Writing and drawing are both forms of art, arts used for communication and storytelling. If we look back, writing evolved from drawing, from pictographs indicating the hunt, crops, or the phases of the moon. We still use writing and images together- signs, picture books, posters, graphic novels, webpages. Indeed, much of the information you consume is a marriage of words and images. So why has writing engulfed drawing in the classroom?
I ask this question after working with twenty-three K-3 students in a summer visual arts program. (I specify visual arts as the state of music and theatre education is another essay entirely.) I talked with students about reading images, and they identified speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and motion lines. We drew characters and looked at David Wiesner's Tuesday, a picture book told using panels and spreads, and in which the only text is the time. Together, we read a few sequences, focusing on how the pictures were telling a story. Then, using pencils and paper, the students set to work on their own sequential pieces.
There were some creative stories of dragons, fish, princesses, and soccer players. Some students chose to use speech bubbles and thought bubbles while others used captions (which they placed in boxes despite the fact that we had not discussed captions). Three third-grade girls drew only a single image after being asked; the entirety of their stories were written. Of the twenty-three students in the class, only two didn't use any text, both kindergarteners who are still learning to write.
Despite examples, including circle, blob, and scribble characters, these third grade girls in at least their third day (if not second week) of a visual arts summer camp, told me that they were scared to draw because they couldn't, or because it wouldn't be good enough. I'm used to confronting this fear in students grades 7 and up (adults being the most fearful) but in students entering the third grade? Why was this happening?
Part of this could be attributed to the fact that these were three female students. Much has been written on the socialization of girls. Judgement of their drawings by their peers could be frightening enough to stop them from drawing. However, not all three of these girls were sitting together, and they were all able to draw their characters during the character development period. It was only when asked to tell a story that they reverted to writing.
Writing versus drawing and literacy versus visual literacy are discussions I often have with parents and teachers in the bookstore. Picture books, these adults tell me, are for preschool and kindergarteners, their children need to read. To which I respond that yes, children need to learn to read, but they also need to develop visual literacy skills, the skills that enable them to read images. Just as writing goes hand in hand with reading, so too does drawing pair with visual literacy.
I know the teachers of these students are teaching them writing and reading (and some students did seriously awesome work). Teachers may even be teaching some visual literacy when they read picture books. But drawing is reserved for their once-every-6-day art class. Even in elementary school, drawing is seen as superfluous, something some kids are good at, not something to be encouraged in every child throughout elementary school as a form of communication. Just as we encourage a love of reading and writing, should we not encourage a love of seeing and drawing? How can our students understand the significance of Lascaux, hieroglyphics, cuneiform, and illuminated manuscripts if they don't know how to look and draw?
From history, we know that writing grew from drawing. So, too, do a child's skills. Scribbles are pictures and words. While they eventually distinguish themselves, they are tied together. Let them exist side by side. Just as we strive to encourage multiple literacies, let's nurture multiple forms of communication. Let drawing and writing exist side by side in the classroom. You'll probably find it only increases the possibilities of communication.
To end on a positive note, here's a table of awesome drawings!