A nice way to acquaint your students with a new text they'll be studying is to use something visual. It's especially powerful if this visual piece is done by a former student who has studied the work. We've all used video clips and the like to kickstart a unit on Shakespeare, so why not use a piece of visual brainstorming to do likewise.
As we can see in the example above from Hannah, such a piece doesn't take a long time to create and it can capture some of the essential learnings and enduring understandings that are takeaways from the unit. Hannah's example deals with Karel Capek's War with the Newts, a science fiction novel written in the 1930s that satirizes the rise of Fascism, Nazism, as well as racism in America. In the story, a race of sentient newts is discovered, and through a series of circumstances paralleling the events following the end of WW1, the Newts eventually rise to a position of power.
A great pre-reading strategy is to give students a piece of visual brainstorming like this and to ask them what they think the novel will be about. This can be done in combination with showing them the short video clip below. The result is that students are required to activate their prior knowledge and make predictions prior to reading, which are both excellent strategies to better ensure that they eventually grasp the enduring understandings of the unit.
Try it with your students and let me know how it goes!
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Never underestimate what the visual can do in planning a major writing task
It's easy to dismiss pictures and drawings as something that we dabbled in as children, and that now, as serious adult writers, we should get on with the business of words, words, words. This attitude presupposes, however, that words and images should not mix, and it goes back to our previous discussions about the differences and discrepancies in attitudes towards literature, visual art, and the combination of the two (i.e. visual narrative).
When it comes to planning out a major assessment task, like the International Baccalaureate's Extended Essay--a piece of persuasive prose that is 4000 words long--have a look at what a student at The York School did in planning out her paper on the character of John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The great thing about the visual here is not that it simply beautifies the planning process. Rather, it gives the student an opportunity to mull things over as they write, create, make connections, and attempt to articulate an approach to the essay.
The next time you have students engage in a visual brainstorming activity, get them to consider what they are thinking in the moments when they are "merely" drawing. Chances are they are thinking about a wealth of different ideas and considering how to make additional connections among them.
Their doodling, after all, is just the hand's way of expressing how hard at work the brain really is.
A Way to Say Thanks for Visiting Comics in Education!
As a thank-you to all of the wonderful visitors to our site, Comics in Education has put together a two-page visual brainstorming of Shakespeare's writing career. This exercise in visual note-taking takes us from his crazy initial offering of something like Titus Andronicus to the maturity of plays like Winter's Tale and The Tempest.
Teachers are free to make copies and distribute to students who are dealing with the challenges of knowing Shakespeare and his work better. And feel free to share with colleagues as well. Hope you enjoy the scribbles: I've attached them here both as jpegs and as a pdf file.
When It Comes to Plath, It's Going to Be Pretty Intense...
I'm so glad that @andycarreiro suggested I tackle a poem by Plath through visual annotation. I decided to go with "Morning Song" and felt pretty pleased with the result. I'm not sure I was able to find the kinds of access points that I did with the Longfellow poem earlier, but annotating the poem in this way did yield some nice results.
Being a Victorianist, Plath is not exactly in my wheelhouse, but it just goes to show that when you allow your thoughts to be rendered and transcribed in a way that's comfortable you at least end up asking some pretty decent questions of the text. I like the notion that the environs of a hospital ward are akin to those of a museum in the way we respond to them. I also think that Plath introduces certain turns of phrase that are decidedly double-edged (Margaret Atwood and Emily Dickinson would both approve in this regard, I think).
Enjoy the visual brainstorming and see where you might have interpreted, responded to, or interacted differently with the poem. Plath is a complex, intense, allusive, and exceptionally challenging poet, so be forewarned!
You choose the poem, and I annotate!
This is the first in a series of posts I'm planning in which fans of the site send me a poem that they'd like to see visually annotated. This first one is Longfellow's "The Cross of Snow," a suggestion made by @CarrieSnowRice, and strangely enough a poem I was unfamiliar with. The reason that's a bit strange is that one of my favourite books in the Graphic Poetry series is of Longfellow's wonderful poem, Paul Revere, illustrated by the incomparable, Mike Rooth.
Despite being unfamiliar with the poem, the brainstorming yielded some very cool results. I think the beauty of the poem has to do with a single letter and that's the liquid "l" sounds that are strong throughout the first part of the poem. They just soften everything, it seems. Compare this to the rise of the "s" sounds later in the poem, where you almost can feel the scars that Longfellow endured in attempting to save his wife from the accidental fire that consumed her (her dress came into contact with an ember and she caught on fire, dying later from her injuries). The sonnet form is crucial as well: it's Miltonic, but the sestet doesn't seem to resolve what is raised in the octave, except if Longfellow is seeing his suffering as akin to Christ's. Then he must realize, of course, that bearing the scars and enduring the loss, and keeping vigil over his wife's memory are all that he has.
Next up, I think we're going to lighten the mood with some Sylvia Plath. Look for "Morning Song" in an upcoming post!
Great Characters Often Come with Great Traditions
The next time you're enjoying the antics of DC Comics' Harley Quinn, you might consider where she gets her moniker from. Indeed, the Harlequin is a figure from the Commedia dell'Arte tradition, and has a variety of characteristics that can help to explain the Joker's favourite sidekick. The Harlequin or Arlecchino was very nimble and agile, and was a comical servant who often attempted to realize his own plans and schemes even as he was supposed to be helping his master. Dressed in a brightly-coloured costume, the Arlecchino was a tricky one to pin down, and could use his quickness to take advantage of a situation.
In having my class visually brainstorm characters from the medieval stage and from the Commedia dell'Arte tradition, I was pleased that Gillian chose the Harlequin. Here's what she came up with.
And this, incidentally, is what you might expect the original Harlequin to look like:
Gillian has packed a considerable amount of information into a short space. We learn that the Arlecchino or Harlequin had connections to the zanni in the Commmedia dell'Arte tradition on the Italian stage, that he was a comic character and an acrobat, and that he used slapstick comedy by wielding a battachio as a weapon. All of this information can, in fact, be found just in the bottom right hand corner of the page!
Harley Quinn's battachio may have gotten a bit bigger and she's perhaps using it in a more lethal way than her late medieval and early renaissance ancestor, but understanding the tradition out of which she has evolved can only make readers and fans more knowledgeable about her character.
William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow"
I'm hoping that this is the first in a series of many blog posts over the coming months that draw upon visual narrative as a source of inspiration and apply it to poetry. William Carlos Williams was writing at a time when exciting things were happening in poetry and in art, and he had contemporaries that one could only dream of having--Picasso, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, H.D., Ezra Pound, Georges Braque, and Gertrude Stein. I mean, how spoiled could the good doctor have been.
The key to the poem, like the key to so many imagist poems, is to consider it like a cubist painting. The fracturing makes meaning, giving the poem a multiplicity of resonances. By the end of it you're only too ready to admit that "so much" does in fact "depend / upon / a red wheel / barrow..." The image is everything--seemingly so simple and yet so extraordinarily complicated.
Students confront this poem and others like it and say "I could have written that" without really understanding that they didn't. I'm sure some of them could have painted "Les Desmoiselles D'Avignon," but who in their right mind but Picasso would have ever thought to?
There are few plays more disturbing or more chilling than Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden. The trailer to the 1994 film, shown below, can attest to this. Coming up with a good approach to teaching it is therefore no easy feat, since finding the best kinds of supporting materials takes some significant research.
The other day I was thinking about the play and sat down to scribble out some useful ways of thinking about how it might be approached, with my doodling turning into a full-on visual brainstorming of the possibilities.
It turns out that there are some significant supporting texts that one would be wise to study in order to fully appreciate Dorfman's play. Indeed, the motif of "Death and the Maiden" is a tradition in and of itself, one that stretches back into the middle ages at the very least. It has made its way into literature as well.
I think if the doodling below shows us anything, it's that a range of very useful connections can be made by an educator in pretty short order that might ultimately lead to the development of an entire unit of study. Something I'll be working on over the next little while is a series of downloadable pdfs for teachers and students that can help them to explore key aspects of many of the most frequently studied literary texts while allowing them to see connections to other works with similar themes and ideas.
Look for these downloadable pdfs in the coming weeks!
Use Provocative Media to Jumpstart Visual Brainstorming
Depending on what kind of visual brainstorming or visual note-taking you'd like your students to engage in, it's good to give them a provocative piece of media to get their ideas going. As I've mentioned previously, when I introduce students to this form of note-taking, I like to show them the RSAnimations video of Sir Ken Robinson's famous TED Talk on Changing Educational Paradigms. Here, in advance of looking at how media uses language and image to construct a concept for its brand that people find attractive, I showed my students "This is a Generic Brand Video," a wonderfully subversive meta-commercial about how a lot of contemporary commercials work. After watching this video with my IB Language and Literature class, we engaged in a little visual brainstorming of a Suncor commercial that actually fit the bill of the one described by the above video.
Here's what my students, Kyle and Muhammed, put together after watching the video, discussing their take on it, and engaging in some visual brainstorming:
As an educator, some of the big takeaways from this are so important. Obviously Kyle and Muhammed had fruitful discussions even though they imparted to their visual note-taking and brainstorming their own unique signatures. Both addressed the disconnects between what the advertisement shows and what Suncor Energy is all about, but whereas Kyle preferred to compartmentalize things by keeping his image-and-text combinations at some distance to one another, Muhammed preferred a slightly more organic approach. He also took more liberties with the cartoonishness he imparted to his figures. Nonetheless, Muhammed seems to draw inspiration from Kyle's Suncor image while Kyle imparts Muhammed's cartoonish strokes to the sun figure.
So, by way of advice, let students talk to one another about what you'd like them to focus their visual note-taking and brainstorming on. It can help them learn from one another and then immediately demonstrate this learning in their work.
Some Takeaways from "I Witness: How Graphic Storytellers Are Teaching Us About the World and How We See It"
If you're planning to teach a major work of travel literature in your high school English course or perhaps even an entire unit with travel as a focus, you might consider the possibility of going graphic. As we explored in "I Witness," a workshop at 2014 CITE Conference, graphic travelogues and graphic memoirs with a significant travel focus can provide a perspective on "the journey" that is unique to the genre of visual narrative. Because these writers and artists must show the visual context of the story they are telling, and because the context -- to be believed -- must actually look authentic, there often seems to be a tendency on the part of the graphic travel writer to let the place they are visiting (or indeed "bearing witness to") tell its own story.
I feel like this whenever I read Guy Delisle's Pyongyang or the Ricard Brothers' Beirut 1990 or Florent Chavouet's Tokyo on Foot. While it is true that I learn about these writers' experiences through their work, I learn so much more about the place they are visiting as though the place itself were speaking to me.
The visual brainstorming above provides a small snapshot of the ideas that come to mind when we begin to think both about travel lit and the graphic memoir. We can see that there are tremendous possibilities for making connections between the travel literature of old and those found in today's graphic travelogues. In your next travel literature unit, why NOT feature excerpts from The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Gulliver's Travels, A Pilgrim's Progress, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Into the Wild, Palestine, Pyongyang, Tokyo on Foot, and Safe Area Goradze? You can throw in A Walk in the Woods, The Fixer, Beirut 1990, and Into Thin Air for good measure. What I'm advocating is not to use graphic travel literature merely as a way to supplement your teaching of a traditional travel novel, but to include it as an equal partner in the discussion of how we write about travel.
For those who didn't get a chance to attend the workshop, here's the handout!
We often wish we could see what our students are thinking... and we can.
Today, I presented at the 2014 CITE Conference at Upper Canada College in Toronto. The participants in the two workshops were fantastic and UCC did a wonderful job hosting the event. I talked quite a bit in the afternoon session about visual brainstorming and was reminded of something important that you should share with students if you have them do this activity.
Visual brainstorming is not about drawing. It's not an exercise intended to give art students a feeling of technical superiority over their classmates. Kailey's work above is a wonderful example of visual brainstorming that might not strike you as being particularly visual. It's not big on pictures or illustrations apart from the odd arrow or word balloon. That's because Kailey has focused on a principle that I go to great lengths to explain to students, and that I've blogged about before:
Visual brainstorming is not about drawing. It's about brain dumping."
Look at how much is going on in her head in and around the subject of the stock character known as "the wise elder" who we see in everything from medieval drama to contemporary film. Imagine she was writing a paper about this type of character. She's practically written one already!
When I was showing this to participants this afternoon I was forced to confide something that might seem rather shocking. This work was not marked. It wasn't submitted for a summative grade, and was not even formatively asessed. The student, in fact, had no expectation of having the work evaluated because it is, after all, an exercise in allowing her to get her thoughts down on paper.
And look at the time and the care and the effort put into it!
The trick, of course, is getting it to come out!
For those who are yet to be convinced of the power of visual brainstorming, or who are wondering why teachers haven't all been doing this since the first time students were made to sit down in chairs and listen to grown-ups in school, I present to you this latest effort. It comes from my student, Hannah, who apparently had quite a lot to say about Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
I'm not really sure what to call this one. "Crazy Town" comes to mind, I think. It reminds me of the maps I poured over of Ancient Pompeii when I wrote Fire Mountain for the Rubicon/Scholastic Series Timeline.
The fact is that it allowed Hannah to express a wealth of information about the first scene of Fo's play--that's right: it's only the first scene being represented here and not the whole play. Even the British flag demonstrates an understanding of how Fo intended the play always to be set in the very moment that the play takes place. And that's just one small piece of the brainstorming. You can see at the bottom left hand corner, for instance, that an Oxford English Dictionary makes an appearance to show a definition of farce...
You see. Students do still use dictionaries.
Having Students Take Notes in Their Own Way is the Key
In a couple of previous posts, I showed you examples of Grade 12 students doing a comparative analysis of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire using a Visual Brainstorming technique that saw them employ a combination of words, images and symbols to represent their thinking. Although the examples I showed featured students with excellent artistic skills, it's important to remember that Visual Brainstorming and Visual Note-Taking are not simply exercises in illustration.
They are exercises in brain-dumping.
Think of the activity as less about drawing and more about freewriting, but with some license to use the visual and without the need to avoid lifting the pen from the page. Here, Kailey has amassed an excellent amount of information about the opening scene of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Her only direction was to think about a few basic concepts: character development, staging, humour, and dialogue. She was also encouraged to ask questions right on the paper about things that were happening in the scene that she might not fully understand.
The results are so staggering that I'll likely be transferring this to the exemplars section of the website so that I can generate a slightly larger illustration to show you what she came up with.
Please try these exercises with your students! You may be quite pleasantly surprised not just with their artistic skills, but by how much knowledge and understanding they are able to articulate when given the freedom to express their ideas in this manner.
Use Visual Note-Taking Strategies for Better Results!
I know in the mathematics classroom that we're ever-more conscious about allowing students to find their way to the answers to problems. Gone, I hope, are the days of forcing students to take a single road along their journey through our mathematics curriculum.
I was never big on taking that road myself. When asked to solve a math problem, I always wanted the solution to look cool for some reason. I think this had to do with my formative reading experiences being so tied to comics, detective fiction, adventure stories, and the manuals and gamebooks of fantasy role-playing games. I wanted the journey to be exciting!
A few years back, I was teaching at a school that held a math contest for students and faculty. I found the questions really challenging, and that's with ten undergraduate math courses under my belt!
I managed to win the contest (which I think my colleagues found strange given that I taught in the English department), but the way I answered the questions had something to do with it: Here were my responses, and I apologize in advance for having no longer any clue what the questions were...
Q1. Killer Geometry Question
Q2. Fractals -- It was brutal
Q3. Hypocycloid Question (I nearly died)
Q4. I honestly don't even remember this one...
I think when we allow our students to draw their math answers, write out their frustrations about their math answers, and use visual brainstorming techniques for their math answers, we're giving them opportunities to arrive at these answers in very useful ways. If you encourage visual brainstorming or having kids use doodling in their written responses to questions, send along some examples because we'd love to feature them at Comics in Education!
Students use a combination of words and images in order to create a visual narrative of a process, sequence, set of instructions, or procedure related to their study within a specific discipline. The instructor can have them create this to show the steps they have taken in a lab, to organize how they will prepare for a set of exams, to reflect on a strategy used in a particular sport or physical activity, or even to explore how they might handle and unfamiliar task.
Self Awareness, Critical Thinking, Navigation Skills
By the end of the activity, students should recognize the extent to which using a combination of words and images can help them to think in non-linear ways about a given task. There is much to be said when it comes to note-taking of breaking things down into a series of written steps, bullet points, or explanations, but going from the intricate web of ideas in a student’s head to the linear is not always easy. The visual note-taking, process description or instruction writing allows them not just to think outside the box, but to put the box aside and just to think.
Critical Thinking Questions
Navigation Skills Questions
How Can Visual Narrative Foster Inquiry in This Activity?
This activity is thinking and inquiry in their purest form—allowing the student to make sense of something without being restricted by the linearity of formal sentence mechanics. If a picture tells a thousand words, and there are a thousand words in the student’s head, do I really want to have them write them all down? The inspiration for the activity comes from the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 m long woven fabric showing the Battle of Hastings and both what led up to it and what followed. This remarkable medieval comic doesn’t just give us insight into 11th century Anglo-Norman relations, but what the weavers perceived worthy of inclusion, and what they felt they needed to explain or refrain from explaining.
Sometimes Note-Taking Isn't Just about What You Write...
In a previous post I shared with you a student's Sir Ken Robinson / RSAnimate-inspired visual note-taking exercise comparing the spectre of death in A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. Here's what my student, Lucila, did with the theme of marriage...
The minimalist nature of the notes themselves are part of the beauty and importance of this example. Note for instance how cleverly Lucila has shown Blanche literally drowning in a glass of whiskey, and then look more closely still to see what the whiskey is composed of.
The text looks at Blanche's desire to escape the past, but it's run together and becomes very difficult to interpret--as though it is visually expressing slurred speech, a hazy memory, and a desire to forget. Blanche is colourful and so are the letters. Blanche tries to make sense of the past and fails just as the letters do.
No doubt the student could have managed to articulate these things if asked to engage in a more traditional brainstorming exercise, but I doubt that it could have captured so forcefully, so expertly, so profoundly something that is at the heart of Williams' play.
We could look at the visual note-taking that the student has done and at first glance we might think she has expressed very little.
But how very wrong we would be!
But the animation is just so entirely engaging in this video -- it provides so much to both the visual and auditory learner alike -- that it speaks volumes to teachers about our need to give students opportunities to put their thoughts down on paper in a way that makes sense to them. We can get them to organize their ideas to form a coherent comparative essay later, but for now it is so much better to allow them to express their understanding in a way that looks more like the thoughts themselves and less like some linear model that does not mimic how they think. This is the beauty, I think, of something like RSAnimate. It shows us a kind of visual note-taking that is rich, powerful, and inspiring--exactly what we want our lessons to be.
I won't repeat my previous post by sharing Catherine's work with you, but I will show you my own. Inspired by the RSAnimate version of Sir Ken's talk many moons ago, I decided that my lesson plans needed to have something of the visual in them. So, I started creating lessons that would use a hybrid of comic book narration bubbles, a flow chart, and visual imagery. Throw in some colour and a pinch of Photoshop and you have an array of visual lesson plans that students will respond to.
Every year at least one student asks me why I do this. Is it that I'm just such a comics fanatic that I have to do visual lesson plans in this way? Do I have hours of time to spend on these aesthetic touches?
"No," I tell them. "I do this because learning is beautiful."
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.
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