Thinking Like Leonardo

In the “Should it be STEM or STEAM” debate, no one is a better poster child of how Science and Art complement each other than Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s journals are filled with close observations of nature and the human body, as well as engineering drawings and notes detailing inventions, such as the precursors to the submarine, tank, and machines of the air.

Our students will be exploring how to think like the Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci in preparation for a writing workshop with Diane Stanley, author of the biographies Leonardo and Michelangelo. Following are a few curricular collaborations that highlight the genius of two Renaissance thinkers and creators, Leonardo and Michelangelo.

Leonardo’s Journals
Librarian Eve Zehavi will guide fourth graders as they discuss quotes from Leonardo’s journals and look closely at his sketches to determine what Leonardo emphasized about the act of thinking and creating.

How do you think like Leonardo?
How do you see like Leonardo?
How do you problem solve like Leonardo?

These are just some of the questions fourth graders will ponder as they reflect on quotes and sketches. Selecting one of Leonardo’s quotes and relating it to journal sketches, students will write a reflective paragraph using the model of “A Quote Sandwich:”

Top Bun of “Quote” Sandwich
(1) introduce the speaker and the quote

The “Meat”
(2) state the quote

Bottom Bun
(3) summarize the quote in your own words and connect to meaning of the quote based on sketches and designs in Leonardo’s journals.

Here is a reflective paragraph example that will be shared with students. Color coding shows parts of the “Quote Sandwich” and an image from Leonardo’s journal is selected to match the quote:

Painting Competition:
Leonardo and Michelangelo’s Battle Scenes

Our sixth graders have been studying the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and have been reading about the ancient artists and engineers who created them. One ancient artist, Scopas, created a famous scene of Amazons battling Greek soldiers, which appears on columns of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.  A history article described Scopas as a “Michelangelo of the Renaissance.”   Discovering this comparison became the impetus to have students compare and contrast this Greek artist’s battle scene with famous battle scenes by Leonardo and Michelangelo.

In one of the most famous painting competitions of the Renaissance, Leonardo and Michelangelo were each challenged to paint a battle scene glorifying the history of Florence. The paintings were to be on opposite walls of the same room of a Florentine republic council chamber. Leonardo was an older, established artist, and Michelangelo was a young, 25-year-old talented sculptor; both artists disliked each other and were very disparaging of each other’s artwork (Isaacson 367).  Author Diane Stanley depicts this painting battle in her two books Leonardo and Michelangelo, and this article from The Guardian will also be shared with our sixth graders.

I collaborated with the history and ELA teachers to develop primary source images and articles so that students can analyze these artworks to discuss comparisons. The history teacher, Cori Beach, will have students connect what they observed earlier in Egyptian art of a Kushite and Nubian battle scenes to the more realistic portrayal of soldiers in battle by the Greek artist Scopas. Donna Baughman, ELA teacher, will guide students to look closely at the artworks and to write in their journals brainstormed action verbs that help describe these battle scenes, such as the following:

Greek figures in the Scopas battle scene “lunging,” “stumbling,”

Expressive face of soldier by Leonardo described as “glaring” and “screaming”

Figures in the Michelangelo battle scene “twisting,” “arms thrusting”

Students will also make a list of transition words and bring these brainstorming journals with them to the writing workshop. Using this structure (adapted from Owl Writing Lab), students will write a comparison/contrast essay during the Writing Workshop with author Diane Stanley:

  • First: discuss how the Scopas battle scene is similar to either Leonardo’s or Michelangelo’s battle scene (and use specific examples and descriptive words).
  • Second: discuss how the Scopas and Renaissance battle scenes are different (and use specific examples and descriptive words).
  • Third: discuss characteristics of Scopas’ style (Hellenistic art) and evolving characteristics in Michelangelo’s or Leonardo’s art style (Renaissance, Humanistic art).

Looking Closely
We are excited to see how our fourth and sixth graders look closely at primary source images and quotes and connect to “Thinking Like Leonardo” and “Thinking Like Michelangelo” in this Writing Workshop. See below for further Leonardo resources to explore:

Treatise on Painting
(Leonardo’s notes on painting assembled and copied by his assistant, Francesco Melzi, and printed in 1651–Leonardo died in 1519)

Math and Science Activities for Leonardo

Math Forum: Leonardo da Vinci Math Activity

Da Vinci: The Genius
(Museum of Science, Boston)

Inventions Activity Quiz

Mirror Writing (Writing Backwards)

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (for adult readers)
Leonardo da Vinci by Diane Stanley
Michelangelo by Diane Stanley

“And the Winner Is…” by Jonathan Jones (discusses the
painting contest between Leonardo and Michangelo)

Bibliography for Images:
Hamburger Low Polygon. Clip Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 27 Dec 2017.

Botanical table by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), drawing 237. Photograph. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 5 Jan 2018.

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus: The Amazon Frieze. British Museum.
Accessed 27 Dec 2017.

Leonardo, Heads of Warriors, Study. Photo. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 27 Dec 2017.

Michelangelo. Battle of Cascina. 1504. Fordham Art History.
Fordham University.
Accessed 7 Dec 2017.

Leonardo da Vinci. c. 1514. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 31 Aug 2017. Accessed 7 Dec 2017.

Launching an Idea Wall

This year, new school construction provided opportunities for our middle school library.
A library office and workspace disappeared to create a hallway connecting the new lower school building to the middle school building. It felt like the old adage…”it’s not like we’re losing a daughter, we’re gaining a son.” The equation for the new library design might be the following:

new library spaces (hallway) + increased traffic (both lower and middle school students) =
literacy education opportunities

Installing large whiteboard Idea Walls along one side of this new hallway was a design that quickly took shape, but with every new opportunity is a challenge:

How do you prevent the Idea Wall from becoming a static space–a glorified bulletin board–and instead create a public space that ignites ideas, promotes discussions, encourages interactions, and makes visible a culture of learning in the school community? Here are a few ways the library has launched the Idea Wall.

Opening the Doors to Imagination

We began with a themed slogan at the top of the Idea Wall,
“Open the Doors to … Imagination,”
and Alice in Wonderland illustrations by Tenniel framed one large panel of the Idea Wall. Our school community was invited to write the titles of their favorites books featuring magical portals or doors as an important part of the storyline. We also had a Literary Door contest.  Students, faculty, administrators, and even visiting alumni had fun adding the title of their favorite books to the Idea Wall.

Exploring an Author’s Book

October’s Idea Wall theme was created by students in the Literary Magazine class to help promote our Book Fair Author, Allan Wolf, who wrote a novel in verse about the sinking of the Titanic, The Watch that Ends the Night. Students used the rich back matter of this book to create a “match-the-statistics” on survivors in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd classes, as well as write the names of countries of those on board the fated ship (these country names were written in a wave-like pattern beneath the ship). Blue-toned post-it notes featured the names of people and quotes, and viewers were invited to match the person’s name to the poem excerpt that described this character’s point of view. A final section of the Titanic Idea Wall featured a poem from the book and invited students to find words that showed onomatopoeia as well as words and phrases that used analogy or vivid language.

Writing Contests
November’s Idea Wall was also designed by the Literary Magazine students. Using the door theme again, fifteen door images were selected by the students (using Britannica Image Quest) and the students wrote writing prompts for each image. The school community was encouraged to select a door image that makes them curious, and write a poem, descriptive paragraph, or short story based on the writing prompt. The Literary Magazine editors will judge the entries, and winners will enjoy a pizza lunch with our January writing workshop author, Diane Stanley, as well as have the writing piece published in the Literary Magazine. Below is one example of an imaginative doorway image and writing prompt.

Thinking about Thinking
The second whiteboard panel along the library hallway invites viewers to “Think about Thinking.”  The first installation was titled “Thinking Fast and Slow,” and professional books were displayed tied to this theme: Making Thinking Visible, The Shallows, and I Read It But I Don’t Get It.

A Venn diagram and laptop screen graphics encouraged viewers to add their experiences of when they think fast/think slow when using print sources or the internet. Though this first installation did not get interaction from students, fellow teachers liked having a space to highlight metacognition and thinking strategies. This year our faculty meets once a week in PLC groups, and one of the PLC groups reserved the Idea Wall in October to display an interactive Growth Mindset board and also displayed fiction and nonfiction books themed to “grit” and “growth mindset.” It was wonderful to have this Idea Wall space spearheaded by other faculty, and I anticipate that the PLC groups will take turns highlighting their learning on this portion of the Idea Wall. This also provides a great way to showcase our professional book collection to teachers!

New Directions for the Idea Wall
Modular furniture has been ordered for the library hallway opposite the Idea Wall, and I envision that this will make the space even more inviting for students. Faculty have been encouraged to reserve the wall space if they wish to brainstorm ideas connected to their curriculum, and once a few initiators try this out, I think more faculty and students will take advantage of using this space.

I look forward to hearing how your school incorporates Idea Walls to ignite ideas.

Additional Resources:
This past summer I attended STLinSTL hosted by MICDS, and educator Lynn Mittler’s session on Design Thinking provided the following resources:

Design Thinking for Educators
This free Design Thinking toolkit includes Map Frameworks (maps to group thinking/data, as an alternative to a Venn Diagram).

Ideo U
Resources and workshops on Design Thinking

Book Resource:
Creating Cultures of Thinking, by Ron Ritchhart

Britannica Image Quest Citation:
Nanniebots. Photography. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 12 Sep 2017.


Books of Hope and Resilience

“Hope” is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.                                                                                                                                    Emily Dickinson

The natural disasters caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma challenged local residents and people across the nation to respond quickly and compassionately.  As a librarian who finds inspiration and hope in stories, here are reflections on recent events in Houston and suggestions of 3 book themes that illustrate hope and resilience.

Theme 1: Problem Solving Keeps Hope Afloat
Nationwide people responded quickly to solve logistics of supplying help and aid.  The parent organization at my Houston school, Annunciation Orthodox School, set up a SignupGenius to send email alerts for a particular family’s needs, such as cleanup, making meals, picking up laundry, etc.  Most requests were filled within the hour of the email alert, and individual volunteers managed their own signup duty.

Book Suggestions:
What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada
Picture book shows a young child buffeted by the storms of a problem.The child changes the perspective of fear to one of determination, facing the problem as an opportunity to make a difference.

Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco
A grandmother helps a young girl overcome her fear of a looming thunderstorm by involving her in assembling the ingredients for a “thunder cake.”  In this shared creative activity, the granddaughter’s fears are calmed.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
“I went to sleep dreaming of Malawi, and all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart.”  In the midst of poverty and famine, William
sees the problems of Malawi and invents a solution: a windmill to generate electricity and pump water. Using pictures of a windmill from a donated school textbook (Using Energy) and inventively assembling discarded scraps and a bicycle dynamo generator, William successfully creates the windmill.  Read more on his blog.

Theme 2: Helping Provides Healing
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, huge garbage trucks rolled in from San Antonio and Austin to pick up flood debris; volunteers provided meals, clothing, and shelter; and crews from Louisiana’s Cajun Navy and Tennessee’s first responder teams joined local emergency crews and local residents with boats to rescue stranded flood victims. Images, videos, and shared stories of these amazing efforts inspired us.

Book Suggestions:
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearshall
“Some angels are like peacocks. Others are less flashy. Like city pigeons. It all depends on the wings.” An angry and emotionally distraught teen, Arthur T. Owens, is assigned to community service with a trash picker, James Hampton. As Arthur helps James assemble this trash into a beautiful artwork, the teen finds hope and healing in his own life and discovers that beauty and angels of hope can be found in unlikely places. (Based on the life of outsider artist James Hampton.)

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
“Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something more fundamental—the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.” The American Olympic rowing team, competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, discover the importance of “the boat,” the joined efforts and shared love that can overcome impossible odds.

Theme 3: Creating Places of Hope and Refuge
Important to easing distress and fears is the creation of places of hope and refuge. The Houston Convention Center, church halls, family homes, and our schools were just some of the places transformed into shelters for flood victims and families. These temporary havens of safety allowed victims time to rest as they rebuilt their lives.

Book Suggestions:
Goin’ Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack
In the segregated South of the 1950s, a young girl looks forward to a trip to go “Someplace Special.”  Passing benches marked “Whites Only” and riding in the back of a segregated bus, the young Tricia Ann arrives at her “special” place, the Nashville Public Library that bears the sign “All are Welcome.”

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
In 1911, a fourteen-year-old girl, Joan, flees from her cruel father and the bleak future of farm life. Seeking a new life in Baltimore, Joan is stranded on the streets of a strange city until a kind man invites Joan to work for his Jewish family as a hired girl.  What follows is a series of funny and charming misadventures as Joan, with her Catholic upbringing, blends her life and future goals with this compassionate Jewish family.

Please share your favorite books of hope and resilience. Thank you for using stories to lift spirits of those in distress.

Weaving Literature into Science: Novel Engineering

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.  I wove my webs for you because I liked you….By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
                                                                                    Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Charlotte, the spider who saves Wilbur’s life by weaving remarkable words into her web, is the perfect literary analogy for Novel Engineering, a new movement in literacy that seeks to engage students in design thinking and engineering through an integration with works of literature.

Charlotte, as a design thinker, empathizes with and defines Wilbur’s problem (being slaughtered); she then brainstorms a series of words that could be spun in her web to show Wilbur as a remarkable pig. The word “crunchy,” supplied at first by Templeton the Rat, is quickly rejected for more appropriate words, Some Pig! and Charlotte spins her first web prototype. Charlotte continues to test her web prototype by building other webword designs: Terrific, Radiant, and Humble. The end result is that Charlotte solves Wilbur’s problem by saving his life, even as her own life as a spider comes to an end. Her reflection on the engineering process–that by helping Wilbur, “it lifted her life a trifle”–is an inspiring commentary on how good design can better the lives of others.

This summer I attended a Novel Engineering workshop at the STLinSTL
conference hosted by MICDS in St. Louis. The workshop presenters, Christy Moore (MICDS) and Monette DeSimone (City Academy), introduced attendees to Novel Engineering, an initiative that states its objective as follows:

Students use existing classroom literature–stories, novels, and expository texts–as the basis for engineering design challenges that help them identify problems, design realistic solutions, and engage in the Engineering Design Process while reinforcing their literacy skills.

The workshop immersed attendees in the Novel Engineering process. We listened to the children’s book Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and defined the problem to solve: a farmer’s garden is being eaten by hungry rabbits.

Working in teams of two to three, we used a Novel Engineering planning sheet to state the problem; identify the client (either the farmer or the rabbit); suggest a plan; and sketch an initial design.


Selecting an assortment of materials–such as paper cups, clay, tongue depressors, straws, and tape–we constructed our design.  My team chose the farmer as our client, and we built a hydroponic device designed to keep the growing plants at a height unreachable by the hungry rabbits. After making a rough sketch, the design had to be tweaked so that the support stilts would securely hold the hydroponic structure (a triangular base of tongue depressors held the cone-shaped hydroponic device the best).

We revised our plan and sketched the new design and finished assembling the device (note in the photo that we also built pipes and a water tank to supply water to the hydroponic plants). Each team then presented their engineered solution (some teams chose the rabbits as clients and created catapult devices to assist the rabbits in quick entry to the garden food). Below is an example of the Novel Engineering planning sheet.

The Novel Engineering process could be easily adapted in a library setting, and it addresses several AASL standards:

1.2.5 Demonstrating adaptability by changing the inquiry focus.
1.2.6 Questions and display emotional resilience by persisting in information             searching despite challenges.

This project could be further enriched by requiring students to research background for their design, such as what types of hydroponic devices are currently being used. The conference presenters videotaped their students as they presented their engineered designs; the engagement and enthusiasm of the students was very apparent.

Below are a few resources as you consider weaving literature and the sciences in Novel Engineering.

Novel Engineering Suggested Book List and Activities

TED Talk by Amos Winter (shows refining a design to meet a client’s needs:
an inexpensive, all terrain wheel chair that works in wind and sand)

Crash Course Kids:  What is an Engineer?

Crash Course Kids:  The Engineering Process


Take a Reading Field Trip

“History is more than war and politics; it is literature, the arts, engineering…above all, history is human.”

This quote is a constant refrain in David McCullough’s recent book, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand Forwhich is a collection of lectures he gave on the importance of developing connections to history.

His commencement addresses often close with a plea for graduates to read and learn about the history of their country.  Several years ago, I attended a lecture by McCullough at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and he mentioned that one of the best ways for families to encourage a love of history is to visit and walk historic sites with their children.

Taking to heart McCullough’s emphasis on encouraging reading and learning about our human history, I would like to suggest a few pairings of books with history museums that you might visit.  The list is far from comprehensive; it would be wonderful to expand this list with suggestions of your favorite books and museums.

City Museum
St. Louis, Mo.
This museum has to be seen to be believed.  Started by a salvager who did not wish to discard the beautiful history of St. Louis, the museum took shape as local artisans created an artistic, interactive environment of salvaged history.
Book to Pair:
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
When forced to complete community service hours with a junk man, a young boy discovers the beauty of this junk through the man’s artistic creation.

Gettysburg National Military Park
Book to Pair:
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Shaara’s son, Jeff Shaara, continued the Civil War sagas. Jeff recounted in a lecture that as a boy he toured Gettysburg on several occasions with his father—his father talked as they walked the battlefield, imaginatively plotting what would become the classic Civil War story.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum
New York
A museum dedicated to understanding the daily life and struggles of immigrants
who came to America for new opportunities.
Books to Pair:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Francie Nolan and her Irish-American family struggle with poverty, but their lives are rich in their love for each other.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Intended as a way to remove tenement children from dangerous living conditions and bleak futures, the orphan trains supplied cheap labor for farmers and business owners.

Peabody Essex Museum (Historic Homes Tour)
Salem, Massachusetts
The historic homes tour provides insight into how early colonists viewed the New World, an environment that was often perceived as dangerous.
Book to Pair:
All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry
Though the location of the village is never mentioned in this book, this Edgar-winning novel is described as Speak meets The Scarlet Letter.

Salem Witch Trials Memorial
Salem, Massachusetts
Book to Pair:
Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials by Stephanie Hemphill
This novel in verse tells the events through the eyes of several girls who were the accusers in the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel
Memphis, Tennessee
The site of Martin Luther King’s assassination, this museum combines a timeline of civil rights events, primary sources, oral histories, and a burned-out bus to dramatize the danger faced by the freedom riders. Visitors even can walk near the balcony where King was assassinated.
Book to Pair:
March: Book 2 by John Lewis
Congressman Lewis recounts how the Freedom Riders boarded buses headed to the South to challenge racial desegregation laws.  Their efforts were met with violence.

Chinese-American History Museum
San Francisco, California
Book to Pair:
Bubonic Panic:  When Plague Invaded America
The Chinese Exclusion Act and the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire are some of the events as this epidemic unfolds.  Good tie-in for STEM and wonderful incorporation of primary sources.

Field Museum of Natural History
Chicago, Illinois
A naturalist’s dream, this museum shows fossils, skeletal remains, and dioramas of life as it evolved.
Book to Pair:
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Gothic thriller set in Victorian Age when the Theory of Evolution inspired fossil hunting “wars” as well as animosity from religious fronts who saw Darwin’s theory as negating the bible.  Central to the plot is the young daughter, Faith, who aspires to be a naturalist like her father, but who is constrained by social conventions of her period.



Teaching Empathy with Primary Sources

“They never saw a child.”
Ruby Bridges

It was my first reading of The Watson’s Go to Birmingham–1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, and I was fascinated by the book’s structure: most of the book is not about Civil Rights, but rather about bullying, and it focuses on childhood scenes that, though depicted with some comic relief, have an undercurrent of humiliation, intimidation, and violence. The young narrator, Kenny, tells the story of his African American family’s decision to drive from their home in Detroit to Birmingham, Alabama so that the bullying, wild behavior of his older brother, Byron, can be reined in. Byron is going to spend the summer with his grandmother in Birmingham; as Byron’s father says, it is hoped that this experience will give Byron a taste of the “real world.” The “real world” is the South of the 1960s, with communities fractured by segregation, protests, and bombings.

This book’s structure of beginning with playground cruelty–the bullying by Byron and his friends–and then showing a societal pattern of discrimination and violence towards a race, caused me to wonder if the author Curtis was helping young readers to relate to childhood cruelty first to try to grasp a much larger issue of society’s cruelty. Working closely with an English teacher, Joanna Hasbell, we decided to build empathy towards a time period that seems remote to these fifth graders, and we would build that empathy by looking at primary sources first to help see the person behind the cruel events. After students used primary sources to make observations and raise questions for further inquiry, they explored a webquest of pre-selected database articles and websites to read background information and make further observations on some of the cultural influences and issues of the 1960s.

Look Closely to Build Empathy

As a class, we began by viewing a photo of young Ruby Bridges, who is pictured walking from a building and being escorted by several men in suits. Fifth graders began looking closely and observing details, such as the men wearing badges and armbands that said “marshall.” One student guessed Ruby was being arrested, but the lack of distress in her demeanor and the number of officers to apprehend one young girl made this an unlikely guess. Students then guessed that these men were protecting her, acting as body guards. Analysis questions from the Library of Congress “Primary Source Analysis Tool”  helped to probe further observations, such as describing the physical setting (students guessed that Ruby was walking from a school building) and reflecting on what was not being shown in the photo (reactions of the crowd who were angered at desegregation of the school).

Their observations and questionings–such as “Were people angry at Ruby and angry about desegregation?”–gave students a direction for further searches to locate photos or articles to support their assumptions. Students also practiced advanced search techniques that would be used in the webquest to locate additional primary source photos or background articles: 1) bound phrase using quotations, such as “Ruby Bridges”; limiting website, such as; and scanning an online article for a particular word or short phrase by using the find command (cmd F on a Mac or cntrl F on a PC).

After practicing the guided inquiry techniques of looking at primary sources, each student examined a different primary source. As they looked at photos of scenes depicting segregated movie houses, protest marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and school stand-offs, students were encouraged to look closely at facial expressions, body language, and wording on buildings and protest signs. They noted, for instance, body language: the photo below depicts white men, arms defiantly crossed, using their bodies to block the doorway of the University of Alabama as Governor Wallace delivered his speech upholding the segregation policy; contrasted with this, an opposing white man stands with his hand on his hip (a federal agent infuriated that Governor Wallace is defying the desegregation laws). In another photo, students contrasted facial expressions of two young protesters: a stern-faced African American marcher and the jeering white man who marches alongside him.  The wording on the two protest signs supports interpretations of the facial expressions.

Governor Wallace Refusing African American Students, 1963. (Britannica Image Quest)

Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In, 1960. (Britannica Image Quest)

Some students viewed primary sources that provided insights into how popular culture shaped the society, such as movie posters and photos from 1960s movies: theme of racial conflict (To Kill a Mockingbird); or attitudes toward “pranking” (The Parent Trap); or physical violence viewed humorously (The Three Stooges). Even toys of the 1960s were explored, such as Barbie dolls (idealized “white” beauty) and G.I. Joe dolls (black soldier doll with stereotyped features). Database articles as well as websites provided additional background information.

To Kill a Mockingbird movie poster, 1962. (Britannica Image Quest)

As students began reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, the English teacher asked students to brainstorm words related to the concept of “Mean,” and she used the student responses to make a bulletin board word cloud. Their brainstormed words reflected a growing understanding of the complexity of negative feelings.

An additional opportunity for close observation and building empathy occurred during our school’s author visit with Nathan Hale. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales graphic novels use the language of cartoons to dramatize historic moments (often humorously), and Nathan shared with students how primary sources and historical research are combined in his tales. In a writing workshop session with the fifth graders, Nathan asked students to use one of the primary source photos at their table to create a four-frame cartoon. The photograph depicted a Coke machine labeled 6 cents and “Whites Only.” Nathan asked students to pretend that their cartoon characters traveled in a time machine, viewed the Coke machine, and reacted to the “Whites Only” message. Below is one student’s cartoon statement on the nature of freedom in the United States.

See the Child

In a PBS interview with Ruby Bridges, Ruby commented on the angry crowds that gathered as she went to school: “They didn’t see a child. They saw change, and what they thought was being taken from them. They never saw a child.”  In this collaborative project, fifth graders used primary sources to connect with a time period that seemed to them to be very distant. By looking closely, they “saw the child” and used empathy to guide their inquiry-based research, thereby deepening their understanding of the 1960s.

Bibliography for Images

Coke Machine Cartoon. 2017. Used with Permission.

Governor Wallace Refusing African American Students, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 11 June 1963. Britannica Image Quest, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In. 1960. Britannica Image Quest, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Hasbell, Joanna. “Mean” Word Cloud. 2017. Used with Permission.

To Kill a Mockingbird. 1962. Britannica Image Quest, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.  Voltaire

“Judging a book by its cover” has the negative connotation of shallow perceptions and narrow-mindedness; however, in a recent Design Principles unit, 7th and 8th grade students examined cover art of young adult books to critically evaluate design principles and to brainstorm ideas as they created snowflake-themed posters. This unit was part of an elective class, Literary Magazine, but these ideas could be adapted as a library unit on media literacy, in particular a discussion on how media messages are constructed using a media language with its own rules, thereby supporting the following AASL standard:

2.1.6 Use the writing process, media and visual literacy, and technology skills to create products that express new understandings.

The following description of the design project may spark ideas for your own students to identify design elements, evaluate how the elements are used for persuasive communication, and create their own products that incorporate effective design.

Collaborative Learning and Discussion
GO! A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd became the textbook for learning about design principles. (This resource text and the initial design activity was the brainchild of my librarian predecessor, Dorcas Hand, and I am grateful to build on her creative lesson.)

Working collaboratively on a Google slides presentation,  each student summarized a design principle from a chapter in the GO! book and chose one image from the book to illustrate the design idea. Using a Google image search of advertisements, students selected a second image.  Book cover art was used as a third example, and in a serendipitous opportunity, our library had just received new young adult novels through donations at our Book Fair. Spreading out these new books on tables, students began to explore cover art that best matched their design principle. Following are a few examples of book covers students selected and shared in a group discussion of effective design (all book cover art from Amazon):

Book:  Twenty Questions for Gloria
Author:  Martyn Bedford
Design Principle:  Cropping

(Landscape image with girl beneath tree is cropped as a silhouette of a girl’s face–Student commented that the tree is positioned to mirror the girl’s brain, suggesting that this book involves psychological intrigue.)

Book: The Skeleton Tree
Author:  Iain Lawrence
Design Principle:  Asymmetry

(Student added a yellow line to the image to point out the asymmetrical design: large, black cliff on the left balanced out by the smaller cliff edge with two figures overlooking an immense wooded valley.)


Book:  Towers Falling
Author:  Jewell Parker Rhodes
Design Principle:  Inversion

(Inverted image of twin towers is mirrored in harbor waters with current building, the One World Trade Center, in upper half of image. Young characters in the story are trying to bring meaning to the reflection, memory, of the 9/11 disaster.)

Book:  The Weight of Feathers
Author:  Anna-Marie McLemore
Design Principle:  Vertical/Horizontal

(Horizontal lines add a sense of stability and strength to a design–like the strong horizon line in a landscape.  According to the design textbook, horizontal lines can also be used to suggest seriousness, and the thin lines of the tree limbs reflect the precarious balance of the two young people who fall in love.)

Book:  The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle
Author:  Janet Fox
Design Principle:  Light/Dark

(Large, dark mass of the castle threatens danger and the small lit doorway illuminating the children suggests a mysterious adventure awaits.)


Book:  Anna and the Swallow Man
Author: Gavriel Savit
Design Principle:  Big and Small

(Journeying/Quest theme of book is emphasized with small image of the walking girl contrasted with large, shadowy wings of the flying bird–Swallow Man–who travels with her.)

Collaborative Poster Design and Discussion

Students used a combination of design principles to create their own poster to advertise for writing and art submissions to our school literary magazine. Beginning with a paper doll pattern and white paper, students cut out their design of a taller student holding the hands of a younger student, which supported our theme of
unity/community participation in the literary magazine.  
These paper dolls were created in a circular pattern, giving the design the appearance of a snowflake.  This link provides sample directions to creating circular paper dolls (snowflakes).  The snowflake image signified the unique aspect of each student’s creative efforts.

Students shared digital photos of their paper snowflake in a Google file so that each student could assemble images as they wished for their final poster design.  Using Google slides to create their  poster (two slides created for an upper and lower half of the poster–joined together after printing in color), students demonstrated wonderful collaboration as they helped each other with newly discovered design approaches, such as 1) cropping snowflakes as a circular shape rather than the square-shaped cropping tool, 2) showing each other how to use gradated colors rather than a solid fill option for shapes, and 3) suggestions on style, size, and weight of type fonts.

Students wrote a reflection paragraph that discussed the following:

  • design principles used in their poster
  • design challenges and how they solved the challenge
  • slogan to encourage creative submissions to the literary magazine
  • intended audience for the poster (whether to hang the poster in the lower school or the middle school)

Resulting posters, like the snowflakes themselves, were uniquely persuasive in their ad messages.  After an animated discussion, students voted whether the posters should be hung in the lower or middle school, and students posted their ads strategically in the two buildings.  As a confirmation of the effectiveness of their ad designs, I had one teacher approach me immediately after we hung the posters with an armful of concrete poetry by her fourth grade students.  Here is a video featuring some of the student poster designs.

Follow-up Activities
In keeping with the theme of the importance of creativity, I shared the story of Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin.  Bentley devoted his life to photographing snowflakes, feeling that his work gave people something just as valuable as a “practical” occupation like raising cows.

To emphasize the importance of design decisions, I showed students the “turquoise belt” scene from The Devil Wears Prada in which the fashion magazine editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), gives a tongue lashing to a young intern (Anne Hathaway) while putting together a fashionable outfit from a vibrantly-colored dress. I had students point out the design decisions that Miranda makes very quickly: 1) color (complimentary colors of orange-red dress with turquoise belt); 2) scale (proportion contrast of the short jacket with the long dress); and 3) bright-colored yellow hat to compliment warm tones of the dress.  One big idea of this scene is that design decisions are not accidental, they are well thought out and follow principles of design.  You can view a clip from the scene and a debate on design industry in this Huffington Post article

Additional Resources

Media Literacy:

AISL blog, “Messages in the Media”

Center for Media Literacy

ACRL Standards
See discussion of “metaliteracy,”  collaborative learning with emerging technologies with an emphasis to “collaborate, produce, and share.”






The Rule of Three: Making Stories Memorable


Suppose you were an idiot,
and suppose you were a member of Congress;
but I repeat myself.    Mark Twain



Don’t be mislead by the Mark Twain quote; this article is not a commentary about political elections, but rather, musings on how writers (and poets) make stories memorable. In particular, how does an author create emphasis (humorous or dramatic) and make an idea memorable through choice of language and use of the Rule of Three? And how can librarians invite young readers to look closely for these patterns in poems and stories so that students can create their own memorable storytelling?

I first heard of the Rule of Three while preparing a folk tale in a storytelling workshop hosted by Judith Black (see her Stories Alive website). 
In an intensive, energetic week, the fledgling storytellers were challenged to create a story and perform it before a group of children.  As workshop attendees paired up to practice our stories for each other, I began a version of the tale, “Why Frog and Snake Cannot Be Friends”:

frogDeep in the forest,
the rain dripped from the
tall tree canopy,
    Cascaded over the bromeliads’
long, red leaves,
And pooled around
a tiny, green tree frog.

My listening partner stopped me and said, “You know what you just did? That’s the Rule of Three!”  My partner had experience in writing humorous songs, and comedians often use the Rule of Three to

1) set up a pattern,
2) create a predictable rhythm, and
3) jolt the listener with the third line that contains a twist or surprise.  

Sometimes the surprise is created by a very short third line, as in Twain’s quote, “but I repeat myself.”  The surprise can also be created by a contrast in images, such as the tall trees and long leaves of the bromeliads contrasting with the tiny, green tree frog.

I recently shared this idea of The Rule of Three with a class of 5th graders who were writing poems.  Using poems from Insectlopedia by Douglas Florian, I showed how
The Rule of Three pattern could be created by repeating
nouns, as in the poem “The Mosquitoes,


or by a sequence of verbs, as in this excerpt from the poem “The Inchworm,”




Or by a string of adjectives, as in this selection from the poem “The Tick.”



In each of these examples, a predictable pattern is created with the first two lines, but the last line is longer and creates a surprising and humorous reflection.

Using more sophisticated examples of The Rule of Three from the book The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects, we looked closely at Alfred Lloyd Tennyson’s poem “The Eagle”;  students observed how the poet contrasts the slow river with the powerful might of the eagle:


Finally, we analyzed an excerpt from the poem “Grainfield” by Ibn’Iyad (from the book The Death of the Hat). The poet focuses the attention of the viewer on wheat swaying in the wind and poppies growing in the field; then, the poet uses three phrases to build an analogy and create a new startling image:


This last poem inspired me to write a Nature poem. I combined the Rule of Three with an analogy of a tightrope to describe a spiderweb swaying in the wind:

Fifth and sixth graders, with the guidance of their creative writing teacher, Marian Rosse, composed their own poems, using the Rule of Three to produce a dramatic or humorous effect.  As you read a few samples of their poems, perhaps you will be inspired to experiment with The Rule of Three!

by Cooper

See the fish
Jumping in the lake,
Twisting and turning like shiny acrobats.

Hey, I wonder if I can catch one for dinner!

by Isabelle

See the powerful  freight train
Chasing around the track
Like a blackbird
Flying over the shivering leaves of the great woods,
It weaves swiftly around the trees.

The Chase
by Wade

See the dog
Chasing the cat around the field
Like a police chase rampaging on the road
Running around and around

Over the bushes
Around the tree
Through the fountain

Sprinting around the field,  the dog chasing the cat.

The Black Book
by Merry

See the Big Black Book
Holding and storing all treasures, memories from years past,
Hiding in the shelf,
Waiting for me to make more memories.

Like a keepsake box,
I treasure it with great love
The memories it will hold,
Will bring great joy and bring back memories,
To all.

The Book
by Katherine

See the book opened
and waiting to be read
like a person wanting to speak to someone.

The Lava
by Dylan

See the lava burning on the volcanic rock,
like a flame that cannot be put out,
bubbling on top of the destruction it has caused,  

Like a fiery demon ready to strike,
consuming everything in sight,
a piece of the sun in rage.

by Janie

See the wind dancing by the barn,
Like a soft whisper of encouragement,
Lifting the dandelions, the seed heads depart
To begin a new generation.

by Ryan

See the geyser,
spraying its mineral waters into the hot springs
like a humpback whale,
Spouting the freezing Pacific Ocean,
the water is pulled up above into the fluffy clouds.

By Jack

See the rain
Pouring around the world.
Like unlimited buckets
Of water falling on us,
Creating a wash of water
Falling from the fountains
Of heaven.

by Caroline

They come and go
They stay by your side
They never leave

Unless you tell someone.
The worries leave,
Say goodbye to those crazy, scary worries.

The Tree
by Logan

See the majestic oak tree,
it’s branches hosting the endless races of the squirrels.

Like a Roman Arena with chariot racers competing
beside the roaring crowd on their feet,
the racers compete for glory.

Nouns & Sounds
by Ava

dogs go ROOF
cars go HONK
feet go STOMP
hands go CLAP
pages go SWISH
waves go CRASH
birds go CHIRP
pans go CRASH, CLANG
wind goes HISS
water goes DRIP, DROP, DRIP, DROP
mouths goes BLAH, BLAH, BLAH
lions go ROAR

librarians go SHHHHHHHHH listen to my poem!

Works Cited

Aedes aegypti MosquitoBritannica ImageQuest. Encyclopædia      
    Britannica, Inc.
    Accessed 8 Oct 2016.

American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in flight. Britannica ImageQuest.   Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.     Accessed 18 Oct 2016.

Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects. Candlewick Press, 2015.

Florian, Douglas. Insectlopedia: Poems and Paintings. Harcourt Brace, 1998.

Lange, Joan.  Frog and Snake Shadow Puppets. 2013.

Spring Wheat. Britannica ImageQuest. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Accessed 18 Oct 2016.

Striped InchwormBritannica ImageQuest. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Accessed 8 Oct 2016.

Tick. Britannica ImageQuest. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Accessed 18 Oct 2016.





“Escape the Room” with Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-12-15-53-amLike a happy reunion with a childhood friend, re-reading a classic children’s book provides an opportunity to celebrate fond memories while also making new connections. An opportunity arose to reconnect with the 1968 Newbery winner, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, as I planned for a summer reading book discussion with a group of fifth graders.

In E.L. Konigsburg’s humorous tale, two siblings, Claudia and Jamie, decide to run away from home and hide in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While there, the children discover a mystery surrounding an angel statue that could possibly be the creation of Renaissance artist Michelangelo.

The museum purchased the statue for a few hundred dollars from the estate of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and a trail of clues leads the children to her home. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler challenges the children to solve the mystery by finding proof in her extensive file cabinets; she sets a time limit of one hour to find the correct file, while secreting herself away to observe their attempts.

img_1810-1As I read this scene, it reminded me of the popular “Escape the Room” games and recent initiatives by libraries and educators to adapt this format—see Derek Murphy’s blog
describing the Escape Room created at the State Library of Western Australia as well as School Library Journal’s article, “Breakout EDU Brings ‘Escape Room’ Strategy to the Classroom.”  I decided to immerse the students in their own “Escape the Room” challenge: students would locate clues to solve an art mystery surrounding Michelangelo’s rival, the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci.

img_1807Before beginning the mystery game, the students and I read together the section describing Claudia’s and Jamie’s strategies for searching (From the Mixed-up Files, 140-146). Jamie starts frantically pulling open file drawers, but Claudia stops him, saying there is a better way.

We discussed how Claudia’s approach–thinking about how information is organized and making a list of possible words for the search–are techniques used by effective library researchers.


Leonardo da Vinci “mirror writing.” Students used a mirror to read reverse writing and find the combination number for the lock.

Divided into three groups and given a time limit of 15 minutes, students

1) read their art masterpiece clue
2) listed keywords for searching
3) looked in one corresponding drawer
(drawers labeled alphabetically)

Each group could only retrieve a file folder if it was labeled as matching their art masterpiece clue. (Interestingly, all three groups were frustrated by their first search attempt—students showed persistence in re-reading their clues and evaluating potential keywords).  If the correct file folder was located, it provided one number, part of a combination to a lock on the file cabinet drawer.

Once all three mysteries were solved, the students used their numbers to open the combination lock to find the missing Mona Lisa painting. I placed an iPad in this drawer for extra gamification. An art puzzle app on the iPad challenged students to put together the mixed-up image of the Mona Lisa.

Students enthusiastically collaborated on this activity, problem-solving and trying new strategies as first attempts floundered.
This GoogleDoc provides the art images and clues, if you would like to sample an “Escape the Room” adventure.  Let the Games Begin!

Physical Space + Thinking = Cultures of Learning

Creating Cultures of Thinking

At the STLinSTL summer institute hosted by MICDS, I attended a fascinating session by Ron Ritchhart, co-author of Making Thinking Visible.  Ritchhart’s recent book, Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, provided many thinking routines to incorporate in teaching, but what impressed me most was a chapter on the physical environment of the classroom.  Ritchhart contends that the physical environment should reflect the type of learning that is occurring. The learning environment shifts from the model of teachers passing on knowledge to students to a collaborative model in which students and teachers both engage in an interactive exploration of learning. Here are a few highlights from Creating Cultures of Learning and suggestions of how libraries can adapt spaces to become conducive to creativity and collaborative learning.

Provide a Variety of Spaces as a Catalyst for Learning
Ritchhart cites David Thornburg’s book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck,
and identifies 3 types of spaces: caves (quiet areas for individual thought);
watering holes (spaces for discussions with peers); and campfires (large group
gatherings led by a “storyteller”).

For an assortment of ideas on creating a variety of learning spaces, see AISL wiki discussion board “Learning Commons.” 

Document Student Learning
Are students engaged in chart talks, concept mapping, poster presentations, model building, or Readers Theater presentations?  Consider displaying samples of work, photos of group interactions, as well as dialogue excerpts from student conversations so that the school community can view the process of thinking. Set aside a space for an interactive idea wall by using post-it notes or paint a wall with Idea Paint for use with dry erase markers.  See David Wee’s blog for photos of library spaces converted to active, collaborative learning.

Author Ritchhart further contends that educators need to “stop hiding learning and thinking by keeping it private” and that by making thinking visible, transparent, it can energize that school learning community across all grade levels.

Incorporate Surprise or Humor
An advantageous pairing of the latest Harry Potter publication with students’ summer reading inspired a whimsical display at my middle school library.  A Harry Potter-themed display and essay contest challenges students to put on their “sorting hats” and decide if a character from their summer reading would be a good fit for the Gryffindor or Slytherin House.

Gryffindor or Slytherin? Book Display and Contest

As students brainstorm character traits like friendship or rivalry, the interactive Visual Thesaurus is a handy tool for pondering how individual traits set characters in conflict or, sometimes, provide characters a moment of epiphany and empathy as they discover shared character traits.

Go on a Ghost Walk
A final suggestion from Ritchhart’s book is go on a “ghost walk.”  Schedule a time with fellow educators to step into their classrooms when rooms are not occupied and note the “spirit” based on physical space arrangement, display of student work, inspirational messages, etc.  How is this empty room energized by the type of learning that occurs in the space?  What ideas can you glean from other professionals in how they create cultures of learning?

As a new school year launches, I look forward to assessing how the library can provide an exciting environment for student learning and energize the school community of learners. Please share your ideas on how library environments can make thinking visible!