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Cultivating the Illustrators in Writer’s Workshop

Cultivating the Illustrators in Writer’s Workshop

Have you ever noticed how young children often draw a person but it looks like a potato with arms and legs sticking out? In my classroom, we have coined this little character as “Alpert“.  Alpert is often the first version of a human that students draw! In this post, we will talk about how to lift the level and quality of student writing through illustrations!

The Important Role of Illustrations in the Writing Workshop

It’s writing workshop time and we’ve been reading the book “Alpert”.  We love to use this character to help students understand that when they will begin to illustrate their writing workshop books, we can learn some strategies to draw people that look more… people-y. So, we decide to bid Alpert farewell. (There are even t-shirts involved!) retirement.  As I look around the room I see several students who are still working.  One little girl has drawn Alpert at the beach in a bathing suit.  “He’s going to build a sandcastle!” she says.  Another student has drawn Alpert wearing a red hat jumping on a trampoline at the trampoline park.  A couple of other students have added details to their pictures too.

So why is it that so many students have drawn Alpert – only Alpert mind you, maybe a sun in the sky, but otherwise, blank snowy paper – and said that they are done!?  

“Illustrating is supposed to be the fun part!,” I think to myself. Why is it that so many of my students were done drawing after only 5 minutes while others dressed Alpert up and showed where he was retiring? What is it that makes some children put a lot of time and effort into their pictures and others not so much?

I’m pretty sure this has happened to every teacher once or twice.

It turns out that for many students… if they aren’t naturally inclined to draw, illustrating isn’t always fun! Think of your most frustrating subject in school. If you weren’t naturally a mathematician, you probably weren’t so excited to spend time-solving equations.  Maybe you even rushed through your work so that you could call it “done”.  

So how can we help our reluctant illustrators to put more on their paper and bring their artwork to life? Let me show you!

Step 1: Teach drawing strategies

When students are explicitly given strategies to help them draw, they feel more confident doing it!  During writing workshop, when we are illustrating, I always teach a drawing strategy that students can take back and use immediately.  

“Make sure you give your person ears! When we draw ears we can put the number 6 inside to make it look more realistic!”

Teaching students specific strategies will help them feel more comfortable drawing because they will know what to do when it’s their turn to draw independently.

Step 2: Adding details

A great way to get students excited about their illustrations is by teaching them to add detail. One way I teach this when drawing people is by adding hair and clothes.  

“We can’t have all of our people looking exactly the same! It is important to make each person look different so that readers can tell your characters apart.”

As a class, we discuss different types of hair.  We talk about texture, color, and length.  We look at pictures and talk about the different hairstyles we see because #representationmatters. Always. Then we practice adding this detail to our illustrations together. We go through an illustrators bootcamp, if you will. We practice all of these straegies with the undertanding that these lessons will carry them well not only throughout writing, but also for other subject areas that require illustrations.

We also talk about different types of clothing.  We talk about all of the different types of clothing people wear. Some people wear shirts and shorts.  Others wear dresses. Then I ask them, “What type of clothing does your character wear?”  We share some of those ideas out loud.

We also discuss designs on the clothes. Can students add polka dots? Stripes? Flowers?  We add these details to our illustrations to bring our characters’ differences to life.

Explicitly teaching students step by step what details to add to their illustrations helps them feel more excited about what they are drawing and shows them how to take ownership of their artwork.  It turns out that many of our reluctant illustrators don’t have to be reluctant at all!  They just need to be taught HOW to draw.  It’s our job to give them those specific tools to help them learn how to do that.

Step 3: Give kids time to practice

This is the most important part.  As they say, practice makes perfect.  The more opportunities we give our reluctant illustrators to practice drawing with specific strategies, the more confident they will be in adding detail to their work.

One simple way to give students structured drawing practice is by showing them YouTube videos that practice the drawing strategy that you taught them. 

Peep the video below that shows how to draw different hairstyles:


Some students are more comfortable drawing than others. It’s our responsibility to teach strategies that all students can use to bring their artwork to life.

Interested in doing this with your students, but don’t have the time to plan it out?  Check out my writing resources below.  Let’s cultivate our students’ writing by teaching them how to draw detailed illustrations.

One of my life’s passions is helping teachers teach writing! Hopefully you took away some tips for writing but if you want it all done for you, check it out below!


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