ALEXANDRIA — Students in Sarah Mendoza’s first-grade class at Julius Patrick Elementary School stare at a picture of animals in a forest with a cluster of people in the background.
After two minutes of quietly studying the picture on Mendoza’s Promethean board, she asks them what they see.
Their answers start with simple observations: “I see a lion.” “I see people.”
Mendoza asks each student for evidence. “What do you see that makes you say that?”
They answer and continue with their observations, eventually connecting them with some made by their classmates and building on that. Full sentences develop.
“The people have weapons. They are hunting the lion.”
Then it turns into a story with a little imagination thrown in for details.
“The people are going to sneak up behind the lion in the woods.” “They’re hunting to eat the lion and make clothes from his fur.”
It’s called Visual Thinking Strategies. The exercise not only sparks their thinking, but also teaches them skills such as taking turns and raising their hands to speak, said Mendoza. She started using VTS materials after Thanksgiving and plans to integrate it weekly into her class.
Other schools will be implementing VTS this semester, since the Rapides Parish School Board approved the technique in four elementary schools this year.
Cindy Blair, artist in residence at the Alexandria Museum of Art, co-teaches VTS with Anne Reid and teachers at the schools at first and then gives feedback along the way.
The strategies were developed by museum educator Philip Yenawine and cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen more than 20 years ago as a way to help museum visitors absorb what they were seeing. They later implemented the strategies in schools.
“They tried to find a way to help people take away more meaning,” Blair said.
Yenawine and Housen came up with three basic questions for students to answer after they have silently observed a piece of art for two minutes.
With so many images and information coming at children so quickly today, it’s not often they’re asked to spend two minutes on one image, Blair said.
Then students are asked, “What’s going on in this piece of art?” “What do you see that makes you say that?” and “What more can we find?”
Teachers paraphrase students’ answers to validate them and model sentence structure, grammar and vocabulary, Blair said.
The first question gets students thinking, the second makes them find evidence to back up their assertion and the final one asks them to dig deeper, she said.
Studies have been done on VTS in schools, but Blair saw its impact first-hand when she was a teacher in Brooklyn. She said her students showed significant improvement thanks to the strategies.
“It helps with critical thinking, but it also helps them form thoughts better,” Blair said. Some of her students went from broken to complete sentences by the end of the year.
She said VTS really improves students’ writing skills, especially as they are asked to go in-depth and provide evidence.
Mendoza said her students’ writing is already benefiting from VTS and writing workshops she does that are similar to VTS.
She said she sees their improvement when comparing their writing samples from the beginning of the year to now and comparing samples to other classes that do not use VTS.
Blair said the strategies are most effective if done in 10 sessions spread over the school year. She hopes to be able to complete all 10 sessions at local schools by May.
VTS trainers with Visual Understanding in Education came to Alexandria to conduct a one-day training session in November with Blair and the teachers. They will return for future training sessions, Blair said.
The schools are also given free access to an online VTS curriculum.
This is being funded by the Community Impact Award grant from the Central Louisiana Community Forum.
Blair said VTS goes well with Common Core State Standards, especially in that it asks students to back up their ideas with evidence.
Principal Sylvia Adkins sees the value of VTS as D.F. Huddle Elementary School prepares to shift all grades into Common Core.
She is interested in increasing students’ critical thinking skills and writing skills, which she said go hand in hand.
“Going from what they see in the visual art piece to actually writing, they have to use their critical thinking skills,” Adkins said. “One of the main shifts with (Common Core) is using evidence in our writing.”
She said it just makes sense to use VTS with writing.
“To me it’s a lot easier to do a writing piece if I have something to look at as a starting point to base the writing on,” Adkins said.
Blair said the strategies help anchor students at school, especially at-risk students.
She said her students in Brooklyn lived in a rough neighborhood and were distracted in class from “survival stress.” But once she got them in the VTS routine, they loved it.
“They were hooked immediately,” Blair said. “There’s something about the way it works. Everyone can speak. They’re hearing each other’s thoughts and respecting them. Something happens in the classroom.”
One thing students love about it is that there is no right or wrong answer.
“It’s not about the right answer,” she said. “It’s about the thought process.”
Blair hopes to continue the strategies in the schools for three years, which is recommended by VTS. But extending it past this year depends on funding.
As artist in residence, Blair helps with educational programs at the museum, Art to Go, family classes and a teen club. She also writes an online art curriculum for teachers.