Learning to “Notice” Visual Storytelling

Learning to notice visual storytelling in picture books via Wonder Teacher The picture book featured in the photo is Natalie and Naughtily by Vincent X. Kirsch. Fabulously fun book with highly detailed illustrations!

I started to write a post today focused on the specifics of my personal narrative lessons. I’m eager to share the children’s amazing stories! However, I feel this post needs to come first.

Katie Wood Ray’s work has taught me the critical importance of empowering children to become collectors of good craft. Though it is certainly the teacher’s job to point out quality craftsmanship in images and writing (and help children learn how they can use those ideas and techniques in their own writing and art too) the children are quite capable of noticing these elements themselves, once we invite them to do so.

As I launched the personal narrative art/writing project with the 2nd graders, we first spent some time flipping through excellent picture books and noticing the kinds of techniques the illustrators used to tell the story. I had already walked them through Owl Moon on one day and Snow on another, pointing out some of the visual storytelling that strengthened the story. This was an important step because most of them had never looked at images in picture books that deeply before. It was important for me to model the thought process for them. We created an anchor chart (which I failed to photograph!) titled “Techniques Artists Use to Tell a Story.”

Next, I had the children look through stacks of books in pairs and record their findings on sticky notes. After about 20 minutes of examining the images in the books, they had collected dozens of ideas! Here are some of our key “noticings:”

  • Lead pictures are often (but not always) presented with a “zoomed out” lens. In other words, the artist usually pulls back from the scene a bit in order to capture a lot of information and detail. 
  • Details are important and are not accidental. Each one gives us a clue about the story or our characters.
  • Colors are key. Warm colors (reds, yellows, oranges) usually give a warm, happy feeling. Alternatively, they can also be used to show strong emotion (anger, love, etc.) or heat. Cool colors (blues, greens, purples) often are used to create a peaceful feeling, show cold weather, or sadness.
  • Artists often use windows and doors to show us two different aspects of a setting (i.e.- inside/outside.) This happened more frequently than we expected!
  • Artists often “zoom in” on characters or details when the story is reaching the “important part” (climax.)
  • Pictures are sometimes contained in boxes. Other times the picture bleeds from one edge of the paper to another. We had an interesting discussion about why this is different from story to story (and why it changes within one story.) The children agreed that as a general rule, as the story gets more exciting, the images often take up more of the page.
  • We noticed that artists often change their perspective from page to page. On one page it might feel like we are standing right next the character. In another, we see through the character’s eyes. In yet another, we seem to have a bird’s eye view. We agreed that artists do this for a reason and that we could try that approach in our artwork as well.

We added the children’s “noticings” to our anchor chart and I encouraged them to keep adding ideas as they read more books. I also made sure to explicitly teach the idea that they could now use these ideas in their own art-making to strengthen their storytelling. They were very enthusiastic!

Our final step that day was to have a quick lesson on watercolor resist and experiment with the art media. It is critical for children to get familiar with art materials before they are required to create a specific project. In other words, it’s hard to manipulate crayons and watercolors to get desired effects if you have no experience using them!

This step is often a tough sell for teachers because it feels like “wasting time.” I assure you- it’s not! Letting children see how white crayon interacts with various colors of paint, how much crayon wax is required for effective resist, and how the paints interact with water and mix on the paper are all important points of understanding. Giving children this time to explore will result in better quality artwork when you need it to be “good!”

Looking back, I don’t believe our personal narrative image-making and writing would have been nearly as successful without this lesson. At first glance it seems expendable. However, teaching children to “see” like artists and authors is never a waste of time! A child who can spot good craft is much more likely to apply that craft to their own work. A roomful of kids who can “borrow ideas” from professional authors and paint like professional artists; that’s a worthwhile goal!

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  1. Those are amazing notes gathered by the students after looking at the books. Way more than I ever noticed before. I will be looking more closely at the pictures now as well when I read a storybto my students.
    Taylor recently posted..Half a weekend left…My Profile

  2. Taylor-
    It’s amazing what you notice when your eyes are looking! So many wonderful treasures to find in the images!

    • Also… I had modeled a lot of “noticing” as I shared “Owl Moon” and “Snow” and several of those tidbits had been mentioned. Still… it’s amazing how much more the kids “see!”

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