If you’ve taken note of my Twitter handle, you might be curious about where it comes from. I didn’t join Twitter as a teacher, and my initial avatar was a drawing I did of a stuffed monkey that used to travel with my wife and I wherever we went. Being drawn to artistic pursuits, and travelling with a stuffed monkey, it made sense to adopt the handle @doodlinmunkyboy and roll with it.
A page from What It Is
It’s a different handle than most teachers have, as it doesn’t necessarily reflect my “teacher identity” as a high school English teacher. It actually speaks more to my artistic leanings, though I have taught art as well.
Some of my posts here at Moving Writers have highlighted my interest in focusing on the visual elements of the language arts. Though we often focus on reading and writing, viewing and representing deserve, in my opinion, development and practice. I’ve drawn quite heavily on my interests in art and design, as well as my experience as an artist and art teacher to make this happen in my class.
I am well aware that this notion is daunting for many teachers. If we don’t self-identify as artists, we feel ill-prepared to encourage our students to play and explore that side of literacy. I totally get that!
Recently, I dropped a quick recommendation of a book that I’ve used in my classroom recently. I’ve thought about that brief mention, and would like to expand upon it. There are two books that I use in my classroom that are invaluable resources in pushing the creative limits of ourselves as teachers, and the efforts of our students.
Cartoonist, author and teacher Lynda Barry has created many wonderful things, but it is her teaching books that have become very important to me. I have read all three of them: What It Is, Picture This, and Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, and keep What It Is and Syllabus close by, alongside my Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher books. Let’s be honest, someone who’s official title is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity absolutely has to have great ideas, right?
I recommend these books to my English teacher friends because they are a blueprint to helping students find a path to expressing themselves visually. Many of the core ideas about creativity and artistic attitude that I worked to instill in my art students years ago are laid out in these texts. Barry lays out exercises to help students develop, while also encouraging them to embrace their innate talents, whatever they may be. If you’re a teacher who wants to have students sketching as part of their writing process, and aren’t sure how to go about it, it’s a great blueprint. The drawing jam from Syllabus has been invaluable the last few years as we study graphic novels, and work on graphic storytelling. After running through a couple weeks of drawing to start the class, students develop confidence in what they can create, an acceptance that they can do something that works artistically, even if it isn’t necessarily of the caliber of the art they see in the graphic novels we study.
I recommend these books to English teachers because there are so many activities in them that are invaluable in the idea generating stages of the writing process. In What It Is Barry shares ways to get writers to (literally) draw from their own experiences. They’ll pay attention to their day for ideas, or reflect upon people they’ve known to find characters to write. These exercises combine visuals and text, giving them material from which to write. They are engaging ways to generate ideas, so much more lively than sitting in front of the blank page, waiting for inspiration.
I recommend these books for their mentor text potential. In What It Is Barry includes a collection of pieces in which she creates pieces that explore some big, rhetorical and inquiry style questions through a combination of art, collage and text. They’re engaging pieces that have students represent their thoughts and ideas. There’s no thesis, no body paragraphs, or the conventional features we expect when students work with these kinds of questions… there is simply the wondering, the exploring, the attempts to answer, presented in an interesting way. Much more interesting to mark!
I recommend these books because using them allows students to have fun. Have you broken out some crayons in a high school classroom lately? It takes the students right back. If you think asking students to draw a castle in two minutes, then one minute, then 30 seconds, and finally 15 seconds doesn’t create a buzz… And that fun is engaging. We go from laughing about our castles to talking about how we established criteria for what makes a castle, and how we could express that idea succinctly. From fun to important learning in a single exercise. Maybe we do this a few times, with dragons, unicorns and portraits of our teacher before we have that chat. If we do, we’ve strengthened the connection between expressing oneself creatively and fun, which is also a big win.
Before I bought these books, I had discovered Barry online. Her Tumblr page is a treasure trove, as it is essentially the course website for ‘The Unthinkable Mind,’ the course she teaches at the University of Wisconsin. It’s loaded with activities, ideas and exemplars, and well worth a visit. I just took a look at the first page, as I haven’t been there in a while, and I noted a handful of things I’d like to try in my Creative Writing course next semester.
These texts are unconventional in many ways, which is what makes them, in my opinion, so important for us to have. I love handing them to someone to check out, and the conversation that comes afterwards. Creativity is an important part of what we do in our English classrooms, and they encourage that in a natural and holistic manner. They’re wonderful guides for visual expression and literacy, which can be challenging to teach. Most of all, they’re catalysts for fun in your classroom, a way to play as part of learning, which is very important in our work.
Have you used Barry’s work in your classes? How? What’s a go-to text of yours that we might not know about?
Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!