The Think, not the Ink

Some people said James Thurber’s cartoons in the New Yorker looked like they had been scribbled on the back of a napkin. Others said their kids could draw better than Thurber.

And when parents sent their children’s drawings to prove this, Thurber would write back, “Your son can certainly draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasn’t been through as much.”

Thurber, Dog and BugThoughtful reflection on tough experience, this is what was behind Thurber’s simple lines. It wasn’t how well Thurber drew a dog, for example, it was the way the bloodhound decides not to bother a bug. Wisdom, Thurber shows with this rough-drawn dog, is knowing when it doesn’t matter, when it’s best to let someone go their own way.

Veteran New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff says of Thurber’s cartoons: It’s the think, not the ink.

As a teacher, I’ve found it easy to be preoccupied with the “ink” of my profession—with the strategies I use. I pay more attention to how well I draw than to why I am drawing it, or even if I should draw it. Educational theorist Dylan William suggests that educators are like magpies, amassing so many shiny ideas from the latest workshops and books that teaching turns into a complicated tangle.

Good teachers know that all these “deliverables” need to serve the end goal—that students learn. The “ink—the stuff you bring to the classroom—without the “think” is ineffectual. Students are not machines, and following scripts is not teaching.

Good teachers think. They decide when to toss the latest strategy, the best-laid lesson plan. They choose when to ignore the next discipline level and give a hug instead. They know when to ask a question and when to give an answer. And then they reflect on what just happened. Why did that work? Why didn’t it work? And what have I learned?

These reflections guide their future practices, making their teaching strong, spare, and clear.

And like James Thurber, good teachers can make it all look deceptively simple.

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