WOW Stories: Connecting to Global Cultures through Literature, Art, and Collaboration

Artists Reading and Thinking: Developing Intercultural Understandings through Global Literature
by Prisca Martens and Ray Martens

2012-2013 was an exciting year for our ART (Artists Reading and Thinking) Literacy Community! Our purpose was to explore the development of young children’s intercultural understandings through experiences with global picturebooks, children’s views of themselves as agents of change in the world, and children’s representations of their understandings/ideas through art. Teachers and students read lots of global literature and had numerous rich discussions. The students wrote and illustrated their responses to stories, as well as created their own picturebooks. It was a busy year!

Focusing Our Work as a Community

Our ART Literacy Community included nine teachers. Eight of the teachers taught at Pot Spring Elementary School in Timonium, Maryland. They included pre-kindergarten teacher Christie Furnari; kindergarten teachers Elizabeth Soper and Robbie Stout; art teacher Stacy Aghalarov; and first grade teachers Michelle Doyle, Laura Fuhrman, Margaret Clarke-Williams and Joan Balog. Additionally, Jenna Loomis, first grade teacher at Seventh District Elementary School in Parkton, Maryland was on our team and taught first grade. We, Prisca and Ray Martens, facilitated our community. We are professors/ researchers who teach literacy and art education, respectively, at Towson University.

As a team, we met monthly over the year to discuss readings and develop understandings about intercultural learning and global picturebooks, share what was happening related to global literature in each classroom, look at examples of children’s written and artistic responses to the literature, and plan for the coming weeks.

We named our literacy community ART, an acronym for Artists Reading and Thinking, because it reflected the value we place on art as a mode for communicating meaning, just as we value oral and written language (as well as other modes). Modes are socially and culturally agreed upon resources for making meaning (Bezemer & Kress, 2008). General types of modes include linguistic (i.e., language), visual (i.e., art, moving images), auditory (i.e., sound, music), gestural (i.e., movement, dance), and spatial (i.e., layout, design) (Kress & Jewitt, 2008). While all modes are equally valid and significant ways of communicating meanings, schools and society tend to consider language/linguistics to be the mode central to communication and place lesser value on other modes (Kress & Jewitt, 2008). In our community, we highlighted art as a valued means of communication and taught the language of art and how to communicate meanings through art.

To help the children explore art, we never focused solely on the written text when reading picturebooks. Picturebooks, by definition, are multimodal texts that weave together meanings provided in multiple modes, particularly linguistic (written language) and visual (art). When the teachers read picturebooks in their classrooms, they highlighted the art and the ways the artist communicated meanings. They had rich discussions about the stories and the children often composed responses through art and writing. To further provide opportunities for the children to explore making meaning through art, they wrote and illustrated their own picturebooks. The teachers’ vignettes highlight the global literature they read, how they used these books in the classroom with students, and how they helped students value art as a means of communication.

The classroom teachers collaborated closely with Stacy, the art teacher, to learn each other’s curricular plans and coordinate projects. Sometimes Stacy designed a project that supported the focus of study in the classrooms and sometimes when the children got back to their classroom from art instruction they wrote a story about artwork they’d created. Examples of how Stacy collaborated with the teachers are embedded in Elizabeth Soper’s portion of the kindergarten vignette and in Laura Fuhrman’s first grade vignette.

One significant aspect of our work this year was how we wove art into our study of identity in all of the classrooms at the start of the year.

Learning About Ourselves through Global Literature

In Fall, 2012, the teachers again started the school year with a focus on identity to help children understand and appreciate who they are as cultural beings. The focus on personal cultural identities is at the core of a Curriculum that is International, a curriculum framework developed by Kathy Short (2009). As children explore their cultural identities they begin to understand the significance of culture in their own and other’s lives (Short & Thomas, 2011). Accepting and understanding themselves encourages children to accept and value others (Banks, 2004).

To begin the focus on personal cultural identities, the teachers sent a survey home to the parents, requesting information about their families. Figure 1 shows the survey that we used.

Figure1Figure 1

The survey included questions about where and when the child’s family immigrated to the United States. While this is a hard concept for young children to understand, we found that it generated conversations between parents and children about family history that continued in the classroom. It also helped children develop an understanding of their own place in time and history. The teachers plotted this information on a world map in their classrooms, connecting a photograph of the child around the outside of the map with their country/countries of origin with a string. (See Michelle Hassay Doyle’s vignette for a photograph of her class’s map)

The teachers read picturebooks related to identity in their classrooms, often using a document camera so the children could follow along and to facilitate discussions about the art. The children responded orally in discussions as well as through artwork. Figure 2 shows examples of books we used, how we connected the books to identity, and the art concepts we explored.



Connection to Identity/Art


Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten(Yum, 2012) Picture of self and things they like/don’t like
Art: size/color to show emotion


When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry… (Bang, 1999) “Things that make me happy /angry” sheet
Art: line/color to show emotion


Watch Me Throw the Ball! (Willems, 2009) “I can…/I will learn to…” sheet
Art: line to show movement/emotion


Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match (Brown, 2011) Picture of self and things they like/don’t like
Art: line to show emotion


My Name is Sangoel (Williams, 2009) Photo face and kids draw their bodies, newspaper object(s) glued on
Art: collage


Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! (Winter, 2012) “I am proud that I…/I want to learn…” sheet
Art: size/line to show emotions

Figure 2

We quickly realized the rich possibilities that “Me” books had for revealing aspects of students’ personal cultural identities. We collected children’s responses and information about their identities that we were gathering together from various engagements. Each child created an All About Me book. While there were particular pages that all teachers included, some had their students add pages that other teachers didn’t. Below are examples of the kinds of information included in the first graders’ books:

• A page describing where/how the child got his/her name. Parents provided this information on the survey. Teachers typed the information on the bottom of a piece of paper and glued on the face of the child cut from a photo. Children drew their bodies and included other information. The first graders had read Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match (Brown, 2011) and included an object made from newspaper in their art, as artist Sara Palacios had done in the book’s illustrations.
• A page on which the children drew a picture of their families after read alouds about family.
• A page with a world map that, using information from the parents, indicated the countries from which the family originated and why they came to the United States. The children colored their family’s countries on their maps.
• A page on which the children drew/wrote about things they are proud of, and on the other side, things they wanted to learn. The first graders completed this page after reading and discussing Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! (Winter, 2012), a biography of Picasso that describes how he was proud of his art even though others wanted him to paint differently.
• A page on which the first graders described in writing and art the kind of person they are, after reading One of Us (Moss, 2010)
• A poem each first grader wrote titled “I Am Not a Color,” a poem based on Am I a Color Too? (Cole & Vogl, 2005). Their poems named things about them and the kind of person they thought they were.
• A drawing of themselves when they’re angry, completed after discussing The Day Leo Said I Hate You! (Harris, 2008) in art class with Stacy.
• A cultural x-ray of themselves on which they drew and wrote physical and outwardly visible characteristics around the outside and what was important and valued inside their hearts. The x-rays helped children distinguish between visible and inner aspects of their culture and who they are (Short, 2009).

Ronnie’s, Jayden’s, Clair’s, and Rashmi’s first grade “All About Me” books are included below in Figures 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Ronnie’s “All About Me”

Jayden’s “All About Me”

Claire’s “All About Me”

Rashmi’s “All About Me”

Overview of Our Vignettes

We had a rich and fruitful year in our ART Literacy Community. Students and teachers learned with and from each other about ourselves and others in our diverse world. The students grew in their understandings of themselves as cultural beings and in their appreciation of the aspects of who they are that are similar to and different from others in ways that make everyone unique.

In the vignettes in this issue, Christie Furnari describes how she helped her pre-kindergarten students know and value themselves and tell their unique stories. Robbie Stout and Elizabeth Soper share their focus on friendship and a cross-cultural study of Mexico in kindergarten. Laura Fuhrman discusses the first graders involvement in a cross-cultural study of India including how that was integrated into the special areas. Finally, Michelle Doyle and Jenna Loomis take readers into their individual classrooms to experience the different ways they helped their students assume responsibility to take action and make the world a better place. We hope the vignettes provide readers with a sense of excitement and learning that occurred this year.


Banks, J. (2004). Teaching for social justice, diversity, and citizenship in a global world. The Educational Forum, 68, 296-305.

Bezemer, J., & Kress, G. (2008). Writing in multimodal texts: A social semiotic account of designs for learning. Written Communication, 25(2), 166-195.

Brown, M. (2011). Marisol McDonald doesn’t match. (Illus. by S. Palacios). New York: Children’s Book Press.

Cole, H., & Vogl, N. (2005). Am I a color too? (Illus. by G. Purnell). Kirkland, WA: Illumination Arts.

Harris, R. (2008). The day Leo said I hate you. (Illus. by M. Bang). New York: Little, Brown Books.

Kress, G., & Jewitt, C. (2008). Introduction. In C. Jewitt & G. Kress (Eds.), Multimodal literacy (pp. 1-18). New York: Peter Lang.

Moss, P. (2010). One of us. (Illus. by P. Weber). Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House.

Short, K. (2009). Critically reading the word and the world: Building intercultural understanding through literature. Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature, 47 (2), 1-10.

Short, K., & Thomas, L. (2011). Developing intercultural understandings through global children’s literature. In R. Meyer & K. Whitmore (Eds.), Reclaiming reading: Teachers, students, and researchers regaining spaces for thinking and action (pp. 149-162). New York: Routledge.

Winter, J. (2012). Just behave, Pablo Picasso! (Illus. by K. Hawkes). New York: Scholastic.

Prisca Martens is a Professor in the Department of Elementary School at Towson University, Towson, Maryland.

Ray Martens is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Design, Art History, and Art Education at Towson University, Towson, Maryland.

WOW Stories, Volume IV, Issue 7a by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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