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Merging literacies: a case study.

Immersing the students in the fine arts--drama, music, dance, and the visual arts--was not a novel idea; what made it unusual was how the teachers used the fine arts as a bridge to the literary components of reading, writing listening, and speaking.

A small, but perhaps not so unusual, miracle is happening in one of the poorest elementary schools in Charleston County, South Carolina. Two kindergarten teachers at Mary Ford Elementary School, with the help of the school's art teacher and a kindergarten specialist, have effectively combined a focus on art with daily read-alouds and the use of the Lucy Calkins (2003) series on the writing workshop, which is an approach to integrated reading and writing. As a result, the students are budding authors and illustrators who are making connections between the visual arts and their own developing reading and writing skills. Teachers Martha Dent and Joanne Batten, with over 50 years of teaching experience between them, at Mary Ford Elementary School; Bill Meisburger, the school art teacher and adjunct professor of drawing and painting at the College of Charleston; and kindergarten specialist Chris Rogers-Berry are eager to boast about the children's progress. This article describes their journey, which I, as a teacher educator with practicum students in the kindergarten classrooms, was fortunate to witness.

Infusing Art Into the Curriculum

The journey began when Martha took a course the previous year on how to infuse art into the curriculum. The experience, based on the text Creating Meaning Through Literature and the Arts (2003), by Claudia Cornett, transformed Martha's teaching. Excited about the course, she involved Joanne Batten in planning how to use the visual arts as her children's introduction into reading and writing. The teachers did not find this transition to be difficult, because they were already strong believers in the philosophy of educating the whole child. Even before the emergence of Howard Gardner's theory (1993) of multiple intelligences, the two teachers had been capitalizing on their children's orientation to what Gardner called visual-spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, and naturalistic intelligences to connect to other aspects of learning. With their newfound respect for integrating the language and fine arts, the teachers helped their young proteges connect their skills in drawing, pretend play, singing, dancing, and playing outside with pre-reading and pre-writing activities.

Immersing the students in the fine arts--drama, music, dance, and the visual arts--was not a novel idea; what made it unusual was how the teachers used the fine arts as a bridge to the literary components of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Martha and Joanne were embodying Froebel's belief that the arts were needed to help develop the "all-sided" child (Froebel, 1826/1974), and the course Martha took gave them the techniques and the motivation to pursue this approach further. Thus the immersion began, the teachers much more consciously blending their children's enthusiasm for the fine arts with their love of stories and language. An abbreviated list of the steps in the process they used can be found in Figure 1.

Reading Paintings and Connecting Prior Knowledge

Martha started in September by engaging the children in self-portraits, mostly stick-figure drawings, and moved to a lesson on Native Americans that initiated intense work on understanding settings and characters. The children, after listening to Pilgrim Children Had Many Chores (Lems-Tardif, 1996), talked about their own chores and drew pictures of themselves engaged in them.

By late October, teachers were using art prints to help the children learn about such artists as van Gogh and Matisse, and discussed how artists use the basic elements of design (line, shape, and color) to express their emotions and ideas. Children "read" the paintings by scouring the pictures for lines and shapes and then talking about how the artist placed them in the picture and chose colors to express different feelings. With the help of the teacher, the children talked about the way different kinds of lines were used to convey different things (e.g., eyebrows represented by upside-down triangles, and upside-down or right-side up curves to indicate frowns or smiles). Martha observed that the children became connected with the artists, authors, and illustrators more meaningfully than before. After much discussion of the painting "The Starry Night" by Vincent van Gogh, several children wanted to try emulating his style by focusing on the themes of "Stormy," "Windy," and "Sunny" (see Figure 2). Martha talked with them about their process and listened to their reasons for choosing certain colors and lines. The children became intently engaged with creative materials as they explored the artists' illustrations; they talked of how the lines and shapes in the pictures, as well as the colors, created a powerful emotional impact. Martha later said that this study of artists and their styles engaged the children in the learning process in a new way; they became more intent when listening to read-alouds and more confident and competent at using picture clues to better understand story content.


Drawing, Writing, and the Writing Workshop

During the first few months of the school year, the children were also learning the alphabet, drawing frequently, and writing in their own way, which for many then was still scribbling. By November, the teachers were eager to participate in the workshops led by Chris Rogers-Berry, the kindergarten specialist, on how to use the Lucy Calkins series, The Units of Study for Primary Writing: A Yearlong Curriculum (2003). The series consists of seven units of study, each lasting about four weeks; additional resources, including video and print resources, are provided as well. Each unit contains everything a teacher needs to implement the writer's workshop, which integrates the teaching of reading and writing in a holistic way. If the teacher isn't comfortable applying the approach on her own, specific read-alouds for particular assignments and scripts are provided. Martha and Joanne talked about how much they loved Small Moments: Personal Narrative Writing (Calkins & Oxenhorn, 2003), the seventh unit in the Calkins series. They found guidance in the stories' depictions of special details, and in turn encouraged the children to write and draw about their own special moments.

In Small Moments, co-author Abby Oxenhorn addresses the importance of discussing with the children how writers write about their own lives. She talks about how Vera Williams, in A Chair for My Mother (1982), uses vivid details in describing the moment when mother and daughter are walking home after buying shoes and see that their building is on fire. Oxenhorn suggests that the reader stop in mid-sentence to see if listeners remember the details included in the story. This practice in remembering details was an exercise that the kindergartners at Mary Ford grew to enjoy and they became very good at doing it. The teacher asked repeated questions about details related to the children's own artwork, and the children began writing and "reading" them back to each other in their own writing workshops every day.

The teachers scaffolded the children's construction of knowledge, using the children's own social and cultural interactions (Heath, 1983; Vygotsky, 1987). In this process, familiar themes emerged that were related to everyday experiences--playing in the park, cooking with a caretaker or in the housekeeping center, or doing something with a parent and/or siblings, such as going to the store or to the beach. Some themes were related to more abstract examples, as when one little boy repeatedly drew red space ships with the text" ... spaceships, I like." Regardless of whether the stories ran one sentence or for several paragraphs, the children demonstrated an increasing ability to access prior knowledge and make associations between the spoken and written word as well as their drawings. The developing writers, prompted by the teachers' questions, started adding additional details. For example, 5-year-old Janeria talked, then wrote and drew, about her mother making her laugh; Chris Rogers-Berry asked her how her mother did it, and Janeria replied that her mother tickled her. This was a perfect time for Chris to talk to her about adding to or revising her story. Janeria then added a little strip, "She tickooo," as invented spelling to explain, "She tickled me."

Janeria's story was several paragraphs long, while some of the other children's stories were still only one or two sentences long. Similarly, some included detailed pictures, while others drew little. However, both their stories and artwork became more developed-they were no longer the primitive stick drawings and fearful attempts at writing from long-ago September. The kindergartners' ongoing exposure to print and its concepts, their beginning understanding of the relationships between letters and sounds, and their growing awareness of speech and how to express it in writing (phonemic awareness) were obvious to all of their teachers. The teachers consciously immersed the youngsters in these developmentally appropriate practices to learn reading and writing (International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1998), and thus met many of their grade-level language arts curriculum standards. Through this process, they also engaged the students in appreciation and creation of art, thus achieving some of the South Carolina Visual Arts Curriculum Standards as well. Clearly, these 5- and 6-year-olds were merging literacies of the fine and language arts (see Figure 4).


Bridging to Reading

In the late fall, many of the children began taking giant leaps from drawing and writing to actual reading. The change became noticeable when Martha asked the children, "Isn't it frustrating when you can't read your writing and you don't remember what you were trying to say?" Many hands shot up, as children vigorously nodded their heads. More and more practice at readings, or repeated readings (Samuels, 1997), followed the children's closer scrutiny of drawings and their subsequent questions. Their attempts at reading were buoyed by the stories they revised and edited on the computer. Then Martha enrolled in yet another course (this one featured bridges) at the new Children's Museum in Charleston, which led to another class project.

The project began with a field trip to view the bridge construction over the Cooper River (the longest cable bridge in the United States). Then the class "read" and listened to nonfiction books about bridges, the children's favorites being Chris Oxlade's Superstructures (1997) and Bridges and Tunnels (1994). Next, three groups of children decided on different types of bridges to build within the classroom, and what materials they would use. For many of the children, the day they built their own miniature bridges was the highlight of the project, but the teachers' excitement peaked six days later when the children first talked about, then drew and wrote, individual interpretations of their experiences (see Figure 3). The experience provided a very good example of watching a concept grow from concrete constructions (literally) to pictures with words, then stories read out loud to each other. This was the epitome of a classroom culture that fosters reading motivation (Gambrell, 1996).



The kindergarten curriculum at Mary Ford exemplifies a good literacy program, described by Gail Tompkins (2003) as one in which the constructivist, interactive, sociolinguistic, and reader response theories of learning, language, and literacy theories are intertwined. As constructivists, the kindergarten teachers allowed the children to expand upon and modify their existing schemata. As indicated by their bridgework, the children used information from the texts they were reading, and from their own prior knowledge, to organize their thoughts and to communicate. The emphasis on meaning-making is perhaps the centerpiece of what goes on at Mary Ford; the teachers encourage their students to create their own meaning, based on the text and what they bring to it, and to "live" it, to make it their own, much as reading response theorists espouse.

The program builds skills, including those having "direct links to children's eventual success in early literacy development" (Strickland & Shanahan, 2004, p. 75) (i.e., exposure to environmental print, alphabetic knowledge, print knowledge, invented spelling, listening comprehension, visual perceptual skills, and visual memory). The children's work demonstrated the connections between the kindergartners' visual abilities and those in the visual arts. They talked and read about bridges, then built miniature ones; then, the children made drawings of their bridges and wrote about them, proving their growing abilities to convey what they saw and felt in pictures and words. Their oral readings of their work illustrated how improvements in reading and creativity are strongly linked to visual learning (Eisner, 1998).

These kindergarten classrooms, much like those that adapt the Reggio Emilia approach, emphasize arts and creativity, learning based on concrete experiences, inquiry learning and collaboration, and child-centered curriculum. Adherents to the Reggio approach and the Mary Ford teachers view children as being "rich, strong, and powerful" and as "possessing great potential" (Hendrick, 1997, p. 43), and both "foster the children's powers of close observation by providing opportunities for them to 'draw from life' "(p. 45). Rankin (1997) relates how the concept of collaboration, discussed in the work of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky, has been taken even further by Reggio teachers. Martha Dent and Joanne Batten are constructivists who emphasize art, creativity, real-life experiences, and social interactions as optimal paths to cognitive development.

Martha Dent's and Joanne Batten's work is also similar to that done in collaboration between the Early Childhood Center of Brooklyn College and the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education (their project also incorporated van Gogh's "The Starry Night"). The project's aim was "to develop children's capacity to observe and take note while providing an entry point into their developing literacy skills" (Korn-Bursztyn, 2002, p. 40). The teachers in Charleston built on their students' strengths in the fine arts as the foundation for their work with writing and reading. As their colleague, Mr. Meisburger, an art teacher, said,

Art first helped the kindergarten students to develop their fine motor skills. Doing art enabled them to visualize ideas and objects that, in turn, help them to think abstractly. (personal communication, March 12, 2004)

The kindergartners' bridge pictures and corresponding descriptions depict the progression of their cognitive awareness from the concrete to the abstract.

What is particularly fascinating about the Mary Ford Elementary School teachers, and those who teach as they do, is that they teach with, about, and through the arts to reach other content; in this case, reading, writing, and social studies. Arts integration, according to Cornett (2003), is grounded in brain research and Gardner's multiple intelligences. The arts act to stimulate the brain and enable transforming ideas and skills to travel from one domain to another. As Jensen (2001) says, "Of all the effects on cognition, visual arts seem to be strongest when used as a tool for academic learning" (p. 58). Howard Gardner's work in multiple intelligences (1989, 1993) also lends strong support for arts-based learning. Martha and Joanne share his philosophy that individuals usually have strengths in certain intelligences; the teachers use their students' strengths in the aesthetic, visual-spatial, naturalistic, and bodily kinesthetic intelligences to connect the language arts and other content areas. The Mary Ford Elementary School kindergartners are authentically and meaningfully engaged, and they are scaffolded as they draw, write, and read. For me, it meant the opportunity to watch children use their artwork to connect the meaning of their signs, symbols, and scribbles with that of their developing skills as writers and readers.


Calkins, L. (2003). The units of study for primary writing: A yearlong curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Calkins, L., & Oxenhorn, A. (2003). Small moments: Personal narrative writing, in L. Calkins (Ed.), The units of study for primary writing: A yearlong curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Cornett, C. E. (2003). Creating meaning through literature and the arts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall.

Eisner, E. (1998). Does experience in the arts boost academic achievement? Arts Education, 51(1), 5-15.

Froebel, F. (1974). The education of man. (W. N. Hailmann, Trans.) Clifton, NJ: A. M. Kelly. (Original work published 1826)

Gambrell, L. B. (1996). Creating classrooms that foster reading motivation. The Reading Teacher, 50(1), 14-25.

Gardner, H. (1989). Artful scribbles: The significance of children's drawings. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Heath, S. B. (1983). Research currents: A lot of talk about nothing. Language Arts, 60, 999-1007.

Hendrick, J. (Ed.). (1997). First steps toward teaching the Reggio way. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

International Reading Association (IRA) and National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). (1998). Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young children. The Reading Teacher, 52(2), 193216; Young Children, 53(4), 30-46.

Jensen, E. (2001). Arts with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Korn-Bursztyn, C. (2002). Scenes from a studio: Working with the arts in an early childhood classroom. Early Childhood Education Journal, 30(4), 39-46.

Lems-Tardif, G. (1996). Pilgrim children had many chores. Illustrated by Ms. Tardif s first grade class. Cypress, CA: Creative Teaching Press.

Machetti, F. C. (Ed.). (1999). Vincent van Gogh. New York: Rizzoli International Publishers. The Starry Night (1889) by Vincent van Gogh is in the New York Museum of Art.

Oxlade, C. (1994). Bridges and tunnels. New York: Franklin Watts.

Oxlade, C. (1997). Superstructures. Austin, TX: Steck-Vaughn. Rankin, B. (1997). Education as collaboration: Learning from and building on Dewey, Vygotsky, and Piaget. In J. Hendrick (Ed.), First steps toward teaching the Reggio way (pp. 70-82). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Samuels, S.J. (1997). The method of repeated readings. The Reading Teacher, 50(5), 376-381.

South Carolina Curriculum Standards. Pre-K--2 language arts standards and visual arts standards for the individual grade levels, grades pre-K- K. Retrieved on March 12, 2004.

Strickland, D. S., & Shanahan, T. (2004). Laying the groundwork for literacy. Educational Leadership, 61(6), 74-77.

Tompkins, G. E. (2003). Literacy for the 21st century: Teaching reading and writing in pre-kindergarten through grade 4. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Lecture 1: The problem and the method of investigation. Ink W. Reiber & A.S. Carton (Eds.), The collected works of L. S. Vgotsky (Vol. 1, pp. 43-51). New York: Plenum-Press. (Original work published 1934)

Williams, V. (1982). A chair for my mother. New York: Greenwillow Books.




* An interest in art and literature

* A holistic approach to education

* A belief in all children's potentials

Helpful Resources

* Creating Meaning Through Literature and the Arts (Cornett, 2003).

* The Lucy Calkins series, The Units of Study for Primary Writing: A Yearlong Curriculum (2003), and/or information on "Writers Workshop."

* As many of the books possible that are identified in the Calkins series or that are considered good literature with wonderful illustrations for kindergartners.

* Fine arts teachers you can enlist to immerse your children in their art (i.e., art, drama, music, dance). A good art teacher is enough.


1. Engage the children in self-portraits, mostly stick-figure drawings. Read books and discuss settings and characters.

2. Read Pilgrim Children Had Many Chores (Lems-Tardif, 1996), and have children talk about their own chores and draw pictures of them.


3. Ask art teacher to talk to and show and involve children in the basic elements of design (line, shape, and color) to express their emotions and ideas.

4. Show them paintings of artists like Van Gogh and Matisse and guide them through a discussion of how and where they used lines, shapes, and colors to express feelings.

5. Show them "The Starry Night," by Van Gogh, and have them try to replicate it.

6. Ask them about details in read-alouds, possibly following the suggestions in the Calkins series.


7. Involve the children in writing about and illustrating themes they know (e.g., what they do after school, a favorite relative, etc.) and have them take turns "reading" them to a partner in their own "writing workshops" every day. Have children share in large group.

8. When ready, have children start adding additional details and making revisions.

Winter Forward

9. Pick familiar themes from your community and accompanying books about them that will enable your children to continue this process.

Virginia B. Bartel is Associate Professor, Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education, School of Education, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina.
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Author:Batel, Virginia B.
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Date:Jun 22, 2005
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