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September 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 1

Exploring the World with The Private Eye

When magnified many times, everyday objects give students new perspectives on writing, drawing, and scientific inquiry.

One summer day, Kerry Ruef, a Seattle artist and writer, absent-mindedly picked up a loupe and walked among the flowers in her garden. Looking at foxgloves or lilacs through this small magnifying glass, which jewelers use to examine minute details of gems, she recalls, “My mind was noting what else each object reminded me of ... [and] I was seeing worlds, intense and intriguing” (Reuf 1992).
Ruef, a former teacher, realized at once that using the loupe and thinking by analogy would open worlds for children, too. With the loupe and the question, “What does it remind you of?” she developed “The Private Eye Project,” piloted by the Seattle Public Schools. Now, when Ruef works with children and with teachers, in any season of the year, she uses an utterly portable object—the looker's own hand. “What does it remind you of?” she asks. “What else?” <POEM><STANZA><POEMLINE>It reminds me of elephant skin;</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>a map;</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>the surface of the moon;</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>the top of my dad's head;</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>a field with garden hoses all over it;</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>a dried-up cactus;</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>bleached volcanoes.</POEMLINE></STANZA></POEM> These are my own responses, but they could easily be those of any teacher or any student at any level or ability.
With analogies, the world seen through the loupe becomes very personal; unfamiliar things seem familiar, abstractions approachable, the unknown comfortable. “With loupe up to eye and flower on the other side,” writes Ruef, “you have the equivalent of a learning center in the space of a few inches, a new planet, where time stops, stretches....”
And what are they looking at with such fierce and quiet concentration?
Anything and everything. The Private Eye materials include a wonderful kit of specimens, and everyone who works with the loupes can bring a new favorite to the collection. When their scale is transformed by the loupe, the most ordinary things—broccoli, a dandelion, or one's own hand—present whole new worlds.

Words and Drawings Take Form

Writing is an exciting part of work with the loupe. When I looked at my hand and listed what it reminded me of, I was creating what Kerry Ruef refers to as the “bones” of a poem. Anyone who makes such a list need only refine it the tiniest bit to have a poem. One way is to simply write all the ideas in a list. Lindsey, in 3rd grade, wrote her list with a word frame: <POEM><STANZA><POEMLINE>Seahorses</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Like spines on a blackberry bush,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>cobwebs in a cave of bats,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>like a swiggily lizard smoking a cigar,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>like the skeleton of a giraffe.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Seahorses</POEMLINE></STANZA></POEM>
With The Private Eye, connecting through analogy brings the world into perspective, and at the same time stretches the observer's thinking. Writing as reflection, as poetry, as nonfiction and fiction—all are natural extensions of loupe-work.
Another way to look is through drawing. There is safety in drawing, in the clearly defined, limited view of the loupe. This is what you will draw: exactly what you are looking at.
Many teachers believe they are not writers, and at least as many teachers feel that they are not artists. One of the most liberating things I did with the loupe was to observe the inside of a banana skin, and, after making a list of analogies, draw the banana skin as it was framed by the circle of the loupe. I hate to draw, yet I drew an elegant drawing that I was proud of. Teachers like me, whose own education convinced them that they were not artists, become engaged by recording what their loupes show them. For children, this is always a less daunting task, but, as Ruef (1992) says, the loupe “gives such intense visual feedback that even those who think they can't draw—can!”
When we think of loupe-work in art, Georgia O'Keeffe's flower paintings come to mind. Students can look closely with a loupe and draw; then, using a two-inch hole cut in a blank paper, they can observe the drawing and find a section of the original drawing to enlarge. Benjamin, in 2nd grade, drew the barnacle he saw enlarged by his loupe, then slowly moved his window around the drawing. His next step, after enlarging the drawing, was to use two loupes on the original object for yet more detail, and draw it again.
All loupe work, of course, lends itself to display—on bulletin boards, in letters home, on the principal's door, or on an entire hallway.

Fingerprints and Abstract Art

The Simple Touch, a Private Eye lesson developed by Jane Morris, Seattle K–12 art specialist, is about using the individuality of fingerprints as a springboard for understanding abstract art. The three most essential elements of abstract art are line, color, and the unique vision of the artist; the Simple Touch keys into all of these. First, students loupe-look at their own fingerprints; then each one makes an impression of his or her own fingerprint and places it in a magnifier box. Using the loupe and the magnifier box increases the magnification of the fingerprint even more, and the analogies become more complex. Then the students record the fingerprint on regular-size paper.
“Does anybody but me think this is looking like a sand dune?” Sheila asked the others in her group of four. These 9th graders were drawing their prints, and Sheila's was growing on the paper in a series of tight concentric circles.
“Mmmm,” responded Abby, eye glued to her loupe, pencil poised over the paper by her side. “Sand dune I don't have; more like wave marks.”
Pavel leaned over Sheila's magnifier box with his loupe. “This is awesome,” he announced. “There's mountains on my finger and there's no sand dunes. Look at that.”
Sheila lifted her head. “Looks more to me like when you stir pudding, and it's getting ready to bubble,” she said, turning back to her own print. Pavel picked up his pencil to make the enlarged pudding/mountain on his own paper. Sheila's writing later echoed this individual vision: <POEM><POEMLINE>When I look into my hand I see all these things.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Others don't But I do because it's my hand.</POEMLINE></POEM>
In the course of this project, the teacher shows slides or prints of many abstract painters and artists—Kandinsky, Leger, Picasso, Escher, Mondrian—and points out how each deals with abstraction. Then the students enlarge their prints once more on very large pieces of paper, filling the paper with great care and detail. The last step is to choose how to give the fingerprint color, and to complete the coloring over several days. <POEM><POEMLINE>My finger looks like a mountain</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>a three-D picture</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>now I'm in a whirly pool</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>the faucet's running</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>the water is draining</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>HELP!</POEMLINE></POEM>
This was Dorothy's interpretation of her fingerprint, painted in quarter-loops of hot pink, cobalt, lime green, and purples. Dante's, only red and black, was <POEM><POEMLINE>... like a whirlpool, a long windy road</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>like tire treads, the bottom of a shoe,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>like lined paper, like tree's bark....</POEMLINE></POEM>
“Hang the finished pictures ... and place magnifying boxes in front of each,” says Jane Morris, “so students can compare the fingerprint in the box.”

Science and Math—Asking Why

In loupe-work, observing, thinking by analogy, and recording in words or drawing, or both, are the first steps. The next question, “Why is it like that?” brings learners to the scientific method: theorizing or hypothesizing, and testing the theories with research. George Nelson, former United States astronaut, has worked with loupes, as has Nancy Hutchinson, director of outreach at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In talking of science education, there is “no need to reinvent the wheel when you already have The Private Eye,” says Hutchinson; Nelson calls it “an exciting approach to ... the art of mathematical and scientific thinking [which] should be a part of every school.”
Ruef suggests that the teacher begin the theorizing step with a natural puzzle. The dusty miller plant, which thrives in many parts of the country, is unusual in that it remains bright and healthy in both the droughts of summer and the freezes of winter. After loupe-looking and listing aloud <POEM><POEMLINE>spider webs</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>cotton candy</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>a sweater</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>a blanket</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>insulation</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>antlers with fur</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>lint</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>snow</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>cirrus clouds</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>grandmother's hair</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>lining of slippers</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>a wedding veil</POEMLINE></POEM> students use the analogies to answer the question, “Why is it like that?”
“Already,” Ruef writes, “you and your students have a personal investment and interest in the subject from your analogy-making step, which propels you—just as it does scientists or artists—to theorizing and to individual or group research.” So the children hypothesize that the plant has “a sweater or coat, to insulate the leaves, to keep them cool in summer, warm in winter. Or it could be insect protection because who wants to eat a steak covered in hair?” (Ruef 1992).
Loupe work lends itself irresistibly to math projects, especially in number, geometry, and estimation—even for math-phobic learners. Private Eye math activities mirror the NCTM Standards' vision of mathematics through reasoning, communication, connections, and problem solving, with real world applications. Think about dandelion heads, honeycomb, fern spores, tessellations everywhere!

Engaging Students—and Teachers

All through the curriculum, the possibilities are endless. Looking closely invites analogy, demands that something be seen from a different angle, in a different scale, with another focus, as another thing. Repeating and repeating, “What does it remind me of, what does it look like?” expands the learner's awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, as well as the learner's and teacher's awareness of the interconnectedness of all curriculum. Many of the lesson designs and ideas for loupe work in Ruef's Guide were developed by teachers during The Private Eye Project.
The Private Eye approach is basic. The four tools—looking closely, thinking by analogy, changing scale, and theorizing—can be used in all subject areas. I work with teachers all over the country, consulting with them about their writing programs, and sooner or later I introduce them to the loupe and invite them, too, to look closely. The teachers become silent, immersed in the landscape of the loupe, drawn into the circle of new worlds. Teachers who work with loupes have some of the same problems as teachers who decide to teach writing well: It takes them a long time to let go of their programmed expectation that there is One Right Way, to explore in an open-ended way, to become as enthusiastic as their children.
Children who see their teacher getting excited about an activity, or sharing a discovery, or relating an inquiry, or caring about an idea—these children have the gift of example. Engaging student learners is infinitely more successful when those students' teachers are engaged as well.

Ruef, K. (1992). The Private Eye, (5x) Looking/Thinking by Analogy, A Guide to Developing the Interdisciplinary Mind, Hands-On Thinking Skills, Creativity, Scientific Literacy. Seattle: The Private Eye Project.

Katie Johnson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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