Courageous Learning with Comics


I don’t draw. Seriously, this is what I’ve told myself for most of my life. Yes, this was the humbling realization I had when reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset years ago, as in other parts of my life I feel like a walking example of someone with a growth mindset. I thrive on challenges, on learning from failure, and all that. I take risks daily to push myself beyond what I know and can do, as a writer, as an entrepreneur, and as a leader of professional learning in schools.

Except (ahem) when we are talking about drawing. I don’t draw. Or I do draw, and then I see how lame it is and tell myself, “Yep, Tonya, you don’t draw.”

Notice the fixed mindset? I know. It has a flashing neon sign.


Last week I saw an add in my Facebook feed for a Writing and Drawing e-course. I knew it wasn’t for me, but it seemed perfect for my 10-year-old son who loves comics, and could use some learning inspiration right now. Even more perfect, the course teacher, Summer Pierre, is my childhood friend and an accomplished illustrator and author of many books and comics.

So my son signed up for the course.

And I decided to join him. Gulp.

It seemed like a great opportunity to share something, mother and son. If not the art of drawing, well then, the art of modeling a willingness to try something that, to be honest, frightens me. Or, at least, is in the category of “not interested”–because I’d shut that door long ago.


We’ve only just done the first week of lessons, and I’m actually drawing on my own. I’m excited to create in pictures. I’m excited to draw. I’ve started using the exercise Summer gave us in class on my own with other topics. And now I’m actually sharing these first attempts at drawing with you.

What happened?

Three Go-To Instructional Techniques

The way Summer got me into drawing is much like the way I inspire reluctant writers to write, and the way I fire up a district full of teachers to engage in peer observation inquiry together. All that changed was the content. The leap the learner had to make, from fear to full engagement, was the same. Here are three features Summer used to help me get out of my fear and engage. I use all of the following in my work with schools:

  1. Invite imperfection. Summer opened the course with an invitation for imperfection. This is the go-to way I know to get writers over their own fears, and to get teachers to want to open their classroom doors to peer observation. Make it fun and inviting to be imperfect.
  2. Practice/Play. Introduce a sense of play by practicing with a structure that makes imperfection fun. In comics class, we did timed drawing drills that took out the anticipation and opportunity for perfection–you just had to get that pen moving and go. As a writer and writing teacher, I do quick writes for a similar reason. As a change leader, I lead improv games “at the speed of fun” to make it fun to fumble. The shift in energy is palpable: we’re laughing, we’re connecting with each other, and we’ve shifted from anticipation to action. And it’s fun.
  3. Connect to What’s Relevant. Want people to draw (or write)? Help them connect to moments and memories that matter in their life. Want teachers to collaborate deeply to change how they teach? Get them fired up about a challenge they want to solve. Relevance motivates.

* * *

What do you resist for fear of failing? What will inspire you to begin?

What do your students resist for fear of failing? How will you inspire them to begin?

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • Deb Sandweiss

    September 21, 2016, 9:37 am

    I relate to the “I can’t draw” mindset. Inviting imperfection is key and something I will try with my son who doesn’t like to “mess up,” I also like the idea of creating a sense of play. Play is underrated!

    • Tonya Singer

      September 21, 2016, 9:44 am

      So true that play is underrated. Ever day in some way I put play aside often in attempts to get done what I perceive needs to be done. I wonder how ofte this effort to put aside play actually gets in the way of learning and productivity?

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