My Portrait

The photographer arrives at DHMS on a Friday. She is told to spend the morning in Room 129 capturing the teacher, Mrs. Donnelly, engaged in her favorite activity called Read-aloud Friday. This particular teacher always ends her middle school week in the same way – taking time to read to her students. Sometimes a picture book, read from cover to cover in one sitting and always followed by a class discussion. Sometimes a video to view and discuss. Sometimes a novel, chapter by chapter revealing the characters, their traits, their problems, across many months.

Always the students know their work will be different today, even the room furniture arrangement is different on Fridays. Monday through Thursday, desks are arranged in 2s and 4s to encourage small group partner work and table discussions. But never on Fridays. Mrs. Donnelly arrived early today and labored to move all the rectangular desks back again each of the 4 walls of the classroom to create a band around the room, with space in the middle open for anyone wanting to spread out on the carpeted floor.

As class begins, Mrs. Donnelly sits on one of the student desks nestled in a corner and places her comfortable Toms on the desk’s chair. In her hand, she holds a paperback today with a yellow post-it note sticking out to mark a page, about 1/3 into the story. She is dressed in her comportable Friday casual school spirit shirt and jeans. Next to her on the left is a bookcase from floor to ceiling, filled with paperback novels. Just beyond this is a counter displaying favorite picture books. To her right is the agenda printed neatly on the white board, stating today’s activity and then sketches of a notebook and pencil to show students the materials they need. As they listen to the novel, students know to jot down their thoughts, feelings, questions, theories all related to the read-aloud. Some will sketch events happening in the book. Some will make character webs. Other a t-chart to hold onto traits and evidence from the chapter.

They know the Friday routine. Mrs. Donnelly starts with the question, “Who can remind us ….previously on….what has happened so far?”

After a few hands go up, a few take turns setting the stage. Then, Mrs. Donnelly reads. Sometimes fast. Sometimes slow. Always setting the tone as she reads.

At the end of each chapter, it’s the same. “What should we remember? What might we add to our notebook? Something about a character? An event? Is a theme emerging?” The photographer notices as she jots some of her ideas on the white board, students jot too. Then she begins the next chapter and the students keep listening.

As she reads, Mrs. Donnelly glances at the iPhone next to her. Wanting to allow time for student talk, she set an alarm to signal 10 minutes before the class ends. At the signaled time, she smiles, as those laying on the carpeted floor immediately know to move to one of the desks arranged in a giant loop around the room. Now all can see each other for the discussion.

During this class period, the photographer snaps images during Mrs. Donnelly’s Read-aloud Friday. The image captures a woman with brown hair, graying at the temples and wearing black think glasses. She is dressed casually, sitting comfortably, holding a paperback novel. Around her are her prized possessions – her books and her middle-school age students.

If the photographer’s image is accepted and then hung in the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery and used during a workshop, what will the workshop responses be during the See-Feel-Think-Wonder exercise?!

NOTE: I participated in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Strike a Prose for Teachers workshop last Wed. This is the writing I did after they had us look and SEE-FEEL-THINK-WONDER related to this photograph of a dishwasher hanging now at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.

HERE’S the email info if interested in joining tomorrow’s session:
Teachers, please join the National Portrait Gallery and DC-based writer Willona Sloan to learn how to use portraiture to inspire your students’ creative writing and improve their writing skills. Inspired by our popular writing workshop series, Strike a Prose, we’d like to invite teachers to participate in a two-part professional development workshop dedicated to using portraiture as inspiration for writing.

Session I – Strike a Prose for Teachers
May 20, 2020, 3:30 — 5:00pm EST

In this creative nonfiction writing workshop, learn teaching strategies while generating new writing of your own. The workshop will highlight the Portrait Gallery’s special exhibition, The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today, and include discussion, reading, and guided writing prompts as we explore the theme of identity and self-representation through the development of a personal essay.

Session II – Creating Writing Prompts Inspired by Portraiture
May 27, 2020, 3:30 — 5:00pm EST

In this workshop, we will share lesson planning ideas, activities, and strategies for teaching students to focus on details, create characters, and explore their personal experiences in connection to works of art through creative writing. We will also practice developing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry writing prompts. The workshop will highlight the Portrait Gallery’s special exhibition, The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today.

Please sign up for each session individually in the series. If you can’t attend both, don’t worry. Although Session II builds on Session I, you can also participate in one or the other. We are excited to explore the new possibilities that an online workshop opens up for us and hope you will join us! The Zoom link to join the webinar will be sent out to all registered participants 24-48 hours ahead of time.

Register Here!

Looking forward to seeing you!


Briana Zavadil White
Head of Education
National Portrait Gallery

10 thoughts on “My Portrait

  1. Fran McCrackin says:

    I love this playful idea, of how the portrait-photographer would study and see the subject, in her element. I especially like the visual picture you conjure, including the phone on timer and the graying at the temples hair 🙂 I can see your room and the important objects behind you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. dianeandlynne says:

    What a great opportunity. I think your writing puts us right there in the classroom with you. Yours is a wonderful example to share with writers. The workshop sounds wonderful too.

    Liked by 1 person

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