This year I participated for the first time in The Sketchbook Project, a massive public art project managed by the Art House Co-op and Brooklyn Art Library. The process is simple–you register online, and Art House sends you a small sketchbook. It’s then up to every artist to determine how he/she will fill the blank pages until the mail-back deadline, at which time the artist sends the filled book back. The sketchbooks (which come from thousands of artists, amateur and professional, from all over the world) are then made part of a touring exhibition where museum and library goers can browse the sketchbook collection. After a year of touring, the sketchbooks are made a permanent part of the collection at the Brooklyn Art Library, and some are made part of a digital collection.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this, as I love to draw and I felt that this could provide a channel and a motivation for it. I think it’s important for teachers to participate in their discipline, and this was a chance for me to exercise my storytelling ability and author something of my own. I ended up creating something intensely reflective. The very process of completing the work helped me think about and process aspects of my own experience. (You can see my finished work in the gallery above.) But I also had an interest in The Sketchbook Project because of something new I’m trying in my English 12 classroom this year–requiring students to keep a school sketchbook as part of their English experience and grade.

My colleague Ms. J and I first got the idea of the English 12 sketchbook at the 2011  NCTE conference. In imitation of a strategy used by some teachers in a Chicago suburb, we decided to make drawing a regular component of our classroom, utilizing the playful, generative nature of drawing to help students interact with texts, brainstorm, and map out their own intellectual landscapes at specific moments in time. (Here’s the overview handout that we gave the students at the beginning of the year explaining the assignment: The English 12 Sketchbook). The students as a whole have responded in a very positive way, and in many cases their drawings are remarkably innovative and rich with abstract ideas. This semester, we’ve done the sketches as stand-alone activities… one about a poem here, another about a thinking process there… but after completing my own sketchbook, I’m wondering if there might be something important to the idea of continuity, of a story. Completing my book in a style that was part literary response, part memoir caused me to reflect on how each piece of an individual sketch (word + image) related to the sketches before and after, as well as how they related to me, to what I was trying to say.

Since my seniors are undertaking a major research paper and project during semester two, these ideas of reflection and cohesiveness are important for success. I may experiment with a sort of “visual journaling” progression that will ask students to use related sequential drawings in order to track the meanderings, epiphanies, frustrations, questioning, and connecting that go along with research. Even as a series of unrelated activities, though, the sketchbook is one of those teaching strategies that I absolutely stand behind, even after just one semester of trying it in class. Here’s why:

*Students peek over each other’s shoulders to see what’s being created–interest in each other’s ideas leads to academic conversation.

*Ideas are recorded in a visually very “presentable” format, using a document camera or scanning images into an online format allows students to show their thinking dynamically.

*Sketchbook activities require a knowledge and application of visual rhetoric–a crucial skill in analyzing film, web, and other media.

*It’s fun to do and fun to watch. Play lessens inhibition, and enables students to take advantage of what they perceive as a low pressure chance to display thinking.

*Asking students to create and explain symbolic representations requires true metaphorical thinking that cannot be faked.

*The time it takes to shade in a space or carefully draw a line creates extended minutes for students to think about what they are creating and why, often yielding deep understanding.

Upon finishing my own sketchbook, I feel like I used my brain and heart to create something of worth. There are very few feelings better than that. Knowing that my book will be held and examined by other people, also, creates a sense of connection. This is something I really want for my students, one of those sort of “intangible standards” that I try to weave into my teaching. I want my students to understand the joy and fulfillment of creating something, whether it’s through words, image/design, or performance. The Sketchbook Project helped remind me of that, and I think I’ll be returning to do it again next year. I may even invite some interested students to try it as well!

Do you use drawing in your classroom? How does it work for you?  Tell me more in the comments section below!