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An Essay in Pictures

I worry sometimes that we are losing a little more of our creativity each time we work through the writing process. Typically in AP Literature and Composition, we write and we write; we read a book, then we write a paper. Writing becomes less about expression and more about a culminating essay to earn the grade. I want(ed) to shift the writing to keep my students from sleepwalking through another prompt. Good writing is good, creative thinking. For my students to see this, we needed to break our routine. So, we wrote essays in pictures.

The idea came from an essay shared by our school librarian called “Why Your Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell. This text acted as inspiration for what the students produced. Initially after we read Gaiman and Riddell’s text, a few students criticized it. They thought it was oversimplified and childlike. Most likely, their reactions came from a fear of switching their routine. They know the writing routine for an essay; this assignment meant change and looking at an argument in a new way. We talked about what their freedom to create could look like on this assignment if they chose to dig in. We also had an honest conversation about what their grades would look like if they took a creative risk. To break our writing routine, students needed permission and guarantees about the impact on grades. With that settled, we jumped in together.

As any good thinking begins, students worked in pairs, collaborating and putting their heads together. I wanted these partners to push each other to move beyond their first ideas and not allow the other to settle. This meant that the students worked with people in the class they normally don’t work alongside. After our partnerships were established, I gave students time to talk. I wanted to build in time for students to talk to each other to figure out their common ground. What was a topic that they both felt passionately about? As the ever-influential Dionne Custer Edwards, creator and director of the Pages Program, says: What are students willing to put their “time, talent, and treasure” behind? Т 

I liked seeing students work from their passions. They saw an example of an essay in pictures, but that was all the prompting I provided. Less, especially for students at an honors level, can be so much more. I wanted them to freely develop an idea without connecting it to a certain prompt, class text, or provided model. Expectations set limits sometimes as students want to give whatever they think their teacher wants. I wanted them to create a piece for themselves that could then inspire and influence their peers without limits.

When the essays were sketched in black and white and writing combined, we took a day to separate into groups and share. We worked in two groups to produce a more intimate setting. The topics for their essays in pictures ranged from adoption defining a family to purebred puppies sold for a profit. Students wrote about the need to detach from technology, what it means to identify as a member of the LGTBQIA community as a teen, and the need for better understanding and support of mental illness.Students were open to what their classmates presented and so complimentary. I appreciated the love that they shared with each other and how they were surprised at the hidden talents this assignment revealed about their classmates. Students received shout outs who are normally too quiet to share their work.

Overall, I am thankful for the reminder this assignment provided. Sure, we need some routines, writing and otherwise; but the more we can break away from those patterns, the more we feel free to capture our creativity without permission the next time.

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