• Amy Burvall

Drawing on the Desk: Clues about Personalized and Visual Learning

Have you ever been in trouble for “drawing on the desk?” As you can probably guess from my sketching endeavors, I certainly have. When I first saw this #blimage challenge I was reading this post from David Hopkins. David’s post describes a very personal and not too positive experience with this type of desk:


Growing up in 1970’s Southern California, I had the same type of flip-top desk but in lieu of wood, it was some sort of synthetic laminate over metal. The bad news (for me) was that one couldn’t “carve into” and make permanent one’s artistic contributions. I did my best with pens (which were subsequently banned from the classroom) but somehow there was always a bottle of Windex ready to erase my efforts.

Of course there were other – appropriate- places to doodle. So why did I risk getting in trouble and being assigned to clean all student desks at recess?  I think it had something to do with boredom and visual thinking, but a lot to do with the need to personalize. I rebelled against being thought of as a number (i.e. “kid in desk 17”). I was Amy! I wanted to leave my mark, too, so I fantasized that if I covertly left some “legacy doodle” for the up and coming students I’d go down in History as some cool ethereal alum. My strict teachers thought otherwise, and tried to  instill in me a respect for property. But that’s just it- the desk (my workspace) was tied to my identity yet I didn’t own it. Looking back I think I longed to have ownership over my work and learning space.

In the 1970’s we students didn’t have much autonomy or control over our learning pathways – we just went along for whatever ride the teacher had planned for us, without much investment (granted, I was a “good” student because I wanted to please everyone).

Flash forward to my own kid, Gwenivere – a very artistic and independent soul. One day in the middle of teaching my Seniors I received an email from Gwen’s Kindergarten teacher. In it was this image:


Note the number.

Anyway, as you can see, she has used crayon as her graffiti tool of choice. The message was so heartwarming – I mean, it really reminds me of those hard-core 50’s Greasers who had tattoos saying “MOM”. The point is she was re-living my experience – perhaps for the same reason, or perhaps to provide for herself a little encouragement throughout the day.


Another issue these images allude to is the importance of making thinking visible. We humans crave this and it is, I believe, a necessity for the best creative thinking.   One person who knew this was Leonardo Da Vinci, who kept notebooks with sketches and lists from the mundane to the complex. Recently I talked about this in a keynote called #getsmART: Lessons from the Artists.


In order to dot connect – which is what creativity really is – you need a place to collect some dots. Notebooks (digital or analog) are for pinning ideas down – much the same ways as canvasses and cave walls. We have not changed much from our ancestors, as Picasso noted after seeing Altamira:


This brings us to a trip I took a few years back to MIT Media Lab – simply an enchanting place headed by “Lifelong Kindergartener” Mitch Resnick. There, on a tour, I chanced upon this niche:


I adore how it is a designated space which is OK for students to play and tinker with visually. I wanted to emulate the same in my class so I created a “graffiti wall” of white butcher paper.

Some excerpts:



Students could write quotes or provide thought-provoking illustrations (since we’d merged the desks into big tables and covered them with cloth). As for my own visible thinking, I painted the cupboards in back of my desk with chalkboard paint and continuously updated them with ideas and “irons in the fire” lists. I feel strongly that teachers should be transparent in their learning and creativity as well.


After all, learning doesn’t stop when you get a teaching position. Michelangelo – another great doodler or so I’ve heard – knew this when he said “Ancora Imparo”Live to Learn.


#blimi #personallearning #clmooc #blimage #davidhopkins #SteveWheeler #timbuckteeth #autonomy #amyburvall #visualthinking

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