Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales (giving Jonah a fright), I attended a professional development session led by Harvey Silver that demonstrated the power of illustrated history. Harvey said that children would remember a brief lecture better if they were allowed to mix doodles, symbols, and illustrations with their notes. As an example, he read aloud a short history excerpt about The Mayflower (I attached a “No Vacancy” sign to the bow) and we drew our notes instead of writing them. And though it was OK to both write and scribble, we wound up drawing more than writing, the resulting “notes” making perfect sense to us afterwards. Some of us even looked upon our works as masterpieces. Until lunch, at least. Nothing like a full belly to bring back reality.
Twenty years and so very many students later, I created a simple vocabulary paraphrase & illustrate template with Harvey’s words in mind. It’s so simple the Shakers would commend it, in fact. In honor of the old TV show, Magnum, P.I., I decided to call it Vocabulary, P.I. with the “private investigator” giving way to a less exciting “paraphrase and illustrate.”
Today, in its maiden voyage, the template was distributed to my classes. I only gave students the first five words from the list of Greek & Latin words in our new unit, planning to introduce the same number the coming three school days. Today’s list included words from the Greek root bio — words full of vim and its twin, vigor, like biology, biodegradable, antibiotic, probiotic, and biopsy.
I had students copy the correct spelling and part of speech, first, filling the tops of the first five blocks. Then I read definitions with these instructions: “If the definition is short, such as with biology, the study of life, copy it word for word. If it is longer, such as with antibiotic, paraphrase.”
While they were doing this, I circulated the room and rudely read over everyone’s shoulders (an English teacher habit, I fear). Paraphrasing is an exercise in determining importance. For instance, because of my rambling definition with elaboration (examples, mostly) for “probiotic,” some students wrote a “pill that is good for you.” Why? Because I had mentioned you can buy probiotic pills. Nowhere did these students mention beneficial bacteria. We discussed this, the students revised, and I moved on. It was a great way to get immediate feedback and learn more about students’ strengths and weaknesses with DI.
That accomplished, we moved to the meat and potatoes of the lesson. Students were asked to create a simple drawing or symbol that fit the word’s definition. Also important: the drawing must help the student to personally recall the important aspects of the definition.
Were all drawings created equal? Doing my own private “museum walk” among the illustrators, I’d say yes and no. For biology, one student simply drew a book with the word BIOLOGY scrawled across the cover. OK, it’s a subject, true enough, but how does that really distinguish the word when there are so many other subjects scrawled across book covers? Still, if it’s enough to nudge the student’s memory, then we must declare the mission accomplished. The operative words are “to personally recall the important aspects of the definition.”
That said, I admit a preference for an illustration another student drew, one showing a circle of simple illustrations connected by arrows: a stick-figure man, a pine tree, and a bug. This student was using a little science and a little art to create some mnemonic magic. Humans, trees, insects = forms of life = biology.
This activity was a brisk one if you break it into three or four parts and aren’t burdened by the bad habit of Monday lists followed by Friday quizzes (we spread our units across two weeks — only half a bad habit). Today’s activity, for instance, took all of ten minutes start to finish.
Also, the final step is most important. I asked students to share and explain their illustrations with a partner. Some students had already begun doing so (in my class, desks are paired two by two, just like Noah’s Ark). As for the rest, a lot of smiles came out as they turned to talk with each other.
I see this sharing as a reinforcement of a reinforcement. Definition first, thinking of a symbol for the word second, then seeing someone else’s work (and hearing their explanation) third. Is it true, as Harvey Silver preached to younger me long ago, that visual knowledge is stickier than its more slippery cousin, auditory knowledge? Only time and Velcro will tell.