Monday, May 11, 2015


            I love libraries.
Pop-White Library - Children's Section
            I started loving libraries when I was in elementary school. My elementary school librarian at Sea Isle, Ms. Jenkins, was wonderful. The Sea Isle library had an enormous collection of books, all very interesting to a 3rd-6th grader, like me. I checked out the limit of books every week, when we went to library. As I remember, we were allowed to check out up to 7 books a week.
            My mom promoted reading in our home, and we had an amazingly large library in our house, ourselves. It had over 500 books and those shelves lined the walls of a large room in the center of the house (aptly called, by us, "the library"). However, most of the books were old T.V. Guides carefully arranged and saved by my grandfather, my uncle's college textbooks, and Reader's Digests (this reading material does not generally appeal to a grade-schooler). My mom tried to take us to the public library often, but she worked a lot, and was too tired to take us anywhere most of the time.
My classroom library - close up view
            So having a well-stocked, beautiful, accessible school library is the reason I became a reader, and a lover of literature. It also exposed me to things I wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to: the idea of evolution, for instance. (I did live in a southern city...)
An activity: Sit in the library and read to a stuffed animal
            I went to visit Sea Isle last Friday, and couldn't pass up the chance to look at the library again. It was just as I remembered it (just a little smaller). The librarian they have now, Ms. Hefner, is just as great a librarian as Ms. Jenkins was. She is very passionate about reading, dresses up in costume to enhance her librarian activities and interest children, and was touched when I told her, "This library is what founded in me a love of reading."

An activity - read a Big Book
            It won't surprise you, then, to learn that, when I became a teacher, I spent an enormous amount of time (and, ahem, money) on my school library.
During independent reading time, kids were allowed to "read around the room"
            I was given a great start by my mother-in-law, a retiring teacher, who had at least 400 high-interest books in her second grade classroom library. I loved and am still grateful for this gift, but I did see holes in the inventory: there weren't a lot of books featuring or written by people of color, and I needed a lot more low-reading-level books for my lower grade level. So I went to Davis Kidd (now Laurelwood Booksellers) every week and spent... probably too much money, adding to my library.
You have no idea how happy this photo makes me
            This work on my classroom library was essential, because, and I hate to tell you this, the school library where I taught was not what it should have been. There were not enough books. When books were lost at home, parents in my neighborhood did not have the money to pay for them, and, to avoid losing more, the librarian did not often let children take books home. 
A popular activity in my classroom - read with a friend
            Now, I understand losing books. I lost a lot of those Sea Isle library books when I was a kid. My house was messy, and you never knew what would happen to something if you set it down. Often I didn't find a book until years later. But at the end of the year, when the librarian sent a note home telling my mom what was lost, and how much it would cost to pay for it, she did have the money to pay for it, and of course she did send a check to the school. In impoverished neighborhoods like the one where I taught, this just cannot happen, and we as a society must develop a better system to deal with this problem than just not sending books home.
To engage kids who are emergent readers - Puppet books!
            But enough of this soapbox. As a classroom teacher there in a school with (essentially) no school library, I made sure my classroom library was extra wonderful. Although I did not send books home (did I mention how much I had spent on this library?) I did let kids read whatever they wanted and gave them reading time every single day. I tried to make the library experience as appealing as possible. I modeled my library on Ms. Daniel's classroom library - this was my third grade teacher at Sea Isle. She was the first teacher I had (and maybe the only one?) who gave us privacy while we read her classroom library books, and made it look cozy for us with comfortable chairs, pillows, and lamps. It's not a coincidence that I first started reading on grade level (and above grade level) in third grade, in her classroom.
You were even allowed to read your Reading textbook - if you wanted!
 Steps for Independent Reading Time in My Classroom
  1. I would read the kids a story while they sat on the carpet
  2. We would discuss the story with my monkey puppet
  3. I would say, "Now you can go to your seats, take your book out of your seat pouch (they were allowed to keep two books from my library in their seat pouch) and read."
  4. "If you are reading quietly, I will pick you to go where you want to read" (they were allowed to read anywhere, and I told them how I love to read laying down, and they could lay down on the carpet if they wanted to)
  5. Or, "If you are reading quietly, I will give you the book I just read to the class to read if you want it"
  6. Or, (during puppet reading) "If you are reading quietly I will give you a puppet that you can read to"
  7. If you want to change books, raise your hand. (No more than two people in the library changing books at a time.)
  8. No more than 5 people laying or sitting in the library reading books at a time.
  9. I the teacher would read my own reading material during independent reading time, to show that adults like to read too
  10. People can read a book together
Some advanced readers really valued this time to read on their own, with no distractions

             It's true that at the beginning of the school year, independent reading is difficult to start. I started with telling the children they can't talk for five minutes - just read. We kept independent reading at 5 minutes for a while. At first I offered lots of rewards for on-task behavior (you get picked to read wherever you want first, you get the storybook I just read, etc). I then moved it up to 8, then 10, and finally 20. My kids got more and more interested in reading time and, more and more, they stayed on task. Sometimes we even did 25 minutes! And when we had to cut reading short for some reason (assembly or school photos, for instance), it made my heart swell with pride when my kids complained.
I love love LOVE seeing boys reading together

             I had my library organized into bins. My books had stickers on them to show them what bin they were supposed to go in when the kids put them back. But (honest talk here) first-graders and kindergartners are not capable of keeping a library straight. If my choice is reduce the number of books or have a messy classroom library, I will always choose the mess. My library was out of order, unless I stayed after school for an hour organizing it (I had a LOT of books in it to organize!). I did stay late every two or three weeks, but mostly kids asked other kids where the book they wanted was (because they had been seen reading it). And I think that's the best way, anyway -- I love the social aspect of it.
Or boys and girls - this was a story I had read to them at story time

             I tried to do a conference with kids regularly - this is when, during silent reading time, you sit with one student and ask them what they have been reading. What did they think of it? Why did they like or not like it? What do they want to read more of? And you help them find a book they would be interested in and would grow their reading level. I also tried having them keep a reading inventory of books they had read, and some of them loved to do this. I encouraged it in those who liked to do it, but didn't force it on those who wanted to spend all of their reading time reading, and not keeping an inventory.
Kids on a lower reading level are pulled up by spending library time with more advanced readers

            I have to tell you that, as simple as it sounds, my being a reader, bringing the novel I was reading to school and reading it in front of them while they were also supposed to be reading, probably did more to encourage them than a lot of these other strategies that required a lot more work!

It's the best when your kids who are most uninterested in reading finally get into it - the social aspect of a classroom library helps with them!
             I'll end with a painting I made of my class reading in my classroom library - this picture continues to fill me with joy.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Giant Hundred Chart

                     Here you can see one of the aspects of my classroom I loved the most: my giant hundred chart.

                     Most teachers have a hundred chart in their room that is a quarter the size of this one. During student teaching, I watched the students count with the teacher on it before each math lesson. I thought this was a great ritual; however, I noticed that the students couldn't actually see the numbers. So I bought four poster boards, taped them together at the back, cut them off to make them into a large square, and drew a grid of 100 squares on it. Then I got stencils (or, actually, I made my own stencils) and wrote the numbers 1-100 on it. Next, (and this was the time consuming part) I carefully "laminated" it by using packing tape. The poster was too big to be put in a traditional laminator.

                     My students loved my hundred chart. I did a lot of things with it. At the beginning of the year, I would pick a student to point to each number while the class counted. Later, I would pick a different student to count backward from 100. I added counting by 2s, 3s, 5s, 10s, always picking a different student for each type of skip counting. I also tried letting the person I picked choose the next student (from someone who had been paying attention and counting), using a can of popsicle sticks with the students' numbers on it to choose randomly. This was just a five-minute ritual we would do at the beginning of every math lesson. If I forgot to do it, someone would remind me, "Mrs. Vaziri, you forgot to count!" - probably because they hoped I would choose them to point.

                     Later in the year, I also demonstrated adding and subtracting using the hundred chart. It is laminated, so, to do the addition 5+7, I would circle 5. Then I would point to 6 and tell them to start counting. "One," they said. I pointed to 7, "two," pointed to 8, "three," and when we got to where they said "seven," I had someone call out "STOP!" and I was pointing to 12. Then I would circle 12 and write that down as the answer. I'm a visual person myself, so I'm sure my visual learners benefited from having addition shown to them in this way. (It is also auditory). And I loved feeling like we were solving a problem together - I really depended on that person to yell, "STOP" because without them I would often forget what we were doing and just keep counting.

                     I gave them blank hundred charts and had them copy it down (I also gave them individual hundred charts). When they finished copying it (which was quite an undertaking and quite an accomplishment!) I made a big deal of it and laminated it so they could follow along when we did addition problems on their personal chart (they had dry erase markers at their tables).

                     But what I most liked was sometimes when kids were between things to do, I would catch them just sitting at their seats and counting on the hundred chart, for fun. Or if I asked them a question, 6+8, they would turn around in their chair and look at the hundred chart to answer (even though they had their own little one in their notebook). That's how I know they loved my giant hundred chart.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Portrait Painting Process

                  Cedar Lorca Nordbye looked at the Memphis Artist Portraits series on my tablet before an art lecture. He said to me, "Why is it that in some of the portraits you seem to really capture their soul?" I didn't quite know how to answer.
                  Your features take on aspects of your personality, your worldview. Certainly you should not judge people by their appearance, but the fact remains that parts of your face are absolutely the result of decisions you have consciously made.

David Hall, Memphis Artist Series, 2013   
Oil on canvas
16 in x 12 in

                  In this portrait of the artist, writer, and teacher David Hall, his eyes strike the viewer as knowledgeable, but trusting of other people. This is conveyed by the lack of tension in the eyebrows as well as the expression of the lips. It is almost as if he is saying, I know maybe I shouldn't trust people (there is some tension around the mouth, the beginning of a grimace), but I do anyway.

Hamlett Dobbins, Memphis Artist Series, 2014  
Oil on canvas
16 in x 12 in

                 Now, there is tension around Hamlett's eyebrows. His eyes are overshadowed at their tops by these brows. It conveys a sense of protections that he has built up around himself - of course I am not criticizing. When I paint a portrait, I first try to find the beautiful aspects of any subject I choose to take on- and I'm not talking just about their features. In Hamlett's eyes I sense (and this is also informed by my reading of his work) a deep, hidden, truth, the "secret garden" referred to in Lolita, a metaphysical beauty all the more valuable and intense because it has been protected from random scrutiny. He won't bring it out into the light and allow it to become everyday, pedestrian. I hear him say this

Girl in White, 2013
 Oil on paper
12 in x 12 in

                  It's hard to say what you see in children, because they are ever-changing, but in the portrait of a girl in white that I painted you see absolute trust. You rarely see this type of trust anywhere, even in children - and the photo was taken the first day she came to my class, by the way, This trust is a major personality trait of hers at that time and has little to do with my abilities as a teacher. Not only does she trust you, as Dave Hall does, but her smile indicates that she thinks you will make her happy, or she is sure she will cheer you up; in any case, you and she will do fun things together.

Mary Jo Karimnia, Memphis Artist Series, 2013   
Oil on canvas
16 in x 12 in

                  Now that I am writing this, it occurs to me that one of the main themes of my portrait painting practice is trust. When I looked through all of the photos I could find of Mary Jo Karimnia, as well as the photos I had taken of her, I was very unhappy. Oh, she looked beautiful and happy in most all of them; I just couldn't find one where she trusted the photographer. I searched and searched until I found a photo taken of her on vacation by one of her children; this provided the eye expression I needed to make a great portrait, and I used other photos to paint the right lighting, posture, and hair configuration. So it occurs to me that what I define as beauty also has to do with revealing one's inner self; it is difficult or impossible to paint a great portrait of someone when you do not know what they hold dear. For Mary Jo, she holds her family close as the most precious thing.
                  I suppose the answer to Cedar's question is that sometimes I appear to have accurately interpreted a person's belief system, either because they try to make this clear (through their art or in another way), or because I have some insight into them. This is of course what I strive for in every portrait I paint. But belief systems can be fluid, and are often inexpressible in words. A truly great portrait painting is always the result of a relationship or an openness between the artist and the subject.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Painting as Therapy

                   By the end of a long school day, children often get wound up and upset about things that have happened over the course of the day. They're tired, and a lot of the time the teacher is, too. I used to follow a wonderful teaching blog, It's Not All Flowers and Sausages, that talked about just this happening and she said that often her solution for her second grade students was to let them paint at the end of the day.
                  I know a lot of teachers will think: There is no way. My kids are so active, all over the place, if I give them paint and cups of water, my room will be a disaster area. Besides, I have to teach them so many standards, I can't be responsible for the art standards, too. This is what I thought, too, until I gave it a try.
                  Preparing over the summer for my second year teaching, I was more confident in my skills and more determined to give my students a great school year. I got some watercolor paper. I did not get the cheap stuff. When I first started painting with watercolor in high school, our art teachers gave us the paper that the school board sent them. It was horrible, with this terrible texture that made everything look like fur. Of course, as a ninth grader I didn't know any better, so I just thought I hated painting.

My first watercolor portrait. Note the terrible watercolor paper.

                   You couldn't do much more to stifle a student's love of art than give them terrible supplies when they are first starting out (in my opinion). (Disclaimer: In tenth grade at least my teacher warned us that this was terrible paper and we should buy our own paper at the art store.)
                    I probably took this art supply dictum to an extreme by extending it to first grade and kindergarten students, but no matter.
                  I also spent quite a bit to make sure I had a watercolor set for every student. The crayola sets aren't too bad, but I tried to get as many Prang sets as I could afford (I do have a problem with spending too much of my money on my classroom).
                  I cut the large watercolor sheets into eighths and used masking tape to attach them to pieces of cardboard I took off of old sketchbooks and notebooks. This was important because my students did not value paper. I wanted to impress upon them that this was different paper, and they wouldn't get a new sheet if they messed up, they just had to make the painting work.
                 Whenever I announced that at the end of the day we would paint for the last hour (for a while I tried to do this every Wednesday, I think), the students looked forward to it eagerly.
                  I had lots of plastic kids' painting cups (like sippy cups with caps on them to minimize spills) and I had the kids fill them up in the water fountain in the hallway. There was one cup for every two students. I had kids' numbers on the watercolor sets (because I know it's not fun to use a set that someone has messed up all of the colors in; made the yellow brown, the red green, etc.) and I had the kids pass out the sets to the right people and pass out the watercolor brushes.
                  Before we started the first time, I showed them some of my watercolor paintings and demonstrated the basics of watercolor painting: get the brush wet, you can mix colors in the top, dip the brush in water and wipe off on the paper towel before you get a new color to keep the colors pure.
                  Now, I love painting, myself, but even I was shocked at what an effect watercolor painting had on these children. The ones who were the most anxious and unable to concentrate would focus intensely on their painting. You could feel all of the tension of the day leaving the room as the kids had fun with the paintings.
                  It was no use trying to get them paint anything realistically, though. Me being me, of course I tried that, but they just wanted to paint abstractly or paint hearts and stylized flowers. That was fine. It wasn't really about the finished product, it was about what painting was able to do for them: calm them, make them see a new world of possibilities. I was surprised (although I shouldn't have been) at how creative and open-minded my students could be about painting.
                  It was awful when we had to clean up. I tried to wait until the very last minute to call for clean up, because we were all having so much fun. But honestly, although I was always rushed (if they weren't at their dismissal posts in time I was in big trouble with my principal), sometimes the clean up process was the best part. The kids loved being put in charge of cleaning the brushes and cups in the bathroom sinks, sopping up the paint on the watercolor set tops and collecting and putting away the paint sets and brushes. They even liked being rushed and having to do everything quickly and efficiently.
                  I highly recommend that Gen Ed classroom teachers offer painting at least monthly to their elementary students. They might not be learning a reading or math standard, but they are building a community and learning skills essential to being in a great learning environment. Besides that, it is a form of therapy, and it helps them to calm down after a sometimes hectic school day. It helps all the students, and especially those with behavioral issues, see school as a calm, welcoming place.
                  Plus for one bulletin board I had them write a sentence about their painting and put the paintings and sentences up. You can bring all subjects into art if you think creatively.