Drawing Complex Text Comprehension by Hand

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One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)

 

Ah, summer… a great time to be a Transcendentalist! If you are anything like me, you’ve spent as much time as possible during the warm months seeking solace in places of natural beauty. Soon, though, if you’re also an English teacher, you’ll be more likely to be teaching a Transcendentalist text than actually going out into the woods to live deliberately. And even if you don’t teach any texts by Emerson or Thoreau, you certainly teach something old, dense, and difficult. Some classical text that you love, and that students perpetually just don’t get. Something with gorgeous imagery and profound insight that today’s adolescents find puzzlingly void of meaning.

Want a strategy for that? It’s doodle time.

I am a passionate believer in the power of visual representation–particularly in the form of art created by hand–when it comes to learning. Even when the goal is improving students’ ability to process difficult text, images can come to the rescue when blended with other comprehension strategies.

Throughout the year, I like to remind my students about some key steps to follow when they encounter text that’s difficult (or “impossible”) to understand. Here they are, in order of procedure:

  1. Read the text, not worrying about understanding anything, just to get acquainted with it. Accept that you may have no idea what it means, and that it’s ok.
  2. Read the text again, noting words that you don’t understand. Circle them. Look them up. Write down the definitions. (If there are LOTS that you don’t know, just look up the ones that are repeated or seem most important.)
  3. Break the text up into sections. This may be easy when looking at punctuation or paragraphing, or you may have to make a guess. Visually separate the sections by drawing lines, drawing brackets, or numbering.
  4. Section by section, slowly re-read and process the text. Summarize each section to the best of your ability in plain English, or via doodle notes.
  5. Re-examine your summaries in order to gain a fuller understanding of the whole text.

These steps are tried and true. They work with Shakespeare, with Hawthorne, and here–in the example I’ll share–with Emerson. One great thing about this strategy is that it’s easy to model and scaffold for students whenever they need extra support. Especially if a text is particularly challenging or if I want to move things along a bit quicker, I may choose to do some of the earlier steps along with my students so that they can focus on the processing step. That’s where the meaning-making magic happens.

Here’s the excerpt from Emerson’s “Nature” that I used with my students last year, in our introduction to the famous Transcendentalist. We started our first encounter with the text together, reading aloud. We paused to identify and define tougher words, which you’ll see provided here in the text. I separated the sections ahead of time, indicated by numbers 1-9, and explained at each transition why I noticed a shift in topic or tone. (In a longer lesson, students could do these steps on their own in small groups.) Check it out: “Nature” steps 1-3

Now, on to the fun part! You’ll notice the numbered boxes on the last page–this is where I ask my students to doodle their summary of each section. Do understand, they are not always super thrilled about doing this. They whine, “I can’t draw!” Or: “I still have no idea what this says. Is this even English? I’m so lost–how can I draw something I don’t even get?!”  Just push through the whining. They can do it. This is where I tell them, “Don’t worry! I am not grading you on the quality of your art. Stick figures are fine. Do the best you can. Break it down sentence by sentence, and figure it out.” If they’re especially nervous, I let them pair up to share ideas about what to draw.

It’s so exciting to watch this part. I walk around the classroom and check out their drawing ideas, encouraging them to go with the good ones, and helping them refine “almost there” interpretations. The process of doodling helps them for several reasons. For one, they start focusing on the quality of their drawing more than the difficulty of the text. For another, they pick up on textual images much more keenly, and find unique ways to represent abstract thoughts in ink and lead. Finally, the text becomes much better embedded in their long-term memory. (“Remember Emerson?”  “Who?”  “The guy who wrote the essay that we read when you drew that picture of a man turning into a carrot?”  “OH YEAH!” )

Before you know it, you’ll be looking at artwork that pushes the stick figure into areas of insight you never thought possible. And your students will be processing–really processing–some of the toughest (and greatest) texts of all time. 🙂 Here’s a sample from last year’s group, for your enjoyment. Click any image to enlarge.

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Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.

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I become a transparent eye­ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

 

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The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

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