Simple Shapes Convey Meaning

I have a confession to make: I’m a wanna-be artist.  I have a deep appreciation for art and for people who can draw the human form.  Until last month, I couldn’t even draw a decent stick figure.  As a result, my classroom charts as a teacher were neatly written, and sometimes color-coded, but they rarely included drawings.

Last month, I took Kristi Mraz’s primary advanced section at the Writing Institute, which was entitled, “Toolkits, Charts and other Resources That Support Writers in Revision and Writerly Craft.”  I learned lots of incredible things about chart making from Kristi, who has a forthcoming book on the subject.  One of the most valuable things I learned about chart making in the primary grades from Kristi was that you should include sketches wherever possible.  As someone who has only taught fourth and fifth grade, my head started to spin.  Nagging insecurities from middle school art class, like “I can’t draw,” began to swirl around in my head.  But then, Kristi did a short demonstration of how to draw stick figures on charts.  I learned, quite quickly, how to fix the stick figures I’d been mis-drawing for years in a matter of five minutes.  Here are the basics, using one page of my notes, from the Summer Writing Institute:

  • CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO ENGLARGE: Straight out of my notebook -- from Kristi Mraz's session

  • Look at the top left corner of my notes.  As you’ll see, the head is a circle and the body is an oval.  Arms come out from the area between the neck and the head.  Legs should be drawn the same distance apart as the two sides of the head.  The hash marks on the elbows and knees show where the arms and legs can and should bend when you draw your stick figures.
    • Four examples of this can be found on the blue sticky in the top right corner of the page.
  • Now look at the blue sticky note on the left side of the page.  This sticky note will help you draw other perspectives.
    • You can draw someone sitting by using the same circle and oval combination for the head and body.  Then make the arms just as you would if the stick figure were standing.  Now just swing the legs out to one side, if you want to simulate someone sitting on the floor, the same distance apart as the head.
    • If you want to draw someone from the side just draw a circle and oval combination for the head and body.  Draw one line for the arm and one line for the leg.  If you want to draw someone from behind, then do exactly what you’d do for someone you’re looking at, but put hair (no face) on them.
    • Further down on my notes page you’ll see how you can use stick figures to show kids how to “sit down” and how to “stop running.”
  • There’s a reference to Ed Emberly’s Book Make a World on the bottom right corner of the page.  I purchased the book and really like the step-by-step visuals that will help you create everything from animals to shopping carts to airplanes.

The bottom line, as paraphrased from Kristi’s words, is that simple shapes and a few symbols can communicate a lot of meaning.

To prove this point, I was recently finishing up a physical therapy session.  My physical therapist was setting me free for a month to do a home regimen.  He had just taught me three exercises that day for which he didn’t have pictures.  Therefore, he began describing them to me.  Since I had just learned them that morning, they were too fresh in my mind for written explanation alone.  Therefore, I asked him for a piece of plain white paper so I could sketch out each exercise, in addition to writing a written description of each one.  He gave me paper and the time I needed to draw some stick people and write up the explanation of the exercises.  I created a crude, but functional, cheat-sheet of my new exercises.  Just as I was finishing my paper, another physical therapist walked by and said, “You must be a teacher.”

Three New Theraband Exercises. The small circles at the end of my "arms" represents the ends of the TheraBand tube. The dotted line, in the second picture, represents the "x" I have to make with my arms.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because, you draw like a teacher.  Who else would do something like that?” she said smiling.

I smiled and said, “I do literacy consulting now, but I used to be an elementary school teacher.”

“See,” she said looking at my physical therapist, “I knew that.”

I smiled to myself knowing that everything I learned about drawing simple shapes and a few symbols to convey meaning I had learned after I left the classroom.

I recently obtained a copy of Martha Horn & Mary Ellen Giacobbe’s book Talking, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers.  I plan on devouring this book in the next few weeks.  I look forward to sharing some more about primary writing with you once I finish it.