“Making Our Way Across”: Lessons Learned from Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Drawn Together

“Making Our Way Across”: Lessons Learned from Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Drawn Together

by Shawna Coppola and Carla España, TheEdCollab Fellows

Join TheEdCollab on Wednesday, July 18 8-9PM EST, for our Summer Book Club chat on Drawn Together

“Making Our Way Across”: Lessons Learned from Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Drawn Together

“Sometimes you don’t need words to find common ground.”

Beyond charming us with Minh Lê’s beautifully spare text and Dan Santat’s breathtaking illustrations, Drawn Together (2018) offers readers an important and timely reminder of the beauty of the visual arts and the value they have on our collective desire to communicate, to connect, and to transcend cultural, generational, and linguistic barriers–grandfather to grandson, elder to junior, human to human.

“…my grandfather surprised me by revealing a world beyond words. And in a FLASH—we see each other for the first time.”

As educators, it is important to reflect on the ways that we invite students and families into our learning spaces. In other words, what “stories” do our practices tell our students and their families about which kinds of literacies “count”–and about who “belongs” in these spaces? Despite the wide variety of ways we connect and communicate outside of school, the kinds of literacies we privilege in school have, for far too long, narrowly focused on linguistic forms of reading and writing–on words. Specifically, on English words, and instruction that calls for these, that adhere to certain “standards” which center white, middle-to-upper class English-speaking persons who possess a solid grasp of the syntax, grammar, and spelling of such words.

While written language has proven to be a powerful and important medium, it is necessary to acknowledge how this language practice has historically been used as a form of gatekeeping, a method of controlling whose stories and experiences are shared with the wider world–and whose are not. It is essential, then, to reflect:

  • How might centering whiteness in literacy instruction affect language-minoritized students and families?
  • In addition, how might the traditional privileging of exclusively linguistic forms of writing over other modes of composition in school affect the ways that we “see” students and families who may not conform to our subjective (and highly problematic) ideas about what it means to be a “writer”? In what ways do our practices prevent us from recognizing the precious gifts and important stories that people like both the young boy and his grandfather have to offer?

When reading this book, we couldn’t help thinking of the work of Dr. Paula María Ghiso and how her experience as a Latina immigrant, in part, drove her and her colleague Dr. Patricia Martínez-Álvarez to develop a writing project for emergent bilingual students in New York City public schools–a project that made use of both visual composition (specifically photography) as well as multilingual composition in order to create space for these students to share their stories. How can we create similar opportunities for not only multilingual students, but also for students who are dyslexic, students who are typically labeled as “struggling,” and/or students who prefer to compose in different modalities–to be truly “seen”?

One of the ways that we can do so is by broadening–or even redefining–what it means to read and to write. When we invite students to read and write texts other than those that are exclusively alphabetic in nature–e.g., videos, images, protest art, comics, and spoken word poetry–we are opening up our membership of “readers” and “writers” to a wider variety of students with a more diverse set of language practices, funds of knowledge, and proficiencies. We are validating their ways of being as we integrate a broader range of compositional practices throughout our instruction in the classroom and school community.

“…we [built] a new world that even words can’t describe.”

While Drawn Together is a work of fiction, the powerful connection that visual composition brings to the relationship between the young boy and his grandfather is anything but fictional. Such connections can also happen in our schools, our classrooms, and our communities, despite the cultural, linguistic, or generational differences that may exist. They can happen when we reflect critically on which kinds of literacy practices we traditionally privilege in schools–and why we’ve done so for too long. They can happen when we make a more mindful effort to offer a rich variety of ways for students and their families to share their knowledge and their stories. And as Lê and Santat’s work reminds us, they can happen when we open up our hearts to the magic of human connection–to being drawn together.


Some “doorways into” this work include…

  • Inviting students to “reimagine” a piece of written work using a different (or hybrid) mode of composition. For example, ask students to consider how their piece might change if they were to perform a piece of poetry they’ve written for a live audience–or create a digital version of a poem that incorporates audio as well as visual elements.
  • Asking students to interview family members for narrative writing units. Students can share what they learned and integrate this in their writing. Carla’s 8th graders did this after reading Jacqueline Woodson’s poems from Brown Girl Dreaming. They read, discussed, shared with family, heard stories about the time they were born, took notes, and returned to class to teach others and write their own poems.
  • Guiding students in creating visual representations of their ideas in preparation for book clubs, read alouds, and other discussions around texts. Carla’s students reading Ghost Boys and Piecing Me Together created notebook pages to represent their ideas on intersectionality, responses to social issues, and changes in relationships across a text. In addition, Shawna’s students used multimodal representation to synthesize their understanding of protest art/music one year, and of their learning regarding “single stories” and stereotypes another year.
  • Inviting bilingual and multilingual students to create “Identity Texts” with reading and/or writing partners as they create writing products that reflect their authentic language practices. For some students, this may mean creating writing products that include a text all in English and then the translation separately. For others, this may mean using features of English and another language or languages throughout one piece of writing to reflect their translanguaging practices. Jim Cummins and Margaret Early’s Identity Texts: The Collaborative Creation of Power in Multilingual Schools has several examples of the former. The City University of New York-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals (CUNY-NYSIEB) has created guides to help monolingual, bilingual and multilingual teachers include translanguaging across curriculum, teaching, and the larger school community.
  • Partnering with community organizations and members
  • Creating community in the classroom by sharing your own experiences connected to a topic of study through visual or the performing arts. Carla begins each semester with teacher candidates in Bilingual Literacy (Spanish/English) and Multicultural Education courses processing moments along their bilingual journeys. Some students have created timelines, others have performed songs, and some have preferred to show their identities and how these have been welcomed or oppressed in their schooling through visual representations.
  • Partnering with community organizations and members following the example of Academia Cuauhtli/ Eagle Academy in Austin, Texas, making sure ways of knowing from elders in the community are integrated into students’ learning experiences.