I am just finishing up teaching an eight-week, one-hour course I developed for our Freshman Seminar Program here at Angelo State. In this course, called “Drawing to Learn,” I introduce students to drawing as a tool for concentration and learning, including coloring mandalas, doodling, creating handmade responses to reading assignments, or sketchnoting.
My students and I have been using drawing as a learning tool in all of my classes for some time now, but this is the first course where I’ve focused the entire class on the topic of drawing to learn. The main ideas for this course are rooted in the work of Ed Emberley, Dan Roam, Sunni Brown, Dave Gray, Scott McCloud, Lynda Barry, Austin Kleon, and Mike Rohde.
When I began designing the course, I ordered Lynda Barry’s new book Syllabus to gain some insight into how I might incorporate more drawing into this class. Here on the bottom left of page 58 is the idea that seemed most immediately useful to me. Lynda writes: “We begin each class by writing our name, the date, and drawing a two-minute self-portrait on an index card. The cards will serve as a record of your attendance.”
Actually, this idea was at least doubly useful. It was not only a way for students to record attendance (a chore I hate), but also a way for them to create a sense of presence at the beginning of each class through drawing. Here are some samples of those index cards from my class, bundled by student. The front sides with names and dates:
(By the way, another use for these cards: if I’m going to put students in groups for team activities, I can put symbols on the top right corner of the index cards before passing them out to the class. Then I can ask them to form small groups based on the symbol randomly assigned to them.)
Here are samples of the back of the cards with hand drawn images. I started having students draw self-portraits as Barry suggested, but later began suggesting other topics for drawing; the prompt for this day was “Draw a tool you use regularly.”
In addition, before each class I sketch out each of my lesson plans on index cards. Then I redraw this plan on the whiteboard while students are completing their attendance cards. Here are some of my lesson plans for this class, including icons I normally use to signify particular activities or mini-lectures. (More on visual lesson plans here and here.)
And here below are some index cards I sketched to help me remember what to draw on the board as I was teaching my students the basic vocabulary of sketchnoting.
And here are a couple more drawings on the attendance index cards. The first one is a response to the prompt, “Draw your secret superhero identity.” The second is a response to the prompt, “What is your major?”
The point of these attendance cards again is to record attendance and to give students a chance to create a sense of physical, mental, and emotional presence at the beginning of class so they can better attend to the work ahead. But they also give students practice in drawing quickly, simply, and without judgment, practice that helps them gain confidence in their drawing abilities.
In the age of iPads and smartphones, I’ve found another simply designed, lightweight, inexpensive, and remarkably thin handheld device that can do so much good work for me and my students in the classroom.
This morning I received the following email from a graduate student at Princeton.
Dear Professor Musgrove,
I am writing to you because I recently ran across two of your articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I just finished grading a batch of student papers, and in my frustration, I googled “is student writing getting worse?” Worse Than Ever? was the first result.
I appreciate your thoughts on the question–especially the point that we tend to compare student writing to our own atypical experiences.
My real reason for emailing is to ask if there is any literature you can recommend for college teachers who do not teach writing. I teach political science and political theory, so I don’t get to spend as much time on student writing as I would like. I sometimes wonder what I can say to my students that will really help without turning my classes into writing classes. I hope you will understand what I am after.
Best wishes, and thanks in advance.
Here was my response:
A few ideas come to mind that might be helpful.
- Assigning, Responding, Evaluating by Edward M. White. Some good advice in this on designing assignments so that students have the best chance of success. Good advice also on best ways to respond and to evaluate student writing.
- Style by Joseph M. Williams. This is one of my favorite books on writing, though its emphasis is more on writing clearly than on correctness.
- If you are encountering student writing that consistently contains the same kinds of sentence errors, such as run-ons or comma splices or other related problems at the sentence and comma level, you might spend some time reviewing three kinds of sentence strategies: 1. simple sentences with introductory phrases, 2. compound sentences, and 3. complex sentences. Most student writing errors can be remedied with a review of these basic sentence strategies. See here a mini-lesson packet I developed for my students: Musgrove-Mini-Lesson-Packet-July-22-2013.pdf.
- Also, we know that student writing degrades significantly as students attempt to write about ideas that are new to them. A kind of cognitive dissonance takes over when students are engaged in that struggle, and as a result, they can’t always see or read what they are writing. So they need more time than they would if they were writing about something they were more familiar with. In other words, they need to be reminded (or taught) that writing is a complex and time-consuming activity, and perhaps one of the most difficult tasks humans perform. However, students will be more willing to put in the time and effort if the writing task includes two attributes: 1. Choice – students have the opportunity to choose among writing prompts – choice leads to ownership and responsibility; 2. Authenticity – students write for an audience or purpose that is not limited to professor and class – how might assignment be designed so that students will see their writing published or share with audiences beyond the classroom?
- Related to 4: Students don’t write well because they don’t read well. Sometimes, teaching students how to read the texts we offer them can go a long way to remedying writing problems.
- Overall, I think that if you can persuade students to value what you want them to value in your classes, like good thinking and good writing and good reading, most problems go away. Otherwise, because most students have learned in our culture, tragically for our democracy, that thinking and writing and reading in school are oppressive activities (they are forced to think, write, and read what the teacher orders them to think, write, and read), they will continue to believe that until you persuade them otherwise through activities that offer them choices and practice in writing for eyes other than the teacher and the red pen. See also Paulo Freire on the banking concept of education and its role in dehumanizing education. Ultimately, your use of writing in the classroom should follow your teaching philosophy. How might it contribute to students’ chances at achieving human and democratic fulfillment?
- You are competing for your students’ time outside of class. The more you can use in-class time to help your students achieve success in writing or reading or thinking, the more success you will see. It also follows that the better relationships you build with your students, the more time they will dedicate to you and your assignments. That competition for student time/attention is rarely considered when thinking about student performance in our own classes.
I’d be happy to chat with you further.
Just bought these buttons for my Drawing to Learn class.