Volume I - 1993

Drawing on Experience
An Interview with John Dumicich

      John Dumicich is an adjunct Associate Professor of ESL at the American Language Institute at New York University and also teaches at Hunter College, CUNY. He has done extensive teacher training in language acquisition for the United States Information Agency in Eastern Europe and Pakistan.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted by The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning (JILL).

JILL: I was much impressed by your workshop on the use of drawing in the teaching of writing at the Imagination Conference at Jersey City State College a couple of years ago. You recommended a certain procedure. Let's start there. Would you describe that procedure?

Dumicich: Sure. The first step is rapid writing, which I used to call "free writing." I give the students these instructions: First, write anything that comes to mind. Second, don't worry about grammar and spelling. Third, put the tip of your pen or pencil on the paper and don't lift it until your teacher tells you to stop. Fourth, write as fast as you can for ten minutes. Fifth, if you don't know what to write, then write, "I don't know what to write." Write this again and again until something comes to mind. Sixth, don't use a dictionary and don't erase. If you don't know a word in English, leave a blank space or write it anyway you can. Then, I have them write a summary sentence, which I describe informally as a complete sentence that gives the general idea of your rapid writing. The next step is "crossing out," which consists of putting a line through everything in your rapid writing that doesn't connect with your summary sentence. After that is done, we revise. I explain that revising is reading through a piece of writing carefully, making improvements, and correcting mistakes. You can change what you say and how you say it. Good writing has many "sides." A piece of writing is just like a diamond: the more you polish each side, the more the piece will shine. The more you revise your writing, the better it will be. The sides of good writing are (l) message or content, (2) organization of ideas, (3) choice of words, (4) grammar, and (5) punctuation. The final big step in the process of writing is rewriting, which results in a final draft. Now where does drawing fit in? One place is before this process begins. Some people call this stage brainstorming. It's establishing what you're going to write about.

JILL: Why have them go to the trouble of drawing? Why not just give them a printed picture?

Dumicich: I have done that. Many teachers will continue to do that. Drawing comes entirely from the student. With a picture or photograph from a magazine, you have to recreate in writing what the picture shows you--focusing on other peoples details. Drawing focuses on your own details. Of course it's not formal drawing for the sake of drawing. It's drawing with any pen or pencil--usually on an 8 x 11 inch page of typing paper--for the sake of writing. I had one situation where I saw a blank sheet, and I went up to the student and said, "Go ahead; draw something." She said, "I did." I looked but didn't see anything. She pointed to a dot in the center of the page. This dot turned into a three page composition. So, whatever you draw, you see it from your own perspective. You know what you're drawing and what words you need--as opposed to me giving you what you should need, what you should create. Interpretation is inevitable, and it seems more natural when you interpret something you have done.

JILL: That certainly seemed true in the class I just observed. You asked them to draw an image from a dream they had. They quickly settled into drawing and about five or ten minutes later were eager to show and explain to the others what they had done. What I found interesting was how they didn't take turns showing their drawings to the whole class, but circulated at will, talking to one or two other students and then moving on to other students in a very informal, relaxed way. A couple of them even included me in the process, asking me to talk about my drawing.

Dumicich: For me, it usually works as a way of loosening the students up and giving them something to write about. Often, the next step is simply writing down individual words about the drawing they made--in today's class, a drawing of something they remember from one of their dreams. They then write sentences that include these words. Once you have the drawings, there're any number of things you can do. I like to integrate such activities with larger plans involving, for example, doing a reading about sleep and sleep habits and having the students interview each other and then "interview themselves" and write about it.

JILL: I'm trying to come up with an explanation of the seemingly obvious: that is, why is it more effective to use teaching techniques that call on the imagination as contrasted to more passive approaches?

Dumicich: Robert Ornstein--particularly in Multimind and The Evolution of Consciousness--talks about "image formation." Earl Stevick talks about imagery in Images and Options in the Language Classroom. In A Way and Ways, he mentions how already existing pictures make the student more dependent on the teacher. Ornstein mentions that our lives are governed through symbols. We abstract on it and that slowly takes form. What the students draw are symbols of what they have in mind because no rendition can be true. But these are pieces that the person is invested in. Try to stop the student from using his or her imagination--that takes much more energy than to let the imagination go. There is investment of another type: it's not learning language alone, it's clarifying things in your own head. Interesting vocabulary items come out. In today's class, one student drew a hot-air balloon with a man riding in the basket. That student came to me and asked, pointing to her drawing, "What's the name of the thing the man is looking through?" The answer was "a telescope." "What are these things that hold the balloon down?" she asked, pointing to these little round things in her drawing. The answer was "sandbags," an item that does not occur in many ESL texts. She'll never forget it. I don't know when she'll want to use the word, but it's there. It has something to do with investment. You have created the need for it. Learn it under those conditions, and it's yours forever.

JILL: I missed the first half of your class this morning.

Dumicich: Which had nothing to do with the second half.

JILL: A couple of students I heard talking seemed rather impressed with it. I'm curious. What did you do?

Dumicich: I used the technique of the strip story. There were twelve people in class, and every person got one part of a story- -one sentence--on a strip of paper. Each of them had to memorize his line and then give the strip back to me. Then, they had to recreate the story from memory. They formed a circle where their positions depended on the sequence of events in the story. Each student recited his line in a telling of the complete story. Then I had them do some rapid writing about the content of the story. In their homework today, they had to write a twelve-line story--not a composition--and divide it into strips. Writing in twelve lines is usually quite a bit more difficult than writing a three-page composition.

JILL: And you distribute the strips.

Dumicich: Right. And they decide the order. The student who wrote the story is, in effect, the teacher during this exercise.

JILL: Sounds like fun. I wish I had been there. Getting back to drawing--how often do you use that technique with your intensive English classes?

Dumicich: How often? In part, it depends on what I'm trying to develop in terms of publications and my repertoire in general. When I'm working on similar material, I use it much more often than when I'm working on other techniques. This semester, I use it about once a month. Other semesters, when I was actively developing it, I would use it once a week.

JILL: And have you found it productive as a source of variations?

Dumicich: Yes. Once you get the student to draw as symbolically, as crudely, as sufficiently as necessary to bring out whatever he or she has, then that's the core. I have an actress in class. She gets involved, invested when you give her the front of the classroom to work with. I've given her poetry to write and deliver, which she does very well. Writing a composition is different--it's hard work. Writing a poem seems to be less work for some reason. Drawing is no work at all--other than the initial, "I can't draw," which doesn't concern me because it's not an art class. The point here is that once the student manages to bring out something he's comfortable with, the class is smoother; I get a lot more work.

JILL: In a sense, describing a dream is a short story. But do you ever get into the more disciplined demands of short story writing?

Dumicich: Absolutely. Today, they wrote a twelve-line story. Other times, their writing does become more of a traditional short story. If the actress had been in class this morning, I had planned to develop a treatment for a movie. She would have taken over the directing and acting for the whole class. When she didn't show up, I changed it into an activity in which every student did a mini-session of a strip story. But yes, I do take it along those lines, quite often.

JILL: How much time do your students spend in class each week--twelve hours?

Dumicich: They study twenty hours a week. I have them four days a week, three hours a day.

JILL: I see. And techniques that involve the imagination do form the bulk of your repertoire?

Dumicich: Pretty much. Imaginative? I guess. Interactive? I guess. There is a place for the grammar book and exercises so that they don't have to think so much. There's some security in using a book with exercises--it's a whole other thing. They relax in the familiarity of what they're doing. Whereas when they're doing something interactive or imaginative, some energy is spent on figuring out what it is they think I think I want.

JILL: Your presentation at Jersey City State College went very well indeed. I imagine that you've done quite a bit of that sort of thing.

Dumicich: I did some lecture tours for the U.S.I.A. [United States Information Agency] in Bulgaria, Pakistan, Yugoslavia--when there was a Yugoslavia. Things like that. Now that I'm working with Christine Root [of Harvard University], we'll probably do some conferences here.

JILL: Do you care to mention some of the angles of approach you and Christine will be delving into?

Dumicich: The handout for the workshop at Jersey City State will be the core. Christine and I have expanded that handout to a full-length manuscript called Drawing on Experience.

JILL: And what did she bring to that project?

Dumicich: An understanding of the vision.

JILL: That's a heavy contribution.

Dumicich: Yeah. Working on it alone was lonely and boring. There was no bouncing of ideas. Now Christine and I use faxes to send material and suggestions back and forth. There's a lot of "bounce"--that's the word.

JILL: I understand that she's developing new techniques for teaching grammar. Has that found its way into the manuscript?

Dumicich: Not really. The focus of the book is rather narrow: it involves drawing more than anything else. We have to educate teachers through the book so that they can educate the students. I've never been great on grammar--it's not my thing.

JILL: The handout on drawing you gave out today was quite productive. Do you call for any others in Drawing on Experience?

Dumicich: At the beginning of the semester, I did give them a handout on attitudes--Do you like to write? Why or why not? That sort of thing. It's important for them--and us--to realize what our attitudes are because vague assumptions often limit our ability to do certain things.

JILL: Are there other types of drawings done in your class?

Dumicich: Yes. For example, we have done collaborative drawings. I had an easel with a drawing pad and drawing materials in the front of the classroom. One student would go up and draw a line. Then another student would extend that line in any way he or she saw fit. In that way, the original line would grow and mushroom and take all sorts of forms. That's rather challenging because the group as a whole had to decide, to establish what the thing being drawn is. Doing that requires words, argument, debate. That requires focusing vision. "I don't see that," one student says. Another chimes in with, "Look at that line going that way." "Oh, I see what you're talking about."

JILL: How often do you do that?

Dumicich: Oh, about twice a semester.

JILL: Do you have yet more activities employing visual imagination?

Dumicich: Collages, for example collages advertising something. They used colored paper and glue. I don't use magazines; you could, of course, but I don't because I like the message to come directly from the students. This collagemaking could be done individually, in small groups or with the whole class. What first has to happen is that the individual or group must discuss and decide on what is going to be advertised. This generates a lot of discussion. Then, they have to decide how to project that product or service. More discussion. With bits of colored paper, no print, they have to create a message. I have the students tear the bits of paper to avoid using scissors. Once they have the product and message, we can go on to oral presentation or writing samples. It's usually interesting. I have been amazed more than once.

JILL: Did all of the students work on one collage or did each student do his or her own?

Dumicich: Both. Collaborative and individual. Collaboration is good when you make up an advertisement. You first decide what you're going to advertise--that takes a lot of discussion and negotiation. There are no words in the collage: that's why blank construction paper is good. Images, all images. The words appear in student writing later. I do separate the two--images and words--as much as I can.

JILL: And I suppose this can be done in class or at home.

Dumicich: Yes. I usually like to do things first in class to see what kind of dynamics go on. After that, it's very convenient to assign it for homework.

JILL: That's four techniques: individual and collaborative drawing, and individual and collaboratve collages. Any others?

Dumicich: I don't think so. Ah! I hadn't thought about it in quite a while, but when I was going to elementary school in Italy, we used clay to do sculpture. Maybe I'll try it here.

JILL: If you do, give me a call. I'd like to watch. It's easy for me to talk about these techniques to you and to other teachers, but when it comes to implementing them in my classroom, sometimes they get all bollixed up. More often, I just don't try.

Dumicich: A lot of what anyone can do depends on the nature of the particular group of students he or she is teaching. The group you observed today is surprisingly well meshed. They get along; they have evolved. There are groups that don't seem to grow together. I'm very lucky this semester.

JILL: Do you use psychodynamic techniques to get them to develop as a group?

Dumicich: Yes. Through the semesters, all sorts of things. I never really know exactly what I'm going to do along those lines until I, in effect, do it. It depends on what they do. One thing that has worked in the past is a simple worksheet to find someone in the class who has read a book in the past week, who plays a musical instrument, etc. First, they learn each other's names. Then they learn something about that other person. The more interaction you have between people, the more they will be invested in one another. The people in today's group help each other all the time. That's not really an accident--it is fostered, it evolves. They're given the opportunity to talk to other people, to criticize, to say you've done very well, you've made a mistake. In learning, everyone makes mistakes--you, me, everyone. There's nothing in the least unusual or shameful about it. I try to get students to realize that.

JILL: So you foster the development of a class as interacting members of a group. That's a wonderful thing to do.

Dumicich: My guiding light along these lines is--find out who the natural leaders in the class are, and then work on that person or those persons accordingly. Occasionally, it's necessary to draw that person out--because there are very quiet people who sometimes have the control. Sometimes they are very boisterous. There are all sorts of leaders--the academic leaders, the clown leaders, the joking leaders, the secretary leaders. You have to find out who they are and then deal with them accordingly.

JILL: Is there a way you've found to use drawing in getting the class to cohere and grow and develop as a group?

Dumicich: In individual drawing, everyone is equal in that he or she has the opportunity to draw a line, which is enough. I like for students to share each other's drawings. When they do that, when they walk around and look at other people's work, they inadvertently explain their own. "What is this?" is a very common question. The student who is asked has to respond. In that situation, pretty much everyone talks, more or less meaningfully, about things that are more or less close to him or her. Even the more boisterous students wind up listening carefully. The quiet people need the confidence they gain from talking. The end result, from one point of view, is sharing, confidence, a willingness to listen, a willingness to question. So, yes. There are definitely things about the drawing activity that tend to bring the class together.

JILL: Before we wind this interview up, I'll ask you to comment on two incidents or techniques or whatever in which you think I might be interested. If nothing comes to mind, forget it. You've already given me a lot to think about.

Dumicich: I'll try. Let's see. Yes. At Harvard--where I teach in the summer--I was working on a project with students in which all communication is done by letter. I would get a student's composition, and I would not mark it, but write him or her an individual memo, which I would sign and put in an envelope with his or her name on it, and then seal it. In the memo, I would tell them what I think of the writing. When I would find some grammatical errors, I would make on the spot exercises, which come easily after twenty years of teaching. Or, I would look at the index of my grammar book and say, "In this line of your composition, you made such-and-such an error. Look at page so-and-so of your grammar book and present a lesson to the class next Monday. Now this memo system of communicating with students is nothing short of fantastic. I love it tremendously.

JILL: Have you ever heard of anyone else using the "memo system?"

Dumicich: No. As far as I know, it's original. In the second technique you just made me think of, the imagination is more directly involved. I assigned John Steinbeck's The Pearl for reading. It's short and simple--seemingly simple. The instructions were to read the book and then make a project related to it. If you are an artist, make an oil painting of a scene that is described, a landscape, an incident, a character, an abstract--anything the source of which is somehow the book. Or it could be a long poem or a series of poems in some way related to the book. It could be a short story. Or a piece of embroidery or a collage. Anything non-academic. I do not accept a book report or an essay. I accept anything that lets me understand that they read and understood and possibly responded to the book. The projects handed in ranged from minimally satisfactory to truly spectacular. One was an "epic" poem written from the pearl's point of view: that was pretty good. Another student was a Korean woman musician. In the book, Steinbeck talks about the Song of the Family, the Song of Evil, the Song of the Enemy. I interpret these "songs" to be the internal dialogue that we have in our own heads. Well, this Korean woman composed original music for "The Song of the Family," "The Song of the Enemy," "The Song of Evil," and for each of the other songs in the book. She gave everyone in class a copy of the music she had written--the notes on a scale. Then she took a violin and played each piece of her own, originally composed music. "The Song of the Family" had a family "feel" and "The Song of the Enemy" was very jarring. It was incredible--very moving. I've given the same project to my students this semester. We'll see what they do with it.


Background Reading for Teachers

Brown, Roger (1973). A First Language: The Early Stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

DeCecco, John P. (1967). The Psychology of Language Thought, and Instruction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and winston.

Furth, Hans G. and Harry Wachs (1974). Thinking Goes To School. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gattegno, Caleb (1976). The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages. New York: Educational Solutions.

----- (1973). In the Beginning There Were No Words: The Universe of Babies. New York: Educational Solution.

----- (1969). Toward a Visual Culture. New York: Avon.

Gaudiani, Claire (1981). Teaching Writing in the FL Curriculum. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Kail, Robert and James W. Pellegrino (1985). Human Inteligence: Perspectives and Prospects. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.

Krashen, Stephen. D. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand Company.

----- (1970). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Montesory, Maria. (1948). To Educate The Human Potential.

Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications National Research Council (1991). In the Mind's Eye: Enhancing Human Performance. Washington, DC National Academy Press.

Ornstein, Robert. (1991). The Evolution of Consciouness. New York: Prentice Hall Press.

------- (1989). New world New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution. New York: Doubleday.

------- (1986). Multimind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Ornstein, Robert and Richard F. Thompson (1984). The Amazing Brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

------ (1974). The Nature of Human Consciousness. New York: Viking Press.

Phillips, John L. Jr. (1975). The Origins of Intellect: Piaget's Theory. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Co.

Piaget, Jean (1974). To Understand Is to Invent. New York: Grossman Publishers.

Rivers, Wilga M. (1964). The Psychologist and the Foreign Langauage Teacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stevick, Earl W. (1986). Images and Options in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

. ----- (1982). Teaching and Learning Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

. ----- (1980). A Way and Ways. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

------(1976). Memory, Meaning and Method: Some Psychological Perspective of Language Learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Van Sommers, Peter (1984). Drawing and Cognition: Descriptive and Experimental Studies of Graphic Production Processes. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1956). Language, Thought and Reality. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Practice for Students

Bassano, Sharron and Mary Ann Christison (1991). Drawing Out: Creative, Personalized, Whole Language Activities. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Press.

----- (1987). Purple Cows and Potato Chips: Multi-Sensory Language Acquisition Activities. Hayward, CA: Alemany Press.

Dumicich, John and International Communications, Inc. (1981). Picture It! Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Regents/Prentice Hall Press.

Maley, Alan, Alan Duff and Francoise Grellet (1980). The Mind's Eye. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zimmerman, Bill (1987). Make Beliefs. New York: Guarionex Press.

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