Drawing to Learn: Visual Projects in the English Classroom

Recently, I got the chance to visit middle school English classes at another school as a professional development opportunity.  It was really helpful to step outside of my day-to-day routine, see what other teachers are doing, and then reflect on my own practices.

One teacher gave me some great ideas about independent reading projects. She showed me samples of student work for a couple of different assignments.  One was a literary analysis wheel, with a rotating window and several different segments, including things like themes and powerful language.  And one was a character analysis poster, with a summary, character traits and examples, and a background design that highlighted something important about the book.

I’m not particularly artistic, and when I was a student, I dreaded assignments that forced me to make a diorama or redesign a book cover.  As a writer, I squirm when someone advises me to storyboard a scene or draw out the shape of the plot in my novel.  And as a teacher, I don’t often think of artistic assignments, and if I ever do, I worry that they’re not as rigorous as more writing-intensive assignments.  But as I was looking at the students’ posters and literary analysis wheels, I was impressed by the original finished products and struck by how much critical thinking they’d done to create them.

So a couple of days after my visit, I did an experiment with my seventh grade students.  We’re just finishing Okay for Now, which has a prominent drawing subplot, so it seemed especially appropriate to try out an art-related assignment for that novel. I gave students some large white paper and asked them to create a visual representation of the plot, which includes many, many subplots.  I offered them the example of a story with three main subplots, which could basically be drawn out as a braid, and I gave them one guideline: to label the different subplots on their poster.  They came up with some great designs.  One group drew the plot as a flower, and they thought through which subplots would be the roots, the leaves, and the petals.  Another drew a paper bag with a smiley face, like the one on the book’s cover, with items representing each subplot spilling out of it.  Another drew a different bird for each subplot, because the main character draws several birds throughout the novel and each chapter is named after a bird.  And another drew a jacket that plays an important role in the story, with subplots as parts of the jacket and threads unraveling from it.

I’m planning to use a larger art-related project with my eighth grade students, too.  The eighth graders have been reading Gilgamesh in history class and learning about Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the hero’s cycle.  In English class, we’re going to read Paper Towns by John Green and analyze how it conforms to the classic hero’s journey and how it does not.  I’m going to give students this image of the hero’s cycle, which I first saw on Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog, and then have them create their own image that charts out the protagonist’s journey in Paper Towns.

Neither of these projects is replacing a writing assignment, but we’re at a busy point in the year (because of the crunch time between the holidays and because the seventh graders are working on a major search project in history class), so I have to assign less ambitious, less time-intensive writing assignments than I would otherwise.  This kind of artistic project will complement smaller writing tasks, and it seems like it will give students another way to develop and show off their understanding of topics we are working on.  Plus, it will result in some lovely work for me to hang in the classroom!

Teachers, what kinds of assignments do you include to complement writing assessments and offer students the opportunity to use different skills?  And writers, how do you use drawings or charts to support your writing process?

4 thoughts on “Drawing to Learn: Visual Projects in the English Classroom

  1. tcwillia says:

    Hey Laurie! I am reading a lot about these kinds of questions in school right now, and think it’s SUPER interesting in the context of ELA classes. I don’t think you’re alone in questioning how to privilege ‘artistic’ or visually-based assignments in relation to traditional written texts, and how you support students’ thinking in both modalities. I’ll let you know if I stumble on any *really* good articles =)

  2. Lily Randall says:

    Ms. Morrison! Glad to know you’re still teaching John Green! 😀
    Hope you’re well, and good luck on that book of yours! (Has it gotten a title yet?)

    • laurielmorrison says:

      Hi Lily, great to hear from you! Hope you’re doing well. I called that first book I wrote (and shared with you guys) Center of Gravity, but I ended up putting it aside and deciding it was sort of my learning novel. Since then I’ve been working on a couple of other ones, one of which I’ll hopefully finish revising in the next couple of months. Thanks for your comment! Hope you’re reading, writing, and singing lots these days!

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