Community Engagment

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Mount Druitt Primary School

First Foot Schools Engagement Program

What does it take to inspire an 11 year old?
Towards the end of 2013, I volunteered to conduct a half hour workshop, aimed at primary school students in years 5 and 6, promoting the Communication Arts Program at Western Sydney University.

These workshops were part of the new primary school engagement program called First Foot. This is a continuation of the successful Fast Forward High School program developed by the University of Western Sydney (UWS) in partnership with many of the schools in the Greater Western Sydney region.

Many of the students come from families and cultures where tertiary education is not considered a natural pathway to employment. Both these programs have been designed to encourage school students to aspire to a wider variety of career options and continue their education. It aims to specifically promote University as a realistic and viable option to both students and their parents. http://www.uws.edu.au/firstfootforward/home

Over the last four years I have been teaching and researching creative visual thinking as part of the Communication Arts Design Course at UWS. The students come from a wide mix of cultural and economic backgrounds, many entering University with a low ATAR score or through a College or TAFE pathway. They come with varying degrees of literacy skills. I assumed that many of the participants of the First Foot program would not be dissimilar to these students – just 10 years younger. My PhD research focuses on the role of drawing in the design thinking process. I was keen to gain an insight into the background of my students. What had they experienced before they came to University?

I had not stepped into a Primary school for over ten years, but I had spent many years designing online interactive learning resources for both Primary and Secondary schools. As a result, I was familiar with parts of the NSW (and Australian) Curriculum, specifically for mathematics. I had some knowledge about the expected literacy and visualisation abilities of Primary school students. I had some inkling as to their level of understand, but was unsure about what they liked.

What would I do with 30 ‘tweens’ for half an hour? With the last of my university tutorials finished, and all my marking complete, I had some time to evaluate the teaching strategies and approaches I had taken during the year with my university undergraduates. Perhaps I would adapt one of the more successful drawing exercises I had developed for the new first year Visual Storytelling unit.

This activity required the students to fill in two frames of a graphic novel (cartoon strip). They were provided with the start of a simple story line and a rough sketch on a worksheet.

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The aim of the exercise was to quickly create an original mini scene using dialogue, facial expressions, comic format conventions.

The cohort was a mix of journalism, advertising, law, PE, education and design students, so the emphasis was on presenting something engaging and original, not necessarily well drawn. The exercise was conducted immediately after the students were shown the drawing demonstration video by Koizu, the Manga/anima artist (http://www.youtube.com/user/koizu?feature=watch), so they had somewhere to start.

I had put together this in-class drawing exercise as a response to several student email enquiries about the graphic novel assignment due in the following weeks. Some students were concerned they did not have adequate drawing skills to gain a Pass mark for the Graphic Novel assignment worth 25% of the final mark. Visual Storytelling was a new unit and there were no previous examples of assignments to show students, so I designed the exercise to emulate the requirements. I also hoped it would provide a vehicle to discuss approaches and expectations, providing a starting point for some students to gain confidence in drawing.

During the tutorial the drawing exercise work sheets and pencils were handed out to students. I had learnt from previous experience that most students do not attend class with a writing instrument so providing a pencil and paper was important. Most of these first year students had been provided with an ipad at the commencement of their course at UWS, so I presumed this was their preferred note-taking tool. However, from my casual observations, not many students took notes of any form during tutorials. They often took a photo with their phone of the information written or projected on the screen instead.

So with a room of approximately 24 Visual Storytelling students, I announced they had 2 minutes to write and fill in the bubbles on their worksheet. They were directed not to draw any faces or complete any pictures yet. Most students filled in words and a story easily. They then swapped their worksheet with the student next to them who filled in the missing characters’ expressions and any other necessary visual clues during the next 2 minutes.

Despite the limited time spent on developing this exercise it did the job. I had thought it may be too simple for some students, but most of them appeared to be engaged with the task. It succeeded in provoking the necessary questions and discussions about the requirements and expectation of the forth-coming assignment. I read out some of the more creative and funny responses, emphasising that the aim was to present an original, creative concept.

Would a similar drawing exercise work with the 11 and 12 year old First Foot audience? Instead of an hour-long tutorial, I only had half an hour. I was also required to spend 5 minutes at the start of each session introducing the Communication Arts Program. There would be no time to show Koizu’s drawing demonstration, so I had to make a few adjustments to the exercise.

 I changed the characters and possible story line, while still allowing room for a creative approach. I used the scenario and characters from an animation my daughter Avril, had produced for one of her university assignments; a balloon and a cactus. These familiar objects/things immediately set up an obvious scenario; the cactus could pop the balloon if it got too close.

I provided 2 variations where speech and thought bubbles were placed in different positions, to emphasis the many possible approaches to telling a story and to discourage copying.

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Due to time restrictions, I also decided to dispense with the swapping over of the worksheets, and give these young students 8-10 minutes to complete the task rather than 4-5.

As there was no time to show the drawing demonstration video I designed a mini presentation that I hoped would dispel any fears they may have about their drawing ability.

During the course of this introduction, I asked the students to raise their hand if they liked to draw or were good at drawing. I did a rough count of each of the six groups. Approximately two thirds of the students said they liked to draw or were good at it. Interestingly, I had one class out of the six, where all the students put up their hands and another class where only three students raised their hands (two of these were encouraged by their friends sitting next to them). I also asked this question of my first year undergraduate students during week 1 of the Visual Communications tutorial. The results of this questionnaire have yet to be collated, but from a show of hands, I expect the percentage of willing drawers to be lower than two thirds.

The mini presentation used the cartoon characters from South Park to illustrate to the students that they did not need amazing drawing skills to tell a good story. Overlays of circles on the characters of Cartman and his friends used to clearly show the repetition and use of the circle for all the heads.

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South Park created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (1997). hbp://www.southparkstudios.com/guide/characters

Students were then asked to observe what was the same about each of the characters. They recognised that they had the same eyes and they all lacked noses and fingers. They observed that Cartman was slightly different from the others. He was a bit fatter and he often had a different expression on his face to his friends.

South Park is mainly drawn using circles. How hard it is to draw a perfect circle? Interestingly many students, at some stage of their life said they had tried to draw a perfect circle. One boy said he nearly did it with the help of a ‘machine’ (I assumed he meant a compass). I then went on to show them that an “o” in the alphabet is a circle and that most of them could draw an “o” good enough that others could read it. I did acknowledge that there might be some students who may need a bit more practice with their letterforms.

If you think you can’t draw, I declared, then you are in good company. I showed them several drawings by the illustrator Quentin Blake. Did they recognise these drawings? Yes, most students had read a Rohl Dahl book. Did they think Quentin Blake could draw a perfect circle? Possibly not, his drawings were rough and messy. Then I showed examples of the political cartoonist Bruce Petty, the 1980s esoteric doodling artist Mark Beyer, and the Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist Michael Leunig. I pointed out that all these artists had a rough, wobbly, imprecise style of drawing, not unlike the drawings of children.

They then did a quick facial expression recognition game, comparing a photograph of someone pulling a face with South Park’s Cartman and Koizu’s manga drawings. I hoped they would recognise the minimum use of line needed to convey an expression. There was not sufficient time to fully explain the nuances of drawing expressions, but some students did use a variety of Cartman’s “economy of line” expressions in their final drawings showing that they had understood the principle.

After the mini presentation the school students were given a drawing worksheet and a pencil. They were told to think about a story that no one else would think of and fill in the characters and their expressions. From my observations and results, not all students understood the concept of thinking creatively and trying to be original. (Unfortunately this is something that many of my university students find hard to grasp also.) Some of the students openly copied the person next to them. Interestingly many of those who were searching for originality protected their idea by guarding their work with their free hand.

From my casual observations, the children did appear to enjoy the exercise. Unlike my university students, most primary school students are used to sitting quietly and working in a classroom environment, so I expected a certain level of engagement. Teachers commented after the sessions that their children seemed to like the workshop. Most students wanted to take their drawings with them.

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Mount Druitt Primary School

There were some unexpected responses. Two young girls didn’t understand that the panel to the right was a key, and diligently filled the example words into their speech bubbles. A few students felt lost without an eraser, but after encouragement to go over their mistake, they seemed OK. I repeatedly stressed that the idea and story was the most important thing.

Most students wrote and drew variations of the obvious story; the balloon is approaching the cactus who will inevitably pop it with his spikes. I deliberately left the spikes off the cactus and some used the fact that the cactus was ‘nude’ as part of their story.

In each group there were 2-3 creative responses that stood out from the others. These were rewarded with a lolly. Some students reversed the roles of the balloon and cactus while others added extra dialogue balloons creating more complex stories. Some students depicted the balloon’s profile and back of the balloon in the first frame while others gave hairstyles, clothes and tattoos to their characters. One clever student played with the perspective, allowing the cactus to break free from his roots and move closer to the balloon in the foreground, shouting, “Get out of my way!”

I allowed 4-5 minutes at the end of each session to conduct a quick evaluation. Sometimes this was less, as some classes had keener students with more questions to ask. I was grateful I had chosen a scenario with an obvious storyline, as I was able to quickly recognise a creative approach with a glance. If more time had been available, a less obvious scenario may have provided more creative responses. It did, however, illustrate the concept of creative thinking and originality quite well.

So, what does it take to inspire an 11 year old to be visually creative? In this case a very similar strategy to that used with first year university students.

  1. Give them an easy starting point; a demonstration, a rough framework and accessible examples,
  2. Give them clear directions; an obvious pathway to success to gain confidence,
  3. And most importantly, give them permission to make mistakes and break the rules.

The encouraging outcome of these sessions was that they demonstrated that students who initially did not believe they could draw; or perhaps did not ‘like’ drawing, happily completed the exercise. They were all able, (to greater or lesser degrees of originality) be creative, and the process of creative thinking was enhanced by the use of pencil in hand.

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