I have been teaching art in the New Haven Public School District for seven years. Before I taught art, I was a teacher of English as a Second Language for three years. I have used pictures and illustrations with my ELL students extensively to communicate ideas, vocabulary, concepts and emotions to them. When I am teaching, I often stop and explain the meaning of words that may be unfamiliar. I can also use my knowledge of Spanish to clarify definitions for my Hispanic students, something their classroom teachers are unable to do if they themselves do not speak the language. We in fact have fifty-two students at my school who receive services as English Language Learners (ELL). Not all of these students receive services due to parents' right of refusal, the parents' right to say their children do not have to have English taught to them as part of a separate class. Such students will try to learn through the inclusive setting of their classroom without additional support. They tend to have a hard time grasping the grammar and colloquialisms in English. Students, regardless of a language barrier, don't often see the connection between what their enrichment teachers teach and what they are learning in their classroom. By the completion of this unit, there will be a more concrete connection between the two.
I am an avid reader and creator of art and love to impart these habits to my students as often as I can. As a K-8 art teacher, I use books in all my classes, whether it be picture books for emerging readers or non-fiction biographies of artists for middle-school students. The connection of literacy to art is one I feel is very important to the intellectual and creative growth of my students. As students learn to respond to art using appropriate vocabulary, they will become more adept at interpreting not just works of art, but literature, culture, conversations, and the world around them. Wordless picture books and artist prints are two artistic forms that I feel will positively impact my students' vocabulary acquisition during the course of this unit.
In the past few months, I have started reading more wordless books to my younger students to learn the basis of their prior knowledge. Previously, I had used excerpts from wordless graphic novels with older, middle-school age students (
Goodbye Chunky Rice
by Craig Thompson and
by Sara Varon), but not with younger ones. I thought the students wouldn't be able to overcome the lack of words and would shut down. If fact, the opposite has been proven to be true. With one of my kindergarten classes, I was able to read three pages before they even asked, "Hey, where are the words?" This was a great sign: it showed that my students are not dependent on words to tell a story. I read the book
The Chicken Thief
by Beatrice Rodriguez with both kindergartens and first graders, and they responded very positively to all the questions that I asked about the story. They were able to identify the main characters and the setting easily. I also asked if the students would help me create dialogue for the characters based on what they saw in the picture. They were eager to do this after I explained carefully what I meant. Students in first grade even started to attribute feelings and emotions to the characters without prompting. This is a higher-order thinking skill that I was impressed to see the students using during my class. One student pointed out that the fox character was "lucky" that he had not gotten caught yet. This was a perspective I had not considered, so I was intrigued that a six-year-old picked it up! When Raymond Briggs's
was read and discussed in my kindergarten class, the students were able to create imagined dialogue between the boy and his mother in the story by deciphering the context clues in the illustrations preceding and following the picture in question. This is just one of the great moments I've had while reading wordless books to my classes. The students are apt to pick up on details that they might have overlooked when being read the text at the bottom of the page in a traditional picture book. Once the unit is introduced formally, students will have an even better understanding of the importance of books without words. They will be able to carry over this knowledge to looking and responding to artist prints as well as other books in their classrooms.
When using artist prints with young students in the past, for example, I have shown a class of kindergarteners the painting
Paris through the Window
by Marc Chagall and written a list of words on the board that included sight words such as "cat" and "man" as well as words like "window" and "train" for them to volunteer to come up and tell me where in the work they were located. This also gave the students a chance to practice using their prepositional phrases, which I emphasize to them.
Every year, New Haven Public School third graders take two field trips to the Yale Art Gallery and/or the Yale Center for British Art to practice their skills of interpreting and responding to artwork. The wonderful docents and education department members do an excellent job encouraging students to think beyond the superficial to really observe and do so introspectively. I have had the pleasure this year to accompany the third graders from my school on the first of their two visits, and they were wonderfully astute observers of all the artwork that was discussed! Unfortunately, many teachers are not carrying this model of looking at and responding to art back into their classrooms after leaving the museum. I hope that this unit will encourage teachers to use what the art galleries have modeled so wonderfully for us and apply it to the classroom. Artwork (in the form of prints and books) can be integrated into the study of science, social studies, math and especially literature, if the right selection is made. For this, classroom teachers are encouraged to collaborate with the art teachers in their building. This can occur during the teaching of this unit, after their gallery trip or at any point in the school year.
The education departments of both the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art have both been very supportive and helpful in fostering an understanding of the need for visual literacy in the classroom. They offer a teacher symposium on the topic once a month, of which I am a participant, and have workshops throughout the year for teachers to learn how to integrate visual literacy in their classrooms. These seminars use the collections of both museums, which are available online and during the meetings; the group often travels to the galleries to discuss work and write about it. I will be gathering most of the images I will be using during this unit from these collections.
My school has also recently (in the last two years or so) become an active participant in several new educational learning theories and strategies. We are following the Comer model of educational planning and management and also the model of the responsive classroom. James Comer is a professor of child psychology at the Yale Child Study Center and the Associate Dean of the Yale Medical School.
He founded the School Development Program in 1968, and it is still in use today, almost fifty years later. Comer speaks of multiple pathways to holistic learning, the education of the whole child through six developmental pathways: physical, psychological, ethical, social, cognitive and language pathways.
The responsive classroom principles include guided discovery, collaborative problem-solving, and logical consequences.
Most recently, teachers and administrators are working on improving student engagement by using methods and strategies and implementing design qualities from the Schlechty Center for Educational Leadership and School Reform, whose goal is "to ensure that every student, every day, is provided challenging, interesting, and satisfying work."
Schlechty's design qualities include choice, authenticity and affiliation (collaboration). I strive to include most or all of these attributes every day during my art classes.