By Melissa Mitchell On a Wednesday morning a few weeks ago, Old Man Winter was pitching one of its final fits outside Marcia Richards' classroom at Wiley Elementary School in Urbana. Freezing rain was sticking like Crazy Glue to every surface in sight, glazing car windows with a thick layer of opaque ice, attaching invisible banana peels to the streets and sidewalks. Inside, Richards' fifth-graders were completely oblivious to what was happening outside. Nobody was looking out the window. All 25 or so pairs of eyes were transfixed on the image projected on a screen at the front of the classroom. What could possibly be holding so firm a grip on the attention spans of these 10- and 11-year-olds? Was it a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers cartoon? A Michael Jackson video? Would you believe ... "Third of May, 1808," a classic work of art by Spanish painter Francisco Goya? Well, believe it. Because for these children - and dozens of others who've been "visually challenged" by classroom slide-discussions led by Philip Yenawine - seeing is not only believing, but thinking and learning and reasoning. And, from the looks of it, all this thinking and learning - in addition to being intellectually and developmentally stimulating - may even be kind of fun. For Yenawine, it's much more than just fun. It's a passion. For the past several years, the former director of education at New York's Museum of Modern Art, has traveled to schools and museums throughout the United States and Eastern Europe, engaging children in thoughtful and creative dialogues about art and making the case to educators and school administrators for integrating his Visual Thinking Strategies model into the K-12 curriculum. In his current role as a partner in Development Through Art, an educational research organization based in New York City and Cambridge, Mass., Yenawine serves as a lecturer, author, researcher and consultant to museums nationwide. Along with cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen and a small team of other researchers, Yenawine has demonstrated and tested the VTS curriculum in workshops and classrooms from New York City to Byron, Minn., to St. Petersburg, Russia. They even did a two-week residency in Kazakhstan. This semester, Yenawine has been in residence at the UI as a George A. Miller Visiting Scholar. During his residency - his first semester-long project at a university - Yenawine is leading an ambitious, multi-pronged, interdisciplinary project called the Visual Learning Initiative. The initiative encompasses a number of activities, involving instructors and students from the UI and from area elementary, middle and high schools, including University High School. Activities include public lectures; workshops on VTS with area schoolteachers; classroom demonstration-discussions; training sessions with high school docents at the Krannert Art Museum; and a seminar for UI graduate students and faculty and staff members. As part of an ongoing research project he is conducting, Yenawine also is administering "before and after" assessments of work by participating teachers and students. One important event during Yenawine's visit to the UI will be "Learning to See ... Seeing to Learn," a conference scheduled for April 20 at the Krannert Art Museum. The conference is open to teachers, parents and administrators interested in exploring the arts as a way of building critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Throughout the semester, Yenawine has been modeling his VTS curriculum in local classrooms, such as Richards' at Wiley School. Each week, along with staff members from Krannert Art Museum's education department, Yenawine visits the fifth-grade class and leads discussions that are based on the children's observations of a handful of carefully selected images from art history. "I ask questions like, 'What's going on in this picture?' " Yenawine said. "I'm not interested in things like color, line and shape. The point of the question is to open the possible range of their responses, rather than to limit them to physical or formal descriptions." From there, Yenawine continues to ask non-directive questions, which typically yield what he calls "storytelling" responses. For instance, in Richards' classroom, when the children saw an image of Diego Rivera's "Agrarian Leader Zapata," all sorts of possible storylines were suggested. One child thought the painting told a story about a peasant uprising, another thought the finely dressed subject in the painting was being threatened by the mob behind him because "they were sick and tired of him getting everything, like nice clothes." Still another invented a tale involving the elegant white horse in the painting; according to the observer, the white horse was really the girlfriend of the horse "Black Beauty," and was about to be reunited with its mate. This level of decoding visual information is what Yenawine refers to as Stage 1 in the development of visual thinking skills. Observers eventually pass on to a second stage, in which they draw upon their own life experiences to interpret meaning from the art. The third stage, which doesn't usually take root until college level, is when most people begin to study art from purely an art-historical perspective. Back at Stage 1, performance plays a leading role in the storytelling. As they interpret the art for their peers, young observers often become excited, animated, even theatrical. "I let them perform because it validates that impulse," Yenawine said. After determining a child's interpretation of what's going on in an image - usually a painting - Yenawine's next line of inquiry may become more pointed. For instance, in response to some aspect of a child's story, he might ask, "What do you see to make you think that?" Or, "Can you be clearer about that?" Then, to encourage critical thinking among the group, he may send a child's response up for debate, asking "Do you agree with that?" The key to success with this approach, Yenawine said, is for teachers to allow for a range of answers and to remain non-judgmental. "They must develop a response system that validates kids answers - that makes them feel smart." He added that the gradual movement from simple questions to ones that demand more critical and creative thinking requires children "to provide evidence and reasoning" - skills that can ultimately be applied to problems in any number of other disciplines, such as math or science. And that's the ultimate beauty of VTS, according to Yenawine. When children learn to develop observation, identification, association, interpretation, articulation and hypothesis-development skills, "these are things that carry over to other subjects" and are central to intellectual growth, he said. Yenawine added that teachers have reported that students who have been exposed to the VTS curriculum tend to develop more precise writing skills. Their observation skills are sharper, and their writing, overall, is more interesting, he said. Yenawine said his goal is to convince educational policymakers to integrate VTS into the K-12 curriculum in U.S. schools. "That way, we can begin teaching it in kindergarten. Then, each year, it would get more complex." But first, he said, "we need to develop training programs that can teach teachers as fast as the students." Also around the corner, he said, is a textbook, "which we are close to publishing." Conceding that "the arts have never been taken seriously in education," Yenawine said it's clearly time for a change, especially when one considers the degree to which technology and culture are converging to become more and more visually oriented. As it stands today, Yenawine said, "the technology and ability to produce images in large numbers is moving faster than our interest in and ability to study its effects." Yenawine added a final, even more compelling argument for using art across the curriculum to stimulate the development of visual thinking skills. "Art doesn't have to be a special, outside thing," he said. "It's too important. That's how people are taught about life and death and birth and God. And that's something other cultures have understood through all of time that ours doesn't." Public events and activities planned in conjunction with Philip Yenawine's visit * "Difficult Viewing: Unsafe Subjects in Recent American Art," MillerComm lecture, 8 p.m. March 27, Tryon Festival Theater, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. * Teaching demonstration and reception, 7 p.m. April 3, 20th Century Gallery, Krannert Art Museum. * "Learning to See, Seeing to Learn," a conference for parents and educators co-sponsored by Krannert Art Museum, Office of Continuing Education and Public Service and other campus units, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 20, Krannert Art Museum. Requires pre-registration. For more information, call 333-1861. * "Queers on the Cutting Edge: Recent Work by Gay and Lesbian Artists," lecture, 7:30 p.m. April 24, Krannert Art Museum auditorium. * "Reading Pictures," lecture-demonstration for parents and children, 11 a.m. April 27, Champaign Public Library, 505 S. Randolph St., Champaign.