Copying for Practice or Pleasure

…Nailed it.

I never thought of myself as a very good artist, which may seem odd for someone who is ostensibly in the visual arts field. As a kid, I could only draw one thing well: creepy clowns. I drew them constantly — in the margins of school work, across the backs of worksheets, in dozens of pages in my notebooks, at home on construction paper, on paper tablecloths in restaurants.

I could also manage passable drawings when I copied assiduously from other drawings. I couldn’t draw Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes from memory, but when I focused and copied what I saw, I could get closer. This felt a bit weird, though, almost like cheating. Inevitably I would stop tracing and get back to what was truly “mine” — clowns.

It turns out that this was not a fluke. I couldn’t draw very well because no one really taught me how to do it. It felt weird to trace and copy because this wasn’t generally encouraged. So the only practice I had was with the one thing I could call uniquely my own. It made me a worse artist overall in the service of the one small corner I could carve out for myself.

I’m thinking about my own experiences as a resentful clown-scribbler after reading a short thread on the role of copying in learning to draw from Neil Cohn of Tilburg University:

Cohn outlines a brief history of the misplaced idea that children should be allowed to express their inner creativity without copying other people’s work, and how research on drawing skill shows that extensive copying is more effective (and for many people essential) to developing drawing skill, which in turn leads to more work, original or not. (I, for one, rarely draw at all.)

In the comments, one person remarks that a family member could always draw with preternatural ability, and the commenter could never draw: what’s up with that?

And this, in turn, led me back to early childhood and literacy, and to the divergent experiences of my two sons as they learn how to read.

I’ve written about how my oldest son started reading in a way that seemed spontaneous and self-directed. It surprised me because I was all set to use my early literacy techniques and knowledge to support him on his journey, and he for the most part left me in the dust. He found my impromptu phonics annoying, and by age four he could read all of his books anyway.

My younger son is different. He is delighted by practicing letters and letter sounds, and he already shows a lot of talent as a reader. But what’s happening with him is early progress along a route that I know pretty well — he is going through the normal stages of decoding, bit by bit. He will likely be a strong reader, too, but he won’t emerge as one overnight, leaving us all to wonder how it happened.

Just because we know the “end result” of expertise doesn’t mean we always know the route to get there nearly as well. This is the crucial and sometimes overlooked insight of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, which has been stretched and squished into a variety of pedagogical frameworks of dubious quality (e.g., “learning styles”). In Gardner’s work, the study of prodigies suggests distinct pathways and expressions for different domains of knowledge that don’t always intersect with one another. Gardner’s framing bears some resemblance to Oliver Sacks’s method of using outlier stories to help us understand what we know or don’t know about how our brains work. The extremes help map the territory in broad strokes, but they don’t necessarily give us a way to navigate the roads in front of us.

Perhaps you want to get young children on the same path that fluent readers were once on, when they were younger — but what you have in front of you is often the terrain, not the map. The roads we’ve built may not be suitable for the needs of the journey. For instance, it is entirely possible that learning how to read well has less to do with intrinsic motivation as a causal driver of fluency, and more to do with the development of fluency to drive motivation. That is, you don’t encourage kids to learn to read by giving them stuff they like, but you encourage them to “like stuff” by teaching them to read, giving them the tools to read more, experience more, and ultimately like more.

I’ve been thinking about the possible connection to writing. Writing is a bit different, because it is often a synthesis of thought into words — you can’t just copy letters down and know how to think through an argument or write a story, say. At my son’s school, his excellent first grade teacher is very methodical in having students create original stories, structure them according to narrative conventions, and write in a particular narrative style. For non-fiction, they organize writing around what they think and regularly share their ideas and opinions.

But as I observe his classes from afar, I wonder if there might be some value in also just letting students copy a lot of stuff.

How would my own writing (and drawing) have improved if I had copied the panels in my favorite comics, to get a sense of how they were arranged, how jokes were constructed, how words were spelled? Does copying things we aspire to be able to write help us write better?

Doing a skim of some of the relevant research, lots of references to “copying” are focused on plagiarism concerns, children’s handwriting, and the legacy of copying methods in early childhood education that are punitive (as in the Simpsons credits chalkboard gag) or regressive (rote copying of sentences from the board). This makes sense given the legacy of mind-numbing handwriting exercises, the use of copying as a punishment, and the norm of unquestioned copying of the teacher’s writing, regardless of its relevance.

I was interested to read Anne Haas Dyson’s evolution on this subject. In the 1980s, Dyson expressed concern that the normative practice of copying from the blackboard in early education undermined young people’s ability to express their own ideas. In 2010, Dyson conducted a provocative study of classroom copying of narrative writing, of the peer-to-peer variety (“he’s copying off of me!”), noting that these practices emphasized the social nature of writing, contra a focus on individualistic achievement. She differentiated between the painful experience of extensive “chalkboard copying” (her topic in the 80s) and more organic forms of imitation and copying, both idiosyncratic individual copying and more organic peer copying, which, as she claims, become “not a reproductive task, but an intrinsic part of the production process” (Dyson, 2010, p. 12). A section on remix follows, with the requisite citations to Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory culture and a reimagining of the “ownership” of texts that follows from these frameworks.

But I am still left wondering about the role of a more deliberative and less spontaneous form of copying. The pleasurable but intentional copying of source material, from books or comics or printed song lyrics, for instance, doesn’t seem to come up as frequently in the literature as far as I can tell. If you “look to the experts,” as it were, there is a lot of commentary on the role of copying and emulation in the formation of professional writers’ skill and voice. Ursula K. Le Guin, in her book on writing as craft, likens an individualistic focus on originality without deliberate practice (often using strict prompts or literary examples for emulation) as sending a carpenter to work with no tools. In the New York Times book review, Dwight Garner details his personal history of keeping a commonplace book, following the writing practices of authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Johnson, J.D. McClatchy, and E.M. Forster.

It does seem like there is a missed opportunity to get young children copying from existing literary texts deliberately and regularly to get a sense of how writing, spelling, and vocabulary works in a way that is more organic and pleasurable than simply copying from the board at the teacher’s direction. Perhaps you would have children write down their favorite sentences or words, or trace or copy drawings along with those sentences or words. Perhaps there could be a brief commonplace book ritual where students kept a journal of quotations. I’ve only come to appreciate later in life how the act of copying well-crafted sentences helps to reveal their construction — and I’m particularly interested in the relevance here of disfluency, the “friction” of copying from printed text to handwriting to reinforce learning.

I’m reminded of some of my own more recent impulses as a teacher , to have students keep journals that include their favorite song lyrics or quotations, or to use song lyrics to practice typing rather than gibberish. (Lots of success in the former, limited success in the latter. It may just be impossible to make learning to type anything more than a chore.) My most successful writing class with students not connected to screenwriting (its own subject, and one I’ve taught many times) was when I just used Ursula K. Le Guin’s exercises and substituted new themes and text exemplars for my students. But most of my teaching experience in this arena is with older students. I’m more interested in these practices for younger students — not in copying from the board, but choosing favorite lines or passages from books and copying them in a journal.

I’ve also used dictation tools, which have improved exponentially in the past ten years, with my son when he wants to do longer form writing. He speaks into the phone, and looks at how the words appear. He copies the words down on paper alongside his drawings. I think there is a balance here — relying exclusively on this kind of technology moves a child away from going directly from “brain to writing” without mediation. But there is also something to be said for learning how one can self-copy from dictation tools in a generative and helpful way. And there is a disability lens through which such practices could be seen as a way to normalize mediated speech to text, or text to speech.

What would have helped me the most as an artist? Would it have helped me as a writer? I am fairly convinced that a more open and at least mildly encouraging attitude toward copying, with some formal boundaries and exercises to point me in the right direction of technique, would have gone a long way to bolstering my originality, because it would increase my confidence as an artist. Would comparable exercises — not rote, but inspired, motivating copying to appreciate the nuances of text, help young students unlock their inner writers, too?

Media educator, music nerd.

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