As summer sizzles her sunshine, be inspired by a delightful collection of clever artists at our Write it…! board on Pinterest to write a poem or two. Write about some whimsical or fantastical creature from your imagination. Take inspiration from the creativity of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and William Blake’s “The Tyger.”
This one lived beneath the kitchen sink:
When I was a child, I could hear its
Subterranean gurgling from the pipeline guts
Of the basement. I could have sworn I saw
The tip of its fin peek out from the drain,
Or heard the snap of its jaws, with its many
Monstrously tiered teeth after turning the faucet off.
In the scheme of biological classification, butterflies and moths fall into the Order we call Lepidoptera. Typically speaking, butterflies are brightly colored diurnal creatures. Moths are nocturnal and lackluster. But there are some exceptions. Leave it to Van Gogh to lend his artistic curiosity to the Great Peacock Moth that began with a sketch, and ended in a painting.
We began with a close observation of the artists palate, imitating each color with acrylic paint. We stored the colors in pint-sized mason jars knowing that the paintings could not be accomplished in one sitting.
The apprentice painters began by lightly sketching the composition in pencil on canvas, all the while marveling at Van Gogh’s marvelous composition.
Next came the brushes, the paint. The artists began with the lighter colors, blocking in the delightfully organic shapes, until layer upon layer, the moth began to emerge in its surroundings. The last colors to be painted were the deep blue-green outlines and the popping crimson accents.
Like verbal languages, the language of visual art has phonics of its own. By combining the 26 letters that scaffold the English language in a variety of ways, we are able to communicate vast complexities and wonders. By manipulating five simple elements—line, texture, shape, value, and color—we are able to communicate what can’t be written.
So how to begin a study of value?
Don’t outline! When handed pencil and paper and asked to translate a 3D scene to 2D, the comfort zone element is line. But drawings that begin with hard edges end up stiff and stuck. Outlines define edges but don’t help us see dimensionally.
Focusing on shapes of light and dark, rather than the edges of objects is the best way to being to shift out of line-drawing mode.
Light and shadow defines objects. Train your eyes to see like an artist, look for the light and shadow that defines objects.
The best way to begin is to apply pencil using the tilt and not the tip to mirror shadowy shapes. Smudge the shapes to blend and use an eraser to create light shapes. Try to create a range of value from the lightest light to the darkest dark. Use the background to define foreground objects.
The potential of value in drawing is to communicate the light and shadow and surface tones we see in order to create a three-dimensional illusion. So curl some paper and let edges fade into the background.
“Let us dig our furrow in the fields of the commonplace.” Jean-Henri Fabre
Children become science-minded by exploring their observations of the world around them. Science is much more than facts in a textbook. Facts are only a fraction of the picture. Science is a process that allows us to discover how the world works.
I remember one summer my brother being fascinated with caterpillars. One, in particular stands out in my mind. His name was Ralph. Yes, Ralph the caterpillar. My brother kept the fuzzy creature in a Stride Rite shoebox nested with a handful of twigs and torn leaves. What I remember most about the brief time that Ralph spent in my brother’s observation box before being set free, was my brother’s focused attention, magnifying glass in hand. While he did not keep a record of his observations, I know that my brother was honing his curiosity. But, I must admit, I’ve often wondered what his Observation Journals would have contained. How fun it would be to look back on an archive of his curiosity.
All four of my children have numerous journals of this sort and it is wonderful to look back and recognize the diversity and specificity of their unique observations.
Here is how to begin an Observation Journal:
A binder to collect completed observations
Cardstock for drawing
Lined paper for writing
Thick and thin waterproof markers
1. Look at the subject for a while. Look at what you are observing. Pick the object up, turn it around, use a magnifying glass to see texture and detail. Take your time and try to throw out any preconceived notions about the subject.
2. Talk about what is seen. Join the fun by engaging children in conversation about the details of the object being observed.
3. Draw the object with realistic detail. Encourage children to look at the lines, textures, and shapes. Have them think about proportions as they translate the three dimensional object to a 2-dimensional object on paper. When the drawing is complete, have them think about the color of the object and try to match the colors as close to the real thing as possible.
4. Read about the object. Find a book or internet article to find facts about the object being observed. Suggest that notes on a topic wheel might help to organize ideas.
5. Explore the object’s potential. What did you learn? What importance does the object hold in our world?
6. Write about the object. Combine and convey information gained through direct observation and research.
When children observe they utilize diverse reasoning modes that will, in turn, cultivate their ability to engage in the art of learning.
Why not begin the Observation Journaling with a caterpillar? Taking Fabre’s advice to heart, no need to travel to observe nature! Step out into your own backyard in search of a caterpillar or two. And, if need be, transplant a caterpillar from the World Wide Web via your printer!
Provide your child with some colored pencils, a pitcher of ice water, and a cozy backyard perch. Curiosity will do the rest.
“We frequently see, at the ends of pine branches, voluminous bags of white silk intermixed with leaves. These bags are, generally, puffed out at the top and narrow at the bottom, pear-shaped. They are sometimes as large as a person’s head. They are nests where live together a kind of very velvety caterpillars with red hairs. A family of caterpillars, coming from the eggs laid by one butterfly, construct a silk lodging in common. All take part in the work, all spin and weave in the general interest. The interior of the nest is divided by thin silk partitions into a number of compartments. At the large end, sometimes elsewhere, is seen a wide funnel-shaped opening; it is the large door for entering and departing. Other doors, smaller, are distributed here and there. The caterpillars pass the winter in their nest, well sheltered from bad weather. In summer they take refuge there at night and during the great heat.”
So begins the march of the Processionary Caterpillar. While children’s author/illustrator Eric Carle might say, “Out pops a very hungry caterpillar,” in this particular case, out pops, single file, not one, but a large family of very hungry caterpillars.
When Fabre observed this caterpillar’s strong instinct to follow-the-leader, its steps locked to the caterpillar being followed, he decided to hypothesize and to test his big idea by setting up a simple experiment. In 1896, he coaxed caterpillars to march in a chain around a flowerpot. And there they circled for days. Round and round and round.
And what did he observe?
Not even food set inches from their proverbial noses distracted the caterpillars from their mindless following.
There was no leader.
And so the caterpillars earned their name.
Scientific observation involves much more than seeing. Providing opportunities for students to observe allows them to practice such skills as collecting, predicting, constructing, perceiving. The art of observation helps students to risk and ultimately lead.
Jean Henri Fabre’s acute backyard observations laid the foundation for entomology. His earnest observations and insights are collected in ten volumes entitled Souvenirs Entomologiques.
Micropolis, at St Léons, France, is a wonderful destination dedicated to etymology and Fabre’s contribution to this significant branch of science.
Ever marveling at the power of the neologism, I clicked around on the World Wide Web until I came across the Micropolis website. Unfortunately I don’t read, write, or speak French. Still I couldn’t help but poke around a bit as I pondered the word—Micropolis.
And then it struck me.
What a wonderful testament to Fabre. In a single word—Micropolis—the museum communicates the life of a man dedicated to unearthing the diversity of nature in his own backyard.
Da Vinci Summer 2014 is only weeks away. Join the fun as we conjure big ideas for observing the small worlds brimming with diversity that we take for granted, the simple spaces in our very own backyard. Let’s think small. After all, the Renaissance Man himself reminds us, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Each poem is a one-of-a-kind collage of sounds that tickle the tip-of-the-tongue and a rhythmic hammering that sparks a tap-of-the-toe.
Poetry is a larger part of our world than we often admit. It’s the songs we sing, commercial jingles, rap, billboards, and YouTube. Poetry is headlines, Facebook, and blogs. Poetry is in great books and essays. Poetry is everywhere!
And so poetry is worth our while—worth reading, worth writing, worth speaking out loud, worth memorizing.
This past winter, when I challenged my writing apprentices to memorize a poem, I had to endure another collective groan, “Noooo…!” And when I showed them the poem they would have two weeks to memorize, they went pale and were silenced.
The poem “Television” by Roald Dahl was the perfect poem for this project not only because we were exploring the theme “Unplug” in our writing workshop, but because if was long enough to prove the vast potential of their ability to memorize.
The lesson began, “Memorized poems fill the pantry of our imagination with food that is sure to sustain us in lean times. If you don’t believe, read Frederick, by Leo Lionni.”
I went on, “I know, these days we’re not used to memorizing long passages of traditional poetry. But, wait think about all the memorizing we do on a daily basis!”
We generated a list and I saw color return to their cheeks.
Row, row, row your boat…
The wheels on the bus go round and round…
Peter Piper picked a peck…
Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there…
I shared a story about my oldest Hannah being able to recite all of Beatrice Potter’s Peter Rabbit when she was three simply because I read it to her so often, “Memorizing is something you are equipped to accomplish!”
Still, I was struck by downcast attitude of my writing apprentices, as if this was the most arduous task on the planet. Can you say “Mountain from a molehill?” It was actually painful to watch them shilly-shally.
I’m happy to report that by the end of week one most of them found their footing. By the beginning of week two, they were having so much FUN that I announced we would be making a film of the project. We would turn Dahl’s poem into a documentary.
Here’s how I helped them break the memorization into manageable bits:
1. Begin with a close reading. This poem is a very long single stanza. Count the sentences in the poem. Translate each sentence into your own words. Write out each translation on a piece of paper.
2. Copy the poem, one sentence at a time and say the sentence slowly as you write.
3. Break the poem into small, manageable sections. Read and repeat one line at a time from a section without looking. Listen to the rhythm. Read the next line from this section, then repeat (without looking) the two lines. Continue on in this manner.
4. Once the entire poem is memorized, breathe life into your reading by going back to your close reading notes. Use your voice to add inflection.
At the end of the list I promised, “Soon you will not only have the poem memorized, but you carry the poem in your heart.”
And they did.
And they do.
So before summer slips too far away, plan an UNPLUG activity or two… and please, please, please, memorize a poem!
During the course of our virtual traveling this summer, we decided to touch down in Times Square via a Ravensburger puzzle. The adventure took place on our dining room table until this past week when we decided some fresh air and bit of sunshine was in order.
We slid what little of the puzzle we had completed onto an unused presentation board so that it could be stored outside. The board allows us to leave the puzzle on the picnic table over night tucked safely from the family of four rambunctious raccoons and other neighborhood nocturnal wildlife who have adopted my boy’s ninja warrior pool as a watering hole—check out the foot print!
So with only a few days of summer left, unplug in the great outdoors!
Most of my boy’s friends are not only scheduled to the hilt with summer activities, the majority of their down time is spent video gaming or surfing the web.
My boys are embarking upon August charging ahead recklessly into the Unplug Challenge.
And guess what?
My boys are enjoying the plummet into low tech!
Today, unplugged is all about wire and divergent thinking.
Here’s what Sir Ken Robinson has to say, “Divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym but is an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to questions, lots of possible ways to interpret a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one.”
So what can you make with a couple spools of wire?
Help us grow a collective “Unplug” list. Share your ideas on our Facebook page. Pass it on, and let’s see how long of a list we can create. If you have a longer story to share about “unplugging,” email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may just feature it here on four&twenty.
Here’s one from my house:
Play a board game.
My boys invited a friend to our house. Since the PS3 was off limits, they decided to play a board game. They were shocked to discover their friend had never played Monopoly, “No way.”
After a few minutes of indignant boy noises they, they stomped off to the game cabinet and passed on their wealth of knowledge in the most chaotic dissemination of Monopoly rules that I have ever witnessed. Midway through the game I brought them a bowl of popcorn so I could eavesdrop for a minute. The mock landlords were taking their jobs very seriously.
For the next couple hours my boy’s buddy was unplugged.