Tell me about your picture …

Grappling with the value of drawing when it’s the writing I want him to get to

I occasionally volunteer at a local school where I work with a 7-year-old who loves to draw. If there are markers and paper in view, he’ll invariably draw many pictures in a matter of minutes, turning a new page in his notebook for almost every new idea. He’s a prolific artist with real creativity and playfulness. And yet, he’s made some drawings that I’ve looked at from all angles and still been unable to make sense of. I’m tempted to ask, “What is it?”, but that can be a maddening or deflating question to a 7-year-old who has just expressed himself in what he sees as a straightforward manner.

However, he doesn’t mind me saying, “Tell me about your picture.” When it becomes a matter of storytelling rather than giving an obvious answer, he has more patience with me. In telling me about his picture, he has discovered names of characters he wants to write about, words he can use to label his drawings, and we have practiced spelling as he fills words in around his pictures or writes sentences under them. I’ve found that, in his case, writing often starts with his artwork, which sometimes begins on a whim. The whole process unfolds haphazardly and, on the best days, fluidly.

I’ve been thinking about the intersection of art and writing because of my work with this student. I’ve been grappling with the value of drawing when it’s the writing I want him to get to—and that’s where TeachingBooks came into my own “picture” one night and opened up my view of the volunteer work I’ve been doing.

When a friend was recently reflecting on her favorite childhood books, Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour came into the conversation. For fun, I went to to see which concepts were included in Graeme Base’s Original Author Program on the site. His first slide show gave me a whole new way to think about “Tell me about your picture.”

Base says in the slideshow that he is often inspired to make art first and story second. He draws pictures that are meaningful to him and figures out how to build a story around them.

What a fascinating way to use art as the beginning of the creative writing process! And if you’ve ever read The Eleventh Hour, you’ll know the writing is as fun as the pictures. To have an accomplished illustrator and writer validate this process is revivifying as I continue to work with a 7-year-old artist and writer.

Following the Base program, I revisited the Saxton Freymann Original Author Program to see if his artwork (made from fruits and vegetables) could inform my new quest to substantiate the art-to-writing transition. In his book How Are You Peeling?, Freymann brilliantly uses the characteristics of his artistic medium to venture into an exploration of a linguistic element—pun.  So here’s an example of teaching a literary device with a book that developed from Saxton Freymann’s “absurd” artistic impulse. The Program Guide that supports the video also has some great ideas for extending his books into more in-depth conversations and assignments.

I hope with this theme in mind I’ll continue to find resources that support the use of art as a springboard for reading and writing activities, and I hope it will inspire some ideas for you too, but I won’t “draw” this post out any longer…

photo of blog article's author Posted by Brian Wulff, Educational Outreach Coordinator

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