Teachable Moment by Stacy Tell
Picture walks confused me. There, I’ve said it. I’m already feeling better about this post.
Throughout both my undergraduate and graduate school experiences, I spent a lot of time absorbing strategies and skills that would allow me to become an effective reading teacher. I’d heard the term picture walk before, as educators love a good buzz word. I knew the basic structure. Teacher opens an unfamiliar picture book. Teacher flips the pages of the picture book without reading any of the words. Teacher asks guiding questions that start with, “What do you think…?” and “What about this picture tells you…?” Students look at pictures to guide predictions. Students look at pictures to interpret the meaning of a tricky vocabulary word. Students begin to develop basic comprehension building blocks. Like I said, I got the general gist. Yet… I’m a wordsmith gal. I want the ironic phrases, the clever puns, the language to guide my storytelling experience. Wasn’t that why we called them texts? I also figured that, as a fourth-grade teacher, my students’ eyes would inevitably gravitate towards the words anyway, and this ‘walk’ strategy would prove fruitless. I chalked it up to a strategy for the younger age levels, placed it in a backroom file of my brain once I graduated, and began to teach the upper elementary grade levels.
Fast forward to four years later, and unsurprisingly (it happens often), the joke is on me. I am fortunate enough to be a part of a learning environment that values its social-emotional teaching on the same level as its academic objectives. When we come together on Friday afternoons to debrief on classroom highlights and challenges, I oftentimes do not come with a particular lesson in mind, simply as a mediator for respectful student dialogue and problem solving. Yet when a topic does cross my mind, my students will tell you themselves that the inspiration stems from a combination of their own experiences… and the lessons within a picture book.
The opening line of Skin Again, written by bell hooks and illustrated by Chris Raschka, states, “The skin I’m in is just a covering. It does not tell my story.” My fourth graders, familiar with the lessons of differences and acceptance, would have probably skimmed this opening line and quickly deciphered that this would be yet another book about looking beyond one’s surface to what makes them each unique and special. Perhaps it was with this realization in mind, or perhaps some other flash of inspiration that I’ll never be able to quantify, that I shifted the focus towards illustrations instead. My first picture walk had begun. Carefully modelling the structure, purposefully pausing at different color schemes, and emphasizing the curved lines of text allowed this book to take on a much deeper meaning. Together, we observed, we wondered, and we inferred the deeper themes within the story. My heart leapt when a student pointed out a tiny picture of an onion, so discreet that one could easily miss it in the midst of, I don’t know, just reading the words? She thought aloud, “It may seem kind of random to have an onion in the picture, but I think that’s because onions have layers, and people have layers for others to explore too.” Even after I read the story aloud from beginning to end, it only served to provide more clarity into the images presented in the story.
A short while later, my students were exploring the KeyNote app on their iPads. Our technology specialist had just introduced them to a creative technique that would allow their silhouettes to become a backdrop image. It was their responsibility to place pictures within the silhouette as a representation of themselves as fourth graders. It was one of my quieter students who eagerly raised her hand and said, “Wait! This is just like Skin Again. You’re asking us to show the school who we are on both the outside and the inside. That way, you’ll never judge us by our cover.” We seized this teachable moment to add thought bubbles to the silhouettes, with the sentence starter… “On the outside I am ___________, but on the inside I am ______________.” They stand proudly displayed outside our hallway, welcoming peers and parents into the fourth grade wing.
I am positive, both inside and out, that it was because of the picture walk that such a formative connection was made for my students… and myself.
Stacy Tell is an enthusiastic fourth grade teacher in Beverly, Massachusetts. After earning her Master’s in Language and Literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she stayed in Boston to pursue two dreams – teaching elementary school, and living right next to the Boston Public Library! Stacy is passionate about helping students become lifelong readers, and building a community of children who are eager to share their reading lives with one another, just like the Nerdies!