What spaces makes your brain hum? Who is your dream teacher and how do they teach? What kind of learning space supports your creativity? I asked myself these questions in the podcast My dream learning environment. Here’s the transcript. Take a look:
Q: Kia ora, Chrissie — and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.
A: No worries. It’s a pleasure.
Q: OK, so let’s start with the question we ask each guest as an opener: If you could study anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?
A: University of Wisconsin — to study with Lynda Barry.
Q: Woah, no hesitation there! Why Wisconsin?
A: Because Lynda Barry is there and she works in a way that would totally make my brain hum. I would be camping outside the door to get in each day.
Q: That’s quite an endorsement.
A: Yep, she’s a total inspiration and a mentor. A maker and a teacher and a wonderful rule breaker and explorer. Best of all, she only gives feedback by saying “good” and laughing uproariously, and for me that is the perfect fit.
Q: I think you might need to tell us a bit more.
A: No problem. So Lynda Barry is firstly a cartoonist. She had a long running weekly cartoon in a US paper for about 30 years, and continues to create new work in this medium that I follow like a fan. But more recently she has become a teacher and researcher. Officially she is the Discovery Fellow, Cartoonist and Author, Assistant Professor, Interdisciplinary Creativity, Image Lab University at the University of Wisconsin, also known as “Professor Long Title”.
Q: How did you get to know about her?
A: I stumbled on a cartoon of hers online, loved it, followed some links, found out more about the awesome way she teaches and eventually found screen shots of her new book, Syllabus. It was love at first look.
Q: I can see you have a copy of Syllabus there in your lap. It looks pretty beautiful. But tell us first a bit about how Lynda teaches, and why it has captivated you?
A: I’ll actually tell you about both Lynda and the book together, as the book is a record of what and how she teachers.
First up, she has a set of rules for her classroom:
- We don’t go by our real names in class. We go by character names; either assigned or chosen.
- When classmates read aloud, we do not look at them — instead, we draw tight spirals slowly.
- We never talk about the work that is read aloud — either in class or out of it.
- We do not put our names on the frontside of our drawings or stories.
- We do not ask who made which picture or who wrote which story.
- We do not activate any electronic devices in class or use them for our assignments.
- We bring our composition notebooks and all our art supplies to every class.
- We don’t often chat. Instead, we get to know each other through the images in our work.
- We sit in a different seat for each class beside different classmates.
- We begin each class by drawing a 2-minute self-portrait on an index card and turn it in, dated.
- We don’t give advice or opinions on the work of our classmates.
- We fill our composition notebooks and then start another. Aim for 3 or 4 during the semester.
Q: That rocks your boat?
A: Absolutely. I would be in heaven. You have to remember that she is teaching a drawing and writing class. Her focus is on getting you to stop self-censoring and get on with the job of making work. Her philosophy is that in the focussed practice of making that you will learn.
Q: Ha, ha, that sounds like the Kevin Costner quote from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come”.
A: Too right. The focus is on the work. It is learning by doing. But it's not about a one-off; it's about developing a practice, your own practice. And predominantly it’s not about group work although sometimes students might do something together. Instead it’s about crafting a solo practice and that in itself is a refreshing change as it's something we don’t talk about much.
Q: That’s an interesting perspective. Maybe this is the right moment to take a look at (and listen to)the video you brought.
A: Sure thing. It’s a video of Lynda’s classroom in action and includes some students reflecting on their experiences of being in her class.
Q: Great, so here we go.
Q: Ah, I’m starting to get the picture now. When you described all the rules, it sounded like the class was really restrictive, but actually the rules are like design constraints.
A: Yep totally. The purpose of the rules is to create an environment where there is freedom for expression. And because the rules are repeatedly adhered to, a learner can get used to knowing that nobody's going to ‘give them feedback’. There is actually going to be no interruption and they can also trust that the culture of the class is totally affirming: it is a safe space.
Q: But what about her approach to giving feedback? In educational circles, that could be considered almost heresy.
A: Maybe, but I totally hear where she’s coming from. She addresses head on the relationship between feedback, emotion and ego. It’s a big reason why I would like to study with her. I would expect as a student in her class it would take me time to get past looking for approval from either her or classmates, but I think it would be immensely freeing.
The other thing is that she makes it really clear what the criteria for success is:
- You get an A if you spend more time on the assignments, demonstrate active engagement and find ‘something’ original in your own work. (NB. ‘something can be found by ANY STUDENT regardless of technical ability — who takes each assignment seriously and works hard’).
- You get a C if you do the minimum amount of required work
- You get a B if you spend more time on assignments and demonstrate engagement in the work
- You fail if you don’t turn up and don’t do the required work.
Q: Isn’t there a funny irony here for you. On the one hand, your professional work is about building flexibility into environments and inclusive ways of working and all that Universal Design for Learning stuff. Yet here you are advocating a way of teaching that could be framed as one serious one-size-fits-all.
A: Yep, that’s not lost on me. I think firstly the class is one in which you opt in knowing how it’s taught and because you want to unlock something in yourself. You don’t find yourself timetabled into the class or its the only writing class on offer, you’re there because you want to be.
Also when students enrol with Lynda she has a whole pre-class process where you get to tell her about yourself, what rocks your boat and how you like to learn. My faith in her would be that she would consider those needs in her design because she is fascinated in people and their idiosyncrasies. Diversity is something she expects and seeks out. So, from a UDL engagement perspective, that works for me.
Q: But what about in the class itself, how would that work?
A: From an action and expression perspective, i.e., being able to get on with stuff, there is heaps of room to move. There are often strict design constraints, like, “You have 7 minutes to write what you know about …”, and Lynda is also really focussed on the physical manipulation of tools such as brushes, pens, crayons; not the use of digital technologies to support creativity. But again you know that when you sign up – there are no surprises there.
Q: But isn’t a big part of your work focused on technologies?
A: Yeah- ironic, hey!! I am a massive advocate of tech as an option. My soapbox is that it is absolutely an equity issue. Students should have access to the tools they need to express their thinking. But I also think we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Students should been given opportunities to develop skills in expressing thinking in multiple formats, by hand and using tech. That is also an issue of equity.
So Lynda’s course is about giving prominence to a skill set, writing and drawing by hand, that we’re in danger of relegating to history. She is almost religious about it and a big part of her ongoing research is about the connection between brain, hand and creativity. Her courses are focussed solely on doing things by hand. Again, for me, that would be a joy. I love to write by hand and have doodled my way through meetings and lectures for years. It would be interesting to ask her whether people enroll in the course who hate to write by hand, hate their handwriting or who usually type to write. My guess is they do and I imagine Lynda would find a way of making that work if they really wanted to be in her class.
Q: Chrissie, you’re still clutching that book. As we’re running out of time, maybe you could tell listeners a little bit more about it?
A: Oh yeah totally. I wish people could see it. It’s such a beautiful artefact in its own right. So the book is called Syllabus and is really Lynda’s collection of lesson plans for her courses. The thing is they are also exemplars and combined with her Tumblr, The Near-Sighted Monkey, each assignment coaches students into the work. The thing that I love from a UDL perspective is that she builds supports into the way she presents stuff. She gives you a quick image of what you’re aiming for, she explicitly outlines the resources you are going to need and where you can go for help and inspiration. She uses image and minimal text and humour. Her constant anchor is supporting students to surface and build on their prior knowledge — then to take a next step from their. She is masterful at it.
Q: So Chrissie, we’ve come to the end of our time. Thank you so much for introducing us to Lynda Barry. Any last words to our listeners?
A: I guess I would just encourage teachers to offer students options to draw their thinking. And to model it. And to laugh a lot. I’d also be up for opening out the debate about feedback.
Q: Awesome, Chrissie. Thanks for hanging out with us today.
A: A pleasure.thanks for having me.
Links to peruse:
- Lynda Barry’s page on Drawn and Quarterly
- The Near Sighted Monkey – Lynda’s Tumblr
- Lynda Barry – Accessing the imaginary lecture on YouTube
- Universal Design for Learning guide – Inclusive Education website
Images used by permission, taken from Lynda Barry's page on Drawn and Quarterly