Thursday, June 4, 2015

Building Skills, Building Confidence, Building Comraderie

Too tricky, or not too tricky,
that is the question.

Nathan, Kevin, and Kai are builders extraordinaire. They build on the floor and on tabletops. They build amazing cities using blocks both big and small.

When Seana told me about the city-building these three were working on, it immediately sparked an idea – a observational “city drawing” walk around Cambridge.  We would bring sketchbooks and thinking markers as we walked around in search of interesting buildings and other pieces of architecture that might inspire them. Observational drawing walks are some of my favorite things to do with children – I love opportunities to connect with our greater community – so I was pumped!

For our first walk, it was just me, Nathan, and Kai, because Kevin was out that day. As we began walking, one of the first things the boys noticed was the footbridge that crosses the Charles River near our school. We sat down on a bench so we could observe and draw. While Kai began work on the bridge right away, Nathan did not even take the cap off of his marker. Instead, he pointed out things about the bridge, especially the lights.

“The bridge has lights on it. Did you know at night it’s dark, so the red lights show you when not to go and the green lights show you where you should go… look, see the lights? Do you have room for the lights?”
Do you want to draw the lights of the bridge?” I asked Nathan.
He shook his head, “That’s too tricky for me.  I want to draw something easy.
What makes it tricky?” 
Look there are so many parts to it. I can’t do all of those.”
“What if we started with just one part? Which part would you do first?”
“Nah, it’s too tricky.”

Similar conversations occurred at several other points on our walk. While Nathan was comfortable drawing street signs and other “easy” things he saw, when it came to drawing something as complex as a building, he felt overwhelmed. As a teacher and an artist, I felt an internal struggle. Nathan was clearly drawn to the different street signs we saw –he was constantly pointing them out – so should I let him keep drawing these without pushing him to take on one of the “tricky” things? My finer feelings rebelled against this. After all, isn’t it part of my job, as a teacher, to challenge my students, and to help them through those moments of frustration in surmounting that challenge? The question then became, “How can I help Nathan to move out of his comfort zone with his drawing and find confidence in taking on a “tricky” task?”

The opportunity came when we crossed a second footbridge over a road. As we sat down on some concrete benches, Kai immediately pointed out a building he wanted to draw and set to work. Nathan looked around, considering a construction site in view. He began to make some strides as he started to draw parts of the site with prompting from me – a ladder first, then some of the beams around it. After this, however, he returned to drawing the signs he saw, including one that pointed to the bridge we had walked over.

Maybe you could draw the bridge, too?” I suggested.  Nathan shrugged, “It’s too tricky.” “It might seem very tricky now, but as we get more and more practice, drawing tricky things gets easier and easier,” I said. “I know that,” he said.  I smiled and turned around to face the bridge, “So let’s try it! I will help you think about what you need to do to draw that bridge.”

We sat side by side, looking at the bridge. “What is the shape of that bridge? That might be a good place to start,” I suggested.  Nathan drew an arching line to represent the bridge. I looked at his drawing, then back at the bridge. “Yes, that shape looks a lot like the part that we walked down,” I said pointing at the bridge’s curve.  "Let’s see, what else does the bridge have on it? What helped us as we walked over?” Um, the railings?”He added these, too, as well as another section of the bridge that we had walked on.  “What else do you see?” I asked, to which he answered, “I don’t know.” I looked again, saying, “Whoa, I see something under the bridge that I wouldn’t expect to be there.” Nathan followed my gaze, exclaiming, “Doors! That’s so weird! And a window in between!” He began to add these to his drawing. Kai, who was still hard at work adding multiple windows to his own drawing, looked over at Nathan’s work in progress, then at the bridge. “You need some stairs,” he suggested.  Nathan added some lines on one side for the steps. “How about that?” Kai nodded, “That’s good. You’re doing it!” Nathan looked back at his work, “It’s kind of like a ladder. Done!”  “Wait, the other side, too!” Kai reminded him. “Oh yeah!
I held up Nathan’s finished bridge so he could see it in comparison to the real thing. “What do you think?” I asked. “Good,” he said, smiling.

. . . . . .

Kai's drawing of the "100 Building"

We went on a second walk a little over a week later, with Kevin and Seana joining us this time. Instead of venturing along the river, this walk took us into the neighborhoods along Banks Street and down Mt. Auburn Street.  Our first stop was to draw the area around what Kevin called, “the 100 building.” Kevin and Kai both set out to draw the building itself, while Nathan once again demurred, returning to his old saying, “That might be tricky, I might look for something easier for me.” 

However, rather than simply choosing a street sign, he decided to draw the garage that was next to us, with its large doors and emergency light. After he finished, he decided to move on to drawing a street sign, which he identified as a “no parking” sign. Rather than just drawing a line and a rectangle, as he had on our last trip, he began to add some details of the sign itself – an arrow and the words “NO PARKING.” Unfortunately, his first sign was too small to hold all of the letters, so he started over on a fresh page, making use of Seana’s suggestion that he write the words first and draw the sign to fit them. As he worked to decipher the order of the letters, Kevin and Kai both began to chime in to help him. “Is the next one an R?” Nathan asked, “Yep, it is an R, and then a K, like my name,” Kevin replied. 

We saw many other interesting sights along the way, including a church with a crucifix on the front, which Nathan described as a man “made of stones, holding a bridge, and dancing.” But our final stop was one of the most interesting. It was the Harvard lampoon building, which is not only situated on its own in the middle of the street, but is also architecturally very striking, with a rounded front, stained-glass windows, and flag poles protruding above the door. Nathan’s first remark upon seeing it was, “What a beautiful door!” As Kevin described it, “It’s funny to me, because it’s not very high. That’s a short building (next to it), but this one is even shorter, and it’s right in the middle of that road.”

All of the children recognized that drawing this building was going to be a challenge. There were so many parts! And what an odd shape! I sat next to Nathan, wondering what would happen as he tried to draw it – would he refuse, denouncing it as “too tricky?” Would he limit himself to drawing just the door, window, or some other small “easy” part? After looking at the building in silence for a moment, he asked, “Can I draw just the round part? With the door and the little window and those poles?” He was referring to the front of the building, which was rounded in shape. I was elated.  “That sounds like a great plan. Where do you want to begin?” He moved from the base upwards, adding in one piece of the building’s façade after another, until he came to the “flamenco” at the top. “I don’t know how to draw it, can you help me?” Before I could even offer, Kevin, who had already finished his drawing of the building, jumped in. Using his hands, he illustrated the lines that Nathan should make to construct the body, neck, and beak of the bird. “Like this,” he would say, pointing his hand up, then slowly bending it forward into a curve. Nathan watched Kevin’s hands carefully, mimicking them with his marker on the paper. Once he had finished, we packed up our notebooks and markers, and began the walk back. Almost immediately, the three of them joined hands and Nathan declared, “Let’s sing ‘Fly me to the moon!’” They walked joyfully back to school, with Nathan leading them in singing the song continuously the whole way. 
. . . . . . .
I am so proud of Nathan for taking on my initial challenge of drawing the “tricky” bridge, as well as for continuing to broaden his drawing skills in the second visit. At one of our most recent professional development day, we talked about how everyone can struggle with a “little hater” inside our heads, telling us that what we do is not, and never will be, good enough. I know that I often have to guard against just such a voice, pushing through moments of creative self-criticizing that prevent me from trying anything, success or failure. I think Nathan was struggling with his own “little hater” during these walks, and I appreciate that he was willing to fight back against this voice in his head, with the help of his teachers and his peers. I also appreciate that the process of helping Nathan in these moments allowed me to reflect on the type of teacher I want to be - a support and a sounding board who nonetheless will hold you accountable to your own best abilities - and what I hope for the children I am teaching – self-confidence and a willingness to take risks. I hope that I can continue to be this type of teacher for Nathan and the other children I work with throughout the center.

Kevin's drawing of the Harvard Lampoon
I am also proud of Kai and Kevin, who both found the time and energy to not only work on their own drawings, but to provide Nathan with the support he needed to finish his. From offering him ideas for his bridge, to helping him with the letters for his sign, to describing how to draw the bird on his building, they showed genuine interest and investment in his work, as well as in his skills as an artist. Their walk back together felt like a celebration of their collective successes, as well as for their friendship and care for one another as individuals.

Nathan's drawing of the Harvard Lampoon
This experience has also given me a chance to reflect on what it is we offer children when we invite them to think about things through multiple media. As I said at the beginning, these children are all very comfortable working with the three-dimensional and geometric material of blocks as a way to create cities and buildings. In some ways, this might be easier than drawing a city or a building, because, with the blocks, they are creating something three-dimensional with something three-dimensional. It was clear that trying to represent real, physical buildings (and bridges, etc.) through the medium of drawing presented some real challenges. I really was asking the children to think about the buildings in a different way, stretching not only their drawing skills, but also their understanding of perspective, scale, and proportion, to name a few. They were expanding their repertoire, using the dispositions of builders, architects, artists, and designers, all at once.

Kai's drawing of the Harvard Lampoon
One of the next steps I am eager to try (and which Nathan himself suggested) is to try to recreate their drawings using three-dimensional materials. As we return to a material that these three children feel like “experts” with, I wonder how we can continue to challenge and support each other in our work? Will these buildings still feel tricky? Or will they be easy to build? I can’t wait to see!

How do you silence your “little hater” and take on something you thought was “too tricky”?             


  1. I love this story. You so deftly point out the many layers involved -- applying another "language" to an area of expertise to help them stretch and grow, your own reflections as a teacher and learner, that balance of pushing and yielding, and more. The details that engage my heart and mind are many, and one in particular is that their friendship is as much a character in this story as any one of them individually. I have been thinking a lot this year about how there must be trust to get anywhere in a relationship; this is obvious and true to the point of being a cliché, but it is not easy to practice despite how easy it is to say. The trust they have in each other and in you and Seana is clear in their words and in their ability to be vulnerable and take risks, and that moves me profoundly.


  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments Serena. I agree - trust was a major player in these experiences. I think their kindness in talking to one another about their work and in encouraging each other to challenge themselves is part of what made me want to write about it in the first place. Even though they were all doing their own, individual drawings, and Seana and I weren't drawing at all, these sessions together really felt like a team effort through and through.