Monday, October 1, 2007

October 2007: Sarah Gaw is Getting Kids “Wired” about Books


October 2007 America Learns Strategy of the Month 
Harvard Academic Support Initiative

What would you do if you worked with students after-school and were asked to help your students:
- Appreciate reading and books;
- Improve their reading comprehension skills;
- Improve their speaking skills; and
- Do all of the above through an art project?

What if you also saw a huge need for your students to practice listening to one another during class discussions?

Sarah Gaw has an answer for you. While working in Boston as Conservatory Lab Charter School's After-School Program Coordinator, Sarah reflected on an assignment she had in seventh grade that led her to create wire sculptures to retell a story she read.  "I loved the process of creating sculptures," Sarah told us, "and my teachers loved my creations."  Doing a similar activity with her students was especially appealing to her as it would give her beginning readers an opportunity to feel really successful while retelling a story. 

More about Sarah

Sarah Gaw

Photo by Suzanne Camarata


Emily Smit, who worked with Sarah through the Harvard Achievement Support Initiative (America Learns Network member since 2005), has nothing but wonderful things to say about her.  "As the After School Program Coordinator at the Conservatory Lab Charter School, Sarah prepared a variety of engaging activities for elementary students. Combining her interest in the arts with her skills as an educator, she brought a unique perspective to after school programming.  Her creativity and consistency has had a lasting, positive impact on the school community."

Since leaving Conservatory Lab at the end of last school year, Sarah has been teaching photography at the Brookline Arts Center.  She also works as a digital printmaker at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and privately for professional photographers.

The Strategy

Using Characters to Encourage Positive Learning

Created by: Sarah Gaw at Conservatory Lab Charter School and Harvard Achievement Support Initiative (America Learns Network member since 2005)
Topics: - Book Appreciation
- Book Reports
- English Language Learners
- Listening & Speaking Skills
- Reading Comprehension
Grade Levels: Kindergarten - Third
Arrangements: - One-on-One; Small Group; Large Group
- Twistable art wire or pipe cleaners
- Optional: objects to wrap wire around to make shapes (e.g., small balls for circles, blocks or dice for rectangles and squares)
- Optional: beads or other ornaments

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Situation: My students have a very hard time listening to each other. I wanted to create a positive and creative environment where they could work on their listening skills while encouraging book appreciation, literacy, reading comprehension and speaking skills.  I also wanted to encourage the other students to watch, listen to, and interact with presenters respectfully.

I found that using artwork as a catalyst allows ELL (English Language Learner) students to feel successful even if they don't know all of the right words.  In this strategy, they may even use books in their native language to feel more comfortable.

Note: Before you begin this strategy, be sure that you have made a "wire character" of your own to model for your students later on (details are below).

Step 1: Discuss each student's favorite book or choose a book you've read in your program.

Ask your students questions that help them explore the traits of the book's main characters.  Some questions I've used include:

  • What makes it your favorite book?
  • Which characters are most dynamic?
  • What does "dynamic" mean?
  • What objects does the character use throughout the book to define who s/he is? A bicycle? a pet? Big shoes? Funny hair?
  • How does this character change other characters?
  • What emotions does s/he express? Do you ever feel those emotions?
Step 2: Tell your students that they will each make a sculpture of one of their favorite characters in their selected book today.

Show your students the wire character you made earlier, and share how your sculpture represents the character's looks and traits.

If time allows, explore the meaning of sculpture and 2-dimensional versus 3-dimensional art with your students.  Here are some prompts you can use to lead the discussion.

Sculpture: Sculpture is a type of art where you take something that doesn't have a defined shape and make it into a shape. For example, if you start with a ball of clay and create a dinosaur, that is a sculpture. A sculpture of a dinosaur can be created with wire too--just bend the wires and twist them together to create the form of the dinosaur.

2-D/3-D: A drawing of a dinosaur is two dimensional -- it tells you how tall and how long the dinosaur is. A clay sculpture is three dimensional--besides being able to tell how tall and long the dinosaur is, you can also tell how wide the dinosaur is.

Another example -- a sheet of paper is basically two dimensional -- it has width and height, but not much depth. If you fold it into a paper airplane, it is now a three dimensional sculpture--it has shape: width, height and depth.

Ask your students to pick a character that they want to make a sculpture of.  Ask them to think about the back and front of the character, and about how they could show the character's emotions  with wire.  As they share their ideas, bend some wire to help them see their ideas come to life.  For example, if they say you can bend the wire in a U-shape to create a smile, bend the wire to resemble a smile.

Step 3: Give each student some wire.  Mention that multiple colors can be used to create a different objects (e.g., if Pippi Longstocking has red hair and a blue dress, make it so!).

(Note that some students may want to draw their character first to develop some ideas about what to make with the wire.)

Give students a lot of time to make their creations (at least 45 minutes). Assist with wire-bending techniques. Show how they can wrap the wire around other objects to help create circles, squares, etc. within their sculptures. Watch for frustration and do what you can to encourage your students to overcome any challenges they face in turning their ideas to reality.  Let any frustrated students know that it takes practice to learn any new kind of art, and that your top expectations are that they put 100% into this activity, have fun, and learn more about their selected characters and stories.

Step 4: When the students are finished, go to the rug or another suitable presentation area to give the presentations a different character than the art space.  (Due to time constraints, the presentations may not happen until the next session.)

Be very clear about what you're looking for from your students.  Ask them to bring up the book and their sculpture.  Ask them to read the title and author's name aloud, to show a few pictures, and to describe the story in their own words.  Then ask them to share their sculpture and to talk about its features.  Give time for each student to answer questions from the other students.  (America Learns Note: You may want to model this process for them with a book and sculpture of your own, as well as taking the lead in asking questions at first.)

Discuss respectful listening behavior, appropriate questions (you may want to post some on butcher paper or write them on a board), and circle etiquette.  Be sure to "catch the students being good," recognizing them when they ask good questions, listen well, etc.

America Learns Note: An alternative to the presentation is to turn your space into a museum where students display and their sculptures and books, and then take turns walking around and asking their fellow students about the stories and sculptures.

Related Strategies in the America Learns Network: Please note that these strategies are only available to current Network members


Please share your thoughts about this strategy with us and with Sarah by clicking the grey “Comments” link below.