picturing proverbs, a post by Denise Baynham and Katie Hyde

"Honesty is the best policy"

In the second part of the Tanzanian kanga and proverb project (see the above post), students illustrated proverbs with drawings, skits and photographs. Building on an exploration of fables facilitated by the school’s media specialist, we had another discussion in which students deciphered the meanings of proverbs. On the edge of a different kanga—this one black with tiny yellow stars—the proverb read, “Don’t set sail on someone else’s star.” We asked students to think of another way to say this and one suggested “don’t follow nobody; be a leader instead of a follower.” Others interpreted the proverb as follows: “don’t just do something cause your friends do it;” “make your own choices;” “don’t spy on people to see what they do;” “if they are doing something bad, don’t follow something even if they are a leader.”

We then asked students to discuss another proverb “wisdom is better than pearls” at their tables. The meaning of this saying proved to be more elusive. One conversation went like this:
-It means that being rich is better than being smart.
-He’s got it backwards.
-Pearls are rich and pretty and romantic.
-I don’t need no education, I just need money and a calculator in my pocket.
-It’s about spending money on important things actually.

We asked again, ‘what do you think it means when it’s saying that wisdom is better to have than pearls?’

-It’s better to be wise than to have expensive stuff.
-Spend your money on important things.
-If you are wise you can move on to college. Without an education you can’t move on.
-Wisdom will take you far, riches will take you nowhere.

We gave each student a list of 17 proverbs and asked them to select one and then decipher its meaning. Students put the proverb in their own words and then drew a picture that reflected the saying.




 One student drew 12 stars by the proverb “A gift is a fruit from the heart.” Another added a line number 18, beside which he wrote “Love can be its own reward.” A student who chose “Talking is silver, silence is gold” wrote ‘don’t talk, be gold,” and drew a picture of a sparkling ring. Another student explained that “water must go it’s own way” means “you can get your own path.’ He said he’d heard this idea from his mom. Another said “On the road is where you meet friends might mean make new friends and keep the old ones.” When another student commented that she’d heard that from a song, we encouraged everyone to connect the proverbs to what they already knew—for instance, to something they’d heard from their parents or in a song. These connections helped make the meaning of the proverbs clear.

 Once students had selected a proverb, they worked with a partner to write a skit about the proverb. This required the students to imagine a storyline. After performing the skits, students decided on two specific scenes that would best show the proverb’s meaning. They made another drawing (with one scene on the top of the paper, and the second scene on the bottom half of the paper) and used this drawing to guide their photography. Students shot their images in the media center, the hallway, the office, the playground—wherever they could find the right background for their story.

 From the beginning of this project, Denise knew her students would be challenged by the proverbs’ metaphorical nature. The multiple steps helped her students better understand the proverbs. Denise felt that the skits and drawings helped her identify what students were missing—where they needed more details, where their understanding fell short. This project allowed Denise to see and accommodate her students’ varying levels. Some students chose more complex and abstract sayings and pictures, while one or two struggled to the end to clearly comprehend the proverb’s layered meanings.


Denise gained insight into her kids’ abilities and individuality at various points. She recognized one students’ wit and creative intelligence, thanks to her apt and poetic paraphrasing of proverbs. The proverbs students chose gave glimpses into their interests and sometimes their home lives (such as a grandmother’s encouragement and high expectations).

Look before you leap-part two (in the principal's office)

Denise was impressed by her students’ teamwork. Some of the pairs she chose to mix up academic or creative skills, for other pairs she took into consideration the students attitudes toward one another. The project was a turning point for two boys who were destined to be paired after one yelled to the classroom that he hated the other. Denise watched these two students become good friends, beginning with their collaboration on the proverb skits and photography.



Honesty is the best policy

Honesty is the best policy, part two

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