Brushes and Pens: Art and English Coincide

Summer Institute imagesThe Diablo Valley College mission statement reads, in part, that “Diablo Valley College is passionately committed to student learning...”

Nearly everyone connected to the California community colleges is aware of the challenges of accomplishing this mission while serving the very diverse populations that make up our student bodies. This is evidenced through the work being done by the Basic Skills Initiative.

At Diablo Valley College, in the Summer Institute (its Extended Opportunity Programs and Services college readiness program), students are putting water color pencils and paint brushes to paper, drawing their nightmares, their memories and their dreams—all in the pursuit of improving their English writing skills.

In its most rudimentary form, the idea began when one of the Institute’s English instructors added pictographs to the writing assignment as a way for students to access their memories for a personal essay.

In the years since, the curriculum has developed and evolved a great deal. In 2008, EOPS Director Emily Stone attended the Asilomar Leadership Skills Seminar, where she met an instructor from Berkeley City College who used art to introduce the writing process in her basic skills college writing classes.

Inspired by the meeting, Stone brought the idea back to John Thomas, the current Summer Institute English instructor, who was excited about the idea of more intentionally incorporating art into the English 90 curriculum. Thomas collaborated with Arthur Scott King, a DVC art instructor, to develop a curriculum that uses art to reflect each student’s internal emotional and physical journey and link it directly to his or her essay.

Under the leadership of Lindsay Kong, EOPS Summer Institute coordinator, the EOPS program wrote a grant to pilot this project idea and it was successfully funded by the DVC Foundations for College Success (Basic Skills Initiative) and the DVC Foundation.

“Using art as a tool for teaching narrative writing, the Summer Institute English instructor and art instructor have successfully utilized interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation to introduce the process of writing through alternate avenues,” says Stone.

As part of ongoing efforts to address the academic needs of its participants, the Summer Institute staff, English instructor, and art instructor also collaborated on and implemented a two-day workshop for students that introduces the concept of writing through alternative and more visual means. The workshop has proved to be very popular with the students, and since its inception more than 150 students have participated.

“For the artwork,” King says, “students are encouraged to depict a sequence of events that shows the passage of time or conveys a mood at the dramatic high point of the story. When possible, an object or a word was allowed to represent a person or place.”

How does it work?

As King describes it, “I start out the class with a discussion about symbolism and, as an example, how it is used in advertising, through logos and such. We also do an exercise to get them working with water color pencils and paint brushes, as some of them have never had this experience. We have them draw images or words. We then talk about how writing is symbolic of who they are—and that when they sign their name, it is a kind of logo used to represent them. This leads us into the project.”

At the beginning of the art project King has the students draw a larger space, which represents the head or body, and a smaller space, which represents the mind.

“I have them think about their story and the things that happened to them, around them, that they had no control over,” he says. “These are images that go outside the body. Then I ask them to think about how they felt while the things were happening. Those images go inside the body. Finally, I want them to remember how they felt after the event. That goes inside the smaller space, to represent what was in their mind—the afterthought.”

King also talks to the students about how to use color to match their feelings or emotions. “Yellow, orange and red represent heat, passion, and fire, while blues, greens and purples represent numbness, isolation, and rejection.”

In this way, students can draw words or symbols that tell the story of what happened and how they were feeling, without naming names. He encourages them to “think of the soundtrack,” or the music in their heads that goes with the story, and to express that with the forcefulness of their mark or with color.

The students use the water color pencils to do the drawing, and use the brushes with water only at the very end.

“The art images they create present a visual journal of the event—a snapshot of who they were and where they were when the event happened. It makes the writing easier,” King says, “because the process helps them bring things into focus and make sense so they can write about it. They can now see it with clarity and from a different perspective.

“It is always inspiring to see them struggle with these emotions—to be brave when dealing with this,” he adds. “Some of the emotions are so raw and powerful. The struggle to work through and put it on paper is also somewhat of a healing process for them, as it gives them the opportunity to externalize what happened. I feel it, I see it, and I’m always very humbled by it. It is wonderful to give them the opportunity, and to see the magic moment when they realize they are being creative.”

Collectively, King says, the end result is a product that is a lot of history, thought, and determination. “The art provides a way to appreciate the subject of writing without it seeming as black and white as words can be. It adds color, line, and texture.”

The artwork they create then becomes the subject of their essay for English 90, the English component of the Summer Institute. At the end of the summer, the essays are compiled into an anthology, which itself has morphed from an in-house photocopied work to a professionally-produced product that includes color reproductions of student art work which reflects their essay topics. This, too, is paid for by the grants.

“I am a strong believer in incorporating strategies and activities that will reach students with different learning styles,” Thomas says. “Incorporating art more directly into the English 90 curriculum helps those who may not have strong language or writing skills, but who may be visual learners or artistically inclined. Incorporating art into the English writing assignment helps students explore and brainstorm for a topic and develop their ideas before they confront a blank piece of paper to begin the actual writing process.

“The art project serves as another form of self-discovery and can help them decide if a particular topic for their personal narrative is too personal or too private to share, or if it’s something they really don’t think they can develop sufficiently. It also helps students visualize what they want to say, so they can provide more details—specific sensory details and content—while sorting out their thoughts. For some, who may have had negative experiences with English, it can help them relax before tackling an essay.”

A student commented in her end-of-program satisfaction survey: “The art assignment we did was really fun, and I think we should do more stuff like that. I actually didn’t know that I was good at art until I tried it and it came out nice. I learned how to write better, too—like putting more details into my stories—what did I see, hear, touch, and feel.”

In collaboration with instructors John Thomas and Arthur Scott King, the EOPS program has developed a Student Learning Outcome specifically related to the English/art component. Summer Institute instructors will use this SLO next summer and continue to assess the impact of the English/Art component on students’ writing and progress in English 90.

The English class, like the course strengthening basic college math skills, is offered in a fun and supportive environment. An Orientation to College counseling course provides students with important skills and a plan for understanding and succeeding in college. All three EOPS Summer Institute classes are offered as a learning community, with a group of students enrolling in all three courses together, making it easier to meet new friends and form study groups. Other key program components include at least one campus tour to UC Berkeley and weekly community-building pizza lunches.

“Over the past three years, the project has been well received by Summer Institute students and is one of the major highlights of the summer program, as evidenced by favorable pre- and post-survey results,” says EOPS Director Stone. “The English/Art workshop and student writers’ anthology project is truly an example of a successful collaboration between student services and instruction at Diablo Valley College.”


Note: None of this would be possible without the numerous contributions by many dedicated and hard-working faculty, staff, and administrators in counseling, math, art, and English departments as well as many student services units.


Original article on Affinity Online.