Wonderstruck in New Orleans

By Antonio Pacifico

Antonio is a fifth grade teacher at ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy in New Orleans, an ExpandED school. This post originally appeared on the blog for the Turnaround Arts Initiative.  

The entire staff at ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy (RCAA) in New Orleans has been implementing Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) this year.  Below is a recent story from Antonio Pacifico, a fifth grade teacher, describing the impact of VTS in the teaching of the book Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick:

In response to the new Common Core Standards being handed down at the national level, ReNEW Charter Schools decided to select four anchor texts for each grade to be read over the course of a year. In 5th grade, one of the texts we selected was the experimental novel Wonderstruck. This novel is unique because it tells the stories of two characters that ultimately intersect.  Importantly, each story is told in its own medium – one story is told in words, and the other is told entirely in pictures.

My team was apprehensive about teaching this novel; there was no blueprint to guide us, and nearly all of our students are struggling readers who would find the 600-plus page novel as daunting as their teachers.  But after learning Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), I felt more confident teaching this novel. I had a tool that most of my teammates around the city did not have – a process for teaching students to observe closely and reason carefully, which is exactly what is required to understand this book.

As my class began to organically explore the novel and make their thoughts audible, we found ourselves deeply immersed in higher order thinking. Using VTS to analyze the pictures led us to compare and contrast the narratives, analyze the story arc, and defend their opinions about character motivations. The three simple steps of observing, describing, and wondering about an image also demanded that they infer and articulate meaning from art in a way they had never been asked to do before.

We definitely had some days that were more successful than others, but what I learned is how powerful it was to put interpretation into the hands of the students, and to be more comfortable with students struggling as a necessary part of learning.  Only once I was ready for these paradigm shifts was it possible for my students to experience the satisfaction of owning their opinions and ultimately gaining a deep understanding of the text. 

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