A strange thing happened this September…no Monarch eggs or caterpillars were to be found on the Milkweed plants in the Peabody school garden. Every year, this is an important ritual. In fact most of the SWS teachers are part of the International Monarch Teacher Network.
I was truly disappointed.
Then, one afternoon, Margi Fineran (room 11 assistant teacher) asked me what the caterpillars were crawling all over the parsley in the children’s garden.
I did a little online research and came to the conclusion that they were Black Swallowtail caterpillars.
I took some in the studio. I was a little nervous. The Monarch life cycle I understood. I went to intensive trainings so I would not harm them, and in fact support their migration. With the Swallowtails, it was a whole new experience. However, it was just the provocation I needed to start the new PreK children thinking about looking closely, observing, and representing their thinking.
I took home those caterpillars every weekend. Of the four I took in, three went into a chrysalis. Instead of hanging from the top, like the Monarchs, the Swallowtails made a “string” around their waist to support themselves while they transformed.
To me they look like some kind of magical seahorse.
It was weeks before I noticed a change in their appearance, indicating it was almost time to emerge.
And then it happened.
Never underestimate the large effect a small moment can make.
Since I had no idea what to feed the Swallowtail butterflies once they emerged, each was released within 4-6 hours of it’s arrival. There would be no observational drawings for weeks at a time, as I did with the Monarch’s. I felt an urgency to release them so that they would survive.
Here is release 1:
For release number two, I asked for some help from Kindergarten friends:
For the final and third release, I asked my PreK friends for help:
There is such profound joy and exhilaration in releasing these small winged beings into the universe. It is the feeling of your heart swelling. It is a collective brief moment shared by all present. It feels like a big gift. When you are there in that moment time changes-as if nothing else exists, but the possibility of flight.
As I post these photos I am smiling.
Natalie left this image on the Buddha Board, a temporary water painting that evaporates. How wonderfully narrative it was of the fleeting experience.
Back inside school, looking closely and becoming observant continued to evolve as a project for the PreK’s. Now, I wanted them to use a new media, paint. This time, instead of using a live caterpillar, they chose from photos I captured during the field trip to the Arboretum. There were so many steps to take. Choosing the colors with thought and care and then following the many protocols for using the paints, brushes, easel and paint cart. Children have such capacity to rise up to expectations when they are trusted to take on new roles and possibilities.
The next preK journey in looking closely, will be observing and using diverse materials in a new way.
There is no discovery , awakening, or understanding without first possessing the ability to think and see and smell and hear and imagine through observation.
How often is thought unnoticed in a representation by a child? We as adults also need to be observant, and practice this skill, or we might certainly miss something important.
These projects (all projects) and this journey continues. Being observant is in fact a life long journey. But let us celebrate and maybe even see something we did not before through the children and their work.
The Kindergarten children have been on another trajectory. Last year, I noticed how much the then PreK children reveled in transforming themselves. Their stories and play, use of scarves and materials during free-time was complex and innovative. “What if? “I asked mr Jere and Ms. Scofield, “The children designed, created and sewed their own costumes in connection to something in your classrooms?”
So, we brainstormed. Each class has a special story they have been dramatizing in multiple ways. In Jere’s class, it is Chicken Little. In Ms Scofield’s, The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. Using narrative, voice, movement and discussion, each class is deconstructing and acting out literature in a meaningful way.
I invited a costume designer as both a provocation and as an expert. Then, the studio work began:
Henny Penny design by Emma Clare
Carter designed a raccoon costume.
This project is truly challenging. The children not only have to draw themselves as the likeness of a character, but, they have to think about if the design can work realistically as a costume, based on the advice of our specialist Ms. Celestine.
Design for the character named Jonathan by Kiran
Jai designed a Chicken Little costume.
Chicken Little design By Zaire
Foxy Loxy design by Henry
Raccoon costume by Han
Each sketch and rendering offers multiple insights into learning. In the studo and in connection with the classrooms, interdisciplinary and multimodal thinking is intentionally developed.
I am aware, that I have taken on a huge endeavor. Each child will be constructing these costumes…not me and not the parent.
Just like those Black Swallowtail caterpillars I took inside, there is a whole lot of unknown mixed with the known. I am indeed a little nervous. And like I did for those caterpillars, I intend on creating an optimal environment. I also will provide nourishment for growth (the kids are planning, talking, and hands on learning how to sew independently.)
It is my deepest hope mixed with intentional work that those Swallowtail caterpillars that I knew little about in the beginning represent the metaphor needed for the emerging project work- the gradual magic of transformation.
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.
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.
(“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).
I chose to not tell the kids that the paintings of fruits, flowers & vegetables became distinctive faces. I wanted them to experience the element of surprise and excitement. With the teachers, we prepared them for the trip, by talking about being observant, noticing details, using color thoughtfully, as well as the idea of inspiration.
What does it mean to be inspired?
The museum does not allow photography in this exhibit, so of the many tasks I gave the children, an important one was to choose one of their favorite paintings, and draw it in their sketchbook as a “memory” of the exhibit.
Henry gathered a lot of information, using both notes and representations, with the help of a chaperon:
Lia, used a different approach for her “memory.” She used expressive marks, creating a representation with great feeling:
Camille, I noticed sitting in the middle of the floor in one of the gallery rooms, intently sketching. The exhibit is popular and I noticed that patrons were walking in front of her and blocking her view.
“Camille, it’s getting crowded. You are welcome to get close to the painting.”
She replied, “No, I see it better from back here.”
This surprised me, because in general, kids often go so close to displays, they are craning their necks. She was serious and in fact, correct. To get perspective, one does have to step back.
She chose the painting “The Librarian.”
Her dedication to representing this painting was intense. You have to picture the scores of adults walking around and in front of this small body, hunched over on the floor space, gazing in between the bodies to create her memory.
Before the trip was over, she showed me her sketch. “Can you make me a copy today? I want my Mom to paint my picture.”
When we returned to school, we all discussed what we saw. Camille raised her hand, “Did you make the copy?”
I immediately did, and added a post-it note to inform mom of Camille’s plan.
It was a Friday, and Camille’s mom, Susan was to be out of town. On Tuesday morning I received an email.
I got in Camille’s folder a copy of her sketch from her field trip (dated 10/15/2010… this must be in her sketch journal that is kept at school), and a Post It note from you that Camille would like me to paint a painting based on her picture, so I stayed up way too late tonight and painted her a painting… I liked Camille’s composition and so I tried to stay true to her picture… The painting is attached. What a fun thing to do! I named the painting “It’s Time to Cook.” Medium is oil on canvas. 🙂
When I told Camille that I received an email from her mom, and saw the painting, she grinned ear to ear. “I know!” she said.
I asked her if together we could share this story of inspiration with the class, and she was thrilled.
When we shared with the class the story of Camille being inspired by a 500 year old Arcimboldo painting,
and then her Mom being inspired by Camille, a 5 year old, they were enthralled. There were rich observations and questions made by the class.
Reginald: Why did you want your mom to paint your picture?
Camille: Because I like the painting.
Beck: Your mom’s painting is cool because at the bottom it looks like a carrot with a watch, but the carrot holds up the book.
Frederick: If you look really close you can see a hand.
Ruthie: Those two bent things look like fingers that are holding a book.
Lia: The painting looks like a bumble bee. The bent fingers look like wings, and the part in the middle looks like a body.
Sam: I think there’s a celery for the nose.
Owen: The eyes look like glowing beads.
A kindergarten student inspired by a 500 year old painting.
So inspired, she wants her Mom to be inspired.
The Mom is then inspired by the 5 year old.
The entire Kindergarten class is inspired by Mom’s painting.
Everyone now wants a copy of their “memory.”
Tomorrow I am taking another class (Ms. Burke’s) on the same trip. I spoke with the class in order to prepare them.
“I think you will be inspired! What does inspired mean?”
“You can’t believe your eyes”
“You want to look at it for a long time”
“Really really really really pretty”
“I know what inspired means, it means,
You change them (the paintings)
but it can still be them”
I am looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure with Ms. Burke’s class, and then Ms. Scofield’s PreK’s in November and Mr. Jere’s class in December (PreK parents, try not to show the Arcimboldo paintings before!)
While the trip was originally planned to align with “The Story of Food” grant work, the deepest work went beyond the fun scavenger hunt of identifying and finding the hidden eggplant or onion in a face.
This type of deep work, can be revisited in life endlessly:
Making marks to create memory.
What Mani said, is a succinct definition of inspiration.
A week after that post I had my younger PreK children in the studio to create their first self portrait at SWS. This year, I am also held accountable by the school system I work for to produce data that shows either growth or mastery in “Art.” I am still developing the method for doing this, but decided that collecting self portraits perhaps could be an excellent vehicle for collecting said data.
I am always extremely careful with “firsts.”
“Firsts ” offer leaps, but also can offer failure.
I have met too many people young and old (including myself) who stopped pursuing something because of a first experience with an adult who was not aware how vulnerable we are the first time we dare try something new.
The PreK’s, I will report, were brave, proud and glorious in creating their first self-portraits. Once again, we used mirrors and together discovered the wonder of the human face. Those nose holes are something when we squeeze them and talk, and the kids were surprised to discover that they have a bridge on their face (nose bridge.) Looking, laughing, touching and then finally sketching…
I love looking at these representations. While some children clearly are comfortable holding a pen, for others, the act of steadying the pen in their hands and having their hand “Kiss” the paper was a great feat in and of itself.
Observing how they organized their face parts was also thrilling to observe. I suggested they make the face large, so they had room to fit all the parts in. Look how one child accommodated my request, and her sense of space at the same time.
Notice the shaky lines filled with intent
as well as the strong lines discovering new details.
They are equally powerful. It would be unconscionable to “grade” this work or make judgements on mastery to fulfill my data collection. Instead, I am determined to develop a system for identifying the evidence of visual thinking and visual habits of mind.
When I shared the self portraits with their teachers, some stories emerged. It turns out that one child, in the classroom only drew “snowstorms,” no matter what they were asked to record. In the studio her control and choices were intentional. I remembered how she made her hair, using long strokes of the pen, instead of the usual one or two strands that most kids draw.
I realized in that moment, that it wasn’t any Ms. McLean magic that happened.
How do we learn to tell stories? At first humans/babies are non-verbal and then we begin to talk but we lack vocabulary and we don’t understand the idea of a beginning, middle, or end. (We have all listened to children tell a story in this stage, “and then the man got the bird and then the man ran and then he had some lunch and then he saw his mommy…”)
Adults tell the stories, we read the stories, we engage in conversation. It is the act of listening that teaches children how to tell stories.
Similarly in drawing. It is the act of seeing that teaches children how to sketch. And how we do this is not with “lessons” per se. It is also not by chance or luck. It is by engaging the child’s senses in experiences that set off synapsis. Synapsis that make everything connect in a visual way. To “see” in multiple ways.