The Honor to Witness

This blog post is a collaboration between myself and Kindergaten Teacher Jere Lorenzen-Strait. In a whirlwind of adrenalin fueled by immediate happenings, we furiously and joyfully created this documentation. It is my hope you feel the energy of our shared dialogue.


As glorious and grand as the clouds

I love stories, especially stories that speak to insight and research. This year, I began the process of looking at the Anatomy of Mark Making. This is because so many people proclaim that our school seems to produce children who are prodigious at graphic representation. Also, I had been asked to lead a course through Innovations/Wayne State University on said topic. This offered me a challenge, because the source of the inquiry is not a story.


I have always looked at clouds, initially to “see” an elephant, witch, crocodile or face. However, I vividly remember being thrilled in elementary school when I learned to recognize cloud varieties– Cumulus, Stratus, Cirrus.clouds3

In learning to name or classify clouds, the joy and the magic, the “seeing” did not cease. It actually gave me a new possibility for looking, and in many ways an opportunity to see deeper.

In the spirit of cloud watching, I began the process of naming and then classifying children’s drawings. (I did not include children’s writing as part of this process) I too, became curious of this culture of drawing at our school, and wanted to move from the more intuitive to the more intentional in my research. My first developed classifications were: Graphic Representation as Abstract Thought/Idea, Graphic Representation as Memory, Graphic Representation as Observation, Graphic Representation as Plan, Graphic Representation as Fantasy.



Soon I realized that my classifying system was slightly flawed, because there was hybrid or combined categories. I relate this to Cumulus-stratus clouds, that forms combine.

I  was fascinated to learn that by classifying the representations of children, you not only begin to see more nuances, but you begin to widen your ability to understand and see meaning and intent.



So what does this teach me?

More than anything it supported my thesis that graphic representation/drawing is thought. It is language. Young Children are complex thinkers, and when given the tools and time and respect to do so, become fantastic communicators. This work is profound. It shows expressed theories, connections, ideas, and imagination.

While many adults look for schools that produce children who can decode and read above their age level, I theorize that these very children have been robbed of their voice and possibly their intellect. I can read a medical journal-but I have no understanding of content whatsoever. I devour fiction, art, education books and more – but I can add to the field of thought and conversation, and develop new ways of thinking when I read these books. My neuro pathways are engaged and challenged.


What if my parents never looked up into the sky and exclaimed, “Marla, do you see the castle?”  (Whereby I most likely responded, “Where? Because I see a ship!”)

There is a solid possibility when the chapter on clouds surfaced in my 3rd grade science text; I would have lamely memorized the types to solely pass the multiple choice questions quiz.

absplan1(“I am thankful for my Grandma’s garden.” Julia)

Valuing and researching children’s drawings are more than sorting and classifying. It’s research of both creativity and thought. It is an ongoing provocation and a continuing conversation.

In the context of our school, it is powerful curriculum (and caring).

It is as glorious and grand as the clouds.


Found & Lost & Found


Dove, By Elanor

A few weeks ago a dove nested in the Arbor located on our playground.dove

The kids found it, and soon they were enthusiastically watching the dove watch them, as she sat on her eggs.

I decided to take small groups of children out first thing in the morning to observe and paint her.

outartIn the morning, it is quiet on the playground, with no kids screaming and playing.

We witnessed the papa dove bringing nesting material to the mama and watched as she tucked it into her nest carefully.

What an amazing gift. The small groups all seemed to possess a tranquility and peace as they sat in the early morning light, watching the mama and drawing and painting.

Here are some of their representations:

birdCamille Camille, PreK

reggie paint Reginald, PreK


Owen, PreK owen paint

David, PreK birdDavid

Danika, PreK birdDanika

Malin, PreK malinpaint

The children were excited to tell the security guard about the dove and show their

On Monday I returned with a small group to paint. The dove was gone.


They painted the empty nest and theorized why she left. They decided they still wanted to paint the birds even thought they weren’t there.


Maren: “Maybe they left because it’s horrid, not so good. The babies might go on the playground and get stepped on. Maybe she wanted a quiet place.”


Mary: “I think they just wanted to visit someone’s house and because the baby birds rolled off the nest and flew.


Paige: “I think they just wanted a new home instead of here. Maybe in another bird nest or a birdy house, maybe because this house was not too nice.

Maren: “Maybe she came here when no kids were playing on the playground and she said, ”This is a nice quiet place.” And then all the kids came and then she maybe just wanted to fly away and build a nest somewhere else because it wasn’t comfortable.”

They returned to their class and reported the missing bird as well as their theories.  While disappointing, both preK classes have chicken eggs in an incubator in their classroom.

Later that same afternoon there was a group of Kindergarten children in the studio working on their dream house stories, when a rainbow graced itself in a long stretch of the floor under the table. The sunlight managed to hit the water and reflect off an angle of the glass turtle tank in perfection. Estelle and Khalisa dove under the table to investigate. “Look Estelle colored her hair!!”



Last week it was a an unexpected find in the trash,


LightElanor(Elanor, representation of light)

LightBeck(Beck, representation of light)

LightLydia(Lydia, representation of light)


this week an unexpected find of a nesting dove (and then loss) in nature, and then by days end there was a rainbow wrapping around our feet. Provocations unplanned never cease to amaze me.

Wonder, discovery, metaphor… continue to be profound principles that guide, inspire, and  provoke learning for both the children and the adults. Not only do these unplanned valued interactions promote engagement, they spark possibilities for growth and perhaps projects in the future. They offer conversation. They offer beauty. They offer confusion. They offer possibilities. They offer imaginings.

(Lilah, representation of light) LightLilah

Important work.

PS If you happen to live in the DC MD VA area, I have a piece of art entitled Sparrows, 1-9 at the Lorton Workhouse Arts Center. The exhibit is “Greenspiration.” Opening this Sunday, May 16th 2-4pm

sparrow3detail(detail) Sparrow, 1-9 By Marla McLean

Objects can tell stories, if you learn to read them.

(Warrior by Fredric R.)

On 2/23 and 2/25 I led each Kindergarten class, with their teachers and parent volunteers to see The Terra Cotta Warriors at the National Geographic Exhibit Hall.

On the metro bus back to school, teacher Hannah Birney asked me, “What made you choose this as a fieldtrip?”TCbusride

Objects can tell stories, if you learn to read them.

The thread of “storytelling” has become strong and evident in a multitude of forms this year. However, there is more than one way to read a story.

Developing both observational and comprehension skills is not limited to text.

Over 2000 years ago, over 7000 sculptures were  buried in China. They were found just 30 years ago. While a written record of the tomb of the Emperor was discovered, the life size figures were a mystery, because the only clues left were the sculptures themselves.

Before we embarked, we spent a lot of time handling clay.

I told the story of the Emperor who believed that when he died, he would have another life, and did not want to be just anybody in this next life. He wanted to maintain his status as the strongest and most powerful. And so he had artisans create replicas of officials, warriors, chariots and more to be buried with him.

Thus far, only male figures have been discovered. This part of the story, plus ideas of power within the empire created a dynamic “boy tale”. One of the many negative consequences of NCLB and drill and kill assessments within our national school system is the increasing incidence of boys failing in our schools.

Play, outdoor time, drama, music, art, and a dynamic that supports socialization skills are being deleted in early childhood programs. Fostering boys social emotional development is vital to school success, more so than IQ. ( Raising and Educating Healthy Boys)

One of the many wonderful classroom strategies to support boys is having a wide variety of books and experiences that show a range of emotions with boys as protagonists. While this fieldtrip and experience lends itself to boys, it is also such a wonderful mystery and thing of beauty, that all children were wide eyed. The connection of “story” also encompassed all.

I showed examples from the companion book, Terra Cotta Warriors, Guardians of China’s First Emperor by Jane Portal.

I moved my body and showed how gesture and stance also told the story by asking, what am I? How do you know this?

Headwear, (Elaborate hats and hair styles show importance , as Ellie has drawn)

garments, (Casey shows folds of fabric as well as scarf bows around the neck. “He’s an official.”)

footwear, (Miles went back and put shoes on his Warrior, while Frederick P. showed below-right, the elf-like shoes which describes an elite official.)


mark hairstyle & armor  are all a part of this story without words.

(left)Mark drew the armor on the chest and shoulders. Children noticed that armor was on different parts of the body for different types of individuals. Teija noticed and verbalized what she called “puffs” (a type of hair knot or bun swept on top of the head) as the hairstyle for some of the warriors. You can see it in Mark’s drawing.

jonas1(left)Musician and dancing crane. Jonas depicted the simple clothing and position of figure and hands that told the story of this entertainer, since their was no instrument on display.

Estelle depicted the gesture of a warrior that shows  “he’s an archer”estelle archer

I told the children for this trip, they would be investigators and artists. Their job was to sketch figures, and most importantly, draw the symbols that told the story of who they were. From our retreat with Patsy Cooper (which specifically addressed literacy and the use of stories and storytelling in curriculum), we learned that a key component in literacy that many children lack is comprehension. I was asking children to extract

factual information from the sculptures. This skill is the same as extracting information from text. It is different from making a personal connection (i.e. I saw Mulan! It’s in China.)

While crowds of teenagers hurried by, the Kindergarten students sat staring intently at the figures, discovering the stories. “Hey, look at these little kids” “Wow! They draw better than me!” exclaimed many of the teens.  (Maggie’s Warrior and Horse, right)P1050783

The docents were right on hand to answer questions. Estelle wanted to know where the body of the Emperor is. Ms. Lawrence, a docent, explained that they have not yet opened the tomb, but might one day.

Eventually the Kindergarten students will plan to make themselves out of Terra Cotta. Moving from comprehension of the exhibit/story, back to the idea of reading symbols to tell a story.

My question to them will be, “What is the story you want people to know about you?

How will you show your story within this sculpture?