The Freedom of Interpretation
Building Creative Minds
"Artistic creation is not a mere decoration. The artist has to convey his inspiration to others while allowing them freedom of interpretation."
A 6th grader stands in front of his photo montage and moderates an image dialogue with his peers. Using an app from his phone, he creates a study in gray abstraction with a red sweatshirt as the focal point. Just as he has seen his teacher do many times, he invites his peers to "take a moment to look at this picture. What's going on in this picture?"
He carefully paraphrases each of his peers' responses and follows with, "What more can we find?" When a student breaks protocol and asks if the picture was taken in his bedroom, he craftily paraphrases, "So, you are wondering if it is my bedroom? What do you see that makes you say that?"—a nonanswer with a probe for supporting evidence.
He continues, "What more can we find?" The class is mesmerized.
A New Path
Five years ago, our school adopted the visual thinking strategies (VTS) program as a way to enhance the study of art and because it offered a way of measuring changes in students' thinking over time. Little did we realize how much this experience would change our teaching.
VTS, developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine (2000), began as a way to explore aesthetic development in children. New York City teachers told Housen and Yenawine that VTS encourages aesthetic development and develops critical thinking, explaining that their students spontaneously made causal links and regularly sought evidence to support their claims. Likewise, our students demonstrate this level of thought, and we continually discover more about the power of mediated learning to enhance the creative, interpretive experience.
Here are some of the lessons we've learned.
Neutrality Is Powerful
In the first year of implementation, we were asked to follow VTS protocol with fidelity by paraphrasing students' responses and asking a few simple questions. The immediate result of this safe, neutral way of responding was that more students spoke up.
Staying neutral was not easy. As we worked to be neutral, we became more conscious of the subtle ways that teachers signal value, privileging some comments and not others. We began to closely monitor our language, being careful to avoid inadvertently paraphrasing one students' comment more neutrally than another. Most important, we observed firsthand how teacher neutrality built trust and allowed students to open up and take risks.
All students from across the learning spectrum realized that what they had to say mattered.
Everyone's Voice Is Heard
Because the lessons were not text-driven, all students entered on a more even playing field. Students who had rarely spoken up in class were often the ones who saw something others missed. This reinforced the value of having all eyes and minds in the room.
The kids loved the ambiguous nooks and crannies found in many great works of art, and as early as 2nd grade, they began to talk about whether they agreed or disagreed with the various viewpoints.
By using linking paraphrases that summarize the various viewpoints, students quickly learn that the teacher is not going to give them a right answer. As a result, they take risks and enjoy the creative play of emerging ideas and interpretations, based on what each student and the group generate.
Children Become More Confident
Consistent paraphrasing supported all learners. The dialogue supported personal and public reflection and provided a rich context that helped even English language learners gain enough confidence to speak up.
In a debriefing, a teacher described how a 5th grade English language learner had contributed to a discussion about a painting. It was February and the first time he had spoken in class, but it was even more impressive that he spoke in a paragraph.
In the second year, we began to use images as a way to introduce key concepts in social studies and science. As the year progressed, the overconfident students slowed down and became more reflective; the less-confident students spoke up and took stands about what was important for them. All students learned that their interpretations mattered and contributed to the entire class's understanding.
Spending Ample Time Reaps Educational Rewards
We found that lingering on one image (20 minutes or longer) opened up creative space for thinking. Many times students linked several ideas together and volunteered evidence without prompting. Their comments got longer and became more complex. Leaving some ideas undeveloped allowed students to continue thinking about the image.
Over and over, we found that they would reference the images in relation to other experiences in the classroom. In one memorable experience, the students remembered Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters" from a month earlier and compared it with an image they were viewing in a class VTS dialogue. This comparison had not even occurred to us, but when we pulled up Van Gogh's image, the interpretive links were clearly evident.
Students' Views on Art and the World in General Become More Expansive
The students became more receptive to new ideas and to new ways of thinking about the art. When poet Glenis Redmond visited our classes and helped the students shape praise poems about their heritage, she encouraged them to find their voice, invited revisions, and always turned it back to the student artist.
When students realized they had the final say, they became more willing to consider options and find ways to further enhance their interpretations. Students spent days perfecting their pieces. This theme—"it's up to you; the artist's job is to interpret"—became an important cornerstone for our work.
Students Experience Cognitive Shifts
Often, students saw something in the art we had not noticed. Other times, one student's observation would shift the entire dialogue to a new narrative. Students became accustomed to thinking out loud, changing their minds, and revising their thinking.
This approach was not limited to visual art. Time and again, poetry dialogues yielded similar cognitive shifts.
Art Helps the Students See Their Place in the World
When a student becomes passionate about a work of art or a poem, the experience envelops the child and creates a model worthy of aspiration. Students are surrounded by masterful examples of what their own work could be, provoking the question, How do I leave my mark on the world?
Creative endeavors help students place themselves in the world, recognizing that they, too, can speak with an artist's voice. This point was brought home most poignantly when a student spontaneously created a poem in response to an evening walk with her family. Art had become her medium for sharing her experience.
Clouds of Birds
Ana, age 11
Flying in the sky,
aerobic like a genie,
veering the other way,
every time they see me.
Wings fluttering frantically,
and if you are close enough to hear,
a soft thundering sound,
humming in your ear.
Smoke from the fire,
black as a cat's fur,
swooping round and round,
setting other birds astir.
Maybe hundreds, even thousands,
flying together as one,
letting more birds join the show,
while down sets the sun.
Collaboration Carries More Weight
The group mind is powerful because it not only brings cohesion and wholeness, but it also breaks things apart by redirecting the eye and the mind to things that were not once seen. By looking through the lenses of others, we see more for ourselves.
As adults we had this experience regularly during our training session in art galleries. An illustrative moment describes how we came to better understand the work of Anselm Kiefer, known for his postwar German themes, through a piece of his work that, in another time in our lives, we would have glanced over and never really looked at it. However, when we were invited to look at it together in a manner supported by the VTS dialogue protocol, we came to understand that this life-size painting about the horrors of the gas chambers during the Holocaust had a threshold that actually invited us in.
When our focus shifted away from the precise geometric floor and the ovens to the muddled mess of straw and paint at the top of the painting, our discussion shifted from the horrors of the gas chambers to our own impermanence. Later, still curious, we researched Kiefer and learned that he indeed wanted us to "argue with the past."
This deep looking and then learning with others proved to be powerful approach.
Student Consumers Become Creators
When we challenged our students to find learning apps on their personal technology, one student created a humorous video poking fun at the VTS process. Instead of discussing a piece of art, the avatar was leading a VTS dialogue of a blank canvas. The humor came when the viewer realized that the blank canvas was just a piece of white construction paper.
The student asked to show it to the class and lead an image dialogue. From there, students started bringing in their creations and asking to "VTS" them. We were amazed and pleased to see how much they had come to value the process.
Other students created images using other apps, including the ColorSplash creation of the red sweatshirt. Some designed math tutorials using ScreenChomp or Jing; others worked with Brushes or GoAnimate to design poetry interpretations.
Although the year was over, something magical had happened: Our students were not only confident viewers of art and poetry, but they were also increasingly interested in the artists' minds, beginning to apply what they had learned to be more creative.
As we reflect back on this creative journey, we realize that classroom instruction is also interpretive. It is never just the program that makes a lesson great; what teachers and students bring consciously and intuitively and weave together makes all the difference.
Housen, A., & Yenawine, P. (2000). Visual thinking strategies: Learning to communicate through art (Basic Manuals K–2 & 3–5). Brooklyn, NY: Visual Understanding in Education.
Tracy McClure has taught all levels of elementary children for the past 25 years. Over the years, she has served as a literacy coach, writing liaison and coach, visual thinking strategies coordinator and coach, and chief negotiator for her labor organization. She is a member of ASCD and the National Council of Teachers of English. Carol Henderson has taught all levels of elementary children for the past 22 years and has served in many leadership roles, including as a visual and performing arts liaison, visual thinking strategies coordinator and coach, and arts mentor. She is a member of the California and the National Arts Educator Association. Diane P. Zimmerman is the former superintendent of Old Adobe Union School District in Petaluma, Calif.
ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 10. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.