WOW Stories: Connections from the Classroom

Young Children’s Responses to Texts in Art and Music
by Jennifer Griffith, Second Grade, Van Horne Elementary, Vignette 3 of 3

My focus as a teacher this school year was to learn how to engage my students in meaningful reflection and talk around a piece of literature. In our teacher study group, we spent the first semester exploring literature circles and sharing our experiences with each other. My class had come a long way in their talk about literature. We were using graffiti boards as a response strategy to support our reflection before talking with each other and were working toward focused dialogue around an issue from the book. I was looking for other ways to encourage my students to keep developing their talk and thinking. A conversation with our OMA (Opening Minds through the Arts) teacher, Jenny Cain, opened up the possibility of having kids engage in thoughtful discussion around other kinds of text, such as a piece of music or a painting. We were curious to see what kind of talk the kids would use in this context.

It had always made sense to me that a literature circle would only involve discussing a text or piece of literature. Kathy Short (2000), however, argues that a text can be more broadly defined as “any chunk of meaning that has unity and can be shared with others. A text therefore can be a novel, a piece of art, a play, a dance, a song, or a mathematical equation” (p.165). This definition of text builds on semiotics and an understanding of sign systems as “multiple ways of knowing–the ways in which humans share and make meaning, specifically through music, art, mathematics, drama, and language” (Short, 2000, p.160). Children naturally engage in art, music, movement and language as ways to think and respond to the world around them outside of school. However, in the school setting we often limit our children’s thinking to utilizing only one sign system at a time and that is primarily talking and writing. Jenny and I were excited about using a range of sign systems to elicit conversation and dialogue and to exposing our students to different ways of thinking and responding. We couldn’t wait to see what would happen.

Because it was fall, we decided to have our text be the piece of music ‘Fall’ by Vivaldi and to use watercolor as a means for children to respond to that text. We would then engage the kids in discussion around their paintings. As an art history major I knew that artwork allows for a variety of interpretations and connections and so was excited about the prospect of the kids having dialogue around a piece of art. I was curious to see how their talk about art would be similar or different from their talk about books.

The process took a month because we only visited Jenny once a week. It was broken down into three major experiences – listening to the musical text, reflecting on that text through art, and having a discussion. Jenny introduced the kids to the project and we talked about how when you listen to music and close your eyes, a visual image is created inside your head. She explained that we would use pencils to sketch our vision and then paint those sketches with watercolors to reflect on the music. The first session was spent listening to ‘Fall’ and focusing on the images in our minds. We ended with a brief sharing of our thoughts on the musical text. Jenny explained that our next session would be spent sketching our thoughts and reading books that depicted the season of fall. This concept of seasons was hard for our kids since many had not experienced a distinct fall with changing leaf colors in the desert, but had only seen it in books.

In our second session the kids found a spot on the floor with a piece of paper and a pencil. We listened to Vivaldi and began sketching our thoughts and visions. The kids were completely engaged in this process and took care to create their feelings and images. We concluded this session with a read aloud of Cynthia Rylant’s book, In November (2000), that illustrates the season of fall and the colors associated with the season for those who might need inspiration. Jenny took us on book walks of several other picture books that represented fall and that showed the kids the colors often associated with this season. She displayed some of the illustrations on the smart board where the kids had the opportunity to look closely and talk about their observations of these illustrations. This conversation was a great precursor to the discussion the kids would eventually have around their own artwork.

Our third session took place in our classroom, where we listened to our musical text once more and created watercolor interpretations. My kids were comfortable with this medium; we had used it several times in previous projects. The kids had an hour to work on their pieces and we played Vivaldi throughout our session. Most of their paintings were representational ‘fall’ paintings with trees and colorful leaves (even though that is not the kind of fall or trees that we have in the desert). Many kids painted a single tree with leaves both on and off the tree as if the wind were blowing, using colors that are associated with fall such as yellows, browns, oranges, and reds. Other kids created more abstract paintings, using colors to represent their feelings towards the piece of music; some used black where others used reds and oranges. It was awesome to see a variety of artwork representing their different understandings and feelings about the season and music. I was proud of their efforts and their thoughtful attention to this type of reflection. Jenny and I were eager to participate in what we hoped would be a successful dialogue around their masterpieces.

The following week concluded our experiences around Vivaldi’s text. Jenny mounted their watercolors on black paper and posted them in the main hallway as a gallery for everyone to admire. We decided to conduct our literature circle in the hallway, gathered in a semi-circle around the paintings. Jenny set up the conversation, saying “Remember what you do in the Learning Lab? You don’t need to raise your hand; you just wait for someone to finish talking. Doing I wonders and connections…talking about what you think and feel about the pictures. Yes, it could be about what you feel when looking at a picture, what you think when you see it, the story you think it’s trying to tell.”

My kids and I had previous short, informal discussions about artwork where I made sure they knew that there were no right or wrong answers in talking about art and it was obvious that my kids hung onto this idea during this experience. I noticed that the children naturally went right into “I wonder” statements, even though Jenny had not focused them on using this as a way to start their talk. ‘I wonders’ give kids something to further explore and talk about in their talk. Often kids begin a literature discussion with personal connections and the discussion doesn’t go beyond each individual connection; kids simply share connections where wonderings invite an attitude of inquiry. Some of their wonderings included:

Kaitlynn: I wonder if the painting was done really close to the end of the day in Mr. Nichol’s class. (My colleague, Mr. Nichol’s class participated in this experience so his class’s watercolors were on display as well)
Ryan: I wonder if one of those paintings is upside down.
Mason: I wonder what they were thinking of when they were drawing.
Kaitlynn: I wonder if any of them had some trees in them.
Gage: I wonder if they were thinking of something of where they lived somewhere.
Student: I wonder if they have vines.

When Evan asked, “I wonder why most of them are about fall and colors,” Kaitylnn thoughtfully responded, “I think that they were thinking about fall when they did it because we were listening to the music called ‘Fall’, so they were thinking of ….maybe they heard the word fall, and so they were thinking of a story they were trying to tell and maybe they were thinking of what they really wanted to do or they didn’t want to do anything but colors.”

In examining the transcript from this discussion, I also noticed that the kids were moving from simple ‘I like’ statements to providing the reasons behind their thinking – a definite indication that they were developing stronger discussion strategies. They supported their thinking in their statements whereas in the beginning of the year they simply stated what they liked without any further support. It was exciting to see them make this step forward in terms of inviting discussion and response from other students.

Some examples of these statements include:
Kaitlynn: I like Grant’s picture because it reminds me um, my aunt’s barn.
Nathan: I like Grant’s picture because it reminds me of the zoo.
Student: I like that picture because it reminded me of when I first went to the zoo.
Sammy: I like the picture where it looks like candles.
Nathan: I like that picture because it has lots of colors in it.
Matthew: I like that picture, that Sammy just said, because it reminds me of Tucson, because of the colors of leaves, it looks like a sun.

The students made connections to other texts as well. Intertextual connections can support kids in more complex and conceptual thinking so I was excited to see this talk start to emerge when Mason said, “Oooh! I made a connection. You know that book you read yesterday, Mrs. Griffith? When the mummy, the vampire, the witch and there’s a big line in it?”

The kids then moved into a dialogue around their interpretations of the paintings, for the first time going beyond only sharing their connections or wonderings. It was exciting to see them become true literature circle participants and art historians all at the same time. This talk seemed to be facilitated by their need to move from one sign system to another, in this case they were trying to express their visual images in language, just as earlier they had to express what they were understanding in music through visual images. This process of transmediation involves “taking understandings from one system and moving them into another sign system” (Short, Kauffman, & Kahn, 2000, p.160). Our experience involved two transmediations as they moved from music to art and from art to language and, in both cases, had to transform their understandings to the new system.

In this part of the discussion, the kids were interpreting what they thought the painting meant, particularly the colors and images.

Dan: I liked the one that looked like a storm and it has colors.
Student: It looks like a tornado.
Gage: That looks like the grim reaper.
Student: It looks like a tornado.
Student: I like the ones right underneath it. I like how their leaves are falling, and yeah, I like how their leaves are falling and there are no leaves on the branch.

When reading through the transcripts of this experience it was enlightening to see how the kids’ responses consistently connected back to the paintings they were interpreting. I had noticed that in our literature circles their responses often consisted of one child telling a story that connected to the previous child’s story rather than connecting to the book itself. The book was often lost as children chained their stories one to the other.

This process showed Jenny and I how important it is to allow kids to explore different sign systems not only for reflection but to have them experience different types of text such as a piece of music. As Short, Kauffman and Kahn (2000) explain, “Sign systems are significant because they form the basis for creative and critical thought processes” (p. 169). This experience gave children the opportunity to reflect in a new medium, watercolor, and take those visual reflections into a new context, discussion around a piece of art. Essentially by responding in a different sign system, students had a way to think about and share their feelings and images (Short, Kauffman, & Kahn, 2000). The kids were successful in this endeavor and their dialogue supported their thinking and response. It was eye-opening to me that we could use texts other than literature to enhance our literature circles. I learned that introducing kids to other texts such as music and art gives their talk a different sense of purpose and provides them with an opportunity to use other resources to engage in meaningful discussion with each other.

Rylant, C. (2000). In November. New York: Harcourt.
Short, K., Kauffman, G., & Kahn, L. (2000). “I just need to draw”: Responding to literature across multiple sign systems. The Reading Teacher, 54, 160-171.

WOW Stories, Volume I, Issue 1 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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