Morning Sketching

Some samples, none from my current class: Sherry comes into the classroom ready to make sense right away. Joey is a walking blur for the first half hour. Scott may well have had another argument with his brother in the car on the way to school. Diane would prefer to read, because it’s easy for her but she’ll agree to sketch, now she’s used to it.

Kids arrive at school in the morning each carrying a different weather inside them, different both child by child and day by day. Sketching time makes a sort of airlock, a way to transition between home and school, a way to transition into output, a way to settle down into the self who chooses what to do, and explores and thinks, and then chooses again.

How it works

I buy 9 by 12 hardbound sketching journals at a place in Cambridge where I can get a special deal, and give them to my students on the first day of school. Right away, that day, we begin something that will become a familiar ritual. Following a note on the marker board and each others example, kids settle to sketch at their table places as they gradually assemble, chatting quietly as they’re settling. If they want special materials from the art shelves, they get them during this time. The sketching encourages relaxed discussion around the table (where, after all, not all the table-mates are chosen or familiar.) The chatting helps kids transition into the privacy of their own heads.

Around 8:30, when everyone is supposed to have arrived, we close the classroom door and start the day’s music, and the sketching becomes silent, with no movement around the room. Establishing this routine, and re-establishing it after breaks, I say, Go down into your own mind, your own imagination. Don’t interrupt anyone else. Just settle in. Sometimes, drawing on long-ago experience, I think of this as a Quaker meeting for drawing, a kind of meditation. The silent sketching phase lasts for ten or fifteen minutes, and then we start the rest of the day.

Every once in a while, not as often as I wish but as often as a busy schedule can allow, we do a round of sketching sharing as part of morning meeting. Kids call on each other for comments or questions. The questioners ask the sharer, Where did you get that idea? or, How did you get that effect? If a child shares something produced in a new way, or if I do a little mini-lesson on a new material nobody has discovered yet, the resulting contagion is accepted as a good thing, not spurned as copying.

Although I occasionally wander around the classroom looking over kids shoulders, and see whatever they chose to share with the class, I never evaluate what they’re doing, except for an occasional involuntary gasp of amazement. No guidelines; only the rarest of suggestions. They’re on their own.

What we need to get past

For some students sketching time is hard at the beginning of the year. Some fear that I’m asking them to make representational drawings of real objects, but tend to relax as soon as they realize that cartooning is fine; making abstract designs using collaged or stenciled shapes is fine; various kinds of printmaking are fine; maps of fantasy places are fine. (On the other hand, some kids welcome the chance to do every day, in school! representational drawing.) Once in a while a particular child judges his own visible products so harshly, so anxiously, that he wants to tear pages out of the book. (I say no; the book is a kind of journal; not all learning experiences are completely positive; that’s okay.)

What I learn from watching

If a teacher’s first job is to know her students, few class experiences help me more than this, especially early in the year. For example: some kids, who show in their other academic work a difficulty committing themselves, will find even in sketching time some format for quiet, repetitive work: filling an entire page with tiny tangent circles, or endlessly drawing the same cartoon. That helps me understand what they’re doing (or not doing) in math, or in writing, or even in trying to settle on a book to read.

Other students set themselves up to make decision after decision, and relish that sense of power. Many behave like adult artists I know, trying variations on a theme, investigating, exploring. What if I…?

Whatever energy is there that’s what we work with, all day.

Memories

Thinking back over years of watching kids at sketching time, I think of the girl processing a messy parent divorce, who, day after day, drew ordinary things and then buried them under a thick layer of black cray-pas, rubbing it glossy. (This didn’t last forever, but it did go on for several months. I knew she was in counseling already; I could just wait and watch and see what she would do next.) I think also of the girl who spent weeks, maybe months, painting watercolor on her own hand and then making designs, on the pages of her sketchbook, with the imprint of her hand. I think of the few boys who’ve drawn almost nothing but weapons and mayhem very few, actually, although many have used those motifs at times and then I think of the equal number of boys who’ve made map worlds that extended from page to page for as many as thirty pages.

Why does it work so well?

When I say it works I mean that early sketching time has a positive effect on the rest of the day. I don’t know enough about teaching art to advocate morning sketching as a way to do that, although I’m always fascinated by what my students wind up doing in such an open and risk-free environment, with only each other as teachers. Still, I’ve always been focused on the effect that sketching time has on us, students and teacher, as individuals and as a group.

I don’t have much of an experimental control, though, for any claims I might make about the benefit of morning sketching. Since I discovered morning sketching, especially silent sketching, as a way to begin the day, I’ve only rarely left it out. Substitute teachers, coming into my room intermittently, discover that this is a part of my plans they want to follow.

I can’t think of anything with a bigger pay-off, that requires so little from the teacher.

Maybe it;s about the silence itself. Our hearts can say things in silence that we are less likely to say out loud, and those rise into the air of the room, and time carries us all forward. When I look back into the sketchbook I sometimes use myself, joining the kids work, I often return to the daffodils I drew when one of my best friends was dying. The kindness of that class in college now has become a fragrance for the flowers. I believe this so firmly: what we can give each other in shared experience should be a part of school. But those moments of mutual gift often seem to happen best with the lightest possible touch. As light as shared silence.

— Polly Brown, Touchstone Community School, Head Teacher for 10, 11 and 12 year olds