Multimodal compositions: Using sketchbooks for critical inquiry in teacher education | Debora Broderick

Most of the high school seniors enrolled in my early pre-service teacher preparation program had never kept a sketchbook, so when we handed them out early last school year, they were curious, but many were also confused and intimidated.   While some immediately started doodling and sketching, others shouted out questions and self-deprecations:  “What do sketchbooks have to do with teaching?” “What if I can’t draw?” and “I suck at art!”


My students’ reactions are not that surprising; after all, when we think of sketchbooks, most people think of them as a tool for the artist or art student.  And there is no denying this is true—sketchbooks rightfully have an important place in an artist’s life; they invite invention and offer a space to explore beginnings, trace a new thread, or work through a new concept. It is for these very reasons that I thought sketchbooks would be perfect for my students to document and inquire into their developing theories of practice.  Teaching is, in many ways, is very much like the sketchbook experience: there are stops and starts, abandoned ideas, moments of clarity, moments of failure—and thankfully the opportunity to turn to a clean page.

So how might sketchbooks then offer a unique space for pre-service teachers, like my students, to develop an inquiry stance, one that supports teachers as “deliberative intellectuals who constantly theorize practice as part of practice itself”? (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009, p. 2)  The goal in incorporating the sketchbook into our program was to have students cultivate a reflective sketchbook practice, one where they investigated and explored questions that emerged from their four internship sites in PreK-12 schools.  Students used their sketchbooks throughout the school year, creating mixed-media and mixed-genre works, in which they questioned their beliefs and imagined the type of teacher they would like to one day become.

Students were free to use the sketchbook as much as they wanted, but I also provided specific assignments, including sketchbook surface prep work as well as reflective assignments based on their fieldwork observations.  From a practical and concrete standpoint, I quickly realized that students needed structure, direction, and a few basic drawing lessons in order to feel comfortable and successful using their sketchbooks.  This is where I relied on our visiting teaching artists, Ryan Parker and Shelby Donnelly from The Fabric Workshop & Museum, to step in and offer guidance.  Ryan and Shelby came once a month and offered mini-art lessons that helped support students’ work not only in the sketchbook, but also in our other arts-integrated work throughout the year. Sketchbook assignments varied depending on what we were doing in class, but one on-going assignment was to visually reflect on each of their internship sites, and specifically to distill and represent the biggest take away from that experience.   Three student examples from this work are featured below.


Jessica, who is interested in working with ELLs (English Language Learners), explores issues of race, language, and identity in this sketchbook entry.  In this assignment she reflects on her experience in an ESL classroom (English as a Second Language). She uses the tree to symbolize the growth we have made in terms of addressing inequity in schools, but she also recognizes that the tree is not completely healthy; a broken branch lies on the ground, and the words bigotry, racism, assimilation, greed, intolerance, and others surround the tree reminding us that more work lies ahead.  


Tegan, uses the same sketchbook assignment to explore the complexities of the classroom and what it means to teach thirty plus students at once. Tegan admires her mentor’s ability to manage what she calls the “organized chaos” of the classroom.  She illustrates this concept in her sketchbook with a drawing of a file folder with the word “chaos,” in different sizes and fonts, spilling out of the folder from all directions.  At the top of her sketch is a tidy colorful bookshelf with the words “Chaos, Control, Balance, Insanity, Peace, Calm.”


In this sketchbook entry, Larissa, who interned in a busy 3rd grade classroom, comments on the power an individual teacher can have on the classroom dynamic.  In describing her image, Larissa writes:  “The black and white sun is the universe.  Miss D is the center of the universe in her classroom; her mood affects everyone else’s.”

Larissa continued to examine and reflect on the emotional component of teaching throughout the remainder of the year and spoke often about the challenges teachers face balancing their personal and professional lives.

Jessica, Tegan, and Larissa illustrate a few of the ways that all of my students were using their sketchbooks to think about important issues related to teaching and learning.  What was also interesting, beyond the compelling issues they raised through their work, was how students ended up talking about their sketchbook experiences. As students worked through their sketchbook assignments, an organic symbiotic relationship developed between the processes of visualizing, writing, and thinking about their internship experiences.  Many students described an iterative process where they might first consider a visual way to represent their message, and then words would surface to describe the experience; that in turn would generate a discussion, which would lead them to revise their image and their written message once again.

Perhaps most interesting in terms of the value of using the arts, and specifically sketchbooks for critical inquiry in teacher education, can be best summed up by Tegan, who puts it this way:  “It’s been really different…it helps me think about things in a different way…I had to go deeper. That’s what I really like about this, because you have to go deeper into thought, into what you feel, and come up with these ideas.” Literacy scholars Berghoff & Borgmann (2007) contend that this is exactly the potential the arts holds—they provide an opportunity for students (and teachers) “to develop deep emotive intensity, intentionality as learners, and useful insights into human experience” (p. 22-23). This digging deeper has opened up a space for my students to shift their thinking in ways that have powerful implications not only in terms of their own learning, but also in terms of their nascent teaching philosophies.


Cochran-Smith, M., Lytle, S.L. (2009) Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Berghoff, B., & Borgmann, C.B. (2007).  Imagining New Possibilities with Our Partners in the Arts.  English Education, 40(1), 21-40.

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