Engaging Students in Art Appreciation and Visual Literacy with Sushi and Velociraptors

Once again, I feel I am departing from traditional literacies and chasing after ways to engage students in alternative instruction. I wanted to share a display that I created at the middle school I work at, which began as a display encouraging the students to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art to see their new Vermeer exhibit. However, as I was searching for some recent articles on Vermeer to add to our book and flier display, I kept coming across one article from the end of October about a new Banksy installation called Girl with a Pierced Eardrum.

     The eponymous “pearl” has been replaced with an ADT alarm box, bringing humor to what I found to be a really stunning piece.  I’ve added the original on  for reference…

As this image came up again and again, I wondered what other interpretations of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring existed out there on the internet.  I was not disappointed…

  Image credit: Marco Sodano   Girl with a Pearl Earring sushi.        

Then Vermeer was Devoured by pageboy

I found six that I really liked and showed them to the librarian.  We decided that these reinterpretations might be a fun addition to our display, so we mounted them, added a sign that asked students to guess the materials used to create them and put the answers on the back. I get very excited when I see students, teachers and parents loitering around the display turning the pictures over.  I also think that there is value in bringing classical artistic expression down off its pedestal and making it accessible for students to engage with.


Accessible Visual Literacy:

Learn NC has an article and some useful resources for “Learning to look at art” (http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/667). Melissa Thibault, the author, advocates for giving students the opportunity to explore and find the kind of art that inspires them personally, from impressionist masters to Ansel Adams. However, I would advocate for expanding that to pieces of art not traditionally found in museums.

Keith McPherson brings the discussion of visual literacy to mental images and how to build visual literacy starting from the pictures we get in our heads when we read. He gave ideas for activities like creating travel photo journals and bringing in local examples of professionals who work with visual literacy, like graphic designers and artisans, but also reminded us of the important of allowing students to “construct meaning using a variety of response options (e.g., sculpture, drama, drawings, painting, speech) rather than always insisting their writing be “front and center” and completed first” (McPherson, 2004).

T. Williams shares strategies for engaging elementary school aged students in visual literacy activities: writing stories to accompany pieces of art, discussing reactions to and observations on a piece in groups and more. What I liked about this article was the way Williams was inspired by visiting the National Gallery in London. The exhibit, “Tell Me a Picture,” was designed by beloved children’s book illustrator Quentin Blake to engage children, with illustrations connecting the paintings, which were hung at a child’s eye level (Williams, 2007). Not all museum are going to include such exhibits, but as educators, we should keep our eyes open for ways to engage students in visual literacy through a variety of means and make sure we take time to experience cultural activities, ourselves. They can inspire us!

Children National Gallery

(In the background, you can see that alphabet-themes illustrations from Quentin Blake that connect the paintings)


Focus on visual LITERACY. (2008). Knowledge Quest, 36(3), 58-59,68. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/194728471?accountid=14244         http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/194728471?accountid=14244

Thibault, M. (2003).  Learning to look at art.  Learn NC. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/667
Williams, T. L. (2007). “Reading” the painting: Exploring visual literacy in the primary grades. Reading Teacher, 60(7), 636-642. doi:10.1598/RT.60.7.4 https://auth-lib-unc-edu.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/ezproxy_auth.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ759039&site=ehost-live&scope=site










Word Games and Nonsense Words in the Classroom

As I was writing the most recent post about poetry, as well as in our class discussion of traditional and nontraditional writing and the importance of writing everyday, I began thinking of ways to introduce nontraditional and non-assessed writing to students.  What about those times when we truly just want them to have fun with words?

In reading for this post, I came across a lot of articles that describe the use of nonsense words in literacy instruction with DIBELS measures, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. DIBELS-Kindergarten-Test-Sample.jpg

I can see the use of activities where you create nonsense words like the ones on the right to reinforce students’ understanding of phonemes and letter-sound recognition.  However, what I’m more interested in is the use of nonsense words with older students with the intention of expanding ideas of language and its limits.  One could introduce instances of neologisms or nonsense words in classic literature, as well as in contemporary writing or music.  A class studying Shakespeare could shake things up with a lesson dedicated to his creation of new words and doing some writing exercises to explore how students could create their own.

I grew up in a household that loved its word games, we played Taboo, Scattegories, Fictionary, Scrabble, Acronymble and some that I think my parents made up.  Where could these games fit into classroom instruction?  With inspiration from Fictionary or Pictionary, students could be encouraged to find obscure words in their readings and challenge their classmates to come up with definitions for it.  Make an Oddball WordWall!

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/09/Acronymble_box_cover.pngTaboo 02.jpg

I grew up with wordplay and nonsense words in some of my favorite books, such as those by Lewis Carroll, Shel Silverstein, William Steig and Dr. Seuss.  The nonsense words in Dr. Seuss books make kids laugh, but it can also make them think about rhyme and rhythm.  The coded sentences created from individual letters in Steig’s C D B! were hilarious puzzles when I was a kid, and although some might seem familiar to kids today since the dawn of online language’s abbreviations, I think it could be fun to engage an elementary class in the creation of similar letter-play.

I love the words Lewis Carroll created in Jabberwocky (especially “frumious Bandersnatch” and “mome rath”) and I always thought creating nonsense word poetry would be really fun with a class.  I’d most likely look for some more recent nonsense word poetry to read with them, rather than relying solely on Jabberwocky as my model.  Creating poems in internet speak/abbreviations, complete with “smh” and “imo” and “icymi,” could be a fun way to explore that language in a different medium than it is normally used.

I spoke with a librarian last year who leads an enormous yearly project around the book The Phantom Tollbooth (wordplay galore!).  She hosts a Word Bazaar (from the book) in the library, where students must trade and create words, using letters as currency.  I always wondered how much instruction would have to accompany a class reading of this book for students to be able to grasp the wordplay, but it remains an extremely popular read and the Word Bazaar is a favorite activity with the school that hosts it.

I’ll finish by repeating the idea that cultivating a healthy sense of fun when it comes to words and language could be a great way to engage learners in expanding their view of what writing can be.



More reading on Wordplay:

Eckler, R. (1996). Making the Alphabet Dance: Recreational Wordplay.

Figgins, M. A., & Johnson, J. (2007). Wordplay: The Poem’s Second Language. English Journal, 96(3), 29-35.

Whitaker, S. (2008). Finding the Joy of Language in Authentic Wordplay. English Journal, 97(4), 45-48.

The sky is the limit with poetry projects!

In my Young Adult Literature class, we recently spent some time talking about poetry. One of the articles we read was Betsey Coleman’s “Poetry is Contagious,” which explored a variety of poetry forms she had used with her classes and how she had implemented them in her instruction.  In class, we discussed the importance of creative writing, using examples from former students to encourage reluctant poets, and keeping the assignments unexpected, exciting and relevant.  Coleman’s examples included things like the Form Poem, which uses the structure of a dictionary, bibliography, transcript, warning label, dedication, health record, or prescription to create something new. This poem’s form could allow for some very creative results that require outside-the-box thinking, whether it is a how-to for something silly like in Michelle Robinson’s How to Wash a Woolly Mammoth or a warning label for a boring history textbook or telling a story through a series of exchange rates.


Another example of “contagious” poetry was the Punctuation/Sign Poem, in which students create poems about letters, numbers, geometric figures, or punctuation marks.  This poem is about an asterisk:

punctuationpoem     Coleman explains the importance of connecting students to the assignment by showing them former students’ creations and offering students “frequent and varied opportunities” to write poetry.  With this and Coleman’s other projects, she suggests requiring students to submit at least one poem to a contest or publication, but to give them the choice of which one to send in, giving students the empowering opportunity to see their names in print.  She also focuses on the importance of audience, whether it is displaying the work prominently in the school or other means of sharing “within the school community through the school’s publications, contests, newsletters, or assemblies; through outside Web sites; or through regional contests…or national publications.”  This reminded me of our conversation in class about having a purpose for writing assignments, an intentional audience or intended use for the final products.  I think connecting assignments to students’ school community and beyond can be imperative in fostering the concept of writing as an important activity that has real connections to their own lives.

My group’s discussion of innovative and non-traditional poetry formats strayed to the idea of “Spine Poetry,” where people use the spines of books to create poems.  Google the term and you are inundated with varied and inspiring results, such as


I love the idea of Spine Poetry, because it is a physical creation of a poem from stacking books that retains its creativity and literacy components.  Students get excited about creating a poem from their favorite titles and it also allows for students who struggle to think of themselves as writers or poets to try a new form of poetry creation.  Spine Poetry would be an excellent opportunity to share photos of students’ poems on Instagram or a class blog or twitter account.  I feel that this poetry form would fit easily into the types of assignments that Coleman describes, offering a new and different format, but one that will not overpower the actual writing.  Spine Poetry is also relevant to “digital natives,” who may give more credit to a project if it is something they can find all over Pinterest and Tumblr already.


Coleman, B. (2004). “Poetry is Contagious”: How I Teach My Students to Write Award-Winning Poetry. Voice Of Youth Advocates, 27(1), 17-21.


Literacy Flashback: Linking Science, Writing and Candy!


Last week in class, we discussed the ways in which classes could connect with the community and send writing assignments to appropriate organizations, like articles to local newspapers, historical writing to a historical society, and book writing assignments to the school library for checkout.  This made me think of a pretty unconventional assignment that I had in 4th grade when we studied space and the planets.  My teacher presented a project where we had to incorporate our knowledge of planets and space, persuasive writing and creativity to write letters to a major candy company with three new ideas for a space-themed candies.  One of mine was an “Asteroid Belt” candy made of fruit leather and chocolate sprinkles (not particularly appetizing in retrospect).  Others described chocolate and gummy balls with different fillings to demonstrate various planets or chose to represent comets with fizzy candies that left colors in your mouth.

candy formula

Our assignment was incentivized: we were told that the last time our teacher had done this project with a class, the candy company had sent a giant box of candy in reply, including chocolate balls covered in foil that made them look like little earths. At the end of our project we did send off our space-candy ideas and sure enough, we received an enormous box of candy in reply (think half the size of a refrigerator box).




I do not love the idea of incentivizing writing, and one would certainly not be able to feed children large amounts of candy at most elementary schools now.  Even awarding prizes for writing, to me, negates the idea of celebrating the creativity of the writing process. However, what I do love is the idea of choosing projects outside of the everyday writing that have a very specific creative purpose. Creativity is an important part of writing and I love the idea of kids creating a prototype, of designing something new as part of a writing project. Designing a candy is a relatively easy way to do this, because the category of what can be called candy is broad, but easily grasped. What if students were able to write letters to the principal with new designs or plans for the school garden? What if students did research and wrote letters to the school board about the best formation of cafeteria tables for community-building?

I was also inspired by the idea of creating insect information brochures for a local park or hiking trail, a project that was mentioned in class the other day. With a project like that, students would gain the extra benefit of being able to show their families their work in action outside of the school setting. I imagine a child would be so excited to take their family to a park and show them the informational brochure that they had helped create and was now available to the public. In school, the successful implementation of a new plan for what was being planted in the school garden based upon the persuasive essays of a class to staff would have amazing potential for motivation.

There is something innately exciting  for students about sending your ideas out into the world and receiving a reply. In our class discussion tonight, we talked about the idea of “authentic audiences” and this is what I am trying to get at. It doesn’t have to be something as “out there” as sending space candy ideas to a candy company, but giving students the opportunity to be recognized by an audience upon whose work the assignment has some bearing is a real incentive for learning and writing.


Image Sources:











Unleashing the Power of The Hunger Games in Instruction


At a local middle school, a special event has been announced and it is an inter-grade competition with a Hunger Games theme. At an all-school meeting last week, teachers explained that for that one afternoon, each grade would become a district, be assigned a color and would compete against each other in  friendly challenges of knowledge, speed, endurance and teamwork. Names of volunteers from each grade would be drawn from a bag to compete in each challenge for a set number of points and to earn even more, the District (grade) who had the most students come to school that day in their assigned color would win a huge bonus.  The grade that won the whole event would get an ice cream party.  Following this announcement, the gym erupted in noise: the seventh grade chanted “District. Seven.” over and over, I heard yells of “I volunteer as tribute” and students all over the gym raised three fingers and whistled four familiar notes.

hungergames-salute1After our discussion of critical literacies over the past few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which schools can step outside the box to further these literacies. The  Hunger Games event at this middle school was not focused on any kind of traditional literacy, and really only came about as a way to engage the entire student body for two hours while the majority of teachers were in a meeting. The remaining teachers ran with this opportunity and the Hunger Games-themed event was born.  Never having read the Hunger Games trilogy (I know, I know, it’s on my reading list), I am not in an ideal position to be touting the benefits of utilizing it in literacy instruction. However, feeling the energy in the gym that day, I saw the ways in which, with some careful planning,  the awesome power of those students’ love for the trilogy could be channeled into some amazing teaching opportunities.

It is true that students who had not read the books may feel marginalized by the theme of the event and until the event has take place, I will not know whether the goals set by the teachers were met.  However, what the experience brought home for me was that sincere excitement and energy can be used in creating an authentic and fun learning environment.  I know this is not news.  Teachers have been using favorite books, films and other forms of popular culture to support instruction for a long time.  It makes sense to connect to students’ lives and interests to engage in abiding learning.  I had simply never seen that idea implemented on such a large scale and be greeted with such widespread enthusiasm.


I guess my question is what are other books, movies or television shows that we can use to further learning and support the development of critical literacies in school? Should we even be expending energy trying to create projects based around popular culture or is it likely to be a distraction to students, rather than a gateway to learning?  I am inclined to think that engaging in literacy instruction using Harry Potter, for example, would help students connect their learning to something they are genuinely interested in:  fostering excitement, not limiting their creativity.  Books like those in the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games trilogy are controversial for a variety of reasons, but they are also extremely popular with students.  Educators have to balance potential push-back and the opportunity to engage students in these exciting ways.


For more on beloved books and literacy… (mostly with adolescents)

Arter, L. (2009). Celebrating Multiple Literacies with Harry Potter. English Journal, 98(6), 69-73.

Curwood, J., Magnifico, A., & Lammers, J. C. (2013). Writing in the Wild: Writers’ Motivation in Fan-Based Affinity Spaces. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(8), 677-685.

Fingon, J. C. (2012). Nontraditional Texts and the Struggling/Reluctant Reader. Voices From The Middle, 19(4), 70-75.

Sass-Henke, A. (2012). Putting Characters First in a Middle School Classroom. English Journal, 102(1), 71-75.

Simmons, A. M. (2012). Class on Fire: Using the Hunger Games Trilogy to Encourage Social Action. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(1), 22-34.

Urbach, J., & Eckhoff, A. (2012). Release the Dragon: The Role of Popular Culture in Children’s Stories. Contemporary Issues In Early Childhood, 13(1), 27-37.


Images from:

Hunger Games Covers From Around The World