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This month my daughter Hannah turned 25, and my youngest son Søren turned 15. Once upon a time Reading Rainbow was a happy part of our literacy routine. Recently Sara came to visit and we stood in my kitchen humming the theme song, laptop in hand, anticipating LeVar. Surprisingly, what we gleaned from this little stroll down memory lane transcended sentimentality. The treasure struck us in the first four words of the episode: “Hi, behold the egg.” LeVar Burton looked us straight in the eye and took the better part of a minute (55 seconds to be exact) to enunciate four words.
Like Mr. Rogers before him, LeVar knew how to settle us into slow motion and slow motion is just what our children need to learn well.
Let's face it. Overexposure to electronics is over stimulating, diverting precious brain space from creative thought. Letting the mind engage in the stillness of imagining utilizes areas of the brain that will be left inactive while engaging in electronics.
Children should not have difficulty sitting with a book for a long time.
Children should not have difficulty sitting with a pad of paper and colored pencils.
And children should not have difficulty sitting, without implements, enjoying their imagination in silence.
Our world is cluttered with all sorts of noise—auditory and visual. We are saturated. And the outcomes are disturbing. Rampant distraction is diminishing the capacity for contemplation and creativity. The din is overwhelming.
Let’s change the atmosphere. This fall, why not create a tradition of reading? Engaging with books helps children settle into slow motion so that imagination might thrive. And slow motion is stress sapping!
Back away from the vortex of fast-forward-too-muchness.
Sillness is a form of silence. And everyone knows that silence is golden, “Behold the egg.”
Readers really love sharing their culminating thoughts about great stories in creative ways. Some of the fondest memories for Sara and me are the projects our children created inspired by great stories. There was the blue-striped papier-mâché dragon after reading My Father’s Dragon, the claymation stop action video after Perloo the Bold, handcrafted bonnets and stacked pancakes after reading Farmer Boy, and the spaceship constructed from empty soup cans, cardboard, and foil after The Wonderful Flight to Mushroom Planet.
During the fifth week, Section 5 of our Blackbird & Company Literature Discovery Guides, children are encouraged to reflect and respond creatively to the great story they read. They are provided with a variety of project options to spark ideas. Children not only have a chance to demonstrate their originality, organization, clarity of purpose, and critical thinking skills, more importantly this culminating endeavor will allow them to show off what they have learned in their own, uniquely creative way.
This week, as Sara and I sat around the table constructing multiple twin Lolly Dolls for a matching game (thanks Tea Wagon Tales for the adorable idea), Sara looked at our fashionista girls lined up on the table and exclaimed, “How cute would these be for a project tied to The Hundred Dresses?”
“So cute? Right?”
And, by the way, if you haven't read The Hundred Dresses with your children, please read it soon! This is a terrific story to begin the school year. No spoiler alerts, but Wanda’s courage has been a topic of discussion in our home for years.
So with fall, fast approaching, make the most of Section 5. Remember that imagination connects to books.
Like verbal languages, the language of visual art has phonics of its own. By combining the 26 letters that scaffold the English language in a variety of ways, we are able to communicate vast complexities and wonders. By manipulating five simple elements—line, texture, shape, value, and color—we are able to communicate what can’t be written.
So how to begin a study of value?
Don’t outline! When handed pencil and paper and asked to translate a 3D scene to 2D, the comfort zone element is line. But drawings that begin with hard edges end up stiff and stuck. Outlines define edges but don't help us see dimensionally.
Focusing on shapes of light and dark, rather than the edges of objects is the best way to being to shift out of line-drawing mode.
Light and shadow defines objects. Train your eyes to see like an artist, look for the light and shadow that defines objects.
The best way to begin is to apply pencil using the tilt and not the tip to mirror shadowy shapes. Smudge the shapes to blend and use an eraser to create light shapes. Try to create a range of value from the lightest light to the darkest dark. Use the background to define foreground objects.
The potential of value in drawing is to communicate the light and shadow and surface tones we see in order to create a three-dimensional illusion. So curl some paper and let edges fade into the background.
Think scavenger hunt.
Found poems are snips of non-poetic language gathered from unexpected places collaged into verse.
Think scraps of newspaper, snippets of conversation.
Think clipped magazine phrases woven to phrases you've invented.
Think scramble, unscramble.
Keep your eyes open, you never know where a sliver of poem might be lurking.
This nifty little music maker is a simple DIY project for little hands. Way more like a kazoo than a harmonica, it's a music maker sure to bring smiles nonetheless. Thanks Housing a Forest for the fun idea!
“Let us dig our furrow in the fields of the commonplace.” Jean-Henri Fabre
Children become science-minded by exploring their observations of the world around them. Science is much more than facts in a textbook. Facts are only a fraction of the picture. Science is a process that allows us to discover how the world works.
I remember one summer my brother being fascinated with caterpillars. One, in particular stands out in my mind. His name was Ralph. Yes, Ralph the caterpillar. My brother kept the fuzzy creature in a Stride Rite shoebox nested with a handful of twigs and torn leaves. What I remember most about the brief time that Ralph spent in my brother’s observation box before being set free, was my brother’s focused attention, magnifying glass in hand. While he did not keep a record of his observations, I know that my brother was honing his curiosity. But, I must admit, I’ve often wondered what his Observation Journals would have contained. How fun it would be to look back on an archive of his curiosity.
All four of my children have numerous journals of this sort and it is wonderful to look back and recognize the diversity and specificity of their unique observations.
Here is how to begin an Observation Journal:
1. Look at the subject for a while. Look at what you are observing. Pick the object up, turn it around, use a magnifying glass to see texture and detail. Take your time and try to throw out any preconceived notions about the subject.
2. Talk about what is seen. Join the fun by engaging children in conversation about the details of the object being observed.
3. Draw the object with realistic detail. Encourage children to look at the lines, textures, and shapes. Have them think about proportions as they translate the three dimensional object to a 2-dimensional object on paper. When the drawing is complete, have them think about the color of the object and try to match the colors as close to the real thing as possible.
4. Read about the object. Find a book or internet article to find facts about the object being observed. Suggest that notes on a topic wheel might help to organize ideas.
5. Explore the object's potential. What did you learn? What importance does the object hold in our world?
6. Write about the object. Combine and convey information gained through direct observation and research.
When children observe they utilize diverse reasoning modes that will, in turn, cultivate their ability to engage in the art of learning.
Why not begin the Observation Journaling with a caterpillar? Taking Fabre’s advice to heart, no need to travel to observe nature! Step out into your own backyard in search of a caterpillar or two. And, if need be, transplant a caterpillar from the World Wide Web via your printer!
Provide your child with some colored pencils, a pitcher of ice water, and a cozy backyard perch. Curiosity will do the rest.
Here's to Da Vinci Summer V, eyes open!
“We frequently see, at the ends of pine branches, voluminous bags of white silk intermixed with leaves. These bags are, generally, puffed out at the top and narrow at the bottom, pear-shaped. They are sometimes as large as a person's head. They are nests where live together a kind of very velvety caterpillars with red hairs. A family of caterpillars, coming from the eggs laid by one butterfly, construct a silk lodging in common. All take part in the work, all spin and weave in the general interest. The interior of the nest is divided by thin silk partitions into a number of compartments. At the large end, sometimes elsewhere, is seen a wide funnel-shaped opening; it is the large door for entering and departing. Other doors, smaller, are distributed here and there. The caterpillars pass the winter in their nest, well sheltered from bad weather. In summer they take refuge there at night and during the great heat.”
-Jean Henri Fabre on the Processionary Caterpillar
So begins the march of the Processionary Caterpillar. While children's author/illustrator Eric Carle might say, “Out pops a very hungry caterpillar,” in this particular case, out pops, single file, not one, but a large family of very hungry caterpillars.
When Fabre observed this caterpillar’s strong instinct to follow-the-leader, its steps locked to the caterpillar being followed, he decided to hypothesize and to test his big idea by setting up a simple experiment. In 1896, he coaxed caterpillars to march in a chain around a flowerpot. And there they circled for days. Round and round and round.
And what did he observe?
Not even food set inches from their proverbial noses distracted the caterpillars from their mindless following.
There was no leader.
And so the caterpillars earned their name.
Scientific observation involves much more than seeing. Providing opportunities for students to observe allows them to practice such skills as collecting, predicting, constructing, perceiving. The art of observation helps students to risk and ultimately lead.
Jean Henri Fabre’s acute backyard observations laid the foundation for entomology. His earnest observations and insights are collected in ten volumes entitled Souvenirs Entomologiques.
Micropolis, at St Léons, France, is a wonderful destination dedicated to etymology and Fabre’s contribution to this significant branch of science.
Ever marveling at the power of the neologism, I clicked around on the World Wide Web until I came across the Micropolis website. Unfortunately I don’t read, write, or speak French. Still I couldn’t help but poke around a bit as I pondered the word—Micropolis.
And then it struck me.
What a wonderful testament to Fabre. In a single word—Micropolis—the museum communicates the life of a man dedicated to unearthing the diversity of nature in his own backyard.
Da Vinci Summer 2014 is only weeks away. Join the fun as we conjure big ideas for observing the small worlds brimming with diversity that we take for granted, the simple spaces in our very own backyard. Let’s think small. After all, the Renaissance Man himself reminds us, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
The ability to read and write is complex and involves the integration of numerous foundational skills. Learning to read and write, children must wade through the landscape of phonology (word sounds), orthography (word patterns), morphology (word classifications) and then tackle the more treacherous path through the land of syntax (word patterning) and semantics (grammar) to gather tools that enable them to practice the art of reading and writing. But that’s not all, not at all! We must not discount the child’s EQ when it comes to literacy. Soft skills such as emotional insight, curiosity, and attitude all contribute to motivation and motivation impacts learning. Exposing children to a vast array of language arts experiences in an environment that is brimming with opportunities to enact language from a young age cultivates natural curiosity and promotes peaceful acquisition of skill over time. This is the magic of the tortoise versus the hare in action! And, just to complicate matters just a tiny bit more, literacy is much more than being able to read and write. True literacy is not just the ability to decode and encode language, true literacy occurs when the child moves from the foundational to the realm of creation, the realm of original communication.
Providing prepared opportunities for children to independently discover the tools of literacy across all domains of learning promotes the ability to enact language. It is vitally important that children not lose heart or become discouraged when mistakes occur. Self-correcting materials allow children to learn through their own errors to make the correct decision without having the teacher point it out to them. When encouraged to discover, children are simultaneously empowered to practice such complex skills as:
scrutinizing to make confident decisions
self-critiquing to assert thoughtful opinions
hypothesizing to draw informed conclusions
When Nelson chose the “Bones of the Body” work during our Discovery session, not only did he work through identifying the Latin names for a selection the election of the human skeleton, he was intrigued and invested in the work and, consequently, rewarded intrinsically. This child, while hard at work, was calm, confidently focused, and enthusiastic about learning. I have no doubt that this little exercise had less to do with learning the names of bones and more about strengthening the backbone of literacy. Discovery provides opportunities for children to, not only gather tools, but to encounter and practice the processes through which great ideas are conceived and forged.
Last year we began a tradition of words for Advent.
This year, we decided to follow the same path and began like this...
Think ADVENT L. adentus "arrival" The coming or arrival, especially of something important.
Think ONTOLOGY L. ontologia Dealing with the nature of being.
Think PRESENCE Old French praesentia The state of being before.
And after all the thinking, we enlisted wax-resist medium and watercolor to ornament and order our contemplation of
all the while keeping in mind the words Madeline L’engle assembled about words:
“We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually.”
Might our words give presence?
Let's think on that...
E. Nesbit, storyteller extraordinaire, weaves quite a yarn. The Book of Beasts is a favorite of my three sons. Why? Not because the protagonist is a small boy, but because that small boy becomes king! What boy doesn’t dream of being king at one point or another during childhood? But the adventure for Lionel does not begin at the coronation. No, the adventure begins in the library when Lionel dares to open a book.
And so the lesson begins.
And while the lesson can easily be accomplished without E. Nesbit’s book, it’s the spark for the lesson in the first place and highly recommended.
To begin, I asked my writing apprentices to consider the things that we struggle with as humans. While they were contemplating on paper, I wrote Latin on the whiteboard without explanation:
HC SVNT DRACONES
We generated our list below the Latin——greed, laziness, gossip, gluttony. After we were sufficiently steeped in considering the flaws of our flesh, we began a discussion of what shape these "fleshly foes" might take. We started with thumbnail metaphors. Each child began sketching his or her mythical beast, animating its beastly qualities.
From here we began to write the Beast Tale. They were to describe the character of their beast in detail, to create a situation in which the beast might feed, and, of course, they were instructed to concoct a way to slay the beast. All this in 500 words or less!
The writers eagerly worked to draft idea to paper. I was amazed by the depth of engagement I witnessed as they crafted minute details about beasts that they encounter in the real world.
As drafts were completed I saw pencils released and re-reading begin. I saw little hands making red marks—scritch, scratch—then more re-reading until the stage of polish began.
Sufficiently satisfied with the stories, each writer then moved back to the visual realm and began animating their thumbnail beasts to a form that was ready for canvas—light pencil traced with Sharpee was then hand painted with fabric ink. Beasts were hand-stitched to felt and felt was machine stitched to calico.
But there was one more piece of fabric to deal with once the visual project was accomplished a few weeks later. And so I asked the apprentices to read, once more, their polished Beast Tales. To their surprise, they stumbled on little errors, or bumps in the story. Everyone found a little something to refine, which proved to them without me lecturing, that writing needs to incubate, that writing is a process.
And so, after this final polish, the tales were written by hand on the remaining scrap of canvas. And the stories were machine stitched to felt and the back was stitched to the front and the pillows were stuffed. And that’s how the Beast Tales came to be.
When it comes to writing… show don’t tell.
So the next time any child grumbles or complains about engaging in the art of writing simply remind them that writing is an adventure, lift an imaginary sword and cry, “Beyond Here be Dragons,” and let the adventure begin.
“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”
- Jasper Johns
Find a word you like.
Take the word and write it on canvas.
Mix some colors you like.
Take your word and paint the colors you like into the shape of the word you like.
Paint Jasper Johns Words.
And soon you'll be thinking like Jasper Johns:
“I am just trying to find a way to make pictures.”
Characters do things. They feel things. They hear things. They say things. They think things. They go places. They can walk, run, leap, and jump. They may sit and rock in a rocking chair. They may just lie in bed, sleep, and dream. But the important thing is that characters act. And it is precisely these actions that show us just what kind of imaginary people characters are—friendly, sad, nosey, happy, confused, angry, or inventive. And we need to know because something always happens in great stories. Character determines the outcome.
Earlier this month, my son Søren sat on the couch chuckling to himself, turning the pages of an old favorite. It’s Lewis Carroll re-imagined. Christopher Myers keeps the text the same but re-imagines the beast as a basketball-playing-Jabberwocky. And the protagonist? Well, he becomes a small boy with basketball-shaped-stars in his eyes.
What fascinated me about the scene was what happened when the book was closed. My son smiled, got off the couch to rummage around the art cabinet for paper, scissors, and tape. Silently he concentrated, cutting shapes and connecting them until the characters emerged. Then he swept up the scraps, set his characters to hold the gesture, and walked away from the table without a word.
I know what he was up to. This was literary analysis at its best. Carroll’s Jabberwocky is a larger than life, but there is no doubt that the storm of neologism and nonsense qualifies it as a very difficult read. To most, Søren’s hive of post reading activity might be deemed at best a responsive craft. But Søren was actually deep in thought. This post-reading activity was uniquely contemplative, was Søren’s way of unpacking Lewis Carroll’s poem and the consequent reimagining of Christopher Myer.
And I know where Søren’s pondering will lead. It will lead to an idea. Sometimes we begin with a study of someone else’s idea to incubate an original idea of our own. So it might not be this week, maybe not even next, but I’m sure Lewis Carroll and Christopher Meyer offered fodder that has been sufficiently tucked away in the mind of my son.
Linda has two little boys, has always dreamed of homeschooling but she’s brand new to the Guild Method. So she flew to California this summer so that Sara and I could help her shape her the lessons. Her oldest son, Zach, was ripe for Kindergarten and so was she!
Back home, when school days arrived, she was ready and so pictures of little boys water coloring apple trees, little fingers writing words in salt, little paint brushes encoding CVC words in tempera on butcher paper in the bright sunshine, and little minds constructing giant floor puzzles delighted my email inbox. SO cute! Sure, there were tiny kinks to adjust here and there, but the transition to school days was a beautiful thing in Linda’s little Ohio Guild.
But we all know what’s coming, right? The very first one of those best-laid-plans days. So here we are, nearing October. And a different kind of email was grimacing in my inbox, “…it turned out to be a super frustrating experience…Grrr.” It seems Zach recognized that he was face-to-face with a pencil-to-paper challenge and he took an about face.
I smiled, “There it is…!”
Linda was super excited to begin our Fall Discovery Guide with her son. I still am. I am super excited for her rocky beginning because it tells her precisely where Zach is strong and where Zach is weak. Now the trick is to slowly strengthen him so he sees the uphill climb as an adventure.
Our Earlybird Discovery Guides are recommended for a range of Kindergarten and lower level primary (grades 1 and 2) children who are in the process of acquiring foundational decoding and encoding skills, but not yet reading and writing independently. What this means is that the material must be approached with the child’s ability in mind. The important thing at this stage of academic development is to challenge the child to press into work that requires discipline without crushing the marvelous innate passion for learning.
Here are the tips I offered Linda—Easy as 1, 2, 3:
1. Pace important work over 5 days.
Tackle the writing in 15-minute increments. Shrink some of the responsibility for writing, but not the problem solving and idea making.
Read the story.
Have Zach draw the characters and to describe their personality traits—how they think, act, feel. Capture three “trait” words from his stream of communication and write them out so he can copy them into his guide. Give him 15 minutes to do the copy work.
Work on the vocabulary matching exercises together. Then, read the sentences with the missing words and have Zach choose between two of the vocabulary words to complete the sentences. Write the words that complete each sentence for Zach to copy during his 15-minute “Important Work” time.
Read the story again, this time stopping periodically for Zach to tell you what is about to happen.
Work with Zach to complete the comprehension sentences from the Word Bank. Write the words that complete each sentence for Zach to copy during his 15-minute “Important Work” time.
No reading today… unless, that is, Zach asks you to read the story again!
Today, for the sentences in the Comprehension section that are to be completed with original phrases—dependent clauses—let Zach dictate while you inscribe. That’s right, NO writing for Zach! As you complete each sentence, write slowly, and say each word aloud as if you are sounding out letter that forms the word. In doing so you will be modeling the art of encoding language.
Have Zach re-tell the story in his own words. Then, read the creative writing prompt for the Writing Exercise. Pass the Earlybird Guide to Zach and let him “draw” his story with colored pencils. When he is done drawing, let him dictate a two or three sentence to you. Inscribe his ideas…NO writing for Zach!
2. Think Longitude.
As Zach becomes more comfortable with writing—and this will take time, think longitude—allow him to take over bits and pieces of the writing you are doing for him.
3. Reach for the Stars!
Create a Star Chart and a prize box filled with dollar-store trinkets. For every ten stars, Zach gets to go shopping. Here, Linda came up with the terrific idea to use beans in a jar, clink clink clink, what boy would not love this noise? Thanks Linda!
There’s a phrase I’ve learned to grip tightly over the years. Recently, my dear friend, Christian, added a quirky little “whoa, horsie” sass to the phrase. This made me chuckle, “Yes!” The phrase is “stagger, tortoise.” Now you try it. That’s right. Now, say it again, only louder, “S-t-a-g-g-e-r, tortoise!”
Each poem is a one-of-a-kind collage of sounds that tickle the tip-of-the-tongue and a rhythmic hammering that sparks a tap-of-the-toe.
Poetry is a larger part of our world than we often admit. It’s the songs we sing, commercial jingles, rap, billboards, and YouTube. Poetry is headlines, Facebook, and blogs. Poetry is in great books and essays. Poetry is everywhere!
And so poetry is worth our while—worth reading, worth writing, worth speaking out loud, worth memorizing.
This past winter, when I challenged my writing apprentices to memorize a poem, I had to endure another collective groan, “Noooo…!” And when I showed them the poem they would have two weeks to memorize, they went pale and were silenced.
The poem “Television” by Roald Dahl was the perfect poem for this project not only because we were exploring the theme “Unplug” in our writing workshop, but because if was long enough to prove the vast potential of their ability to memorize.
The lesson began, “Memorized poems fill the pantry of our imagination with food that is sure to sustain us in lean times. If you don’t believe, read Frederick, by Leo Lionni.”
I went on, “I know, these days we’re not used to memorizing long passages of traditional poetry. But, wait think about all the memorizing we do on a daily basis!”
We generated a list and I saw color return to their cheeks.
Row, row, row your boat…
The wheels on the bus go round and round…
Peter Piper picked a peck…
Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there…
I shared a story about my oldest Hannah being able to recite all of Beatrice Potter’s Peter Rabbit when she was three simply because I read it to her so often, “Memorizing is something you are equipped to accomplish!”
Still, I was struck by downcast attitude of my writing apprentices, as if this was the most arduous task on the planet. Can you say “Mountain from a molehill?” It was actually painful to watch them shilly-shally.
I’m happy to report that by the end of week one most of them found their footing. By the beginning of week two, they were having so much FUN that I announced we would be making a film of the project. We would turn Dahl’s poem into a documentary.
Here’s how I helped them break the memorization into manageable bits:
1. Begin with a close reading. This poem is a very long single stanza. Count the sentences in the poem. Translate each sentence into your own words. Write out each translation on a piece of paper.
2. Copy the poem, one sentence at a time and say the sentence slowly as you write.
3. Break the poem into small, manageable sections. Read and repeat one line at a time from a section without looking. Listen to the rhythm. Read the next line from this section, then repeat (without looking) the two lines. Continue on in this manner.
4. Once the entire poem is memorized, breathe life into your reading by going back to your close reading notes. Use your voice to add inflection.
At the end of the list I promised, “Soon you will not only have the poem memorized, but you carry the poem in your heart.”
And they did.
And they do.
So before summer slips too far away, plan an UNPLUG activity or two… and please, please, please, memorize a poem!