Instruction & Curriculum

One Step At A Time: My Go To Lesson With Van Gogh’s Starry Night

My Go-To Lesson
If I were to ask you what is your “go-to” lesson, I bet a dozen donuts you could tell me all about it!  Well, one of my favorite ones involves several different variations of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  Small side story – while visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Dallas, we took a walk around their neighborhood where people had various items like furniture, toys, and such on the sidewalk for the bulk trash collection.  However, it’s also available to anyone who wants to go “shopping” which is where I happened to find a reprint of Starry Night in front of their next-door neighbor’s home in near perfect condition- so I grabbed it!  
Normally, for the lesson I would just project the original on the Smartboard, I have my Doctor Who Poster depicting a variation of the image with an exploding Tardis I tack up my bookmark with a different variation of the topic, and finally, I wear a Texas A&M shirt with a different interpretation of the image displayed alongside Kyle Field.  Students work in partners or trios looking for as many details as they can in each image.  Sometimes it takes a minute for them to realize I am wearing one of their “stations”, and for orneriness, I move around even more.   They begin to see there are lots of similarities obviously, but some very distinct differences.  For their categories, I include some obvious ones like colors, topics, etc.  Then I go a bit deeper with tone and mood and make them state how the images make them feel and how we know that.   
The Process
I use this scaffolded lesson as a two-fold foundation lesson for reading and writing to introduce how we will work in the classroom.  For reading, I share how they may read two different articles about the same topic, but they will need to pay attention to the subtle differences in how the authors approach the topic and the tone or bias it may have.  For writing, at the beginning of the year, I share how we as a class may be writing about our first day of school, but not everyone will have the same details and that’s okay.  It makes their writing unique.  This lesson idea makes learning fun, and non-threatening.  They are able to talk with other classmates and share ideas which is the foundation of my lessons.  They also get to experience a bit of my whimsy trying to chase me down for the Kyle Field version of Starry Night on the back of my shirt.  
I incorporate photographs and charts in other lessons as well.  My rationale in beginning this way is because photos are less intimidating no matter the level a student may be.  I have taught Pre-AP the majority of my career, but I’ve also had General Ed. and Inclusion simultaneously with the AP kiddos.  I’ve used the same concept with each class, but the reading material may be varied a bit.  I call this scaffolding because I layer the lesson in chunks where we do a different component each day.  I have a particular lesson I’ve taught with Pre-AP surrounding the topic of the Japanese Internment Camps and each day we perform a different piece of the puzzle.  
To begin with, my curriculum had several photographs of different scenes connected to the topic.  The students analyze those details again, but with a bit more leading questions to help them dive a bit deeper.  In the next step, we read several excerpts that are in stations around the room from prisoners in the camps with students discussing the questions with their table partners as they go. They also “match” the photographs with the excerpts and no answer is wrong.  I want to see how they analyze and justify their choice in a practice without penalty format.  I believe having the students discuss is also important because another student may see something totally different in the passage and shares their insight.  The discussions shared are powerful.
The Big Picture
Finally, I share one last photo in black and white and ask where this is taken – prediction.  Since it is in black and white, many say it’s from the same time period as the others.  Then I show the original photo which is in color.  The photo is also on the Google Classroom account and I ask them to zoom in and see what else they can see.  They begin to notice very modern cars and the style of dress of people. Then they realize this is today, and the image is of detainment camps at the border of Mexico.  Afterward, they are assigned a few articles to choose from and they must look at tone, bias, and prove with details they find in the text.  If I had started off the bat asking them to write a short answer response detailing this kind of information, all of my students would protest by saying “It’s too hard!” or “I can’t do this!”  Yet, since I basically walked them through this process in baby steps all along the way, they realize they have already practiced this skill in their discussions about the details from pictures and other articles with their tablemates.  It takes the pressure off of them thus producing confidence.   
The Most Important Piece
Now here’s the most important part of the whole lesson in my opinion.  I am always circling the room as students move through the stations, and I participate with them asking them various, unscripted questions along the way to help them dig a bit deeper in their analysis.   This is just a way of getting the students used to talking with me in a less intimidating way.  This helps build their conference and comfort level in sharing their opinions with me which will later help with reading and writing conferences I conduct with them a bit later.  If they share a particularly insightful answer, I encourage them to jot it down and share it with their friends. In fact, with a shy student, I’ve been known to say to the small group near them “Hey guys – “Amy” just shared _____” and I retell what they shared with me” which breaks down some awkwardness because I’ve found my quiet students have the insightful thoughts but are reluctant to share.  When I do this, their peers are always amazed and eager to listen especially if I stay around and support the student. It also helps open the door to creating a community of learners.  
That Was Then, This Is Now
That was how I conducted my lessons BC – before Covid.  If I were still teaching in the classroom, in whatever form my district chose to implement, I’d have to modify and adjust this activity.  You can still scaffold information with technology pretty easily.  With Google Meet, you can have breakout video chats with smaller groups of students, so they could visit with each other over a common image.  Or use Padlet or Jamboard or Pear Deck where they add comments on virtual sticky notes.  The scaffolding part is just adding info in smaller pieces and this time we are in, I believe scaffolding our lessons – no matter the topic- in easy-to-digest bites is imperative.  Building student confidence and setting them up for success is equally imperative.  The latter should be our end game objective – in my opinion.

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