Today in class, I led my students through an exercise in which I asked them to remember one of their earliest memories, to write about that memory, and then to draw a 6 panel comic that captured the emotional content of that memory.
This summer I am teaching an upper division special topics English course at Angelo State University titled “Reading Graphic Novels.” For the course, students are reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s Watchmen, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. (The syllabus for this course is here.)
In response to the daily reading assignments, students submit responses in the form of drawings. These drawings use the “handmade thinking” technique I’ve developed wherein students choose among 21 visual formats that will serve as the basis for their drawings. These visual formats or templates include common icons or images, such as a portrait, a web, a before and after sequence, a Venn diagram, scales, layers, and a map. (More on handmade thinking here.)
Students also have two major assignments in which they are to draw comics. At midterm, I asked them to draw a comic of at least 2 pages, 12 panels, and 3 colors about an influential cartoonist or graphic novelist. (A slideshow of their midterm comics is here.) For their final, they will draw a comic with the same formal requirements, but this comic will be a personal narrative that has a emotionally or thematically unified content. A slice of life or snapshot of some experience they’ve had.
The purpose of today’s activity was to provide them practice in accessing memorable experiences and converting those memories into a comic of 6 panels. Because students have been studying comics and its visual vocabulary, as well as drawing two handmade responses each day, they have become quite comfortable and adept at drawing. They know by now that visual analysis and composition is a mode of language learning and expression that is rarely taught in school when compared to textual literacy.
But they are now, after three short weeks of practice and very basic drawing instruction, pretty proficient at using images through their own drawings to capture their responses to the comics and graphic novels we are reading. And their midterm comics were exceptional in their representation of the lives of influential comic artists and graphic novelists.
But in today’s exercise, I wanted them to sketch a comic out of their own experience, rather than in response to another text or subject. And just as importantly, I wanted them to visualize and represent the emotional content of that experience.
So I asked them to close their eyes and consider that the memories they hold in their visual warehouse of memories were only stored there because they had emotional significance. And I wanted them to go back into the farthest reaches of this warehouse, to the very back wall of the warehouse, to the place where they put their earliest memories, and to bring one of those into the light so they could see it better.
I then asked them to write about this memory for awhile. And when it looked like most had captured that memory in words, I asked them to translate that memory into 6 panels of a comic. I told them not to worry about having to include narrative boxes or dialogue but to focus on the emotional content of the images that might best depict this memory for others.
After they had shared these comics with each other, I then asked them to add an additional panel to the beginning of their comic and to add another panel at the end of their comic. For the new first panel, I asked them to draw an establishing shot that might help their reader get a sense of where the action of their comic was taking place. It could be a drawing of a house or a neighborhood or a larger perspective of a room. For the final panel, I asked them to draw a close-up of an object that was already in one of their panels, an image that might assist in expressing the emotion of the memory. After completing these additional panels, I asked students to share their comics again and talk about the changes they made and how these added panels contributed to the emotional content of the comics.
All I was trying to do in class today was help them prepare for their final comic assignment by giving them a chance to practice retrieving their memories, drafting a comic, and focusing on the visual representation of emotional content. This exercise is similar to those we often use in a creative or first-year writing class to help students write out of their own experiences.
But my teaching experience tells me that using visual language to communicate those emotions has a different kind of power for the artist and reader than words might. As an engagement strategy, as a tool for learning and communicating, drawing has served my students well. And it’s a damn shame we don’t promote visual language learning and performance in schools for all students. My faith in the word has become stronger in school, but I have had to gain faith in the image on my own, like most artists do. I’d like to see a drawing-across-the-curriculum agenda adopted by schools and colleges everywhere. Drawing is thinking and learning and understanding and communicating, too. Why limit the languages available to us? Let us expand our perspectives on learning.
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