Quick Tip Tuesday: Self-portrait collages

“I believe that the young writer’s artwork and the way he or she showcases a piece of writing for an audience is as much a part of the writing process as the writing itself,” writes Ann Marie Corgill in her recent book, Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers. Ann Marie says that she makes sure that parents and teachers not only see the final, polished product, but also the messy beginning and middle that show how long and hard her students worked on their artwork and writing. In this week’s Quick Tip, she describes the process of creating self-portrait collages with her students.

Self-Portrait Collages
At the beginning of the year, during our Establishing the Writing Community study, the children and I do lots of talking about what it means to be a writer and the kinds of work writers do in preparation for publishing a piece. Oral storytelling is a big part of our work as writers in the first few weeks, and getting the children to talk about their stories and lives is the first step in helping them become writers. The self-portrait collage is a great way to get this talk out into the room while also publishing a piece of artwork that becomes the springboard for more talk and writing.

Typically during the first week of school, before the children create their self-portrait collage, I send a letter home to families asking for help in collecting items for the collage. These self-portrait collages hang at the top of a long wall or bulletin board that’s out of reach for regular use in the room for the entire year.

I like to say to the children after the self-portrait collages are hung that our room is “wrapped in writers.” That’s the way a writing classroom should be—one that’s wrapped in the work, the ideas, the thinking, and the lives of the children that inhabit the space.

This year we added an extra touch to the self-portraits, with each child painting his or her name in bubble letters, outlined in thick black rope or yarn. I got this idea from my friend Kendall Fousak, a fabulous art teacher at Bronxville Elementary School in New York. Using the thick black yarn is an amazing way to highlight the children’s names, rather than just having them outline their work in black marker. It gives each child’s name texture and depth and really says, “Hey, look at me!” from the walls in our classroom.

Materials Needed
✐ Photographs of the child, child’s family, special moments, and so forth
✐ Magazine or newspaper cutouts of pictures or words that describe the child, represent an interest or a hobby, or connect to their lives in some way
✐ Cray-Pas, oil pastels, watercolor, tempera paint, crayons (whichever medium you or the child chooses for the portrait will depend on your access to supplies and the depth of your patience for the day!)
✐ Cups or plates and brushes if paint is used
✐ Newsprint to cover tables
✐ Paper towels and spray cleaner for cleanup
✐ White butcher paper/bulletin-board paper
✐ Black fadeless paper
✐ Scissors
✐ Glue sticks
✐ Fabric glue
✐ Fabric or yarn
✐ Black cording or thick black yarn
✐ Skin-colored paints, markers, or crayons
✐ Photograph of the child’s face and upper body

Tips and Techniques


  • I first demonstrate how I would draw my self-portrait, giving the students a sense of how to begin, how big to make the portrait, and what details to add. I ask the children to first sketch their face and upper body using whisper writing—a term I learned from my friend Joan Backer at Manhattan New School—which involves writing lightly with a pencil and makes erasing easier and less messy. We work lots on drawing big so that filling in the pictures with color is much easier and more attractive. I also show the students examples of what not to do if they want people to see the portrait and for it to show up on the walls in our classroom.
  • After the children sketch their self-portrait, it’s time to decorate using color. The media you choose is up to you. One year, my students used Cray-Pas and oil pastels for their faces and tempera paint for their T-shirts. Th is year, my students first outlined their face, hair, features, and T-shirt with black permanent marker and then colored over it with crayon. (It’s important when using crayons and permanent markers to use the marker first, since they don’t work well over waxy crayon.)
  • Hair—The children then either paint their hair color with washable tempera or acrylic paint or use yarn and glue the hair around the face with fabric glue.
  • Young children have an easier time making the details of their faces with skinny permanent markers. Once the face is painted or colored with the appropriate skin color and is dry, then the students add the details. Once the entire portrait is dry, the children then paste pictures, words, cutouts, and so forth on the T-shirt part of the body.
  • This year, we added an extra step to the project, painting our names in bubble letters and then outlining the names with fabric glue and thick black yarn. I used acrylic paint this year. It’s much brighter and doesn’t fade as much as regular tempera paint or watercolors. But make sure your kids wear painting T-shirts or smocks. Acrylic paint is stubborn and can ruin clothes!
  • After fi nishing the collages, the next two weeks of writing share is devoted to two or three children talking each day about their self-portraits and the meanings and stories behind the pictures and words on the collage. This share time is the perfect support for helping us begin to talk and write about our experiences and for us all
    to learn about the members of our classroom community. It also gives me a talking point when I have those first writing conferences of the year and still need to remind the children of their experiences and how those experiences can become ideas for writing.

1 comment February 22nd, 2011

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