Lessons Learned In Combat

Today’s Epic Fail

If you’ve read Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words or In Pictures and In Words, you know how powerful it can be to study mentor authors and illustrators and encourage students to notice, name, and try out their craft. I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to do just that with students since first reading Wondrous Words three years ago. The result of this kind of teaching I have been able to do has been phenomenal–results that cause me to feel like I am truly moving writers and illustrators forward in ways that I have never been able to, as well as results that demonstrate how important self-efficacy is to student learning.

But this week, I made a goof. A big one. And boy, did I learn my lesson.

You see, what Katie has taught me over the years is that learning from writers and illustrators and using it to inform one’s own work is not simply a matter of imitating or copying them. Rather it’s about:

  • noticingnaming, and discussing why they might do what they do (e.g., Erin Stead using a pop of color to make something stand out),
  • envisioning when and where we might use the craft technique in our own work;
  • and, if it makes sense do so so, trying it out.

When studying mentors in this way, magic can (and often does) happen, like when a student noticed how Peter Brown draws his characters’ bodies a certain way to show movement and tried it out in his own work:

The student who crafted this page of his book felt powerful as a member of the “secret club” of authors and illustrators because he was successful at using the craft technique we had been studying as a class. Anyone familiar with Peter’s book Mr. Tiger Goes Wild will notice that this student did not intend to imitate Peter’s depiction of Mr. Tiger; rather, he had himself a go at the technique Peter used.

Which brings me to today’s epic fail, when I had students watch this video of Bob Shea, another beloved author/illustrator, who beginning at the 8:26 mark demonstrates how to draw the dinosaur character in his beloved Dinosaur vs. series of books. “Today in our try-it-out journals, we’re going to watch Bob draw his dinosaur character and have a go at it ourselves!” I told my students. “Don’t worry, though–if it doesn’t look exactly like Bob’s dinosaur, it’s okay because we’re just trying it out.”

What ensued was a lot of whining, a few tears, and nearly two dozen “How’s mine, Mrs. Coppola? Did I do it right? Huh? Huh?”

Whoa. Here I was, thinking that this would be a fun illustration moment, when–because it was about imitating the illustrator’s actual drawing than it was about his craft–it became a nightmare. Few students felt empowered, or successful, or even engaged. They were more excited about going back to their tables and adding their own flair to their dinosaurs (including short double lines, which many students incorporated into their scene) than they were about learning how to draw Bob’s dinosaur.

After feeling like a failure, I realized where I had led myself–and my students–astray. I took a deep breath. I tossed this lesson into my mental recycle bin. And I vowed to never make the same mistake again.

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