A Mystery 500 years in the Making (4th Grade)

1514 was a long time ago. 500 years to be exact. But in 1514 Albrecht Dürer created a masterwork that is still the object of speculation. Melencolia I is arguably one of the most famous prints in existence. This 18 by 24 copper engraving is jam packed with objects that peak our curiosity.


Some of the items that interested the fourth graders the most this week are the architectural and mathematical tools that surround the angel, the strange 4 by 4 square with numbers which add up to 34 in every direction…the mysterious solid shape with a ghostly skull that seems to ebb in and out of our vision…the hourglass, the scale, the very skinny animal…

We discussed this work of art in some classes for 45 minutes straight. My personal theory of an ancient treasure map, was met with excitement from some and strong argument from others. In Ms. Miller’s class, Conner reminded us of the Egyptian myths we learned in second grade. The hearts of the ancient egyptian dead were weighed against the feather of Maat on a scale much like the one depicted here. Julia pointed out the water of the background and made an argument that the whole image was set on a ship. Miles asked us to turn the whole image on its side and see how the orb becomes a doorknob and the planer becomes a lock, and suggested the keys on the angels belt could open the lock. Pow!!! Minds blown! A lot of really interesting and sound theories were put forth, and all were both respected while also being debated.


There are lots of viable answers. It doesn’t really matter what the answer to the mystery is. Scholars do not agree, we did not agree. What matters is that an artist 500 years ago put forth a visual challenge to viewers that still interests us today. In our fast paced digital age of 5 minute clips on youtube, it interests fourth graders enough to discuss it for 45 minutes. The debate from 1514 continues in 2014.

Art can do that. Artists can do that. We are all artists and we can all do that.

Gnome Home Build – Developing a Sense of Wonder

What is the point of giving up a Saturday and inviting students to join me on an island with their parents to build gnome homes?

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It sounds crazy, right? It sounds like something that a lovable old coot with nothing better to do with her life might do. In some ways that’s true. What better thing is there to do on a Saturday afternoon than to be outside in nature with my favorite people? There are scholars, however, who see the method in my madness. Let me introduce you to one.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods asserts that children who do not engage with nature develop a series of deficits. He says that these children’s senses diminish. They have difficulties with attention. They are more often both physically and emotionally ill.

Louv goes on to say that  “An environment-based education movement–at all levels of education–will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”

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I try my best to take my students through that portal into that wider world during the school year. I take them outside to draw the plants, to draw horses, to draw dogs, to be in the middle of nature, and what I hear from many of them over and over again is fear.

Many of my students are scared to be outside.

They are scared of insects, of grass stains, of dirt on their clothes, of ants, of the itch from the grass. They are uncomfortable in the heat, in the cold, if its humid, if its dry. They find it too bright, they find the wind upsetting.

When I was little, I hated coming back inside from the park, or the river. I studied the bugs in my playtime, I learned from the leaves outside. By observing and sitting with nature, observing the anatomy of insects and small mammals, I became a better artist.

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What does it mean for my students’ future if the great outdoors are a place of terror and not of wonder? What will the green of the earth become if this generation doesn’t learn to value it in all its complexity?

What does it mean for my students’ future in art if the simplest place to observe creatures and environments is so frightening that they won’t venture out into it?

The Gnome Home Build on Belle Isle in Richmond Virginia is a way to make nature more inviting. When friendly 6 inch people invite you into the woods under the safe care of your parents to build them a home which they don’t yet have, you feel called there. You feel safe there.

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When parents or teachers sit down and engage with young children in the dirt, in the grass, in the woods, next to bugs, that environment shifts forever in the eyes of those children.

When parents or teachers put their hands on sticks and leaves and encourage their children to do the same, then children learn that nature is a good and a safe place. They learn that the adults in their lives value it, and are not afraid of it.

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If a teacher from your own school played pretend with you for a whole Saturday and documented your discoveries, what might that have done for your sense of wonder? I invite you now out into the woods. There are some very cold gnomes out there who need houses.

Don’t be afraid.

There is no wrong way to do it.

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“You are required to consider it.”

Asking students to look at abstract art can be a challenge. I often hear them saying things like “This isn’t real art…I could do that…why is that in the museum?”. It is a commonly held belief about modern and abstract art.

Gavyn art

In the movie Mona Lisa Smile, Miss Watson (Julia Robert’s character) shows her class a Jackson Pollack painting and says:  “Do me a favor. Do yourselves a favor. Stop talking, and look. You’re not required to write a paper. You’re not even required to like it. You *are* required to consider it.”

vilma art


Consider is an awesome word. Considering can take a life time. Considering should take at least 5 minutes, right? When was the last time that you considered a work of art for 5 whole minutes?

Katrina art

What does it mean to consider something? Considering can just be looking and taking in what is there. Maybe you ask yourself: Why might this artist have made this painting? or What was this person trying to tell me through this sculpture? What colors did the artist use and would I have used the same ones? What kind of movement would produce that kind of line?

Kathryn art

I hope you can take some time out of your schedule to take a trip to the museum this year, and when you do, I hope you consider some new pieces.

Devin art

You can find these and other awesome works of art at the VMFA:


2013 Gnome Home September 28 from 10a.m. – 12p.m. on Belle Isle



Come out and join the William Fox Elementary School family on Belle Isle from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.as we create our own Gnome or fairy or hobbit homes using rocks and sticks and leaves. You can bring a bag of natural materials to Belle Isle to use, or find items there on the island. We will take pictures of each Gnome or fairy house after it is built. Practice building gnome or fairy homes in your own backyard if you want to try it out.

Feel free to dress up like a fairy or a gnome when you come! Bring a parent.

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What I do Best (Kindergarten)

trophy 4Trophy 2Sometimes it is hard to remember that we are all good at different things. Some people are great at soccer, while others excel at art. The book What I do Best by Allia Zobel Nolan gives trophies for each thing that a person can be good at. We read this book together and then talked about what we are all best at. Ivan is really good at video games, while Sarah B is best at art.

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Well, if you wanted to look at a dog close up, here is one you could look at close up from any angle. Huey is huge! The fourth graders really enjoyed his giant jowls and carefully crossed paws as he sat on our lawn and did his best impersonation of Kate Moss. What a wonderful gift from Jennifer Allen Kyzer.


The artists in Ms. Yancey’s class are fantastic. These drawings are by Oliver, Emily, Zach and Nicholas.

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Huey 4 Huey 3

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A Dog Playing the Piano?

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Drawing from life can be really intimidating for kids. One of the tools I like to use is a sense of humor. That’s the really great thing about animals. They bring out the comical side in artists. Dogs Playing Poker? A Classic…maybe not, but this dog playing piano…that’s another story. This painting, which hangs in the VMFA’s newly organized animal exhibit is a cult favorite. This spaniel is realistically painted, well rendered, you can see the individual strands of pet hair that this pet owner might later have to remove from the piano bench. This painting (done by Philip Reinagle, the famous dog painter) makes us feel at ease to try drawing and painting ourselves. It is a good thing, too, because next week Jennifer Kyzer is bringing in one of her very well trained dogs this week for us to draw. We have been practicing dog sketches in class. I introduced the lesson by playing some piano music on my elderly boom box and asking my students to close their eyes and imagine who was playing the music. When they opened their eyes I showed them the dog on the piano and they all enjoyed my joke. The sheet music from the painting is actually “God Save the Queen” but oddly I didn’t have that on CD :)

I will update this post as we get some really nice dog drawings from our live models starting Wednesday. Keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t rain.




Aggie Zed at the Visual Arts Center


This week I have been taking third graders on a walking field trip to the Visual Arts Center to the artwork of the artist Aggie Zed (http://www.reedarts.com/zed.shtml) . The third graders have been really excited to look at the work. All of these tiny parade floats made of clay and wire look like things they might like to make themselves. I love the Visual Arts Center because they are so welcoming to us every time we go.


Many of my kids really connected to the elephant parade. This particular piece was arranged on the floor. The artist took the time to dance the elephants through the sand that surrounded them, which is something we would do if we were allowed to touch any of the art :)


After the show, the third graders were invited to make their own sculpture out of white sculpey. That was truly awesome. All of the little creatures they made were amazing. What a glorious week.

Fox Family Gnome Gardens

Before every walking field trip I tell my students “we are not going to pick the flowers, because gardens are someone’s art, and we don’t want to mess up anybody’s art.” My students nod sweetly and agree, but just like Curious George, given about 5 minutes, we may forget. On our last kindergarten field trip a couple of us forgot not to pick people’s flowers. The daffodils were just too yellow and beautiful and some of us just couldn’t resist. We put the flowers back, but you know, that was very hard for us, too. Some of us cried because letting go of something that is so beautiful is hard, even when we know it is the right thing to do. I asked myself, what might help us get to the place of understanding the amount of work that goes into a garden and help us to respect our neighbors’ flower beds. I am hoping that your own seeds grown at your own house will teach that lesson. Maybe watering our flower seeds every day and seeing how much work goes into your own flower garden will do the trick.

ImageI asked each student to draw a little gnome for their garden. My sweet mom has been saving seeds from her garden for us, and each student got to choose two different envelopes of seeds for their garden. We stapled the whole thing together into a little kit with instructions on how to make your garden. I hope that the Curious Georges in each of us will find delight and joy in watching seeds grow, and with that grow an understanding of how much work goes into a garden, and see it as an art.


April 22 addition:

Wow! One of our kindergarten teachers set up a gnome garden in her classroom! Love!


Third Grade….drawing in the view finder

photo-116Sometimes its hard to know how to form a composition. We start drawing and worry so much about the individual pieces of a thing, and forget to worry about the way it might sit in the picture plane. Artists sometimes use view finders to solve that problem.


In our third grade classes we took re-purposed old school x-ray frames, taped overhead projector paper in them and traced the world around us in the frames. It was like taking a very slow  photograph, but just the outline. After tracing, we created finished works of art in watercolor and colored pencil. It was a simple but effective exploration of composition.