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York students' pictures inspire 1,000 words

When students at Hunter Street Elementary School began mixing their art classes with lessons in literacy, they impressed even themselves with the words they put down on paper.

"The stars cuddle up in the sky," a second-grade student wrote, describing her art.

"The moon parties with the stars," penned another.

"The mountains whisper good night as the water reaches for the grass," another second-grader described. "The moon glows through the snow to wake up the sun."

The flowery language is the product of the school's artist/writer's workshop, led by art teacher Diane Brown. The workshop is offered to all Hunter Street students in kindergarten through fourth grade for the first time this year.

Brown has always been interested in integrating literacy lessons with art. A few years ago, she discovered a book, "The Power of Pictures," by Beth Olshansky, which describes a process that has transformed the way she teaches art.

"The process of creating art is parallel to literacy," Brown said, noting that both writing and making an artwork include the same creative process, "although we don't think of it that way. And a lot of our struggling writers and readers are very strong visual learners.

"They learn through watching and observing."

In the school's artist/writers workshop, Brown uses art as a visual tool to help her students think about good writing. Each student makes a painting based on the theme "Twilight" and then writes about the picture.

The results have been impressive, said Principal Kevin Hood. Many students say they have enjoyed the writing process and that they believe they are good writers.

"We started making up stories in class," said Isaac Garcia, 7, "and I started liking it more."

Christine Wano, 7, said she wants to be an artist.

"You get to write about your picture and stuff that you like," she said. In her picture, she said, "the moon looked like 100 pearls stuck together, and the water looked like a mirror."

Brown first began using the idea of an artist/writer's workshop with a few of her classes two years ago. This year, Hood rearranged the school's schedule to give each class a 30-minute daily, two-week artist/writers workshop. He said the workshop is a form of enrichment.

"The kids are using words they may have never used in the past," Hood said.

Brown implemented the school-wide project last fall, after attending a summer workshop on Olshansky's art-based literacy project at the University of New Hampshire. With district approval, she was able to pay for the professional development with about $1,000 in proceeds from a children's art fair. Brown wanted to use the proceeds for something that would benefit the entire school.

She said the project begins with the use of a children's picture book. Brown covers up the words, and students look at the pictures only. Based on the pictures, they talk about what they believe is happening in the story.

Students then create a "twilight" artwork, featuring mountains, sky, water and the moon. They talk about the use of colors to express moods and setting, the practice of personification in writing, and list descriptive words for elements in the painting.

They circle "gold dollar words," and use these to begin writing.

Treasure Jefferies, 8, said the mountains in her twilight art "had sparkles on them, so I thought they were crying to the water, because it was so cold." Treasure loves writing and art.

"It made me want to be a writer," she said of the project.

Basing writing on a visual element helped pull detailed stories out of the students, Brown said.

"You start to talk about the picture as if it were a story, and they start to add more details," she said. "Before you know it, they are actually creating a story."

Children who learn visually might find it hard to write by staring at a blank page, she said, but with their own artwork in front of them, the process changes.

"For visual learners," Brown said, "as they draw and create, they are making meaning."

The process can be used for other types of assignments.

"My hope is," Brown said, "as teachers see the process we go through in art/writers workshop, they are going to use this process in the classroom."

The students really seemed to enjoy writing, she said. One student described the workshop as "one of the funnest places in the world." Another said she learned "to write sentences that I would think grownups wrote in books."

"It's amazing," Brown said. "Every single student has come up with something different. Two hundred and fifty kids have gone through this - and every single writing has been unique."