Drawing in the Classroom: It’s Easier than You Think

2013_Heyer_SandraSandra Heyer

When I first began teaching beginning-level English, I was surprised at how many times I found myself at the board, trying to draw a picture for my students. The key word here is trying. I am one of those unfortunate people who literally can’t draw a straight line.

But while I had the misfortune of being an inept artist, I had the good fortune of being a contemporary of the late Norma Shapiro, a gifted teacher who made it her mission to help teachers like me enhance their lessons with passable drawings. At a TESOL conference many years ago, Norma gave a presentation billed as a crash course in drawing for teachers who can’t draw. I came early for a front-row seat and took away drawing tips that have served me well over the course of my career. With the help of Norma’s tips, you might discover, as I did, that drawing for your students is easier than you think. Here are six quick tips:

1. To represent people, don’t draw stick figures — draw figures Norma called “blobs.” Most of the time, you’re just trying to get across the idea that your drawing is a human being and not, say, a fish or a can of soda. So it is usually not necessary to draw ears, arms, or legs. A basic blob has only a head and shoulders:

Drawing in the classroom images 1a

A blob with squiggles for hair is female:

Drawing in the classroom images 1b

Smaller blobs are children:

Drawing in the classroom images 1c

And babies look like this:

Drawing in the classroom images 1d

2. If you can, learn to draw a few basic emotions like the ones below:

Drawing in the classroom images 2

3. Norma cautioned that drawing actions can be tricky. Instead, draw objects to represent actions. A knife, for example, depicts the verb cut:

Drawing in the classroom images 3a

An apple going into a blob’s mouth is eat:

Drawing in the classroom images 3b

4. Use a simple shape to represent a building. Once you decide on the shape, always use that shape for a building. It could, for example, look like this:

Drawing in the classroom images 4a

Put a dollar sign in the building, and it is a bank; put a shopping cart in it, and it is a supermarket:

Drawing in the classroom images 4b

5. Use a grid (similar to a calendar) to represent time concepts. This, for example, gets across the idea of sometimes:

Drawing in the classroom images 5a

And this represents often:

Drawing in the classroom images 5b

6. Exaggerate for effect. For example, an elongated blob means tall:

Drawing in the classroom images 6a

A big dollar sign means expensive, while a tiny dollar sign means cheap:

Drawing in the classroom images 6b

With so many images available on the Internet, is it really necessary to draw anymore? I think so. The Internet is a great resource if you know ahead of time what images you’ll need, but drawings on the Internet don’t have the immediacy—or personality—of your own drawings. Recently I substituted on the spur of the moment for a colleague who had broken her ankle in a fall. With the help of drawings on the board, I was able to explain to her beginning-level students what had happened and when their teacher would return. And I was able to give the blob my colleague’s curly hair!

Drawing in the classroom images 7

Initially, I used drawings mainly as Norma suggested, as the basis of student-centered lessons she called “Chalk Talks”—a method of building a drawing-based lesson around actual events in the world, in the community, in students’ lives, and in the classroom. (For more on this method, and for hundreds of sample drawings, please see Shapiro’s resource book, ChalkTalks.)

Eventually, I began expanding the use of drawings, making them the centerpiece of a pre-reading activity. I have found this drawing-based approach so successful that I always—and I mean always—begin a reading lesson with a few drawings. I’ll share that pre-reading activity in next month’s newsletter.

Sandra Heyer is the author of the popular True Stories series. Each of the books in the series uses real-life, human-interest stories to build vocabulary and language skills through a carefully paced, step-by-step process.