Carol P. Boynton
Connections help us make meaning in our lives. We often say to each other, "That reminds me of the time…," and a narrative follows as the storyteller shares a memory that may or may not make sense to the listeners. Yet, through this memory, a connection has been made, allowing the storyteller to tie the past to the present. This network of thoughts and ideas, memories and experiences that each person has, provides a generous supply of material to use as a springboard for interesting and engaging writing. This eight-week writing unit for students in kindergarten through third grade uses visual literacy strategies to help them write about their own meaningful connections. The ability to use the connections experienced in our everyday lives makes writing richer and more fulfilling for both reader and writer.
As a student myself, I recall the advice from many Language Arts and English teachers to "write about what you know." That seemed rather boring from where I sat, but now as an educator, I find that I am repeating the same phrase or, rather, "What does this make you think of? or "Do you have any connection to this story?" These prompts from the Developmental Reading Assessment, a tool administered to elementary students, encourage students to think beyond the text, connect the ideas of the story to their lives in some way. Using the strategy of connecting to enhance meaning is one I would like to build into our current district writing curriculum to further encourage our students to develop higher-order thinking skills. This ability to move beyond the literal view of the image or text demonstrates higher-order thinking skills within the student's writing. Imagine for example that a student observes a painting and sees a figure in that painting. This defines the literal view of the image. The student then begins to analyze the image, as in noticing the figure seems sad and developing a story around that inference; to synthesize, as in noticing the figure seems sad and writing a chapter of the figure's story; and to evaluate, noticing the figure seems sad and arguing for or against the artist's decision to portray the figure in this way.
Using various materials, such as painting and sculpture, objects from nature, art pieces they make themselves, the students have the opportunity to think past the obvious. Their thinking while observing or creating is a way into their writing – What does this picture or object make you think of? What were you thinking about while you were drawing? What is the story in your picture? What have you done or seen that gave you the idea for your picture? Setting expectations for writing and thinking encourages and empowers students to get their stories out. The goal of this unit is to provide a foundation to build confident, fluent, and eager writers.
As a first-grade teacher in a self-contained classroom at Edgewood Magnet School in New Haven, I have a class of 25 six- and seven-year-olds. Our neighborhood/magnet school setting is a rewarding environment, with students coming to school each day from a range of home circumstances and differences in academic levels. These differences provide for a variety of life experiences and background knowledge. The school has an enrollment of about 450 students, with approximately 60% African-American, 12% Hispanic, and the remaining 28% Caucasian and Asian; we are proud of its high average daily attendance rate of 96%. Edgewood's mission supports an arts-integrated curriculum, an educational approach that embraces Dr. Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence theory. Because children learn though many different modalities, art forms -- including music, visual art, theater, and dance -- are used to enrich other core subjects, including language arts, math, and reading. Visual literacy, the foundation of this unit, aligns quite naturally with the philosophy of the school but it is an approach that fits easily into writing instruction for students in most primary schools settings.
The diversity within our school itself provides a foundation for students to learn from each other as they each begin to write about their own life experiences. As we teach our young students in writer's workshop, "Everyone has a story to tell!" These stories, coming from different perspectives and experiences, are windows into our differences and, not surprisingly, similarities. So, the basis for good writing lies in what we know. I want these beginning authors to stretch their connections from the basic, literal, and obvious to a meaningful experience or episode in their own lives. Instead of just writing simply about an object or image in a painting, great stories come from thinking beyond that object – a pear isn't just a fruit. Looking at it you think of the time you were eating pears at a picnic in the park with your grandparents. Now that is something to write about!