Activities

Guest post: The silence of cartooning: observations from the front of the room

Here’s another thoughtful piece from our contributor Jarod Rosello. If you missed his first post for us, on using jam comics in a freshman comp class, you really shouldn’t; read it here.

My classroom is not a particularly quiet space. It never has been. When I taught high school, the teachers in the rooms around mine assumed I was inexperienced (which I was) and undisciplined (which I kind of was), but that mostly I wasn’t really trying (which wasn’t true at all). When I started graduate school and teaching undergraduate courses, this boisterous classroom setting followed me. Except, in the last few years, I’ve come to understand that learning doesn’t have to be quiet. Learning can be loud.

Still, regardless of my complicity in a loud classroom, whenever I have introduced cartooning, my classroom falls silent. This has been true and constant—across disciplines and age groups.

As a cartoonist, my experience has been that silence comes with cartooning. As a “loud teacher”, though, this silence intrigues me and challenges my notions of what learning looks like. Perhaps this silence is also true of all artistic endeavors. (As David Bayles and Ted Orland write in Art & Fear, “Artists come together in the clear knowledge that when all is said and done, they will return to their studio and practice their art alone. Period. That simple truth may be the deepest bond we share.”) Still, this silence fascinates me, enchants me, and draws me in. Some people go for walks to clear their minds, I draw. A few weeks ago, I had my students draw comics. I paid special attention to the silence in the room. What I learned is that the silence is not just an aural quality, but a posture, and, perhaps an embodiment of cartooning, and one that offers particular advantages in the classroom.

Part One: The Teachers Edition

The last two semesters I have introduced comics to my soon-to-be teachers with John Mejias’s comic, “The Teachers Edition.” (I first read “The Teachers Edition” in the 2008 Best American Comics).

John Mejias’s comic is an auto-biographical story of a public school art teacher in the Bronx. What my students always find so alarming is how messy it is. How “ugly” the drawings are. Characters are disproportionate, the lines imperfect. It looks like a crude etching, carved hurriedly and with desperation: a story that needed to be told and quickly. As a teacher, I have always been drawn to this story (I have, admittedly, read it many, many times and labored over each panel, each detail, attempting to make meaning of those scratchy lines). This comic focuses on some of the challenges of public school education: bored and apathetic students, an educational system that pushes disadvantaged students further into the margins, and burned out teachers. And our hero? John Mejias, the art teacher, who wants only to find a way to give his students a voice. He laments their situation, observes but doesn’t judge (though his drawings clearly position him and give away his feelings). He does not have all the answers, but he cares enough to wonder if what he is doing is right. I find this story particularly poignant considering my students are about to step into the classroom as student teachers. I think of this comic as a way to share with them how it feels to be a teacher.

I passed out copies of the comic and the classroom fell silent. This silence was the silence of being “far away.” This is the silence that comes with a fixed gaze. The silence of watching a good movie, of being transported to the “now” of a great novel. Maybe, this the silence of diversion. The silence of escape? I don’t know. But it’s something like that.

After they all finished reading the comic, we broke into small groups and discussed the following questions:

  1. What does the cartoonist believe about teaching and learning?
  2. What assumptions does the cartoonist have about the role of a student and the role of a teacher?
  3. How do his assumptions meet or contend with yours?
  4. How does contemporary American culture define a student and a teacher? Or, how does contemporary American culture define teaching and learning?

After about ten or fifteen minutes, we regrouped as a class and discussed the questions. My weakness as a teacher is, and has always been, facilitating group discussion. I am just no good at it. I can’t ask great, leading questions. I cannot inspire as a lecturer. In fact, I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea of being the holder of knowledge (mostly, because I’m not). I would rather my students think, question, talk, and challenge each other. I can be there to move the conversation and probe my students to dig a little deeper. This is a model that works for me. This discussion took off, though, in a way I hadn’t anticipated. These simple questions about “The Teacher’s Edition” led us to talking about what teaching means. I tried my best to draw visual representations on the board of the relationship between the teacher and the learner based on their explanation. Somehow, our discussion moved into a debate on whether or not school is a right or a privilege—and what it should be. I played devil’s advocate, because I don’t know if there is an answer to that question. My students seemed spirited and passionate.

Our attempts to visually represent what learning looks like.
 

Part Two: Greatest Fears

For our comics assignment, I had my students make single-panel comics (cartoons) addressing some of their greatest fears in the classroom. Here are the steps:

  1. I asked my students to write down, in a sentence or two, their greatest fears of the classroom as first-time teachers. I had them write these lines down at the top or bottom of a sheet of paper. They did not write their names.
  2. I collected the papers, mixed them up, and redistributed them.
  3. I asked my students to draw a single-panel comic (a cartoon) that responds to the fear. This comic should do a few things: It should make clear to the reader, what the fear is (even though it’s written on the page), it should represent this fear visually, and it should also hint at their feelings about the situation. I told them that the cartoon cannot just illustrate the text, but must also resolve the tension in the written statement.
  4. I referenced a few of John Mejias’s panels that are particularly effective at juxtaposing word and image to get at meaning and referred them back to our discussion of these panels.
In these cartoons, Mejias does an excellent job of subverting our expectations with his subtle narration. He both comments on the situation and resolves the tension of these moments.

I will present what happened during the cartooning process from an observational perspective. This is what I saw. It is by no means objective, though, as I tried my best to interpret what they were doing. These are my “fieldnotes” written immediately after class and based on short, handwritten notes I made during class. I have also included some of the quick drawings I did while taking notes of my students’ posture.

 
 

I redistributed the sheets of paper with the “statements of fear” and the class fell silent. This silence was a new silence. This was the silence of learning. Not all learning takes place in silence (my experience has been, actually, that most does not), but this silence signals a falling into oneself. And it always looks the same way. It is not just the absence of sound, it is a posture of being as well. Here’s what it looked like:

  1. Head facing down.
  2. Completely blank expression (as though the brain’s ability to transfer emotion to the face—a very human ability—has been cut off)
  3. Silence and silent movement.

The first two are simple to understand. Of the eighteen students in my class, fifteen of them cartooned facing straight down, their face fewer than six inches from the paper. The other three moved around a bit more, but mostly occupied a kind of bent-elbowed, leaning posture, also with their faces within six inches of the paper. The blank expression is something I have no explanation for. Occasionally a brow would furrow, but other than that, it was as though they had been yanked from their bodies, or, maybe, they had receded to some deep, inner place.

The last, though, was (and has always been) the most intriguing. In fact, this composure of silence is what made me want to do this observation in the first place. It was not just that my students ceased to speak when they were drawing, but that their movements also became softened, nearly imperceptible. It was as though they moved so slowly and smoothly, it was difficult, even, to detect.

This silence expanded and filled the room, and soon, it began to feel as though the world had been muted. If it had not been for the occasional sound from outside, or the creaking of the table I leaned on and got up off of, it would have seemed as though we were existing in a vacuum. This was a silence I had not asked for. I had not, I do not think, made any gestures that would insinuate my expectation of silence. Instead, it seemed as though this silence was inherent in the activity. Cartooning, maybe, is a silent activity.

The posture of cartooning.

Eyes blinked. Hands moved slowly—slight shifts of pencils. I did hear a sound at one point, a sound I had not heard before: graphite against paper. I know this sound. It is the sound of cartooning (or a sound I have come to associate with making comics). It is a hard sound to explain: it is rough, but gentle. Like a piece of felt rubbing against your arm. It is like wind moving the grass. Or a breeze rustling only a few leaves (and even then, on a very tall tree). Sometimes, I think it is the same sound as breathing. It is a noise that is easy to miss. For me, it is soothing. Maybe for them, it was soothing as well.

It has been my experience that even slight disturbances or changes in the environment, can easily disrupt the tempo of a classroom. But when one of my student’s return to the class (the door opening, his walking through the desks, his pulling out seat, sitting down, moving papers about) and short conversation with another student was not enough to break the silence of the room. In fact, no one even looked up. No one stopped drawing. No one spoke.

The faces they made are faces I want to believe to be those of calmness. There was no real kind of expression. Or, the expression was this: blankness. This was part of the silence. Facial cues can be as loud as a voice. But here, their faces were silent. There are lots of reasons I want to interpret their faces this way: my own experience with drawing being the most prominent. But it occurs to me now that these silent faces are the same faces one makes while sleeping. Except, of course, their eyes were open. But their expressions were that of someone in a deep sleep. And who would not think that someone in a deep sleep was not calm?

The “silent” faces. I sketched these while they drew. The notes for the face on the left read “Most common face” and “Completely blank.” The notes for the rigth read: “Furrowed brows,” “Blank mouth,” and “2nd most Common”

 

After about ten minutes of deep concentration and perfect silence, the first noise emerged: one student shared his drawing with another and they both laughed. I knew this meant others would begin to finish their drawings. More students began to look up from their papers. Like most silences, this one ended abruptly. Enough people finished all at once, or one person’s movement or talking encouraged another’s. Soon, the sounds of graphite on paper had been replaced with the low hum of conversation. I heard some laughing. And then: the silence was gone.

Part Three: What It All Means

One of the challenges of being a teacher in our modern society—where our students engage constantly with interactive media—is that getting them to feel that school is fun and exciting is a hard task. The classroom is, almost inherently, a boring place. This is a place where “fun” is always a relative term and one used with embedded apologies. But I have never gotten a group of students to focus on one particular task—really pay attention—more than when we draw comics. That posture of silence—those faces close to the paper, the stillness—is, for me, a feat. To have my students choose to be silent, and for it to be part of the learning process is something I still try to understand. But if cartooning has an ability to get my students to pay attention, to be thoughtful, and to really try, then it’s something that should be encouraged and fostered.

Here are some samples of the comics we made:

"Being wrong in a way that negatively impacts how a student thinks about learning."

 

"Dealing with disruptive kids."

 

"Nervousness and stress on a high level when teaching history."

 

By day, Jarod Rosello is a PhD student in curriculum and instruction at Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches undergraduate courses in writing and education. At night he makes mini-comics. You can contact Jarod through his website www.JarodRosello.com or by email at Jarod.Rosello@gmail.com.

Comments

4 Comments to Guest post: The silence of cartooning: observations from the front of the room

  • by Matt

    On March 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Thanks, Jarod, this is a wonderfully sensitive, even moving, piece of writing! I read it last night after a very monkish evening class of silent scritching punctuated by occasional grunts and chuckles so I was very attuned to what you’re talking about here. (normally I prefer to put music on during a work class but I confess there’s something very attractive and productive about that silence.)

  • by J T Guerrero

    On March 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Great stuff! My wife is a high school social studies teacher – this is great material for her. She is looking for ways to engage the kids. The school she teaches at is more of an ‘artsy’ school and I think the kids would definitely get into it.

  • by Jarod Rosello

    On March 25, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Matt: I’m usually terrified of the silence and put music on, too (for some reason I’ve found that the Lion King Pandora station is quite popular), but I kept it off this one day just so I could listen to the silence, and I’m glad I did.

    J T Guerrero: I was actually a high school social studies teacher too! I found that making comics and drawing was such a great way to get them to engage with history. I taught in Miami, Florida and a large percentage of my classroom did not speak English as a first language (and a few of them not at all) and drawing really helped erease those inequities forced upon classrooms by testing requirements.

  • by J T Guerrero

    On March 25, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Cool! The high school has a high Hispanic population too. It’s known for its media and visual arts approach – two areas I really like! We are considering sending our oldest to school there – he’s the artist and would fit in better than the standard school track.

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