Making a Class Biology Book
Last year I applied for a grant to work with 100 middle school students on a non-fiction illustration project. Thanks to the generosity of Dutchess County Arts Council, the grant was fulfilled last month when I taught a special residency at Onteora Middle School in Boiceville, New York. As an arts-in-ed teacher, my job was to help teach the curriculum. I had done residencies before, working with children in grades 2-5 to create murals and books on a variety of subjects. This year, I wanted to work with older kids who have more advanced writing and drawing skills.
I got what I asked for when Alyssa Babcock stepped forward and offered to host my residency in her five biology classes. I was overjoyed! After some jockeying of calendars, testing dates, grant regulations, and seasonal considerations, we planned a project in which each student would be given a biological subject to research, write about, and illustrate on one page of a class book: an illustrated field guide to . . . .
. . . macroinvertebrates.
“You mean water bugs?” I asked, as the teacher smiled at my ignorance.
Thus began a collaboration that lasted several months, with many challenges and rewards. As an illustrator, I’m used to tackling subjects outside my own personal interests, but this was the first time I collaborated with a science teacher. Freshwater macroinvertebrates were a subject that was completely unfamiliar to me. Until then, I’d never heard of a water penny or a water midge, a sowbug or a netspinner caddisfly. I did not know the difference between a stonefly and a Dobsonfly larva. Yet all these watery creatures have been living quietly in the upper Esopus creek, along which I drive almost every day. I had a lot to learn.
To begin the project, each student was assigned a creature to research. That research included a class excursion to the nearby Esopus Creek, where the students gathered specimens, took notes, and had a great time wading in water alive with larva. After that came more research through books and the internet. Now the young observers were ready to start writing and drawing.
Some students were as daunted as I was to draw “creepy-crawlers”. I tried to use their natural reluctance to exemplify the classic illustrator’s challenge: to render artistically a subject that is assigned rather than chosen. How do you get inspired about a leech? How do you get into drawing anything you didn’t choose to draw? We all had ideas about that! But if we approach the unfamiliar with a sense of discovery, we can convey that in the art. In each class, we discussed ways to make the book visually engaging – a book of shared discoveries, not for ourselves, but for our readers. Many of the students had younger siblings, and could relate to seven and eight-year-olds as the imagined readers of their book. They liked the idea of educating younger kids, rather than just proving what they know to teachers.
Everyone agreed color was a vital tool. Since both our subjects and their habitat are basically brown, what could we do to make the illustrations more colorful? We talked about context. What information do we want to convey about our creatures’ habitat? What can we show that will demonstrate scale? Some kids decided to show a penny next to their critter; for others it was a leaf, a hand, or the toe of a shoe.
When a residency is too short to work on basic drawing skills, I allow shortcuts. The students were visibly relieved when I gave them permission to trace their subjects. I also believe tracing, like training wheels, can be an effective stepping stone to freehand drawing. I
encouraged the class to make their drawings unique through design and execution. That they did beautifully, as I was pleased to discover when almost 100 final drawings were delivered to me as digital scans two weeks later. The finished drawings were amazing!
Next I set about composing the writing and art from each class into a book. With more time, the students could have designed their individual pages and learned about typography. As always, there was potential to take the project further. But given their very busy schedules, I’m grateful I had as much time with these students as I did.
I hope Mrs. Babcock’s students found value in the project. I hope they gained a sense of connection to the aquatic wildlife that populates their world. I hope they discovered how art and science can meet. I sure did.
Special thanks to Alyssa Babcock for making this residency possible. To view or download the class books, please visit Mrs. Babcock’s web page on the Onteora Middle School website. Many thanks also to Eve Madalengoitia and Dutchess County Arts Council.