with each collage, rotating through each station. Ten minutes later, the teachers returned to their own collage and began reading the list of words and phrases their colleagues had generated. I asked them to reread the poem they had written and to see if they wanted to revise the poem based on the words, phrases, and ideas that had been generated through the gallery walk. Through these multiple methods, all participants wrote poems related and/or inspired by their collage and original poem. 

“I didn’t think I had this in me,” Annie Connors said while we were critiquing the collage and poetry work.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, I’m not very artsy and I don’t write poetry. I didn’t know this is what I would make,” she explained while picking up her collage. “It’s much better than I had hoped it would be,” she added and then laughed.

When the teachers used multiple sign systems, such as visual art and language as potential ways of learning, they engaged in transmediation. At play here is an exposure of the ways we perceive. Richard Gregory (1997) explains that “perceptions are prediction, never entirely certain, hypotheses of what may be out there” (p. 5). In the collage work, the teachers engaged by seeing, doing, reading, and speaking. As Connors noted, her understanding of the collage she was making was not instantaneous, but rather emerged as she worked. This understanding is largely nomadic (Morson, 1994; Vinz, 1996) in nature and the through-lines that (in)form end ideas are often difficult, if not impossible, to discern.

“I’m not sure how I got to this,” Connors explained. “I had to sort of just go along with tearing paper and arranging it, seeing different things in the collage as I turned it and then an idea I liked slowly happened.”

Connors’s notion of emergence suggested the presence of several realities she contemplated and altered as she composed her work. In thinking about the practice time necessary to develop such reasoning, I thought of Gary Saul Morson (1994) who in writing about the creative and ethical process explains that it “typically traces not a straight line to a goal but a series of false leads, missed opportunities, new possibilities, improvisations, visions, and revisions. It is constituted by an intention that evolves over time” (p. 24). Transmediation assists learners in tolerating and understanding evolving intentions over time.

Applying New Learning with Third Graders
A month later, I met with the 3rd-grade teachers and was delighted to find that Francis had brought student work to the session. I watched as he placed the work carefully on the conference table, taking care to smooth any rumpled pages. As we waited for other teachers to arrive, Francis began to show me the student work he had brought.

“This is work I did with my students based on the collage we had done,” explained Francis.
After viewing the visual and written work for a few minutes I asked, “Are you comfortable discussing the work and your intentions with the group?”
The nine teachers and I spent the day focused on the student work the teachers had brought. The abundance of work, the quality, and our excitement allowed for us to reconsider what we had done with collage and how the teachers’ use of visual arts influenced student learning.

“I brought three examples of student work: two from vey struggling writers and one from a more capable writer,” Francis explained. He displayed the collages that students created, as well as their writing, and then explained the process he had used.
“I didn’t like the idea of how messy collage seemed to be. So, instead, I tried the idea this way. I gave each student a piece of construction paper.”
“Did they get to choose the color?” asked colleague, May Johnson.
“No, I just randomly handed out the paper. Then I gave them a neutral color piece of cardstock to build on.” 
Francis gave each student a 12” x 12” piece of cardstock, a sheet of construction paper, and a glue stick. Students began the collage by tearing a piece of their construction paper and gluing it to the cardstock. They then passed the square to another student seated next to them. Each student received the new square from another student and had to decide how she or he would add to the collage. The students spent about a minute deciding and tore and then glued a piece of construction paper to the collage. This process was repeated six times until each student had a “completed” collage. The students then used their collages as a source for a story (see below).

Collaboratively made collage by 3rd Graders.
Francis next had students partner and orally tell a story to one another based on what they saw present in the collage. To help them conceptualize this, Francis asked students to tell a story in response to the prompt: What’s going on? Next, students wrote a quick version of the story they had told. Students who wished to continue developing this writing met in response groups to revise and edit the work, much as we had done during the previous workshop. In these groups, students responded to one another’s writing by summarizing what they had heard, asking questions to clarify any unclear parts, and expressing interest in the work by telling what they enjoyed and liked. Donald Graves (2003) names this type of response receiving the piece. The collages and completed stories were posted on the hallway bulletins and then later combined into books and placed into the classroom library for students to read.

Francis first showed us work composed by Quentiana, a recent immigrant from Mexico and a new student in Francis’s class who was learning to deepen her reading and writing in English. In class, Quentiana studied the finished collage.

Quentiana's Collage. 
After viewing her collage, Quentiana wrote the following story.
One day a bull was trying to eat a bat because the bull was hungry. He had escaped from the field. But its owner named Matt had to get the bull back in the field. The bull didn’t even get the bat. And the bat was never seen again.

The owner never got the bull in the field! And Matt was very angry. The bat went home to his mom.

And the bull finally came back home to his owner and his owner gave the bull a big hug.

Francis explained that this sample of writing represented tremendous written production for the student.

“She was writing single-sentence pieces prior to adding collage to the composition process,” he explained. “Now she seems more confident and better able to find the words she needs. She uses specifics, like the name of the character. The art really helped her to express more.”
“Why do you think there was an increase in writing fluency?” I asked.
“I think creating the art and then studying it gave her an avenue to pursue. I also think having time to talk before writing helped her too.”
“It’s like each provides a support,” offered Sarah.
“Perhaps like a scaffold,” I added. “A temporary structure she could lean on while producing written ideas. She had the visual image to refer to and also she had rehearsed the story with a friend.”

“Yes. It’s like a picture that they can look at that helps them to talk about what they are thinking and then write the story,” Johnson stated.
I am reminded here of Elliot Eisner’s (2002) keen observation that a “cognitive function of the arts is that in the process of creation they stabilize what would otherwise be evanescent. Ideas and images are very difficult to hold onto unless they are inscribed in a material that gives them at least a kind of semipermanence” (p. 11). By creating a visual representation of the story, these young writers are able to see their thinking displayed in the collage. The collage becomes a physical (re)presentation of their thoughts.
We next looked at Serena’s narrative and collage (see Figure 4.6).
Serena's Collage

As Francis read Serena’s story aloud and we studied her collage, we were all quite interested in the strong presence of narrative detail. Serena wrote:

Once upon a time there was a orange man. He was the worst man you could have ever known. He was frustrated with his neighbor because she wore red everyday and he did not and never would like the color red. The man wore only orange, blue, yellow, light blue and black.

So one day the neighbor was posing by the fence. She was mowing the lawn. Her back was facing the man’s face. The mowing annoyed the man and also did the lady in red’s singing.

The next day the man said, “Sit down. I need to talk to you neighbor.” So the man then said, “Can you please stop wearing red because it gets so annoying?”

So the next day the neighbor bought an orange, light blue, blue, black and yellow and some pink clothes. The man was happy now.

The next day the orange man got a new haircut and so did the colorful lady. So they met at the hair salon. So they went back to their houses and the colorful lady said, “Why are you wearing a dress?”

The man answered, “I am not wearing a dress. It is a skirt.

“Wow, I’m impressed with the dialogue,” Paula Martin, another teacher added.
“We’ve been working on writing dialogue,” Francis noted. “Serena checked one of the books she was reading to help her accurately write the dialogue.”

“Not only is it appropriate, but it is punctuated correctly, too,” remarked Johnson.
“I love that the lady becomes ‘the colorful lady,’” Darwin added. “I think that’s important.”
“How so?” I asked.     
“It shows style and extends the idea of the colors,” she explained. “It’s sophisticated.”
According to Francis, Serena is a student who normally produced compositions comprised of three or four sentences using very basic language. He remarked that not only was this her most sustained effort that included a richer vocabulary, but more so, she took to the task with great enthusiasm.

“All of my kids love to write when we also make art. Creating the visual art helps to motivate the students,” explained Francis.
Again I am reminded of Eisner (2002) and his belief that the arts also help students attend to ambiguity, “to explore what is uncertain, to exercise judgment free from prescriptive rules and procedures” (p. 10). In telling the story of the two neighbors, Serena attended to details she saw in the collage by integrating them into a story about conflict and how two people resolved differences.
“As a writer, she seems so sophisticated,” observed Johnson. “I know her and this understanding about the ways adults might behave seems way beyond third grade.”

I think of the importance of the arts in developing students’ thinking. Engagements with the arts, Maxine Greene (1988, 2001) has long advocated, are a significant source for opening horizons and developing a sense of being (other)wise. In many ways the teachers emerging understanding of the work their students could do is an example of how they had become (other)wise; cognizant and appreciative of those who are different from themselves.
“I was so surprised by the students’ work,” Johnson explained while gesturing at the student work. “I didn’t know they could do this.”

The last written and visual work (see below) we looked at was Kiara’s—a student whose writing performance was more stable than Quentiana’s or Serena’s according to Francis.

Kiara's Collage 
 Kiara framed the narrative she wrote with an opening explanation and conclusion that were externally situated. Again, we listened as Francis read the story aloud.

In this art piece I see a story. This is how the story begins.

There once was a little boy who had nothing to do. He ran to his friend’s house but he wasn’t home to play outside with the little boy.

The little boy decided he would visit his aunt who lived across the stream. He ran to the bridge atop the peaceful stream. When he got to his aunt’s home he knocked on her door.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

His aunt opened the heart shaped door and greeted him with a warm smile. The little boy asked his aunt if he could call his mother to ask if he could spend the night. His mom said yes.

That night they made yummy cookies and watched Sponge Bob. In the morning the little boy was fooling around and fell off the bridge. He ran home crying to his mommy.

Poor stinking foolish little boy!

“I can’t believe she saw all of that in the art,” Connors was quick to say.
“It’s like her words help you to follow along.”  
“Yes, I can see the heart shaped door,” Johnson added, pointing to the door in the collage.
“And the bridge and stream,” added Francis, as he pointed to each in the collage.
“Does this piece of writing differ from what she has been producing during the year?” I asked.
 “Well, we had been studying fables and I think her ending is an attempt,” Francis began.
“Oh, like Aesop,” interrupted Martin.
“That’s unbelievable that she could do that,” Darwin commented.
“Yes, I am more than pleased at her ending,” said Francis.
 "Do you think the visual arts piece might have helped her to try writing a new genre?” I asked.
 "I think it is similar to what happened for all the kids,” explains Francis. “The art gives them a physical piece to study while writing. It roots them—supports them.”

Developing Writing Fluency

H. D. Brown (1994) defines fluency activities as “saying or writing a steady flow of language for a short period of time without any self- or other correction at all” (p. 113). In addition to Brown’s definition, writing fluency is also marked by the production of words generated in a specified period, along with an increase in lexical frequency (Fellner & Apple, 2006; Goodfellow, Jones & Lamy, 2002; Laufer & Nation, 1995). Lexical frequency refers to the presence of low-frequency words, that is, words that do not appear with great frequency in written English. In examining the student writing samples throughout the year, the teachers indicated that there was a sharp increase in the presence of what they considered to be more challenging vocabulary for third graders.

“What I saw was the increase in the words my students used and the quality of those words, “ explained Francis. “Instead of using the word, went, I started to see words like, traveled, proceeded, and even ambled.”

“Can you see enriched vocabulary in the writing samples of your students,” I asked?

"Well, the word choice is rich in Serena's story. For example she write, 'decided he would visit his aunt who lived across the stream. He ran to the bridge atop the peaceful stream' said Francis. “Those words are very specific and certainly not typical of third grade writing.”

“What I think is interesting, though, with Serena’s work,” added Darwin,” is that her word choice fits the genre.  A lot of the words are simple words that I would expect to see in a fable. So the addition of few more sophisticated words really stands out.”

In addition to examining word choice, the teachers also remarked on the increased production in writing that all had seen in their classes and suggested this increase was significant. Teachers would be so captivated by this hunch that they would spend the next school year documenting the differences between the quality and quantity of writing that students wrote accompanied by art and writing students completed in the absence of art. Teachers would find without exception that their students did write more —at least twice the number of words—and did write with more elaboration, detail, and specific word choice when art accompanied the writing than when it did not (Reilly, Broderick, Lynch, Overacker, Roszak, & Spencer, 2009).

Specifically, the teachers counted the number of words students wrote in several compositions in September prior to experiencing arts-based writing. This count was used to establish a mean number of words written for each student. Next, the teachers introduced students to arts-based writing, similar to what has been described in this chapter. The teachers then compared the number of words students wrote in later compositions with the number of words they had written in September. In all cases, students wrote at least twice as many words as they had done previously, regardless of the topic and if the writing was in response to a teacher prompt or a self-selected topic. When we looked at the data they had collected we made note of the fact that all students had written more text, regardless of their previous performance. 

Not only did the use of visual arts help students to produce more text, it also helped them to revise text. During one of my visits to the school, Darwin had indicated that she was concerned when a student, Shelby, had written a brief response to the topic of equality that the class had deeply investigated. Shelby’s poem, titled, “Equality” was three lines in length and read: “We are all equal./All of us have equal rights./I love equal rights.”

“We spent about a month investigating issues of equality,” Darwin explained.  “I was disappointed in Shelby’s response as she has been such a fine writer this year. The work she completed was not representative of her finest work.”

As Darwin discussed the matter with her colleagues and me, she began to wonder what might happen if Shelby revised her work after drawing, She had seen such success with the other third grade students in Francis's class. 

“I hadn’t asked them (the children) to do an art piece first. The difference in Shelby’s writing from work she had done alongside art and work without art was quite noticeable,” Darwin explained.

Looking at the work that Francis’s students had done prompted Darwin to reengage Shelby in the topic through art. Darwin explained that she spoke with Shelby about her writing and asked her to read a poem she had written about the ocean that was done with visual art and her poem about equality.

“After reading each Shelby said her ocean poem was much better than the equality one,” explained Darwin. Darwin then asked Shelby if she would like to make a piece of art related to the topic of equality and then revise the poem. Shelby agreed.

Prior to rewriting, Shelby created a collage (see below).
Shelby's Collage
Shelby indicated that she had considered what she and her classmates discussed when studying about equality and tried to include those perspectives in her artwork. Her revised poem, titled, “Equality” was considerably different from the original. Shelby wrote:

E is for every single person is equal even when somebody tells them they’re not.
Q is for quiet, peaceful lives people live.
U is for us happy together.
A is for all of us are equal no matter what.
L is for lots of us are different and it doesn’t matter.
I is for I don’t care what skin tone I am.
T is for together we are one big family.
Y is for you and me together.

Darwin suggested that Shelby’s revised poem showed more of her thinking. It was richer in detail and included more specific word choices.

Hearing the Volley

In the months following the collage work I had done Francis, Darwin, and their colleagues, I found myself repeatedly thinking about William Carlos Williams (1962) who in “The Desert Music" asked, "How shall we get said what must be said?" (p.1 20). He told us: "Only the poem/only the made poem to get said what must/be said, not to copy nature ..." (p. 120). In a narrative reading of the poem, the reader follows Williams and his wife Flossie on a trip to Mexico that takes place during a single day. Williams is aware of the desert music throughout the experience and finds that it is when he affirms aloud his being a poet: "... I am a poet! I/am. I am." (p. 120), that he hears the music most loudly. It is in his struggle to effect a whole out of the disparate parts of the day and evening he has experienced that Williams, the poet and speaker can claim: "Now the music volleys through as in/a lonely moment I hear it. Now it is all/about me...." The enormity of the aesthetic creation of the poem as realized in the music awes the poet. He concludes, "And I could not help thinking/of the wonders of the brain that/hears that music and of our/skill sometimes to record it" (p. 120).

I think that the work of a teacher is largely a struggle of intention similar to what Williams described for the poet: The uncertainty and inherent challenge to hear and record the music. Like Williams, the first step to creating is to have an experience, imperfect as it may be, and then to learn via that experience. The use of the visual arts helped to make experiences concrete and physical and provided a method that learners could return to in order to resample, reconsider, and revise. Occasioning learning through different symbol systems helped develop the capacity to attend to ambiguity and emerging understandings be it as teacher, writer, reader, performer, or visual artist.

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