Kindergartners began the school year by sketching a simple self-portrait––gazing into a small desktop mirror as they looked closely at their reflections. Encouraged to draw what they saw, students used a black pen to trace the outlines of their face and hair on a piece of paper. This initial portrait was used as a baseline; they continued their exploration with new illustrations throughout the year, something kindergarten teacher Heather Jupiter calls an “evolving series of observational drawings celebrating ourselves.”
The self-portraits were part of a year-long identity study that challenged kindergartners to “deepen their observation and rendering skills by focusing on a specific facial feature.” As the months progressed, kindergartners shifted their focus to different areas of the face. Paired with their drawing sessions were lessons about what each feature does, “in connection with our senses, abilities and awareness of the world around us,” describes Heather.
The second self-portrait was centered on the eye. Before creating detailed and colorful diagrams, students named all the parts of the eye and shared what they noticed about each other’s pupils and irises. In Calhoun’s other kindergarten classroom, teacher Tillie Scarrit recalls that students spoke about how the eyes “tell powerful stories of family, love and human connection.”
In the third session, kindergartners moved on to the nose, which required several rounds of practice and a clear strategy. Students discussed how to best depict the nose–noticing it has triangular aspects but is not a triangle itself. As they drew, they paid careful attention to its three-dimensional shape and the nostrils.
Next the two kindergarten classrooms studied the mouth. After discussing its various functions, like talking and tasting, they learned about the mouth's structure. A large part of this unit was spent noting the difference between a closed mouth and an open mouth. In Heather’s classroom, students drew both–”one with their mouths closed, focusing on their lips, and a second with their mouths open, so they could include teeth (and missing teeth!) and gums.”
The fifth self-portrait highlighted students’ skin color. As Heather writes, they spent time “thinking, reading, learning and talking about skin color,” guided by books like Brown: The Many Shades of Love by Nancy Johnson James and Skin Again by bell hooks. Combining a primary color with white tempera paints, students found a shade of paint that closely matched their own skin color to fill in their portraits. They also colored in their hair, eyes and lips to add vibrancy.
For the final self-portrait, students explored the concept of symmetry before making their own “symmetry selfie.” Teachers took a headshot of each child, cut the photo in half, and pasted it on a piece of portrait paper, leaving space for kindergartners to draw in the remaining half.
Taken together, the self-portraits chart students’ evolution throughout the school year–of their observational skills, their knowledge of the basic senses, and their concept of identity. A recurring theme for students was the idea that we are all alike and we are all different; our eyes, nose, mouth and skin allow us to connect with and relate to the world around us and to each other.