Posted on Leave a comment

Connect the Dots: Craft a Letter


What do the circulatory system, WW1, the life-cycle of a star, Samuel Adams, great characters from exceptional stories, and a single spring from the workings of an ink pen have in common?

Why human potential, of course.

Interdisciplinary endeavors provide the grand opportunity to perch students high above the realm of facts and mechanics, inspiring them to weave connections across disciplinary boundaries as they reflect on common themes, symbols, and purpose.

What better way to fortify learning?

An interdisciplinary endeavor challenges students to weave new knowledge to what is previously known. Challenges students to assemble and construct as they learn ignite curiosity.

And so letter writing is a tradition in my writing workshops. Letters crafted by hand. From the pencil markings scratched on paper to polished draft. The kind that take nearly an hour to read, to seep in and savor. Letter writing empowers student writers to share the connections they are making. Interdisciplinary connections. Connections at the intersection of acuity, creativity, and and ingenuity. But most important, engaging in the art of letter writing demands authenticity. Letter writing requires writers to raise their voice.  

This year, letter writing at the Guild coincided with a wonderful Miss Lori (our Historian in Residence) lesson. When introducing students to The Committees of Correspondence, she first asked for a definition of the word correspondence and was met with the chirp of crickets. Not one could conjure a working definition.

“What does it mean to correspond?”


I imagine she stopped for a bit of word study before proceeding: “To correspond is to communicate by exchange of letters. Correspondence is a letter or letters that passes between correspondents (the letter writers).”


This set the stage for Miss Lori to continue, “The American Revolution would have never succeeded if it weren’t for letter writing.”

Think Samuel Adams. Back in 1772, he organized a network of letter writing—The Committees of Correspondence—to keep colonists informed of British actions against the colonies, and to plan a concerted response. Letter writing united the 13 colonies and girded their loins for revolution.

Letter writing is a terrific domain to teach a writing truism: one idea leads to another. And when it does the reader is engaged, intrigued, mesmerized.

At the Guild, letter writing exercises are a grand opportunity to inspire young writers to connect the dots, dots that they might not have imagined could be connected. And as the correspondents weave this disparate knowledge to one, they bring permanence, relevance, and significance to what is learned.

Trust me, it requires courage to weave the circulatory system, WW1, the life-cycle of a star, Samuel Adams, great characters from exceptional stories, and a single spring from the workings of an ink pen to a cohesive letter of consequence. But the task is worth the effort. So pull out some paper, think about this past year's learning, connect the dots. 

Letter writing is kindly, generous, revolutionary.



Posted on Leave a comment

Rothko and El Greco Mashup


It began back in November with our iModannari after Rothko who  thought that the greatest paintings were the ones that captured a moment of stillness. What better way to enter into the Thanksgiving season.

Rothko painted rectangles. But he blurred the edges so the shapes seem to float. the saturations of color he offers seem veiled somehow, adding to the contemplative nature of his work.

He was born at the dawn of the 20th century in Latvia and when he was ten his family emigrated to America. Later he studied painting at Yale University and then became part of "The Ten"— a group of expressionistic artists who rallied behind abstract art.

After returning from the Thanksgiving break, we didn't have the heart to white out the sidewalk patch dedicated to iModinnari, so artist-in-residence, Taylor suggested we try a mashup.


In steps El Greco—painter sculpture, architect of the Spanish Revolution. Born in crete in 1541, and trained to become a master of Byzantine style art. But, as with all legendary artists, he soon departed from that style, breaking rules to bring shape to a voice that is uniquely his own. His expressionistic, dramatic style influence the likes of Picasso, and reached into the work of Rothko.  


Are you catching the vision? Use the Rothko as the backdrop to host our interpretation of the El Greco.


The result is miraculous! Took my breath away. The students were able to capture something of the El Greco, while simultaneously letting the Rothko shine through.

Chalk pastels, a willingness to get your hands dirty, and the patience to look closely to discover how shapes and lines, and darks and lights work together to communicate an idea—that's all there is to it. You, too, can make a mashup. Step outside and give it a try. And if the weather outside is frightful, find a large piece of cardboard (the size of a refrigerator box works great), prep it with a couple coats of white tempera paint, and off you go!

 And keep Rothko in mind as you do: “Pictures must be miraculous"

Enjoy the miraculous process of making art. 




Posted on Leave a comment

Master Class: iMadonnari


It's December in California, so we took to the great outdoors to tackle a master class. The mentor? None other than Fra Angelico. 


Before tackling this Fra Angelico project, take a bit of advice from Leonardo: "It's easier to resist at the beginning than the end."

Even though this project looks extravagant, you will be able to resist the urge-to-resist at the beginning if you take the time to look.

Look closely at the top of the "canvas" where the profile line begins. Is it directly at the half-way mark, or closer to two-thirds? Trace the profile contour as it gently falls in a curvilinear manner toward the bottom left-hand corner.

When placing the eye, look at where it sits on the "page" in relation to the forehead and nose. How many fractional parts does the eye represent. In other words, how many eyes would fit in a line from the left-hand edge and the bridge of the nose?

What kind of curve is the eyebrow? And what kind of strokes is it made of.

Look at the color of the lips. Notice how the color is used to warm the cheeks with a soft smudge.

Ask and look. Continue to ask and look.

If you do, you will have conquered the most difficult part of the project at hand. Drawing is more about engaging in the process of looking than anything else. Beginning at this beginning will embolden you to press in to the end. 

This work began by students blocking out a great section of our Guild courtyard patio (5 by 6 feet). Next they painted the entire space with white, water-based tempera paint to create a canvas of sorts upon which the drawing could take shape. Next, the students studied the placement of the line that divides the drawing— the great contour of the angel's silhouette. And when they were certain of the line, the laid it down using a flesh-toned soft chalk pastel. They continued drawing and shading the profile, using their hands to smudge and soften details. Once satisfied with the angel, the students painted the great halo using gold tempera.

After three hours of joyful focus, the work took on incredible detail, materializing on the cement with the depth of an oil painting and the essence of the original.

So begin at the beginning and enjoy the persist. Persist straight through to the end!


Posted on Leave a comment

Celebrate Color: Happy Birthday Kandinsky!



Celebrate the many colors of Wassily Kandinsky and practice the math of concentricity in the process.

Kandinsky connected color to sound. What an awesome metaphor: "The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble notes." 

For this project, mix up jars of brightly colored paints that would make the treble notes sing with delight. We used Kandinsky's palette as a starting point:


Always remember that the colors you mix will be so much more interesting than the colors straight from the tube. For example, when mixing red, add a splash of yellow to move it towards red orange, then mix a drop of the opposite of red orange, blue-green to tame it down a bit. 



When you are ready to paint, think outside the box. This project could certainly be accomplished on canvas, but we decided to pick up some eucalyptus slices at our local craft store to create a puzzle-like effect.

After the project is completed, step back from the work and you will see, when it comes to art, Kandinsky is right: "Everything starts from a dot."



Posted on Leave a comment

Read a Book / Make a Map


When is a family like a map? 

Help your 3rd and 4th grader explore a metaphor.

This is the story of an old Parisian named Armand, who relished his solitary life. Children, he said, were like starlings, and one was better off without them. But the children who lived under the bridge recognized a true friend when they met one. And it did not take Armand very long to realize that he had gotten himself a ready-made family- one that he loved with all his heart, and one for whom he would have to find a better home than the bridge. Trace the steps of Armand and the children through the streets of Paris and discover just how a family if like a map.

After discovering this mystery, create a map to document the journey.



Posted on Leave a comment

Great Ideas: Be Inspired by Books


Every journey through a Blackbird & Company literature discovery guide ends with a final project for the student to create and present. It's usually everyone's favorite activity and it gives them an opportunity to extend their time with a story after finishing the reading of it—to make connections and create and think deeper about what a story might be saying or teaching them. A list of possible projects are provided in each guide with options to help build making, research and presentation skills. But the best ideas are swirling inside YOUR students! Encourage them to step outside the story and imagine the possibilities. And when you do, you will BE AMAZED! 

For The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs, Søren was inspired to create clothespin characters. In his words…

"For my project I made 12 different clothespin dolls. I chose to do this because Aunt Pretty had a clothespin doll collection and it sounded exciting trying to make my own. This was a difficult but fun project….The best part of making them is probably getting to use them afterwards!"

Creativity does not need instruction, it needs guidance. A great teacher is like a great pair of training wheels. For this project, after explaining his idea, Søren was simply offered the fodder—old fashioned clothespins, pom moms, scraps of fabric, and a hot glue gun. After that, my job as teacher was to step in only if he asked for help. Section 5 projects are not just a celebratory moment at the end of the close reading. Section 5 projects are the student's opportunity to communicate an original idea sparked by a great story. Understanding and remembering are vital, analyzing too. But synthesizing and applying coupled with creating, well this is the potential of Section 5. So instead of staring at a page of learning objectives, stare for a moment at Søren's happily engaged photo. I guarantee he is checking off learning objectives that transcend the ones we teachers sometimes get blinded by.   

You can also see more projects from most of our titles by visiting out Flickr group. Get inspired, and join the group so we can see what you and your kids are up to.



Posted on Leave a comment

Stitch Picasso


Stitchery builds cognitive plasticity.

Embroidery is a practice that will empower students to be aware of fine motor potential, overcome the short attention span, and to have a growth mindset. The nervous system controls all of the body functions. But it is a complicated system with diverse potential. by tapping into all potential and possibilities while learning, students will develop diverse thinking skills. 

Enhanced performance of the brain ensures that all of the other body systems perform accordingly. Metabolism, for example, is a complex task that makes sure the body has minerals when needed and ensures that toxic waste is extracted from the body. Creative endeavors help the brain to engage in focused, relaxed work, improving nervous system performance. Embroidery is good for the brain. And this is good for learning.

For this project we began by observing Picasso's Owl:


Next, students made original drawings inspired by Picasso's drawing. After each child had a drawing they were settled with, the drawing was transferred to the burlap flap. We used the running stitch since these were made by 1st and 2nd graders. But running stitch is great place to start with all ages.


One hint: Have two needles threaded for each student, "unthreading" is common with new stitchers!  

Embroidery is academic. So put down the pencil, pick up a needle and thread.

While stitching, think interdisciplinary: Read a book about owls! Write an owl poem.



Posted on Leave a comment

Kalidescope of Butterflies


Claude Monet's birthday was a November celebration. Imagine the Impressionist in his garden, over 100 years ago, painting something wonderful.


 After reading A Blue Butterfly by Bijou Le Tord, I set my students free to watercolor butterflies in all shades of blue. Of course I had pre-cut the shapes so that all the focus would be on the blue anticipating poem-making.

Prompting students to write a singular butterfly statement and then to treat that sentence apart we soon created a wonderful kaleidoscope of butterfly line-break poems.


You can too. 



Posted on Leave a comment

After a Book Journey: Create

IMG_0524 (1)

Reading a book is a journey. From Los Angeles to New York you'll travel through the city and the countryside meeting wonderful people and seeing new and exciting places. Let the journey begin! (Hat tip to Reading Rainbow.) Take your 2nd grader on an Earlybird Destinations journey. They will not be disappointed.

Places you will go:
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Abuela by Arthur Dorros
The Wonderful Towers of Watts by Patrica Zelver
Fly High, Fly Low by Don Freeman
Letting Swift River Go by Jane Yolen

And by the time they get to the end, they will not only have a deep appreciation for the places they've explored, but a heart full of fodder for their creativity to unfold. 

Here's a simple a simple lesson to help your students enact and elevate their creative responses to stories.

  1. To begin, if you are going to use a box (and boxes are a great way to begin, always paint the box). Give yourself a blank canvas upon which you can build your idea. A coat or two of gesso or acrylic paint will do just fine.
  2. Use more than 1 art medium. Here for example, using paint and air dry clay, use both folded and crumpled paper, live foliage, found objects, and so on.
  3. Be sure to anchor to the book where the idea originated by creating a meaningful Title or by posting quotes around the project.  

You don't have to be an artist to make your idea beautiful. And, think about it, ideas are meant to be appreciated. So, go on, beautify.

IMG_0525 (1)

Posted on Leave a comment

Take a Line for a Walk


Here we are again, First-Days-of-School upon us. All of us teachers are certainly prepared with a hefty handful of academic goals, each comprised of an even heftier handful of learning objectivStill I can't help but smile, as Fall sneaks in from the wings stage right, and Summer exits the wings stage left. I'm in the audience applauding joyfully, overcome with Fall-feelings. And all this smiling reminds this teacher that education is more than the academic goals I have set for the coming year.

Education is looking up in delighted silence marveling that the leaves have, once again, begun to turn gold, rust, and chartreuse.

Education is learning to enjoy process, the process of entering into a great story, the process of engaging with a mathematical problem.

Education is the ongoing engagement with the process of success and the process of failure  

Education is embarking on a journey.

Truth be told, education is a kindred relative of art-making.

So this year let's begin by inviting Paul Klee to teach our students to slow down into their important work.

As students are taught to engage in complicated activities slowly over time, they will begin to recognize that becoming educated is something far more weighty that getting the right answers. Slowing into their important work, students will enter the art of learning.


Introduce your students to Paul Klee, the Swiss/German artist of the 20th century whose whimsical paintings still take the world by storm, putting smiles on the faces of viewers of all ages.

Paul Klee reminds us that "A drawing is simply a line going for a walk." So let's go for a walk with Paul Klee lines.

Begin this exercise by providing a variety of finely sharpened colored pencils or a variety of colored, fine-tipped Sharpee pens. Have your student first choose one of the line/dot compositions to copy. Begin by showing the student how to trace from one line to one dot with a finger. Tracing enables the student to experience subtle angles on the page and to map out a plan for the copywork. Once a finger tracing is complete, start in one corner of a blank sheet of good quality drawing paper and draw the first "anchor" line with one color. When it is time for a dot, choose another color. For the new line that connects to that dot, choose yet another color. Continue this process until the Paul Klee black and white line/dot drawing has been transformed to a unique colorful masterpiece all your student's own.  Please note, this exercise will take time and is best accomplished over two or three hour-long sittings. It can be accomplished by students young and old, by anyone, in fact who can manage a pencil with a willingness to try.

Finally, keep in mind, this exercise, while led by a famous artist, is not primarily an art lesson. Art is a secondary outcome. This is a lesson in slow attentive observation. It is an activity that will strengthen strategies that will be useful in all academic pursuit. Most importantly, taking a line for a work demonstrates that learning is and should be a joyful pursuit.

Happy fall to all.



PS … and if you want to try a fun Paul Klee painting exercise, click through