The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

Sketching to Sharpen Writing

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By Allie Reznik, Teaching Fellow and English PhD Candidate at Duquesne University

How many of our students are visual learners? Even if the majority of students are, we might be apprehensive to bring creative lessons into our classrooms that engage visual learning. I’d like to offer one example of how we can inspire our students’ creative potentials to sharpen their writing and perspective regardless of discipline.

While reading Alison James and Stephen D. Brookfield’s innovative pedagogical text Engaging Imagination (2014, Jossey-Bass) for the Center for Teaching Excellence’s Book Study, I began brainstorming artistic, visual exercises for my UCOR102 class. And it was perfect timing: we were reading Marjane Satrapi’s powerful graphic memoir The Complete Persepolis (2007, Pantheon) which presents a personal perspective of Iran beyond what we might get from news and social media.

James and Brookfield’s “Three Axioms of Student Engagement” encourage us to think about creative ways for our students to sharpen the work that we’re already expecting them to do. What assignment is your class currently working on? Think of this assignment in terms of the “Three Axioms” here in abridged form:

1. Student learning is deepest when the content or skills being learned are personally meaningful, and this happens when students see connections and applications of learning.

2. Student learning “sticks” more (in other words, retention of knowledge and skill is increased) when the same content or skills are learned through multiple methods.

3. The most memorable critical incidents students experience in their learning are those when they are required to “come at” their learning in a new way, when they are “jerked out” of the humdrum by some unexpected challenge or unanticipated task. (6-7)

For my UCOR102 paper assignment, I had students create a list of questions that The Complete Persepolis personally raised for them in order to determine their thesis statements. My students—ranging from biomedical engineering, physician assistant, business, and pharmacy majors—expect lectures and worksheets in their classes. Asking them to sketch in the UCOR102 classroom would definitely compel them to “come at” paper writing in a new way. They’d be able to see the moving parts of their argument, as well as realize some moving parts that they would need to add or clarify.

Equipped with blank computer paper, I walked into class and announced we’d be sharpening our arguments about The Complete Persepolis. I asked students to write down their argument in 1-2 sentences. Students were then “jerked out” of the anticipated lesson: I asked them to draw—to the best of their ability— exactly what they wrote down.

Students first drew their argument to see their ideas tangibly. After they drew visual representations of their arguments, I encouraged them to consider what was still absent and invisible. Acknowledging the absences in their argument highlights potential blind spots that they needed to clarify. I asked them to write down what else they needed to specify to make their visual perspective sharper to create a more vivid textual argument. Here’s a gallery of student sketches here for you to see how their perspectives began to transform once they saw an artistic rendering of their argument.

Alex pic 1After sketching their argument, students saw what was apparent and what they needed to clarify. In image 1 the student reflected on “what do I mean by women’s rights? What does women’s rights look like?”

Alex pic 2Image 2 yielded questions of “Whose expectations of women am I assuming? How does age affect representation of rebellion?”

Alex pic 3Image 3 led to further clarification of “What does government control mean and look like in this specific case?”

Alex pic 4Image 4 pushed the student to consider “What is the spectrum of how Satrapi’s family members treated her that influenced her? What does Satrapi’s family’s impact look like specifically?”

Alex pic 5Image 5 moved beyond assumptions of childhood and into questions such as “What is Satrapi’s childhood perspective look like specifically? How and why does her perspective change specifically?”

Students moved forward from this exercise—after temporarily stepping into Satrapi’s position as graphic artist—thinking consciously about the creation of visual and academic arguments. Most importantly, students visualized their argument in a new way to see what they needed to clarify.

In what ways have you engaged your students’ creative potentials in your classroom, regardless of discipline? I’d love to hear more about it.

Allie Reznik is a fourth year PhD candidate in English studying the intersections of race and music in American literature. She writes #TSWBAT blog and tweets about food, music, and popular culture at @alliebgolightly.

Author: duqcte

Founded in 1989 as a faculty initiative, the Center for Teaching Excellence helps faculty and graduate student teaching assistants excel as teacher-scholars deeply invested in their students’ learning. We believe that excellent teaching is an art that grows through scholarship, practice, reflection, and collaboration. Our approach at CTE is a personal one. We promote excellence in teaching by getting to know our faculty and TAs, learning from them, fostering their leadership, and bringing people together from across the University.

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