Patterns of writing

By now (March), most of the kindergarteners I teach in Fun With Letterforms have their rhythmic drawn patterns down. Their artworks often demonstrate a good sense of spacing and a good eye for overall composition:

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The next step? Beginning every class on ruled notebook paper to make patterns (and increasingly both small & capital letters) within the four-line system of ceiling, fence, grass, and basement:

(Thank you to 1st grade teacher Ms. Palmer’s system for the inspiration!)

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I hope that this practice will inspire students to use recognizable letter shapes in their pattern drawings on large unlined paper.


Evolution in action

Unlike Athena, our 26-letter alphabet didn’t just spring into existence one day, beautiful, fierce and fully-formed: it is the result of thousands of years of human ingenuity and experimentation. The letters evolved.

IMG_8427.jpgPages from Christopher Jarman’s “Fun With Pens” (A&C Black Ltd., 1970).

Good-looking calligraphic letters don’t just spring onto the page right after you sit down to write them, either: they are the end result of steady practice. When you want to make something beautiful to give to a friend or to keep for yourself, you will need to form an idea of the thing before you touch your pen to the final nice paper. This requires getting warmed up, maybe experimenting with different hands, and several attempts on practice paper to get the words/names right before you make the final attempt.

Students performed this very evolution last week in calligraphy class. The result was many handsome-looking bookmarks:

Maria, Martin and Flora chose to write in Round hand (and note Martin’s drafts at upper left); Alice and the teacher chose the Blackletter hand.

Calligraphy for kids: first meeting

The first hour-long meeting of my 12-session Introduction to Calligraphy class for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders met last week. As is usual in my work with children, the students exceeded my expectations both in what they already knew—someone defined calligraphy as “a different kind of writing, a more careful way to write”—and in how quickly they grasped the workings of the broad-edged pen, the calligrapher’s basic tool and the key to making the beautiful thick & thin strokes that define various calligraphic hands (styles). Italic, blackletter, uncial, and round hands can be seen here:

IMG_8203.jpgWe used double-pencils (two pencils tied together with rubber bands) held an a constant angle to make lines like the one illustrated here:
The double-pencils reinforced both the need to apply equal pressure to both sides of the edged tool, and the need to work at a sufficient (larger) size. IMG_8207.jpg
Students progressed from making basic warm-up marks, to elegant lines of patterns, then to the round alphabet.IMG_8191.jpg

IMG_8211.jpgAs a preview, I passed out two felt-tip calligraphy pens for students to test out.
This student has a good eye for layout on the page (something we didn’t discuss yet):
This student already analyzes her work (!):
At this age, students aren’t shy about saying what interests them. I will introduce several hands and applications early on into our meetings to let each student choose her own path of experimentation. Check back in a month or two to see the progress.

Recommended reading

Parents will sometimes ask me, “what can I do to encourage my child to keep making comics?” I think it is important for parents to (1) actively make comics or draw together with their children at home, and (2) to get good comics in front of their kids.

Collaborative comic-making can be very simple: a few years ago the author and dad Bruce Brooks explained to me how he and his son drew a collaborative epic comic story on a roll of white butcher paper, taking turns panel-by-panel. For parents with minimal to non-existent drawing skills, a few books may be useful: Mark Kistler, who I have written about before, distilled his engaging way of teaching drawing skills to children in his book, “Mark Kistlerʼs Draw Squad” (cheaply and easily found for sale online).  This fall a parent recommended “Adventures in Cartooning” and the “Adventures in Cartooning Activity Book” by Alexis Frederick-Frost, Andrew Arnold, and James Sturm—both books introduce the basic mechanics of comics to young readers and give them the chance to test them out.  All three books are rich with material and well thought out.

Below is a list of books that have been popular with this year’s Comic Book Storytelling students. An asterisk (*) denotes a great favorite. Please note: while I believe all of the books below have some value, not all are created equal or will appeal to everyone. Parents should also note that some of these stories directly deal with intense issues like friendship, or death. For this reason I highly recommend visiting a local library with your child, where books can be selected together and specialists are on hand to answer any specific questions.

* “Calvin and Hobbes” series, Bill Watterson
“Tintin” series, Hergé
“Moomin” series, Tove Jansson
* “Bone” series, Jeff Smith
“Astro Boy” series, Osamu Tezuka

New Favorites
“Little Vampire,” Joann Sfar
“Ghosts,” Raina Telgemeier
“Lumberjanes” series, Shannon Watters et al.
“Nimona,” Noelle Stevenson
“Hilo” series, Judd Winick
“Chi’s Sweet Home” series, Kanata Konami
* “Amulet” series, Kazu Kibuishi
“Zita the Spacegirl” series, Ben Hatke
* “Hilda” series, Luke Pearson
“Bird & Squirrel” series, James Burks
“My Little Pony” series, Katie Cook et al.

True Stories
“Sisters,” Raina Telgemeier
“Drama,” Raina Telgemeier
* “Smile,” Raina Telgemeier
* “El Deafo,” Cece Bell
* “Roller Girl,” Victoria Jamieson
* “Real Friends,” Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham

IMG_7663.jpgNewer selections.
IMG_8216.jpgAn old classic that still gets many smiles and exclamations of recognition.

Leveling up the pattern play

IMG_8206.jpgThis fall my Fun With Letterforms class, a drawn pattern-play class meant for kindergarteners to strengthen their handwriting skills, expanded into the first & second grades. As I brainstormed what to do with folks on the first day, I tried to anticipate the several returners who would be very familiar with the patterns I’d taught them before: I didn’t want anyone to be bored! Inspired by an excellent exhibit at the Legion of Honor I’d seen earlier this year, I decided to introduce Square Word Calligraphy.

The class watched me demonstrate the concept, but seemed restless. “What about the patterns?” someone asked. Instead of paint and brushes, students picked up their trusty colored pencils and used independent work time to revisit their familiar friends the zig-zag, bump, swing, swirl, over-and-back, and (especially) flip.

The FWL curriculum’s enduring popularity encouraged me. I am eager to move into newer territory with the older students and test their capabilities relative to kindergarteners, but this experience reminded me to reinforce the students’ established skills and build incrementally upon them, rather than worry about novelty. We’ll revisit Square Word Calligraphy later!

Below are pictures of FWL Level 2 student work after we revisited Chris Van Allsberg’s The Z Was Zapped, a FWL class favorite about terrible misfortunes that befall our alphabet’s 26 letters one by one.



Mini-zine Madness

At the first meeting of Comic Book Storytelling class for 3rd/4th/5th graders this year, we made six-page mini-zines out of one computer-size sheet of paper.  Before anything else, we performed some simple “origami”: folding the pre-cut paper correctly seemed tricky at first, but students helped one another and soon we were all set.

Next, I showed them other examples of mini-zines made in similar ways, and I read mine, “Sam Scissors Hits the Street,” out loud:

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 11.29.09 PM.png

On a different sheet of paper I encouraged students to plan who their own starring character would be and what would transpire over the six pages. I also gave them a catch: whatever happened in their story, they had to draw a 3D-looking hole (which we had drawn together during our warm-up) on page two.

Some students followed my lead and had their hapless main character fall into a hole… only to discover treasure (not slime) within! Others drew things emerging from the abyss.

It was useful to have some added structure with certain caption panes already in place. See my template here: Comics Mini-zine 1 page template

Some people were really into the mini-zine medium during the session.

Newspapers for change

Starting last fall, seven students at Berkeley Arts Magnet met with me twelve times to make their own school newspaper, the BAM News. Within its pages they reported on the menu at the school’s annual Multicultural Fair, debated whether or not students should have more computer time at school, and interviewed a couple fifth graders who were new this year (one from across town, another from Sweden). They covered popular books, movies, games, and celebrities, too.

The BAM News staff learned to be honest with what they knew and didn’t know, and tried to support their opinions with facts. Certain stories required them to consider other points of view. All of the news and features needed to be revised for our reading audience: from start to finish, does the writing make sense? Is it interesting to read, full of details? Critical thinking, media literacy, a sense of curiosity and communication skills are all in play in Journalism class.

One of the class’s most satisfying moments came at the final layout stage, when we spread out several large sheets of construction paper across the school library’s tables and physically pasted our handwritten work into columns as it would appear when typeset and printed. That was when I saw it dawn on students’ faces: This is really happening—everyone will read this!

Another highlight was a special visit from a real-life journalist: R. Todd Kerr is the editor and publisher of the Berkeley Times, a print-only local community newspaper. After a short Q&A (with Q’s and A’s from both sides), Todd stayed to assist one of our staff with his article about Pokemon trading cards. It may have been lost on the rest of the BAM News staff, but Todd’s enthusiasm for our project and willingness to help out embody what I think journalism, particularly local print journalism, can do:  inform, stimulate and inspire people, and thereby to encourage civic engagement and a healthy, safe community.

The news inside the newspaper doesn’t just happen—it is actively made by people like you and me.

Before leaving Todd snapped our class picture, which was published in the February 23, 2017 edition of the Berkeley Times. See the relevant page here.

You can read the January 2017 BAM News here.

Teachingx - Journalism BAM News picture.JPG

Turn Their Enthusiasm

Ten kindergarten students are more than enough to fill a typical Fun With Letterforms class with great energy and action. This short video can give you some idea [password: alphabet]:

It’s the teacher’s job to channel all this enthusiasm into good work. The most significant change to the FWL curriculum this session (lasting from October 2016 to next week) was my introducing a simple song to sing during writing. We would sing a Letterforms version of “Frere Jacques” in time with a metronome set to 86 bpm, with the idea that it would encourage them to slow down and focus during their line-making.

Below is a .pdf link containing a 12-meeting FWL course overview. Some of the plans are aspirational, but we managed to mostly follow it — allowing for enthusiastic diversions here and there.

FWL Course Overview 2017-Bondurant

“Pencils ready?”

As I prepared to teach drawing comics to children for the first time last January, a friend told me about how as a girl she and her brother would run home after school to watch Captain Mark and his Secret City on TV. Mark Kistler, alias Captain Mark, is an educator who invites kids to practice key drawing concepts by leading them through quick-paced warm-ups and challenges. You can view his energetic approach at this video link: Kistler’s show (not least his jumpsuit) impressed me, but I wondered: wouldn’t students quickly lose interest in drawing overlapping soup can after overlapping soup can, or in creating flowerpots, cakes, and stools out of the same foreshortened circle? Still, I liked the approach enough and had no better ideas, so I tried it.

We practice drawing Secret City-inspired warm-ups at the start of every Comics class, now in its fourth session. To upper-elementary students aged 8-11, the skill of creating depth on a two-dimensional page is new. As we practiced foreshortening concepts related to depth (overlapping, shading, shadows, surface, contour, density, size), I saw that the repetition wasn’t boring, but useful. It breeds just the right amount of familiarity to complement the anticipation of “what will we make this week?” Thanks, Captain Mark.

The students and I share a passion for making comics. My job as teacher is to notice where their interests lie—expressive characters? witty punchlines? sprawling action epics?—and give them an uncomplicated framework in which to deepen their skills, and thereby deepen their passion. That is a learning process: it took three tries to get a worksheet about lettering to the point where it seemed useful to most of the class. You can see the progression below, as well as excellent work on the final worksheet by current student Lola L.:

Blogx - handoutdev1.jpg
Attempts 1 and 2. Larger size here.
Blogx - handoutdev2.jpg
Attempt 3, and Lola L.’s worksheet. Larger size here.

Captain Mark taught me that repeated practice of key concepts within a simple framework can be a springboard for great invention.

Writing matters

Last fall before the first meeting of Calligraphy class, a mother explained why her son was enrolled. “He wants to be a doctor when he grows up, but his handwriting is terrible! If you want to help people, I told him, what you write must be easy for others to read.” I suspect that many of the parents of the children with whom I work want their child to write competently and with care. Below I will outline two important reasons why writing remains relevant today.

Today’s parents receive a daily education in how digital media shapes people’s interests and goals. Yet many, like the mom quoted above, recognize that we still often face situations where it is quickest and easiest to think and communicate by hand. That remains the main purpose of handwriting, a human invention that reaches back thousands of years. One important moment in its history occurred during the Renaissance when, as the author Jan Adkins writes, “everyday handwriting gained greater importance. Communication was the current of rebirth, running from one mind to another between cities and countries.” Italian writing masters disseminated a slanted, current (running-together) script known today as Italic. Here it is in use at the San Francisco Public Library:

Blogx - italic example SFPL.jpg

Italic’s structure lends itself to being written quickly, and its letters, derived from natural hand movements, make it possible for young children to learn. For centuries the written Western alphabet has been taught systematically in public schools throughout Europe, and the Italic hand has often been the model. Today in the United States, it is rare that handwriting gets much formal treatment. No national standards exist for it beyond the first grade and the standard instruction that is offered is deficient—a subject for a future post. Lately, the de-prioritization of writing seems to have accelerated: some parents of elementary-age children recall that their own writing lessons spanned several grade levels, and that Writing was given roughly equivalent emphasis to Reading and Arithmetic (the so-called “3 R’s”). Whatever policymakers think, parents and teachers today continue to see a need for young students to be trained in how to write in a legible, controlled hand.

Beyond utility, a more important reason exists for learning to write well. It is more difficult to put into words. People enjoy making deliberate marks by hand on a deeper-than-thinking level. I glimpse this in the faces of the eight-to-ten-year-olds experimenting with the thick and thin marks made by a chisel-tipped pen dipped in ink, and with five-year-olds who smile proudly at the long line of zig-zag chalk lines that they have transformed into a snake. Scientists deem such enjoyment a “useful cognitive exercise.” In the rush to produce digitally-literate future workers (a push that is felt worldwide), we sever ourselves from both an ancient human tradition and a basic human need: to be understood, to communicate clearly in our own voice. Of course, this is a skill that emerges gradually, out of many years of sustained practice.

For an excellent introduction to the history of the Western alphabet, read “Letterbox: The Art and History of Letters” by Jan Adkins.