Five Ways to Use Sketching in Writing Workshop

This week as I sat in a meeting with some art teacher colleagues, I was struck by how many parallels we could draw between teaching the two subjects. Our students have writer’s notebooks; theirs have sketch books. Our students have copious time in class to practice the skills we teach in whole-class lessons; art students watch a demonstration, and then skitter back to large tables to dig into their own work, applying the skill they just learned. In our workshop, students hover at different phases of the writing process: some writing off the page, some researching online, some elbow-deep in mentor texts. At any given time, art students are working on different projects — some are pinching pots, some are sketching in their notebooks, some are conferring with their art teacher.

In the English department, we have BIG plans to continue drawing parallels (and making them explicit!) between art and English. I anticipate that this post will branch off into several sub-posts in the near future — I will have lots to say about our plans. For now, I’d like to use the inspiration from this week’s meeting to look at various ways in which we can bring art, specifically sketching, into the writing workshop.

  • Sketching as Idea Nurturing

Sketching as a pre-writing activity isn’t a new idea, but it’s not one that we always offer to our students. As lovers of the written word, we usually demonstrate various pre-writing activities — writing off the page, brainstorming, word generation, listing — that evolve around words and stringing words together. However, many students benefit from sketching in the initial phases of a writing study, or throughout the study as they need a break from writing or an opportunity to hone in on a specific scene or find the heart of their writing. In a study of memoir writing, storyboarding, a sequence of sketches representing different parts of a scene, can be particularly useful to students who are trying to decide how to order their writing. In a study of infographics, students can sketch out their ideas before using an infographic maker.


  • Sketching as First Draft Reading Response

This week, as I introduced a new writing study, I gave my students two choices for responding to the first draft reading of each mentor text. The instructions were simple:

As I read outloud:

Sketch the details you can see            OR

Underline any details you can perceive with your senses

Which option do you think most of them chose? Sketching, of course!

But they took it seriously, taking great care to detail the wolf’s gleaming eyes in “Looking into Wild Eyes” by Bill Sherwonit or the hare’s tracks freshly imprinted into snow in “Listening to Owl.” We are studying nature essays, and sensory description is a major feature of this genre.

Once the students have written their own drafts, I plan to use sketching again to help them look critically at their drafts: can they sketch the details of their own writing? Can a peer sketch the details? If not, students will need to return to their writing and add precise, sensory, “sketchable details” until they can.

  • Sketching as warm-up and writing metaphor

Sometimes I project an image like the one below (just Google sketch + any word to get copious possibilities)  during Notebook Time and ask my students to draw what they see. Never is notebook time quieter than when I ask them to draw. I don’t know what it is, but drawing seems to summon a focus within that students don’t necessarily have when writing. Even my most fidgety eighth-graders become still during this practice.

After five minutes, we have a brief show-and-tell or gallery walk. The kids love to see the different iterations of the original sketch, and comment on the  most impressive ones. Some of my struggling writers happen to be the best artists in the class, and it’s important for everyone to see the different talents represented in the room.

We conclude by reflecting on the link between sketching and writing, and one of the big ideas that always emerges is that both require careful observation. Brilliant!

  • Sketching in a collaborative study

This spring my eighth graders had the opportunity to work with our International Baccalaureate (IB) artists in a children’s literature study. My eighth graders wrote children’s books and were paired up with upperclassmen artists who illustrated their books. A much larger post about this entire collaboration is in the works, but suffice it to say, my students LOVED LOVED LOVED working with these serious artists and seeing how their peers interpreted their work. Most of them started with basic sketching to communicate ideas and begin the illustration process.

  • Sketching as reflective process

In our end-of-year portfolio, we usually ask students to represent their writing process visually and describe how it’s unfolded or changed over the course of the year. Some students make graphs to show how much time they spend pre-writing verses writing and revising. Others take a series of photographs of their favorite writing places, pages in their writer’s notebooks, and people they usually read their work out loud to. Another option would be to sketch their writing process.

But this activity doesn’t have to wait until the end of the year. In fact, I think it would be very useful as a “stop and sketch” activity in which you ask a student who doesn’t seem to be putting the time or effort into her writing to sketch how she spent her workshop time that day, or what she created for the writing homework last night. Looking at this sketch together might spark a conversation about different writing choices and processes. At the end of the week, once the student has had ample time to implement a different plan, you could ask her to revise the initial sketch to show what new steps she added in to her process this week.

Do you incorporate sketching or other art forms into your workshop? How does art strengthen or transform your students’ writing and process? I would love to connect with you on Twitter @allisonmarchett or you can join Moving Writers on Facebook!

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