Student Engagement

Have Students Sketch to Kill the Prewriting Jitters

Todd Finley’s guest blogger Jonathan Bartels says drawing can help break through writers’ block.

January 7, 2011

Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is Jonathan T Bartels, a PhD student at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who writes about education and technology at The Fraudulent Facilitator.

"I just don't know what to write about." There was a quiet desperation in my student's eyes as we sat over a blank sheet of paper. While my student can't think of what to write, I can't think of where to even start counting the number of times I have been in this very situation with students before. To help combat what I often refer to as blank-page-syndrome, I pulled out my ice-cream bucket filled with old and horribly abused crayons I have collected over the years. With this simple action, student's demeanor shifted to slight confusion.

I can't fault the student for feeling perplexed at this sudden shift in medium. After all, we, as a system, send a pretty clear message that high school English is about reading and writing. And writing is about putting words on the page, and if you aren't doing that, its not writing.

"If I asked you to draw a picture of your topic, do you think you could draw it?" This question elicits a wide range of responses based mostly upon the individual student's comfort level with drawing and the topic being written about. To help overcome the strangeness and discomfort students may feel when approaching this activity for the first time, I talk through the process and model a sketch with them. As the type of drawing may vary from topic to topic, I try to model a topic that is not too removed from the topic the students are working with.

For example, if the students are working on a compare/contrast piece or writing about any kinds of relationships, spacial representations are often useful. Sometimes these types of drawings resemble maps, continuums, or venn diagrams. If the students are working with a scene or situation of some kind, drawing the scene out might be useful. When writing about a sequence of things, I have often had students draw it out as a comic strip.

Once the students see my painfully poor drawing skills and understand the general concept, they often jump into their own drawing.

As Patricia Dunn points out in her 2001 book, Talking, sketching, moving: multiple literacies in the teaching of writing:

Sketching, drawing, or graphing developing ideas gives students who can visualize images an opportunity to use that talent productively. If forces those comfortable with words to see their text through a different perspective. For both experienced and novice writers, this unconventional mode can work with or against their customary thinking patterns, producing valuable insights regarding overall purpose, structure, use of evidence, etc. (66).

After overcoming the dreaded blank-page-syndrome, the most important thing about using drawing as a prewriting activity is the conversation that happens around it. Some questions that I commonly ask the students I work with about their sketches are:

?Why did you decide to draw it this way?
?What's happening here?
?Why is this here? (in regards to spacial organization)
?Why did you include this detail/item?
?How are these specific items related?
?What did you purposefully leave out of your drawing?

Discussing the students drawing in this way gives me, as an instructor, a very clear idea of what the student understands and thinks about the given topic. For the student, it is a opportunity to articulate his or her thoughts about the topic in a non-threatening way. In my experience, students often don't think of their picture or our conversation about their picture as prewriting because it feels more like a conversation than instruction. As such, there is a very common response when a student is told that they have just hit upon some interesting and/or profound: "what did I just say?" With this in mind, a final thing I often do while talking is take brief notes on what they are saying and how they are talking about the topic they are writing about. This way, their ideas aren't adrift and lost in the wind.

Now that we know what to write about, we just have to figure out where to start.

Dunn, P. A. (2001). Talking, sketching, moving: Multiple literacies in the teaching of writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Jonathan T Bartels is a PhD student at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes about education and technology at The Fraudulent Facilitator. You can also follow him on Twitter @jtbartels.

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  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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