Monday #29: Small Moments

Well, I’m back from a very busy and very enjoyable week in Miami.  While I certainly did have a few relaxing, “vacation-ey” moments, much of the week was spent preparing for and implementing a weeklong artist in residence program for the students of Miami Country Day School.  I conducted a series of publishing sessions with the second graders that will result in a set of published books on Egypt, which they are studying, writing and art workshops for all of the school’s other grade levels, a staff training class, and a family presentation that provided a nice, evening event for children to make art with their parents.  I also taught at the United Way’s Center for Excellence, where I learned about the ways that they are integrating Harvard’s Visible Thinking into their curriculum. I am eager to learn more about this philosophy, by the way.  In between the work, I thought a lot about all kinds of things and I looked for small moments which I posted throughout the week on my Flickr photostream.

The notion of Small Moments will be familiar to most elementary school teachers, as it is a common instructional strategy for the writer’s workshops and notebooks that are utilized in so many classrooms.  Small moments require focused thoughtfulness and an introspection that produces very personal results for the individual writer.  Heinemann press shares a wonderful and gloriously simple guide for small moment teaching, learning and writing–including a script– that I would encourage any classroom teacher, regardless of grade level, to read and keep.  I like that this lesson is described as “lean” because it echoes a thought I often have about how we sometimes instruct children in a way that actually over-directs them in order to avoid the “mistakes” which are actually a part of authentic learning.

As an author who almost exclusively creates concept books rather than stories, I am completely drawn to the idea of small moments and, though I am not a photographer, per se, I have been having fun using the idea of small moments in photo assignments that I have been giving myself.  On my first morning in Miami, I had just one hour to squeeze in a run with a nice friend of my host before I went off to teach.  I ran along the beach, took along my little point-and-shoot camera and attempted to find at least one shot in all the colors of the spectrum along the way.  I have to admit that Miami Beach makes this rather easy.

I like colors a lot!  So, using a spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, plus black, white and brown) as the parameters to frame a particular creative objective, I came up with the idea of a “hook to look.”  I talked with some teachers in Miami who agreed that a hook to look, plus a time limit, might encourage some really spontaneous and creative results, both for photography and writing.  I’d be willing to bet that each little square in these spectrum collages could become small moment writing exercises.  So, today I gave it another try back here in New Jersey.  Mind you, I told the kids in Miami that we are currently experiencing three colors: brown, brown and brown.  Turns out I wasn’t completely right on that.  There are, in fact, a whole spectrum of colors;  you just have to look harder–sometimes a little, sometimes a little more.

Here’s the spectrum I found outside, around my house.  I made myself find the 9 colors within the ten minutes I had before I put the trash up to the curb.  I guess that, while I usually wish they were a different color, today I’m thinking it’s a good thing I have purplish shutters.  Finding purple in my New Jersey yard was pretty hard on an overcast March day.

Then, I went up to the place I take each Monday photograph and took another spectrum shot with the rule being that it had to be found along the road where I take the shot.  Sadly, the theme came out a little trashy and it was far too easy to find the colors among the stuff that I think someone should be getting a fine for.

Finally, I took the spectrum shots again, inside my house, with the rule being that I would not move anything or set up any of the pictures.  This one was the easiest.

Doing these spectrum exercises required me to notice things in a new way, to be alert to something specific and to care about these things, at least for the moment.  If you read this blog you know that I have a lot of concerns that, as our attitude toward academic “success” careens further and further toward testing and more linear types of thinking, we risk losing the ability to think about things in a meaningful and more methodical way.  And, being so set on future, and often arbitrary, goals demands that some present moment awareness is sacrificed.   As I said earlier, I am fascinated by the Visible Thinking approach I saw in action at the Center For Excellence and I am particularly drawn to its research that shows that good thinking is comprised of three components–abilities, attitudes and alertness.

One important finding was that skills and abilities are not enough. They are important of course, but alertness to situations that call for thinking and positive attitudes toward thinking and learning are tremendously important as well. Often, we found, children (and adults) think in shallow ways not for lack of ability to think more deeply but because they simply do not notice the opportunity or do not care. To put it all together, we say that really good thinking involves abilities, attitudes, and alertness, all three at once. Technically this is called a dispositional view of thinking. Visible Thinking is designed to foster all three.

I am new to understanding Visible Thinking right now and, presently, it is difficult for me to completely describe what this might look like in a classroom or a school.  I received a quick tour of the Center For Excellence and saw the ways that children had been able to focus on themes, like color and line, and how the teachers encouraged them to pull these strands throughout their learning in an entire day or week.  Given that these were preschool aged children, the results were quite inspiring.  One way that they promote this type of thoughtfulness is to display the learning that goes on in the school, all around the school.  And so, I will leave you with a quote that I absolutely loved by a little boy named Max.  It was printed large and hung on the wall with many others from the children at the school.  The question that precipitated this collection of quotes was “What is thinking?” Max is only four-years-old, but I think he’s got this whole thinking thing all figured out.

Have a terrific week, everyone.

TRY THIS WEEK:  Join in on my Spectrum Photo challenge!  Here are the colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black, white, brown.  Post them to Flickr, Facebook or this blog.  You can create your photo collage at


About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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