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.

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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.:

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Attempts 1 and 2.
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Attempt 3, and Lola L.’s worksheet.

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:

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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.

Fun with… what?

Over the last year I have taught “Fun with Letterforms” to five-year-old students. Fortunately, the children are too young to look askance at a course with “Fun” in the title (usually a bad sign), or to wonder what a stuffy-sounding word like “letterforms” means. They simply know that in Letterforms class they get to twist their bodies into shapes of letters and get to use crayons, markers, paintbrushes and chalk to make all kinds of pictures out of patterns. And that also someone usually gets to ring the mindful bell.

By the kindergarten year, children can make marks with writing tools: crayons, markers, and pencils. When presented with a large white sheet of paper, some like to make recognizable pictures of things (of people, flowers, raindrops, cars), but many more will fearlessly fill the space with all manner of zigzags, spirals, and squiggles:

The goal in “Fun with Letterforms” is to guide the natural human tendency to doodle—which often is swift, flowing, and rhythmic—toward the patterns of strokes that make up the letters of the alphabet. A hundred years ago a British teacher named Marion Richardson acquainted students with a series of simple rhythms (‘down-up’, ‘up-down’, ‘bump’, ‘swing’, ‘curl’) and taught them different positions to place them in: touching, superimposed, alternating.

23413198012_c679b9fd69_z.jpg Combining given movements in unscripted ways was the key, Richardson believed, to a child’s gaining “a simple, swift running hand which she never has to unlearn, but will grow into something that is increasingly her own.” In this way, students form letters through play and experimentation—and understand that letter-patterns are dynamic and have personality, just like they do.

Sources of Inspiration

I first encountered calligraphy as a boy when I found a large book on the English artist William Morris on my mother’s bookshelf. It was full of beautiful pictures—Morris was a tireless designer and activist printer—but an image of an unfinished medieval-style manuscript page fascinated me beyond all the rest:


I wanted to pick that old piece of paper up, scrutinize its fine, careful writing and beautiful borders of colorful vegetation, and pick up a pen and brush to finish where the artist had left off.

I kept this memory in mind as I tried to spark (or deepen) an interest in calligraphy in a group of upper elementary students in Berkeley last fall. Over eleven one-hour meetings, the class practiced simple Roman capitals and small Italic letters, first in pencil and then with dip pens: the same materials that “real-life” calligraphers like Morris used more than one hundred years ago, and that calligraphers still use today. Initially the idea of 9 and 10 year-olds using indelible ink seemed risky, but I followed a colleague’s somewhat mystical advice to “assume that the students already know what to do.” This proved to be among the course’s best features: by and large students rose to the challenge of loading their own Brause 3mm pen nibs with black Higgins Eternal ink, and took care to clean their equipment with water, a rag and an old toothbrush at the end of each session. The students’ intuitive care for the writing tools was exciting to see. Such respect contributes to a writer gaining control over her pen, and not the other way around. No page of beautiful writing could ever be completed without it.