The Stenhouse Blog

Teacher's Corner Podcast: Shawna Coppola and Trevor Bryan

Posted by admin on Feb 27, 2020 5:04:34 PM

In this episode of Teacher's Corner, we recorded a conversation between two educators, Shawna Coppola, author of Writing, Redefined and Trevor Bryan who wrote The Art of Comprehension. Together they discussed what inspired their work--visual arts in communication and the importance of exploring inquiry to engage students.

 

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Shop Art of Comprehension

 

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Shawna: So we're here together at the NCTE conference, and one of the things that I think is really interesting about our work is how complementary that it is. So I thought it would be interesting for us to talk about our current work and how we came to it. So I'm really curious, Trevor, how you came to your current work and your book, the Art of Comprehension?

Trevor: Yeah, so my mission going into education, I think, was to bring the arts more to the forefront of the academic arena. From my experiences growing up, I believe that the arts could play a larger role in the academic lives of children, and so I really wanted to do that.

Trevor: Immediately upon entering education with that as my mission, I hit a gigantic roadblock, which was I didn't have a good way of talking about art with people who didn't have a background in art, people who I consider novice viewers, both my students and also my colleagues, and without a good way of talking about art and how it can enter into a more classroom setting outside of the art room, it was impossible for me to cross that bridge of bringing the arts into that academic arena.

Trevor: So my second mission really became looking for a better way of talking about art with novice viewers, with kids, with other adults, and that's when I started exploring the use of what are commonly called reading comprehension strategies as a pathway into the artwork. We realized that we could teach reading comprehension strategies through artwork. So it's really just comprehension strategies. We use them all the time when we look at plays, when we listen to songs, when we look at artwork, illustrations. So that became my pathway into both having better conversations about art, more meaningful conversations about art with my students and colleagues, but also bringing art into the academic setting.

Shawna: Yeah, I feel like I'm so fascinated by the fact that in school spaces, the arts really takes a secondary role.

Trevor: Yeah.

Shawna: Do you feel like that? Do you see that as well in your work?

Trevor: Yeah, the arts, I think, often play a secondary role. What's always interesting is this idea that growing up in my ELA classroom, we would read plays, but then if a drama club was spending three months really doing the closest read you can of a play to try and figure out how you're going to actually play it, and present it, and put it together, and work through it, and what each scene means, and blah, blah, blah, that that's seen as non-academic work. That's crazy to me.

Shawna: It is crazy. It's so complex, though. My younger daughter is hugely into the arts and particularly into community theater right now, and she actually doesn't go to public school because it doesn't have a lot of focus on the arts and the things that's she interested in.

Shawna: It doesn't go deeply into things where, for example, let's say you're blocking out a scene, and you're absorbing so much just spatially. You're absorbing so much interpersonally, and I just feel like it is such a shame that that's not seen as a really academic.

Trevor:

Yeah, and I think one of the problems is that we don't recognize all of the arts as just forms of communication, including reading and writing. Books are works of art. Effective communication is an art form, and that's true whether you're writing something, just giving a presentation, acting, drawing a picture. The arts are basically how we learn to communicate.

Trevor: I think because reading and writing is so heavily tested that that's where that drives all of the tasks and where we focus so much attention, but the reality is, especially in today's age where we have so many mediums that we can play around with that are so readily available to students and to kids ... It's amazing what they can do on a phone.

Shawna: Oh my gosh.

Trevor: My daughter's a filmmaker. Never been asked to make a film in school, but does all of her editing on her phone, gets apps for special effects. We've done green screens in the car. It's amazing what she can do, and that's never been part of her academic day.

Trevor: But it's all about communication, and effective communication, and giving kids an opportunity to learn and explore the best ways for them to communicate their ideas. I think that's where the arts really could play a much more vital role or prominent role.

Shawna: Yeah, I definitely agree because I think when I was reflecting on my newest project, the Writing Redefined, and how we should broaden our ideas about what we consider to be writing in school spaces, and what kinds of writing we privilege in school spaces, I really thought about the fact that all of the multimodal work, especially in a lot of the visual work that I do in comics, in watercolors, in photography, I didn't learn any of that in school spaces. I learned all of that on my own, and that's the kind of composition that brings me the most joy.

Shawna: It was interesting because before we started recording, we were talking about Whitney Houston because I had just finished a book about her and watched the documentary. I almost honestly started crying as we were talking about just the effect that art and the arts has on people. The fact that we don't ... I would say it's a systemic problem. Certainly it's not something that I would blame teachers for. It's really systemic that we don't value the ways that art brings joy to kids and to people.

Trevor: Yeah, the arts foster joy and connection.

Shawna: Yeah.

Trevor: That's why people go to movies, and that's why they go to concerts. They feel connected when you find someone who loves the same band, or the same music, or have the same ... You had mentioned growing up that Whitney Houston was your soundtrack.

Shawna: Yeah.

Trevor: And so that's what the arts are for the arts help us to explore and express our human experience. That's kind of why they're around and what they're designed for, and that's all communications skills and exploration skills.

Trevor: One of the problems in arts education is we put more focus on just basic skills. For instance, there's a drawing in my book that my five year old son did, which as an art educator, to a lot of people, it would be embarrassing that my son does not render things accurately.

Trevor: So he drew a picture of he and his friend John in the ocean, and it's a head with arms coming out of the head and arms coming out of the body. They have big smiles on their face, and he used the sun to show that it was a nice day, and they're standing close together. That picture effectively communicates friendship, and the joy that friendship brings, and the joy of going someplace special.

Trevor: So you could think of a day at the beach as a poem, whereas in school sometimes, I teach kids the stock drawing of a pear that looks three dimensional on gray paper with chalk pastel. Everyone oohs and ahhs over it, but the pear doesn't convey anything. It just looks real, but it's not communicating. For most people, looking at a pear doesn't evoke any kind of emotion.

Trevor: But if I put the two up, my son's drawing, which is about friendship and drawing our human experiences, gets dismissed because of the skill as opposed to ... The content was overlooked. The pear gets celebrated even though it has no content. It's just skill.

Shawna: It's just representation.

Trevor: Yeah, and it's stock.

Shawna: Yes.

Trevor: I can teach anyone to do it, and I think that's one of the ways that we've traditionally thought about the arts that doesn't go to our larger mission of what we're talking about, about giving different people lots of different ways to share their authentic voice, explore their personal ideas, and come up with a way that is going to allow them to share those ideas effectively. The arts are how we make things shareable, and for a long time, writing was the most efficient way to share big ideas. I think that's going away now because-

Shawna: Oh, for sure.

Trevor: ... when I want to learn how to do something, I'm not looking for text to read. I'm looking for a video, right?

Shawna: Right. Right. Definitely.

Trevor: Right, and so the idea of filmmaking as a really important skill or what we're doing now on the podcast as a skill and collaborating through a podcast as opposed to just writing letters back and forth about our ideas, there's a lot of value in that.

Shawna: Absolutely.

Trevor: I think we need to pay a little bit more attention to that side of idea sharing.

Shawna: Yeah. I'm thinking of a couple things as you're talking. One is I wrote about this in Renew, but there was a moment as a literacy educator where I had never worked with kindergartners before, and I had this job as a K to 6 literacy specialist in this new school. Well, new to me school. It's actually 80 years old.

Shawna: I had sat down alongside this ... He was barely five years old, and it was our first day of school. We had the kids start making books right away. I remember sitting down with this child and looking at his work and thinking, "I have nothing to say. I don't know what ..." It just looked like scribbles to me, and what happened was ... I think it's good to share these moments of, "I wasn't a very good educator in this moment."

Shawna: But when I asked him, "Tell me about what you're doing. Tell me about your book," he was able to speak so beautifully. Every mark on that page had meaning, and it ended up being something. He was writing a book about Darth Vader, and then once I spoke to him, once he was able to convey that meaning to me, I could see it. It was just really complex.

Shawna: This was a child who I think ... From even before we started school, he was flagged as a child that would potentially need special services, but the complexity of his work, and his thinking, and his storytelling was so evident to me once I was able to see, once he helped me see.

Shawna: That, I think, is when a light went on in my head that my gosh, I haven't even scratched the surface of the kinds of decisions that children make in their work, whether it's in alphabetic composition or visual composition or other kinds of composition.

Trevor: Right. So I would say two things in response to that. I would say A, you were a good educator because you were willing to listen and you didn't impose your own personal agenda onto that child's art-making.

Trevor: The other thing I think that gets overlooked in the arts is that any artist, and I consider Thomas Edison [inaudible 00:13:59], but anyone who's had a significant contribution, the main skill that they have is they have the ability to explore. They jump in, and they're not afraid to put stuff down, get it into a shareable form, look at it, show it to others, get feedback, and figure out the skills along the way that they need in order to more effectively produce whatever it is they're trying to produce.

Trevor:

I think oftentimes, we don't allow students enough exploration, which is the skill that I want kids to learn.

Shawna: Exactly.

Trevor: Stephen King, he sat down to write a book. He actually threw away Carrie. I think it was his first major-

Shawna: Oh, yeah. You're speaking my language now.

Trevor: It was his first major book, right?

Shawna: Yeah. Stephen King.

Trevor: So he started writing that book as an exploration of this idea, and obviously, he wasn't Stephen King. He actually threw it away. The only reason why that book exists is because his wife was cleaning his office and started reading it, and she was like, "I think you have something here." Stephen King goes, "Well, I'm writing about a 16 year old girl. I have no idea how to write a 16 year old girl voice." And she's like, "Well, I can help you with that."

Trevor: But it was his ability to explore, "Okay, can I write a 16 year old in a 16 year old girl's voice? Can I do this?"

Shawna: Absolutely.

Trevor: He didn't have pre-canned skills of writing like a 16 year old girl that he needed to establish before he started that. He just put stuff down and explored. I think that little boy was in that exploration stage, and I think that's where great work comes from.

Trevor: It doesn't come from ... Great work is not going to come from me showing someone how to draw a pear, and then having that pear. We've seen that pear for the last 400 years. We're not really moving the ball, whereas a kid who is just taking a whole bunch of materials and throwing them together and seeing what happens, maybe there's going to be something there that that kid's going to not only discover something that's really powerful to viewers but really powerful within himself that he's going to dive deeply into and explore, and then who knows where that's going to take us? He's going to pick up skills along the way that we would never be able to pre-teach.

Shawna: Yeah, we can't even imagine the skills that are going to come about, potentially.

Trevor: And then if he shares that work, there's the potential that someone else is going to see an idea in that, and they're going to either start a collaboration or that's going to branch off into a new direction. I think that kind of thinking about the arts and even writing, or even conversations about reading sometimes, we don't allow those, or we don't emphasize, or we don't focus on those explorative processes where we don't know what's going to happen.

Trevor:

When I was writing the Art of Comprehension, I had the good fortune of working with teachers where ... Justin Dulce was one of them, and Donna Donner was another, where I would just go into rooms and say, "Can I try this?" We have no idea what's going to happen. Neither one of us knew what was going to happen, but it was so exciting as educators to not know what was going to happen in that classroom. That really paved the path for me to eventually put a book out there.

Shawna:

I think that's where I grew the most as an educator too is where I had an administrator who was a true educator, and I had a cohort of colleagues at this last school where I worked for seven years who were just really willing. We call it taking a healthy risk. We just explored.

Shawna:

I come from an inquiry background. I was really taught by my mentors, certainly not by my schooling, to teach using an inquiry approach, but my mentors taught me that. That is essentially exploration, and you don't know where you're going to end up. You have an idea, and having worked with children for 20 years now, I have a sense where we might go, but I'm often surprised.

Shawna:

So I think one of the things that is important is we've had this vicious cycle of not being given the space, the time, and the opportunity to explore, even those of us who are educators. We have been in schools that are very ... Well, depending on where you are, but there's not a lot of room for exploration in most, I think, public schools, especially.

Shawna:

So I think there's a big learning curve with books like the Art of Comprehension, and Writing, Redefined, and even Renew around opening up that space and having that humility to not know what's going to come of this. Some of the best professional learning that I was told that I offered my colleagues within the past 10 years was really giving them that time, and space, and opportunity to explore.

Shawna:

So rather than, say, facilitating a book group or offering a series of workshops, we just really composed. We composed lots of different ways and using different modes and forms of writing, and that is what they told me was the kind of professional learning that they most needed. It really affected their work with students. So that's [inaudible 00:19:33].

Trevor:

Yeah, I think a lot of times, we want a preconceived outcome. We want it to match the rubric, and so we pre-teach so that the product is what we need for it to score well. I think that gets in the way of a lot of creative work.

Trevor:

I think that in a lot of ways, we don't recognize writing as a creative process anymore. We've gotten out of that kind of thinking, where I think in the early writers' workshop, it was more of a workshop model where it was a little bit more free and kids experimented a little bit more. I think because of the demands on education, on educators, on schools, we've gotten to a little bit of a place where we need a certain outcome.

Shawna:

Right, and I want to speak to that because I feel like whenever I'm working with educators around this concept of redefining writing or perhaps teaching writing through an inquiry approach, that exploration sort of approach, the biggest pushback I get ... and I always ask for pushback because it helps me clarify my thinking. It helps me grow. But it's always around, "But I'm held to the standards. I'm held to this program or this ..." Not a program, but actually is just a set of resources, but it's administered as a program.

Shawna:

My answer to that is, "Well, let's take a look at that." Often, what I find is it actually does not limit us in the ways we think it does.

Trevor:

Absolutely.

Shawna:

It's really our own limitations and our own thinking about what we're supposed to be doing or perhaps what we're told we have to do. But if you look at things literally, especially, let's say, the common core state standards, it's very rare, especially in the writing standards, that it's specific to alphabetic texts. It's very broad, and so when we actually start looking at that, there is space for all of this work. There actually is.

Trevor:

Absolutely. One of the examples that I always give is when I introduce symbolism to five year olds. Usually, when you look at curriculums, that shows up around middle school ages or upper elementary, but really, in middle school is where I've seen it the most. Books for seventh graders or whatnot.

Trevor:

But symbolism, that's how we experience the world. We wake up on a cloudy day and we feel a little bit sad, and a five year old understands that, or it's so sunny and bright outside it makes me want to go outside. Anything that creates a mood in us, as I would say, or a feeling is symbolic. It can be easily symbolic.

Shawna:

Absolutely.

Trevor:

And so when kids are exploring even the simplest picture books, we have to see those books as symbolic, and the characters as symbolic, and the settings as symbolic. But we can do that work a lot earlier and a lot easier if we introduce different types of text because we can do that very simply with pictures, and look at story structures with pictures, and really give kids a good handle on that stuff, which is going to not only help their reading comprehensions when they really understand how stories work but that helps their writing.

Shawna:

Exactly.

Trevor:

It's going to give them better tools. So I think a lot of the stuff that we're seeing that we're obliged to teach kids, I think we could do earlier if we do open up different forms of text to them-

Shawna:

I totally agree.

Trevor:

... because they can focus on those concepts.

Shawna:

Right. I think more often that not, these kids can surprise us in what they're able to handle and what comes from them, comes from this exploration. It always quite literally brings me to tears when I'm in the classroom and I see what these kids can do.

 

Shawna:

Well, it's interesting how you bring up symbolism, and also, going back to horror, which is one of my favorite things to talk about-

Trevor:

That's what my daughter likes in her films.

Shawna:

Yeah, yeah. So I grew up with Stephen King. I read him at a very early age, but have you seen the movie Get Out?

Trevor:

I haven't.

Shawna:

Okay, so it's one of my absolute favorite movies, written by Jordan Peele. One of the things that when you were talking about exploration, it made me think of. It recently was on television. I re-watched it with my 13 year old who, by the way, was able to figure out the entire plot from the first 10 minutes. No one else can, so that just speaks again to what children can do.

Shawna:

I read that he actually wrote that as an exploration. This blockbuster, critically acclaimed horror film, he actually started writing that just for himself. It was something that he wrote to just work through some of his feelings and his experiences, and it eventually went through 200 iterations and became what it is now. That is chock full of symbolism. It really basically is one big symbol and allegory.

Shawna:

So yeah, it reminded me of that and how some of the most acclaimed works of art can start through exploration, like you were saying with Carrie.

Trevor:

Yeah. Yeah, I think a lot of times, we have a tendency to focus on good as opposed to interesting. One of my favorite stories ... So Peter H. Reynolds, I was fortunate enough that he did my cover and he illustrated the [axis lenses 00:26:38] of my book. But the story of The Dot is when he was really trying to break into illustration on some level, he decided that he was going to sketch in his sketchbook every night before bed. He usually draws with markers, and one night, he fell asleep while he was sketching, and the marker stuck to the page, and it created The Dot.

Trevor:

So if he had gone around showing that picture to people, saying, "Look at this great drawing I did ..." Any two year old can sit there with a marker, and stick it to the page, and make a dot. So what Peter was able to do is not just say, "Oh, this drawing is not good," but he saw something that was interesting in it. I think that is also a barrier to evaluating student work.

Shawna:

Oh, for sure.

Trevor:

We want it to be good, so we're going to correct it and formalize it, and we're not looking for interesting.

Shawna:

Absolutely.

Trevor:

It was like when you spoke to that child about his Darth Vader. The complexity with what she was talking about and the ideas were super interesting. Now was it good? Was it well-presented? Well, maybe not, in a sense, but okay, we now have something that's interesting to work with. If you find those interesting things, I think as a teacher and as a student, you're going to have more meaningful, engaging interactions around this work that you're both finding interest in.

Shawna:

Right, and let's face it. When we talk about what is tested, and I'm thinking in particular about writing now, you have this so called objective idea of what's good that is as far from interesting as I've ever seen, to be quite honest.

Trevor:

Yeah, it's the pears that I brought up.

Shawna:

Right, the pears. The pears is going to be my new favorite inside joke.

Trevor:

I'll send you a drawing of one.

Shawna:

Please.

Shawna:

But to me, when I hear educators ask me, "So I'm supposed to get here. How am I supposed to get there if I'm doing all this exploration and this incorporating different modes of composition?" What I often offer or question is I say, "So what do we ultimately want for kids when they're done being in our space?" That's what my principal initially ... That's how we transformed the school that we were at is she asked all of us, "What do we ultimately want for kids when they leave here?"

Shawna:

When you start there, you realize that you can't not do this work because ultimately, what we want for kids as far as composing in whatever mode we're talking about is we want them to feel emboldened to share their stories. We want them to feel that their voice matters. We want them to be engaged in composing, and communicating, and entertaining, and arguing, and all of these things, and we're not going to get there or we're only going to get there for a very select few unless we open up our ideas around composition.

Trevor:

Yeah, I think it's like a quantity issue. You need to get massive amounts of quantity to do really good creative work. Writing is creative. There's a little difference. Are we teaching kids to read, or are we teaching kids to love reading?

Shawna:

Exactly.

Trevor:

Very different.

Shawna:

Exactly.

Trevor:

If you go into the mindset that we're going to teach kids to read, that sets up a very different classroom than a classroom where we're saying we're going to teach kids to love to read. The same is true with writers.

Shawna:

Exactly.

Trevor:

Are we going to teach kids to write, or are we going to teach kids to love writing? I think when you teach kids to love writing, when you get them in a position where they can do a deep dive into this work and think about it on the bus or when they're walking home, or think about it going to sleep, or come into school with an idea, and we're doing all this extra work, that increases the quantity, which is how you increase the quality.

Shawna:

Right. If they're engaged in that work, then they're going to be more likely to humor the schooling gods or whatever we want to call them and actually engage in some of the work that we're supposed to do. I use that around quotes.

Shawna:

In order to continue to have access to schooling and education, we have to show that we know certain things and how to do certain things, but if we want kids to be engaged in that beyond the have tos, then we can't not do this sort of work and incorporate these different modes and forms of composing in the arts into our classrooms.

Trevor:

Yeah, and I think all this has this exploratory idea behind it. I think when you open up and go on explorations, that's where you have the possibility of surprise.

Shawna:

Yeah.

Trevor:

And surprise is inherently engaging when you're making discoveries. I think that's valuable for the students, but I also think that's really valuable for educators to go into settings where you're not quite sure what's going to happen and let's be surprised today, because that's going to create an exciting environment for everybody.

Shawna:

Right. So I think what our job in supporting educators is to help them navigate those surprises, and the more you start to embrace those and see that it's more of an opportunity than anything else, it opens a door for so many different possibilities when you have surprise rather than be afraid of the surprise. Supporting educators in that, I think, is when we can finally move forward in this work.

Trevor:

Yeah, and I think you're going to see tons of standards being hit if you [look] for them.

Shawna:

Absolutely.

Trevor:

I think sometimes we have a tendency to over-teach things. We try to teach standards as opposed to hitting standards, and I think if we have a good handle on the standards that we can see them being hit in different ways. Then if we need to for the parameters that we're operating, we can guide kids to maybe a more formal view of what they're doing to become more aware of how it relates to standardized testing and so forth. But I think in all of this work, you're going to see students hitting a ton of standards and being able to go and identify exactly what they're doing, which I think is really empowering for teachers.

Shawna:

Yeah. So I think ... Sorry, I lost my train of thought because I was like, "Okay, well, I don't want to end on the standards talk." Oh, I forget what I was going to say.

Shawna:

For me, the question that I pose to myself and to my colleagues is always, "Do we want students to create, and that includes writing, in spite of us or because of us?" As an educator, I want them to create, and feel empowered, and want to share their stories because of me. I've been able to offer them this.

Shawna:

It's not about me, per se, but because of us as educators. In doing this work, we're offering them space, and time, and opportunity, and they're more likely to engage in it not just in school spaces but outside of school spaces.

Trevor:

Absolutely.

Shawna:

That's really the most important thing for me.

Trevor:

Yeah, let them explore their curiosity and foster that curiosity, and giving kids an opportunity to do that work.

Trevor:

One of my best friends growing up became a professional artist. He's a muralist, and he's really pretty successful as a full-time artist. What was interesting, seeing him when he was eight and nine, and going over to his house, and working on these projects, was his ability to follow his curiosity was phenomenal. If he was interested in something, we just did it. I see that thread throughout his whole professional life. Although he was a realist at one point and he could draw the daylights out of anything-

Shawna:

Like a pear.

Trevor:

Yeah, like a pear. He could draw awesome pears. Jaw-dropping. But he's got into making his own tools, and he went to abstract. That's really where his work took off. But it's amazing, that skill that he had to just, "Oh, let's see what happens. Let's try it out." We walked home from school together, and we would just always talk about these things. We'd run home after school and try them out. That was the skill that he really had.

Trevor:

I think fostering that in any creative process, writing, is so valuable. It's really empowering to the learner when they feel like they have that freedom to take their curiosity, and just try it out and see what happens.

Shawna:

And if it's ultimately beneficial for the children, and their work, and their cognitive development, then it is absolutely beneficial for teachers as well.

Trevor:

Yeah. It reminds me ... Who wrote Captain Underpants?

Shawna:

Oh, is it Dav-

Trevor:

Dav Pilkey?

Shawna:

Yeah.

Trevor:

Yeah, Dav Pilkey. Do you know that story?

Shawna:

Yeah.

Trevor:

Yeah, so that-

Shawna:

Oh, I had a student who did his own version of Captain Underpants picture books.

Trevor:

So do you know the background when he created-

Shawna:

No.

Trevor:

So Dav Pilkey, when he created Captain Underpants, I think it's a really good example of what we've been talking about. I believe he was ADHD and had a lot of behavioral problems, so in second grade, his teacher would kick him out of the room. He spent most of his time in the hallway. So to entertain himself in the hallway, he would start drawing comics. One of the characters he created was Captain Underpants. So he did that in second grade. One day, his teacher came out and ripped up his comic book and said, "You can't spend your whole life drawing comics."

Shawna:

Oh, really?

Trevor:

The punchline is, "Good thing I'm not a good listener."

Shawna:

I love that.

Trevor:

That is a really good example of a kid who was able to explore this thing on his own and really do a deep dive in it. How many kids are readers today because of that series? And so not focusing on maybe what's good, but focusing on interesting. Maybe what's interesting to someone else isn't going to meet our interests, but it doesn't mean that there's not value in it.

Shawna:

Right.

.