Teachers Write! 6/25 – Mini-Lesson Monday

Good morning, campers! Can you believe we’re diving into Week Four? The winner of Friday’s book giveaway from Katy Duffield is Kimberley Moran!  Please email me (kmessner@katemessner dot com) with your address so Katy can send your books!

Before we kick off the new week, just a couple quick notes… I’m away this week with limited Internet access (curse and blessing that it is) so even though all our posts are scheduled to go, I’ll be around less than usual in the comments. I’ll still be cheering you on from afar, though!  

If Teachers Write has made you hungry for more online professional development, Stenhouse is kicking off its free Summer Blogstitute this week with some great guest posts from its authors. Check it out here.

And if you’re interested in ordering personalized, signed copies of any of my kids’ books…I have this book signing coming up in Lake Placid July 2nd. They’ll send books to far-away friends, too, so you can call The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 if you’d like to order anything.

Today’s Monday Mini-lesson is courtesy of Ruth McNally Barshaw, author of the hilarious and illustrated Ellie McDoodle series.  She’s inviting us to explore the connections between art and writing!

Art Literacy is the concept, now borne out by studies (see some background and research links at http://www.picturingwriting.org/), that the act of creating art improves subsequent writing.  When you draw – even doodle – it changes your thinking so that richer writing results.

The best part is you don’t have to be a trained illustrator to do it. This works for everyone. Surprisingly, stick figures work just as well as the most beautiful, intricate painting.

When you sit down to write, first draw or create art – any kind of art. It can be abstract or figurative. It can be paper or fabric collage, sketches, painted, doodled.

You can make paper, marble it, collage it.

Or you can get a head start on your manuscript by drawing a character and using callouts and labels to list traits.

Here’s a spread from the first Ellie McDoodle book where Ellie uses this method for characterization:

Here’s a page from my sketchjournal, drawn when I was 16, where I do the same:

(And that’s where I got the idea for Ellie to do it)

 This also works for scene building and novel plotting.

I used it while working on a novel last year. I hit writer’s block, didn’t know what should happen next, and found that revisiting previous scenes helped unlock the door to the next scene. Drawing was the key:

While this trick works for quick sketching, it also works for more detailed art. Here’s a drawing I created while exploring characters for last year’s novel.  The act of drawing told me information I hadn’t previously thought of, for each of the characters:

 If you want to get to know your character better, draw him or her. Add description as callouts.

If you want to figure out what should happen next in your story, draw what just happened. Then start a sketch of what could happen next.

And if you want to write better, draw first.

I’m on deadline right now for the fifth Ellie book, Ellie McDoodle: The Show Must Go On; these techniques are helping me get the writing done on time.

To use this idea with students:

-Have them draw storyboards of their work. Or their fellow students’ work. Or stories they have read.

Storyboarding is used in advertising for developing commercials, and in filmmaking. Limiting them to 6 or 8 small boxes for the entire story prevents minutia or perfectionism from creeping in. It solidifies pacing and focuses cause and effect. (Illustrators storyboard their picturebooks, one box per page. I do this, but I also storyboard my novels.)

-Tell them to close their eyes. Visualize the character they want to write about. Then draw what they see in their mind’s eye, their imagination.

-To add depth to the drawn character, add callouts to describe various personality and physical traits. Brainstorm negative as well as positive traits, for a more rounded character. Next they write a story using what they have drawn.

Thanks, Ruth! Such a fun workshop today… now is everybody ready to get working? Ready… Set…write! Draw!


50 Replies on “Teachers Write! 6/25 – Mini-Lesson Monday

  1. I am always fascinated by my students whose writing stems from drawing first, and so I incorporate a lot of drawing into our writing prompts and writing process. However, I am NOT one of those kinds of visual writers (which was a problem when I decided a few years ago to make my own webcomic poking fun at teachers, students and technology. My drawings were embarrassingly basic. See Boolean Squared to see what I mean: http://booleansquared.com/ )

    But I am here to learn, so I decided to try to sketch out the head of the main character of the story I am writing this summer. His name is Manny. (take a gander at him over at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dogtrax/7439126326/ ). What I found is that I was being thoughtful about what he would look like, and the activity forced me to visualize Manny in a way that I had not done before. I now see him a bit clearer in my head.

    This activity reminds me how important it is that we tap into the connected artistic elements of creativity, so that writing is not just writing and drawing is not just drawing (and music is not just music, etc.). There are ways to pull threads together along interesting intersections. It’s also a reminder that just because a teacher has a weakness in one area (ie, me and art), that doesn’t mean I should be leaving that out of my classroom practice.


    1. Kevin, I like Manny, and your other drawings, too, from Boolean Squared. I don’t think a person necessarily has to be a skilled illustrator to do some interesting and eye-catching drawings. A lot of the diary type middle grade books have that child-like, i-can’t-draw look, but are extremely expressive and funny. So, I’d go for it, even if you don’t consider art your strong point.

    2. I love that thinking. I feel it too. We have to do everything in our classrooms for exposure-sake. If they don’t see it from us, they may never get it. I think I am a terrible artist, but my first graders think I’m wonderful. See yourself as they do sometimes. I love how you learned more about Manny despite your perceived challenge.

      1. I think partly that is because what I see in my head is much more nuanced and detailed than what I drew on the machine. I suppose writing can be like that, too, right? We have elaborate ideas and getting them down with coherence is part of the fun (and difficulty, sometimes) of writing.

    3. Kevin,
      I really appreciate you sharing this perspective. I loved to draw as a kid and doodled in my writing notebook all the time and illustrated pictures. As I grew up, I drew less and less to the point that it now is something I’m afraid to do on my own or in front of kids (I am horrible at it). However, that said, I really want to continue to push myself to draw because I think it’s important for so many thinkers and I think it would enhance my own thinking. I appreciate you sharing your drawings and your reflections!


    4. Just as better writing can be learned, so can the ability to express through drawing be taught, and learned, and self-taught. Check out Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain — and pay special attention to the before and after pictures by her students. If that doesn’t convince you that anyone can learn to draw well, maybe it can convince you that anyone can learn to fake it! 😉
      Nobody is born knowing how to draw well. It’s just practice. Proficiency comes through many hours of practice, but dedicated learning can improve any self-described non-artist’s work. Please take up a pencil and practice drawing what you see. Forget high expectations. Just doodle.
      You’ll be amazed at what you can do, especially if you keep at it.

      Thank you for responding to today’s blog post. 🙂

  2. Huh?! I won! Yeah me. I sent you my address by email.

    I am so excited about this morning’s work because I am completely immersed in a book study about teaching kids into illustrations as a way to start teaching craft. It’s an amazing book by Katie Wood Ray. I could go on and on about what I’ve learned, but I think it’s appropriate to send you to my blog post in case you want to learn more. It’s completely in line with this Monday’s assignment.


    1. Just read your blog post-I think you are on your way for great things to happen in your classroom in the fall. Your honesty about not acknowledging students illustrations as writing is a huge step! I’m not sure which part of Maine you are from-but…Katie Wood Ray will be at the University of ME at Orono in December. I’m a “groupie” of hers, I have all her books and I’ve been to 5 of her conferences and will definitely be there in December. She sits on my shoulder every day when I teach writing. I’m going to keep checking back on your blog to read your insights about the book and I’m going to dig mine back out and follow along with you!

    2. I just read your blog with the chapter summaries of Katie Wood Ray’s book, and am glad I did. I am a middle school math and science teacher, and even though we do quite a bit of drawing in science, I was missing teaching Language Arts as I read your blog. It made me start to think…”Would my struggling math students benefit from more drawing?” It’s always one of the possible techniques I mention and model for approaching a word problem, but we jump quickly back to numbers and go about finding the answer. Hmm…”I wonder what results I might get if I devoted a lesson or a week to drawing the math we see on our assignments? What if we didn’t jump to numbers until we were labeling the art work?” It would certainly slow us down in our math calculations for a day or so, but I am excited to explore this idea with my students to see if it would result in better connections to the math, and better explanations of their solutions.

      Thanks for taking the time to write a longer blog than usual.

    3. Yay, Kimberly! I’ll get your books out to you soon! I’ll email you when I get your contact info, and you can let me know how/if you’d like the books personalized.

  3. Ruth,
    Thanks for sharing!

    For reading comprehension, I have the students create a six-frame comic strip while I read them a story (example: I read Romulus and Remus, they take notes on the back of the comic strip paper, and then use their notes to create a comic strip, with color, for the story. When they have completed the comic strips and I have handed them back, I show them different pictures/illustrations and the statue in Rome of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf.)

    I am thinking that I could use the same six-frame comic strip sheet to have them sketch out their story (creative, narrative, descriptive) before writing the rough draft. This would be helpful to the students that are visual learners, which I am finding that I have more of in my classroom than I did ten years ago.

    Thanks again! Happy writing, oops I mean, drawing!:)

      1. I’m loving that six-frame idea, too!

        And may I just say how HAPPY it made me, having been away from Teachers Write! for a couple of weeks while life took over, to come back to Ellie McDoodle and a day when I get to ease back into my writing by DRAWING!! I’m SO going to get out my colored pencils and see what kind of writing comes of my sketching!

      1. I love her way of thinking visually. I’ve been using a program called Simple Diagrams to get myself moving in that directions. Check out how I used it for a draft of diagramming out the ELA Common Core.
        It’s a whole different mindset, though, for me to think visually, and I struggle with how to connect ideas without creating chaos for the viewer (reader?)

    1. Hello there, Andy!

      I tweaked Remus and Romulus this year and had the students create a picture book of the myth (each person in the group was responsible for one key part). The results were amazing! I definitely think it helped their comprehension of the myth, too. If you want to try it next year, I have the instructions and rubric to pass along. I still have the students do the comic strip for the Trojan War during the Greece unit.

      I have very little artistic skills to speak of, however, with this morning’s activity (yes, I have finally committed!) I was able to create Kat, a mad-at-the-world pre-teen who is bossy, mean, and wears the same dirty, grass-stained jeans with holes in the knees every day just because she can. Secretly, she really wants a best friend, but no matter how hard she thinks she tries (she doesn’t try that hard) to be nice to her classmates, she just can’t manage to snag a friend. I’m actually pretty impressed with the drawing, too. It would never pass for an illustration, but she isn’t a stick figure!


  4. Kimberly:
    I am also a Katie Wood Ray groupie and have followed her work for years. She is such a gifted teacher. I loved reading your reflections on your blog, and, having taught kindergarten for 13 years, I feel your pain regarding the drawing vs. writing dilemma. I know I had children who were terrified to make the “leap” from drawing (which they were very comfortable with) to “writing” (which they thought they couldn’t do). My final discovery was that there is a balance, and sometimes I had to insist that my young writer friends attempt to add words to enhance their drawings, or they would remain in that comfort zone all school year long. We had many a writing celebration when one of my students dared to go beyond their wordless entries in their writer’s notebooks! I realized today that I rarely draw and doodle in my own writer’s notebook. This assignment and your posting makes me pause and ponder the issue of confidence. Isn’t it ironic that we start out telling stories, then drawing stories and finally writing stories, then it’s hard to go back and have confidence reversing the process? As a Librarian I know that chapter books and novels using illustration are hugely popular with the students. Like you, many of the teachers want the kids to read a “real book”, not a “comic book”. I try to re-educate and talk about graphic novels and believe their appeal is just-right for many of our elementary and middle school readers. This type of a writing assignment would be GREAT to use in exploring this genre. Love it! Now… I’m going to go draw in my writer’s notebook!

    1. Mary, Thank you for your thoughtful response! The funny thing is that I am totally free with my own children. I push them to read ANYTHING they like and to write about everything any way they want including collage. I think I have a fear of doing that in my classroom because of what teachers will think. Note to self: think for self. 🙂

  5. Ruth,
    Thanks for sharing your process. I first began doodling when writing back in 1979, my junior year in college. I had a professor (Advanced Composition) who insisted on it. It has taken a long time for the writing/drawing connection finally to gain acceptance in classrooms. I have students (seniors) create body bios for characters, map using their drawings or cutouts the plots of texts, etc. There’s a great book called “How to Think Like Leonardo Di Vinci” that has influenced my thinking.

    I have no artistic ability, but I’m going to use your technique for my characters as I found myself not giving enough physical descriptions of them. I was thinking about this a few days ago.

    In my speech classes, I use picture books to help students learn about pitch, rate, inflection, etc. by analyzing the images and concluding how these make suggestions about voice.

    Back to the drawing board!

  6. Ruth,
    Thank you SO MUCH for being a part of the workshop today. I almost stayed away from camp today because I have such a busy day ahead of me, but I’m glad I didn’t. Thanks for making my day, and introducing me to Ellie McDoodle!

  7. I’ve been using story boards with students for a couple of years now, and it really does help jump start their writing, particularly those reluctant writers. I’ve never really considered using one for my own writing, nor have I thought of sketching my characters. Huh. I may just have to try sketching. 🙂

    I do like the idea of using a story board to get unstuck, and I’m sure it will also help in weaving various pieces of the story together. Thanks, Ruth, for sharing this great idea!

  8. Hello!

    I am new here as of today and I’m very excited to begin! This morning’s activity threw me for a little loop because I lack drawing skills. In fact, my students often laugh and poke fun at my board illustrations! However, I was able to accomplish today’s task, and it didn’t turn out too shabby. I ended up with a character that I may be able to weave into another story I am working on at the moment.

    I like the idea of including drawing with reading and writing. I regularly conduct literature circles in my classroom and have the “artful artist” as one of the assigned roles. I find that it is helpful for many students to sketch a particular scene or series of scenes in order to build comprehension.

    Thanks for today’s mini-lesson!

    1. Welcome, Bridget, and I hope you come on back. It’s a great place for ideas (steal ’em!) and for sharing writing and strategies as teachers and writers. I suspect Kate will be welcoming you, too, when she finds an internet connection wherever she is. I know I am appreciating the resources and guests here.

  9. Really enjoyed this post. When I was in high school, I drew my lessons in biology. It helped me to remember. I have drawn maps of the places I write about to move my characters around, but usually find magazine pictures for what I’m imagining my characters to look like. I’ll have to try this.

    Interestingly, I’m going to Summer Fishtrap, a writer’s retreat in ORE (http://www.fishtrap.org/summer.shtml), in a few weeks. My first afternoon session will have all of us in the morning writing groups doing art. Should be fun.

  10. LOVE the information and the ideas-and of course, Ellie McDoodle. Not feeling sketchy today, but will draw from your suggestions on the morrow. Many thanks. M

  11. I’m just starting Teachers Write today. I’m finally done with the school year and on my way to recuperating. I’m not working on any particular story or writing project this summer, instead I have joined in order to practice my own writing. I found myself returning to my writer’s notebook that I worked in last summer throughout the school year as I worked on various writing projects with the kids. Maybe I’ll find a story, yet.

    I have enjoyed the Ellie McDoodle books, and my students have, too. Ruth, thanks for sharing some of your process with us and sparking my creativity.I have done a similar lesson with my 4th grade students when they were writing realistic fiction. It really helped them to develop some interesting details about their characters. I took the opportunity today to draw my “model” character that I use with my students. Even though I have tried this before, today’s sketch showed some new possibilities that I hadn’t thought of previously – like how did she get that tear in her jeans. An interesting idea in the classroom could be for students to sketch their character at different times of the year.

  12. Thank you for sharing your sketches and how powerful they can be in your writing process. Many of my students love to draw, and I can see how they would love this process and how it can scaffold their writing. It makes me think about the power of oral rehearsing and how it could serve the same purpose. I look forward to integrating more sketches into my writer’s notebook this year in order to discover how it influences me (someone who does not identify as having very much experience with drawing).

  13. Thank you very much Ruth… I like the connection between art and write…. the idea of drawing before writing as an inspiration it’s amizing

  14. Thanks for joining us today, Ruth. I, like many others, am afraid of my own sketching abilities. But I will definitely try. I don’t know if I’ll share. I think I’ll sketch a character for the flipped fairy tale that I still haven’t tried yet.

  15. I tried to share my sketch-but it wouldn’t post twice! Maybe I’m not allowed to link my blog in the text? It seems to work for others. So…if you really want to see it, click on my name and it should take you to my blog where you can see my sketch of my biking frustration.

  16. Both of my son’s had the same fabulous kindergarten teacher. My oldest LOVES to draw. The year after he “graduated”, they began a program called Project 64. This is based on Crayola’s box of 64 crayons. His teacher told me about the program and wished they had had it in place for my oldest. I got a chance to see it in action this year while volunteering in the room for my youngest son. I was simply amazed at what these kids could do. What was more amazing was the quality of his writing and the illustrations that accompanied them. There is definitely something to be said for the power of drawing that unlocks a child’s inner writer!
    If you’re interested in the Project 64 program (there is one for pre-school and 1st grade too) here’s the link:

  17. I don’t consider myself much of an artist, but I do find drawing helpful for my writing! Usually it takes some prompting, though (as in, I don’t think to do it on my own). Last semester we did storyboards for one of our writing prompts, and I found it very helpful as a visual outline–we used one notecard for each scene so that it was easier to rearrange. I also found, like I found today when sketching my characters, that the act of drawing helps me to see more detail. The prompt we did storyboards for last semester involved a memoir aspect (they were “literary relationship papers”), and drawing out different scenes often helped me remember more details–or to think about another scene I might want to include! I haven’t tried it yet, but I have a feeling that this could work the same way with fiction. I know that drawing my characters forced me to think more about what they would look like, what they would wear, etc.–and to come up with reasons why!

  18. Love the idea of using drawing to inspire writing or to jolt a piece that’s stuck. I agree that stick figures and similarly quick doodles can do the job adequately, which makes the following suggestion feel kind of like a copout, so I’ll reframe it instead as an alternative or accommodation: For students with computer access and self-consciousness about their drawing, I’m a fan of http://www.makebeliefscomix.com/ (an online comic generator). I’ve also seen teachers in many subject areas send kids to the site to create a strip that puts content vocabulary into vivid action to demonstrate its meaning.

  19. Thanks for all the powerful examples of how art encourages imagination for writing and for reading. Quick Sketches are an integral part of both my reading and writing classes, since reading and writing are reciprocal processes. We sketch, label, share, and discuss fiction and nonfiction — main ideas, character personalities, props in the story that add to the flow and action or develop character, events in nonfiction. Our sketches deepen our understanding in reading and expand our details and questions to clarify our writing. I have a more formal Six Box Reading Activity for fiction and nonfiction if any one is interested: Six Box Reading