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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.

Stacey Shubitz View All

Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.

11 thoughts on “Simple Shapes Convey Meaning Leave a comment

  1. My physical therapist always draws stick figures for his patients. Works so well for me, being completely visual. So I’ve always drawn for my kids, too.


  2. This is so great! I have always appreciated preschoolers’ drawing as writing – but your vignette about the physical therapy session shows the value of adults doing it, too. I wonder if drawing some of my notes would be a great addition in my observations in the classroom? Help me retain what I saw? Thank you for this – I am going to have to get my hands on the Talking, Drawing, Writing book!


  3. I am so at home with words, but drawing is what I would most love to do! Even as a blogger, I love to play with visuals to enhance my meaning, yet cringe at the immaturity of them! I’m off to look for the books you mention, and hope to read more about how I can help kids write with drawing.


  4. I love this post – thank you! I appreciate that you included the sketches – I will be using this technique with my students this year. I may be teaching lower el, so having it in my head that I can provide simple visuals will certainly boost my teaching!


  5. I teach adults and require them to craft two main documents in our 10-week writing session. During the 10 weeks, they continually revise their documents. During week 4, they have to draw a sketch of something regarding one of the documents. It can be anything about their thoughts of their document; no sketches are wrong as long as they relate to what they’ve written, and they can describe the relationship to the class. Most students dread this assignment and often do not understand how it can help them when writing documents. I plan to share your post with them. Also, I smiled when I read your thoughts on drawing stick people because I always tell students I don’t even draw them well, so artistic ability is not the point of the sketch assignment. After reading your post, I now will draw much better stick people! Thanks for sharing your experience and the name of the book!


  6. You will LOVE Talking, Drawing, Writing! I was amazed by how much we can teach our students about writing when we teach them to draw their stories.


  7. What a great post! I wasn’t certain what the content would be from the title, but I felled compelled to read it and am so glad that I did. I teach high school students but even they (and myself) can benefit from adding sketches and shapes to the words.

    Thank you not only for the idea, but for including the visuals. ;o)


  8. There are some cute stick figure people stickers at Michael’s craft store. They are differentiated by hair color, style, hats, simplistic differences. The kids love them and just throwing one of them on a poster adds some life (pun intended!)


  9. Sketching is such a great took in writing workshop. I find that many of my struggling writers turn to this technique to nudge their thinking – sometimes drawing that stick figure from multiple perspectives allows new things to write about. We do this in Social Studies as well – which leads to such interesting discussions. Kristi Mraz’s class sounds awesome…I shall have to look for this book when it is published!


  10. Thanks! We’ve always known that we have more visual learners in the classes but rarely do our written instructions show that. Thanks for reminding me to be more visual! And I love Art!


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