Dyan Branstetter | August 2016

Illuminated Initials – New Unit!

Illuminated manuscripts date back to around the year 535. The author and illustrator were typically the same people, and a text was embellished and decorated with beautiful artwork of Illuminated Initials. The word illuminate means to fill with light, so parts of the text were illuminated by adding gold or silver.

Illuminated Initials, Education Closet

In this new unit, students will learn a brief history of illuminated letters and manuscripts, and then they will create an illuminated initials to represent their interests and personality. It is geared toward intermediate elementary students and is a wonderful way for students to share information about themselves using visual art, making it a perfect opportunity for use at the beginning of the year.

Although it is designed to be relatively short to fit into your get-to-know-you time at the beginning of the year, this arts integration unit addresses many standards. From The Ten Themes of the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: A Framework for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, it addresses #2. Time, Continuity, and Change, and #4. Individual, Development, and Identity.

These are paired with two visual arts standards that make a natural connection: Anchor Standard #1: Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work, and Anchor Standard #11: Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding. In the students’ sharing of their artwork, we even touch upon an ELA Core Standard for Speaking and Listening: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.3.6: Speak in complete sentences when appropriate to task and situation in order to provide requested detail or clarification.

Once students create their illuminated letters, the unit offers a range of ideas for how students will share them. You can go low-tech, low-prep and have students share their letters with partners, small groups, or the whole class. The original student artwork could be displayed, or students could use it as a binder cover for a binder with a transparent folder pocket on the front. If you’d like to incorporate technology, students can video share easily using a SeeSaw account. Students can upload a picture of their illuminated letter and record a video blog post describing the details in their letter and explaining what the designs represent.

In addition, the unit includes a simple, ready-to-go assessment in the form of a checklist. Students can use it to self-assess their work and revise, and then it can be used as a formative assessment to set the stage for you to share your expectations. Sometimes students don’t fully realize those expectations until they receive feedback, so I like to use the assessment checklist strictly as a formative assessment so that students get to know those new expectations without the surprise that may come from receiving a traditional grade.

I hope you find this illuminated initials strategy as a useful way to get to know your students and build classroom community. If you try it, please share your student work! I’d love to see your results.


About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.