Literacyhead: A website merging many kinds of literacies

September 7th, 2012

In these days when the visual arts have been squeezed out of the curriculum in so many schools, the website  provides a wonderful resource for teachers. The subscription site (with plenty of free resources as well) builds reading, writing, and vocabulary lessons around both fine art and illustrations from picture books. We spoke recently with one of the founders of the site, author-blogger-literacy coach Jan Burkins, about ways to use art to stimulate thinking about the Common Core Standards:

1.  What do you see as the main purpose of Literacyhead? What void were you seeking to fill when you started the site?

As a literacy coach, I worked with teachers to explore ways to use visual art to differentiate their reading and writing instruction. We wanted to tap into the natural tendencies of this visually driven generation by using visual literacy as a vehicle for making textual literacy more accessible. The results were amazing. Students connected with art in unexpected ways and learned challenging concepts more quickly. Creating lessons with art, however, introduced another time consuming layer in terms of planning. I founded Literacyhead to make teaching with art easier. I just felt that, if the barrier of time was eliminated, everyone would want to differentiate with art and more children would learn to read and write.

2.  The site talks about helping teachers “nurture their creative lives while they meet the demands of high accountability.” Why did you include that as one of your main goals and how does the site nurture creativity?

In the same way that your reading influences your writing, working with creative lessons can give you new ways of thinking about your instruction. Lesson development is a profoundly creative and complex act, and I don’t think anyone can look at all the artwork and lessons on our site and not come away with fresh ideas to experiment with. I was recently talking with a veteran teacher who was trying to help her students understand synonyms and antonyms. She wanted her students to see nuances and abstraction, such as why rock is a better than paper as an “opposite” for flower. We realized that a series of paintings illustrating synonyms and antonyms could help students understand the concepts more quickly. This aha moment was a creative extension of what she had seen on Literacyhead.

3.  Throughout the site you use art as “texts”– as writing prompts, to illustrate word meanings in the Visual Vocabulary, and, of course, as parts of books. Why is it important to teach students to “read” pictures?

We think it’s important to teach students to look closely at images because it encourages them to think and notice. Plus, reading images closely is a bridge to other learning, particularly learning from text. Because images meet students where they are, whether they are “gifted,” learning English, or struggling with comprehension (or any combination thereof). Today’s students are part of the visual generation. If we can teach them reading strategies by tapping into their ease with images, then they are leaning into new learning. Who doesn’t want to teach students who are into what you are teaching?

4.  There is something about the way you present picture books on the site that drives home the point that illustrations are fine art and should be looked at that way. Is that intentional?

Chanyou Three by Jon J Muth

No, but I’m glad we inadvertently communicate the merit of picture book illustrations. I think it is a result of our careful selection of books and artwork. We only feature books on Literacyhead if the illustrations are truly remarkable in some way. Not surprisingly, most exceptional picture book illustrators also create fine art. Take Jon J Muth, for example. His fine art is stunning. That is the level of quality we look for when we select books to feature on the site.

5.  How do you see the site being used in a classroom–projected on a white board, at a computer station, with iPads? How have you seen it used?

We’ve spent two years building the site, now our efforts are shifting a bit as we work to make sure people know about it and see the ways they can use it. Just this morning, I was in a fourth-grade classroom using Literacyhead lessons with a Smartboard. The children were completely engaged with a reading lesson and a writing lesson for almost two hours. So, Literacyhead is great with SmartBoards and Promethean Boards, but it also works with just a projector, or even a single computer monitor with a small group. It is also iPad friendly.

6.  You’ve done a lot of careful study of the Common Core Standards for your blog. Can you give some examples of how Literacyhead helps address the Common Core?

The big difference in the Common Core State Standards and the state standards that we have all worked with over the last decade is that the CCSS are more than the sum of their parts. They aren’t just a list of individual standards to check off as mastered. They are imbedded in the idea that we read to understand what the text is about. So instead of picking up a book and saying “I can teach adjectives with this” we can say “Wow! This book is powerful!” So, while Literacyhead presents illustrated definitions of tier two words, reading and writing lessons that include text-based questions, and now has Common Core alignments linked to each lesson, the biggest connection between the Common Core and Literacyhead is around engaging students in discussions about books.

Entry Filed under: Literacy

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Robert V. Rose, M.D. (retired)  |  January 24th, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    The trick of successful literacy is to get kids in the early grades to practice writing the alphabet until they are fluent enough to do so at more than 40 letters per minute.

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