A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sarah's Class


(All names have been fictionalized)
By Daniel Kurland
July 19, 2011

            Sarah has been teaching art in public schools for over 20 years, mostly in elementary school. This summer, at a Summer Fine Arts institute in a local high school, Sarah is teaching tessellation and cartooning to students aged 7-12. Through tessellations and cartooning, students learn to identify character traits and apply that knowledge to find unique characters. They practice sequential planning, develop fine motor skills, and synthesize elements of graphics and language to create original imaginative stories. Of particular interest to me was how Sarah adapted lessons for students with disabilities, because I want to make cartooning more accessible to every student in the classroom. I was looking for ways that classroom teachers might adapt some of Sarah’s cartooning ideas to provide students an alternative to traditional pen and paper response tools.
Sarah’s tessellation lessons start with the work of M.C. Escher. To build background knowledge, she exposes students to cartoonists such as Herblock, Charles Addams, and other cartoon masters that might inspire them, but she teaches pattern first. In both tessellation and cartooning, each character emerges from the same shapes, repeated across the page. To find the characters within the free form lines of the pattern, students tap into three things, knowledge of character, emotion, and story. According to Sarah, “find the eyeballs, find the character.” Characters are most differentiated by eyes and mouths, which are used to show emotion. In characters created by students with autism that Sarah showed me, the eyes tended to lack the differentiation and vitality of cartoon characters shown by typical students. Stories develop in sequence, often through subtle changes in expression. The tessellation format is ideal for helping students learn the process of making sequential or themed changes.
Sarah reflected, “The hardest thing for young children is to not to want to copy what they already know. They need to get past that.” Some students get stuck on an image, so Sarah is constantly looking for ways to move them along. In using cartoon cells, Steven, a child with Autism, was producing the same robots over and over. She noticed that the animation cel structure was confining Steven’s ability to create a longer sequence, so Steven was encouraged to work on a larger sheet of paper to create a series showing the evolution of the robot. Although emotion was lacking in the eyes, the child produced an image that eerily echoed a famous image Sarah had showed him that showed the evolution of people. Sarah explained, consistent, focused attention is necessary in order to attend to subtle details about the eyes and mouths and demonstrate changes in character. One strategy Sarah uses to accommodate people that miss the emotion or gesture is to teach them to draw the reaction, since people often rely on pre-planned responses.
Another way cartooning and tessellation helps is in story development. Cartoon bubbles enable students to create dialogue. Even the cartoon method of making strong exclamations is highlighted: *%#!! Cartoon bubbles help children identify the most salient details of speech, which makes it a great way to teach summarizing skills. According to Sarah, children with learning disabilities often have problems getting pictures into words, and cartoon bubbles help learners visualize conversations and story development.
All students in Sarah’s class are exposed to strategies of professional cartoonists, which Sarah has adapted to simplify the process even for younger children. Rather than a full page 11x17 or larger strategy used by traditional cartoonists, Sarah teaches students to work within a cel structure, with pre-cut cells numbered on the back as an accommodation. That encourages students to draw bigger, and keeps them organized. Drawings must touch all four sides of the cell, which helps bring lines out and improves line quality. Students are taught cross-hatching, stippling, and negative space to develop the illusion of texture. Mark, a student with blindness, who had a full-time interpreter, explored the concept of developing texture in his tessellation. At one teachable moment, Sarah took a moment to explain the importance of copyright protection: “The Internet has blown the lid off the issue. I have had students have a strip in circulation before they were 18.” Ernie, Sarah’s intern, told a story about how a band had stolen his image, which raised student eyebrows.
If a teacher went through the process of cartooning, children could be given an entire process for expressing ideas in different ways – which is consistent with Universal Design for Learning Principles we have been learning. “They have to understand what is going on in the cel emotionally,” Sarah explains.
Generously, Ernie, a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, and a talented cartoonist in his own right, suggested some ideas I might use to start a cartoon center:
1.      Provide preset panels (Page layouts: 3 panel, 4 panel, and Sunday).
2.      Provide materials including light box, cartooning pens, prisma colors, t-square, good erasers, and light pencils.
3.      Draft, edit, and publish procedures:
a.       Write out a script in a sketch pad (draft)
b.      Setup 1st panel (drawing out panel, starting with light pencil drawing, to be later lined over with ink
c.       Change facial expressions (eyes, eyebrows, mouths) over following panels.
d.      Add close-ups, talk bubbles, and other tricks of the trade.
4.      Response activities: Read, and respond with a cartoon summary. Show examples:
a.       Kafka’s Metamorphosis in cartoon (10 pages)
b.      Pride and Prejudice
c.       Fahrenheit 451
5.      Scan cels into computer and incorporate into multi-media presentations.
Through the repetition of cels, and through subtle changes, students learn advanced characterization strategies. Cartooning and tessellating offers unique response options. Judging from student performance, proudly displayed on walls outside the walls, which a group of high powered local administrators stopped to notice, these strategies are clearly working