Thursday, October 1, 2009

Authors, Illustrators, and Teaching: Part 1

Authors and illustrators recently challenged my thinking about teaching.

The National Book Festival is an annual event held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. This year my wife and I attended for the first time. As I listened to various children’s authors and illustrators, I was struck by how much relevance the ideas they communicated had for educators.

First up was Charles Santore. Mr. Santore has illustrated several well-known children’s books, including The Camel’s Lament and versions of classics, such as the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” and the fantasy The Wizard of Oz. He also illustrated this year’s National Book Festival poster.

Because he moved from advertising illustration to children’s literature, many of Mr. Santore’s comments contrasted the two. For example, in illustration, Santore explained, you have to synthesize all the ideas into one, attention-grabbing illustration. However, in illustrating children’s literature, the artist can attend to pacing, even drawing “quiet” pictures that allow the reader to pause and ponder.

This pacing, giving the reader time to imagine and think, mirrors a pace the brain needs for optimal learning. Often called “down-time,” the brain needs to process new content in manageable chunks.1 A teacher who lectures for 45 minutes straight promotes less learning than a teacher who presents information for 10 minutes, engages students in processing new material, and then resumes presenting information for another brief period. To learn, the brain needs to pause and ponder—it needs the story of learning to include “quiet” illustrations.

Up next was one of my favorites: Nikki Grimes. Miss Grimes has authored several of my favorite children’s books, including The Road to Paris. With gifts in both poetry and prose, Miss Grimes captivated the audience with a colorful, poetic journey through several of her works. I cannot explain this sufficiently to help you appreciate it. She used poetry to introduce a color and its affective associations, then illustrated the concepts with passages from her writings. She created a hush in the tent and no one wanted her to stop.

What does this have to do with teaching? It made me think about how little thought I often give to my actual presentation of information. Sure, I think long and seriously about the activities I use to introduce or engage students in processing new information, but Nikki Grimes put that kind of thought into how she actually presented the information.

Hmm, how could I simulate this? Could I combine communication forms to better articulate critical concepts for students? Would a poetic journey through the Pythagorean theorem promote better understanding? One thing is certain: by challenging myself to consider the approach, I’d think more deeply about how I would actually explain the concept, and that would likely improve the words and phrases I used to teach it.

Finally, for this first of two posts, we heard and observed illustrator Kadir Nelson. Without exaggeration, Mr. Nelson is an artistic genius as evidenced in all his books, including the recent Testing the Ice.

A quiet individual, Mr. Nelson let his pens do most of the “talking.” He called two children up to the stage and recreated one of his illustrations with the children filling the roles of the original characters. Two young girls became Jackie Robinson and Yogi Berra, and their faces lit up with excitement and recognition. He actively involved the children, taking their minds to the scene he wanted them to imagine. Wow! In one illustration, he captured an entire narrative—a narrative to which two young girls could emotionally connect.

Narrative is a powerful teaching tool. Stories frame experience. Mark Turner suggests stories are actually fundamental, organizing structures: “Parable is the root of the human mind—of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly even of speaking.”2 Neurologist and author Alice W. Flaherty agrees, suggesting metaphors, such as stories, contribute to memory formation and understanding:
…metaphors are cognitively useful because they rephrase an abstract concept in more physical terms. This engages the cortex with its visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory maps, and the limbic system with its emotional charge…[Metaphors] create a sense of understanding by an analogous mechanism. By giving abstract concepts tastes, colors, smells, and emotional resonance, metaphors fix them in our minds and make us feel like we understand them.3
The human mind frequently thinks in terms of stories, communicates in stories, and converts new learning into stories. By framing experience, stories provide a structure for exploring and making sense of experience. Can I structure any of my teaching as narrative? Again, just challenging myself to try will likely improve my teaching.

Pondering pauses, poetic presentations, and narrative frames can inspire and inform my teaching. What I learn from authors and illustrators can become personal professional development if I’m willing to accept the challenges their ideas present.

In Part 2, insights from authors Sharon Creech, Kate DiCamillo, and illustrator Jerry Pinkney.

  1. Sousa, D., How the Brain Learns, 2nd ed., (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc., 2001).
  2. Turner, M., The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), i.
  3. Flaherty, A. W., The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 230.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree that it is far more effective to deliver information in short bursts, which is why we have chapters and scenes, it helps us to digest the information.