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Last week got off to a rough start, so I wanted to do something different during reader’s workshop to turn things around. Instead of doing a mini-lesson on summarizing then having students read/practice as I had originally planned, I decided to spend the period teaching and practicing the strategy of visualization… in the form of finger-painting!

We discussed what visualization means when you read, focusing on how the “movie” that plays in your head can help you better relate to characters and understand what’s going on. Then they all got comfy laying on the floor, sitting in my chair, hiding under their desks, etc, and closed their eyes while I read an evocative passage from Life of Pi by Yann Martel, one of my favorite books and a gorgeous example of vivid imagery! I also love that he actually TELLS the reader to visualize in a few places (bolded):

You must imagine a hot and humid place, bathed in sunshine and bright colours. The riot of flowers is incessant. There are trees, shrubs and climbing plants in profusion–peepuls, gulmohurs, flames of the forest, red silk cottons, jacarandas, mangoes, jackfruits and many others […] Suddenly, amidst the tall and slim trees up ahead, you notice two giraffes quietly observing you. The sight is not the last of your surprises. The next moment you are startled by a furious outburst coming from a great troupe of monkeys, only outdone in volume by the shrill cries of strange birds. […] To me, it was paradise on earth. I have nothing but the fondest memories of growing up in a zoo. I lived the life of a prince. […] I might stop by the terraria to look at some shiny frogs glazed bright, bright green, or yellow and deep blue, or brown and pale green. Or it might be birds that caught my attention: pink flamingoes or black swans or one-wattled cassowaries, or something smaller, silver diamond doves, Cape glossy starlings, peach-faced lovebirds, Nanday conures, orange-fronted parakeets. […] Every morning before I was out the main gate I had one last impression that was both ordinary and unforgettable: a pyramid of turtles; the iridescent snout of a mandrill; the stately silence of a giraffe […] I wish I could convey the perfection of a seal slipping into water or a spider monkey swinging from point to point or a lion merely turning its head. But language founders in such seas. Better to picture it in your head if you want to feel it. […] It is something so bright, loud, weird and delicate as to stupefy the senses.

Before reading, I reminded them to think about what they would hear, smell, see, and so on if they were actually in the story. Afterwards, I modeled my own thoughts about visualization, pointing out that I don’t necessary recognize all these plant and animal names, but I’m struck by the vibrant colors and chaos of the zoo, and my visualization is affected by my own experience with zoos and images I’ve seen of the rainforest. Then students turned and talked about what they noticed as they listened. After that, it was time to paint!

I spread four pieces of butcher paper around the room and had students sit around them on the floor. I read the passage a second time while students began drawing and painting what they had visualized. Each class just added to what the previous class had created so we ended up with a community visualization:

For most of my classes, this was a welcome break from our routine, especially for the sixth graders who have been adjusting to the change from elementary to middle school – we were all getting kind of burned out toward the end of the first grading period, and the kids were delighted to have time to play and get messy!