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Welcome to “The Barnesville Buzz!” A buzz is a murmur, a quiet hum that can be amplified through great numbers of voices, hands, hearts, and minds, working in unison. A buzz is a state of movement, filled with energy, a busyness on the brink of chaos, yet perfectly orchestrated. This vibration is the spirit of joy that I carry into the classroom and that I encourage each of my students to embody through the process of art making.

How will younger students get all the skills they need to be independent at centers?

A couple of years ago I heard a podcast about an experiment where a computer was “dropped” in a remote village in India with no instructions. The researchers wanted to know if people, children specifically, of the village could teach themselves how to use the computer. I can no longer find that exact podcast but in looking for it I came across an article out of MIT about a similar experiment supported by the One Laptop Per Child organization. Here is a link to the article, but essentially what researchers have found is that yes, children can teach themselves how to read and write and were even able to successfully hack the tablets they were given, allowing them to customize their desktops:

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

Elaborating later on Negroponte’s hacking comment, Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, said that the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different.  We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,” McNierney said. “And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.”

Harish, a school boy uses a laptop as a calf stands next to him, on the eve of International Literacy Day at Khairat village
Harish, 11, a school boy uses a laptop provided under the “One Laptop Per Child’ project by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) as a calf stands next to him, on the eve of International Literacy Day at Khairat village, about 90 km (56 miles) from Mumbai September 7, 2010. International Literacy Day is celebrated each year on September 8.

I’ve thought a lot about the implications of this study from the perspective of both children without access to education and also as someone who is in the profession of teaching. Mostly, I’ve thought about how in the past I made assumptions about what my students knew or did not and the skills I needed to teach them. There are developmental stages, benchmarks, and “rights of passage” that almost all children go through and being familiar with the psychology of child development is an important part of my job. There are also lots of ways that children already possess the power to acquire skills on their own, with minimal intervention on the part of the teacher.

Just the other day I had a group of 1st graders painting with watercolor. I listened to them discuss the various shades of blue they were creating and discover the way that different ratios of paint to water affected the transparency of the colors they were mixing. One student problem-solved a potential disaster when she suggested to the group that they move the paint and water cup further away from their papers to prevent spills. At one point I noticed the same student struggling to reach across her paper to paint the far side and in one of the only moments I intervened I suggested she might rotate her paper to make it easier. Later on she was dancing in her seat while painting and announcing to the class “Guys, I’m gonna spin this.” And she did spin her paper, sharing with her peers how they too might benefit from this tip.

I don’t think that my job as a teacher is made irrelevant by OLPC’s research, but I do think that this research shows how capable children are. There is a tendency to focus on teaching “skills” when what we might consider focusing on is creativity and curiosity. When we model to students how to ask questions and when we give students lots of opportunities to problem-solve creatively, we provide the foundation for them to learn skills independently. Nowadays, instead of rushing to “teach,” I eagerly await moments of eavesdropping, when students tell and show me all that they already know. My teaching practice has become about listening, offering feedback, and maximizing time for students to work, create, and discover.

 

 

How do you inspire kids that are stuck?

I recently gave a presentation to my colleagues about my switch to TAB. Rather than taking questions during or at the conclusion of my talk, I asked my peers to write down their questions and reflections on papers, which I collected at the end. My intention was to respond to each question in a single email, but when I sat down to write I realized that I have a lot to say. It also occurred to me that the kinds of questions I was getting were similar to those I had asked myself before switching to TAB, and that maybe there’s a larger community that would benefit from hearing my perspective. So I am launching a blog series in which I will respond to these questions one-by-one, or in some cases group similar questions and responses together. Up first…

 How do you inspire kids that are stuck?

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From TED: Talks to watch when you’re stuck in a rut. 

Being “stuck” is a familiar feeling. It’s uncomfortable, and worse, unproductive. Children and adults have learned to be afraid of being stuck because we live in a culture that values comfort and efficiency. If you’re not always producing, on the go, or sleep-deprived, you aren’t doing it right. The word “stuck” itself is a value judgement on time that might otherwise be described as contemplative.

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Oh, and did I mention, you must always have a smile on your face and look as if you’ve slept the recommended 8 hours?

Being stuck is an indication that students haven’t had many opportunities to design their own learning, to be creative, and independent. This happens in schools where the teacher makes all of the decisions. In cases like this the only way for students to become independent, productive, and unstuck is to experience the whole artistic process, even the parts at the beginning that are a little uncomfortable.

When I have a child that is stuck I try to avoid rushing to their rescue. I want them to sit with the feeling long enough that they give them self an opportunity to come up with an idea, and to own that idea because it came from within. I want them to wander around the room, looking at and touching things that they find interesting, or to spend an entire class collecting images they like in a Google Doc. I want them to be what some might call “in-efficient.”

One way to think of an artwork is as an answer to a question or a solution to a problem. If students can come up with a question that’s usually enough to get them going. I model different kinds of questions one could ask by first asking students what they are interested in. Once we land on something (and there is always something), I let them feel like the expert: Tell me everything you know about this topic. Now tell me some questions you still have, some things you’ve been wondering about, some “what ifs..” This model inspires student confidence and helps them to generate ideas all without the teacher ever giving the student an idea.  

Another way to think of being stuck is not that students don’t have any ideas but that they do not believe their ideas are good ones. Lots of times when a student finally works up the courage to reveal their idea it relates to areas of their life that they categorize as play; And because most children don’t think of school as a place where they can play they also don’t think that finding connections between their play and their work is acceptable.

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An example would be a student that waits all day to get home and play video games. In the art room they might want to explore the places and characters they spend time with in these digital worlds, but they are afraid to share their ideas about artwork inspired by video games because the teacher could say that the subject matter is not academic. This is a legitimate fear because sadly some teachers do have that response. In my room, however, I try to prioritize the word “yes.” Except in cases of something extremely inappropriate, offensive, or at odds with the school’s mission, if students have an idea and are excited about it, then that’s the idea I want them to pursue.

The Truth About Paper Airplanes

In the fall of 2017, I went to my head of school with an idea. It was a drawing of what my art room might look like if it were to be combined with an adjacent classroom. Over the next months, I continued to meet with administrators and to develop the idea further. By the spring, the proposed renovation had become a major part of the “special appeal” at my school’s yearly gala, and some of my very own colleagues were among the many generous donors to raise their paddles. The funds raised through this event made it possible for my dream to be realized when the wall between my original art room and the other classroom was taken down over the summer of 2018.

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The top photo shows what my room looked like when I started teaching at my school in 2016. The bottom photo is a picture of me in my new space at the beginning of this year.

I think most teachers would agree that having a bigger space is beneficial to students for all kinds of reasons. Larger spaces accommodate group work, provide quiet corners for students that need to work independently, and room for students to spread out while working on posters and other large projects. In an art class, space offers the ability for students to pursue large-scale and sculptural works of art with storage being more plentiful.

Along with the physical renovation my classroom received this summer, my teaching philosophy underwent a similar over-haul.  Beginning last spring, I started re-developing and refining my approach to art education through copious amounts of research and reading. I was inspired by the many workshops I have attended on choice-based art at the annual Art Educator’s Conference over the past two years. Choice, also known as Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) is growing in popularity among art teachers, and at the heart of why I sought to expand my classroom to begin with.

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The TAB “bible”.

The TAB curriculum is comprised of just three sentences, but what it offers students is far more than traditional media or theme-based approaches to art. The curriculum is:

What do artists do? The child is the artist. The art room is the child’s studio.

In the TAB classroom, students are assumed to be artists and treated as such. These artists take ownership over their class room, which in turn functions as an authentic art studio. In this art studio, students practice the habits that all artists use: Envision, Observe, Stretch and Explore, Engage and Persist, Reflect, Develop Craft, Understand Art Worlds, and Express.

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A chart that hangs in the classroom and helps students to understand the types of work they will make

Artists produce all kinds of studio work from “Wonderful Works of Art” (WOW) to sketches and explorations. All of the research, planning, collecting, and reflecting that go into getting to a WOW piece of artwork is considered equally during assessment.

Some of the goals of TAB are to:

-foster independence through choice

-accommodate diverse populations and skill levels through an expansive versus restrictive curriculum

-nurture creativity by validating each child’s unique set of interests

 

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This graphic compares the role of teacher versus student in a choice classroom, with the philosophy of TAB exemplified on the far right.

In the TAB classroom, media are separated into distinct centers and students are given great choice in which centers they visit and what kinds of artworks they pursue. Examples of centers that I will offer this year include: drawing, painting, paper art, mixed-media sculpture, ceramics, digital art, printmaking, fiber arts, and photography. These centers will open in the order they appear above, with a new center available on average every two weeks. By the end of the year, all centers are open.

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This is my Drawing Center. Materials are clearly labeled, and there are lots of visual aids to help students navigate the center. I have included a library of “how to draw…” books, and in the organizer to the right of the center are drawers containing thematic resources.

The art studio expansion was a key component in my being able to realize the TAB philosophy in that centers generally require a great deal of space, as does storing diverse work from 100+ students.

I’ve been teaching in my new space for around a month now. Although I have been moving towards a choice-based art room since last spring, the switch to TAB is dramatically different than the routines that most students associate with art, not to mention nearly all of their other classes. So I have been sure to make the transition slowly and to scaffold students with lots of structure, class discussion, and visual aids. We’ve spoken at length about the TAB philosophy, how to generate ideas, and my expectations for how class time will be used. The drawing center officially opened this week, and 2nd-8th graders are busy envisioning, exploring, and reflecting.

I too am reflecting as I watch some students run with excitement to the drawing center, while others look up at me perplexed, then ask “Wait, do you really mean I get to come up with my own artwork?” The answer of course is, yes.

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On Tuesday and Wednesday I had lower school classes. The drawing center opened and almost all of the students in 3rd and 4th grade started making paper airplanes. Once they were flying about the room, I started to second guess everything I was doing and immediately cringed at the thought of an administrator or colleague walking past the room. Would they think I was lazy? Or irresponsible? That there was no way this was intentional because what are you teaching kids anyway if you let them spend the whole class making paper airplanes?

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As it turns out…you are teaching them a lot.

Once I had quieted my inner critic and began listening to the conversations students were having about their planes, my confidence in TAB was restored. For whatever reason, paper airplanes have gained this horrible reputation as non-serious, juvenile, and disruptive. But when I listened to the conversations my students were having about their planes and watched how they were working collectively, a different narrative emerged:

Students were speculating about how the size and wing span of the plane could effect how far it would travel. They were decorating their planes using different drawing materials in order to make the planes more unique and to represent their interests. One student asked me to spell out the names of half a dozen characters from the musical Hamilton because she was making a Hamilton-themed plane. A couple students did not have as much experience making planes and so my best plane folder, who also happens to be one of my less-confident artists, started teaching those other students how to fold them.

To avoid having planes flying all about, I told students we would have an air show at the very end of class, and this inspired even more students to take on the task of carefully folding and decorating their own planes. Before the air show we lined up all the planes on a table and I had students describe what qualities their plane had that they predicted would help it to fly the farthest. Then we tested our hypotheses as one student after another launched their plane down the hall.

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A sampling of planes from 3rd grade.

Some students mentioned that it would have been great to test their planes ahead of time so they could make improvements. I agree and next class I will designate a spot in my room for them to do so. I’m also planing to check some books out of the library on folding airplanes, plus making available some general origami references.

The term “Emergent Curriculum” appears a lot in TAB philosophy and describes when a teacher designs curriculum based around the specific skills, needs, and interests of a group of students. This approach facilitates a high degree of student engagement because the students can actually see themselves reflected in the classroom. Math, science, reading, writing and other subjects can be easily integrated into the curriculum all within the context of what students are already interested in. An example of this would be the paper airplanes: within a one hour class period students practiced fine motor skills, collaboration, geometry, and physics. Now that I am aware of the students’ interest in paper airplanes, I can seek out ways to make more cross-curricular connections with greater intention.

When students feel that their interests are validated by the teacher, a relationship of trust is formed and the student is more receptive to other kinds of materials and experiences the teacher may want to share. Skill-building is no longer forced, and work becomes play.

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An image of the chalkboard after 8th grade students responded to the prompt “Draw a mobile that shows your strengths and areas where you have room for improvement.” Balance and movement are key attributes of mobiles and can also be used to talk to students about how to  use their time in centers. In the art studio, balance ensures that students are pursuing a variety of interests and taking opportunities to try things outside of their comfort zones. Movement describes art making as an active versus passive or sedentary activity. When artists move around the studio they make new discoveries, interact with their peers, and send oxygen to their brains, facilitating higher levels of creativity. Thus, the model of students remaining seated and quiet during class conflicts with the processes we know help students to learn and retain information.  

I am excited to continue sharing my experience with TAB and expect that many of my parents will observe changes in their child’s relationship with art class over the course of the year. I hope that in sharing how I am building my TAB classroom from the ground up I can help parents and other teachers understand the value in choice, and I myself can continue to reflect and improve upon my teaching practices.

 

 

Meet Mark

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Last spring, I introduced seventh graders to the sculptures of Mark Jenkins, a local artist from Washington D.C. Jenkins who uses tape and plastic wrap to create plastic casts of people and objects. He then places his sculptures in various environments, some clothed and others partially translucent, with the process of casting left visible.

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The sculptures run the gamut from serious to mischievous, humorous, and disturbing. They often draw the attention of police when a passerby, tricked into believing a sculpture is real, reports it to 911. Many of these clothed sculptures appear to be homeless, or at the very least speak to the feeling of emotional isolation. Closer inspection would surely reveal that they are not real, which makes me reflect on the distance we so often put between ourselves and those considered different, perhaps even dangerous. We choose not to interact, to avert our eyes, while casually dropping coins into re-purposed containers. Or worse, we wait for the next person to come to the rescue, which inevitably leads to a kind of bystander apathy. In both of these scenarios our own comfort wins out while we move through the world paralyzed by the thought of confronting our personal biases, assumptions, and widely-held stereotypes.

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Jenkins’ clothed figures have an especially powerful effect in the way that they startle and surprise. His work reminds me of that strange mix of fear and exhilaration I get when riding on a roller coaster. In the image above we see three men, completely concealed by hoodies, ski masks, gloves and other articles of clothing. They sit, each with a baseball bat in their hands.

When I talk to students about work like this (or any image for that matter) I am always curious to know what they notice first. Their responses, and the order in which they come, provide a glimpse into our brains’ thought processes and our collective biases. These conversations are more important than anything else that happens inside my classroom because they prompt students to observe not only images, but the way we absorb information and interpret it.

A (fatal) love affair with efficiency:

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Each day we are inundated with thousands of images, and even more so in our technology-driven world. In order for us to process all of this visual information our brains need to be able to “read” images efficiently. This process helps us to categorize, store, and retrieve information quickly, so we can do things like recognize people we know next to people we don’t; a shirt next to a sock- can you imagine how long it would take to sort through a basket of laundry if we could not distinguish between the two?

The examples above are just two of the many practical reasons why our brains have developed to work this way, but a consequence of this efficiency is that it opens the door to all kinds of stereotyping. One way that I help students to recognize the “pitfalls of efficiency” is to teach them to closely observe images and artworks and to notice the assumptions they make surrounding issues such as race, gender, and sexual-orientation, just to name a few.  

If I can return for a moment to the image above: I observe that the figures are probably men, wearing hoodies, ski masks, gloves, and holding baseball bats. They are also wearing long pants, high socks, and shoes. Nowhere is any part of their skin or hair showing. They are sitting down in a public space, all three gazing at the tile floor in front of them. If I were in the space with the sculptures, and if I stopped to look at them even for 30 seconds, I would probably realize quickly that they are not real. But if I was walking by, my brain would see the ski masks, the bats, the gloves…now I am turning around and walking the other way or picking up my pace to move quickly past them.

I’ve observed three things about the entire scene and decided it’s unsafe to get any closer. While I’m walking away, my heart rate begins to slow down and I start to build a narrative around what I have just seen, only I haven’t really seen much at all. Maybe in my narrative the men are black and they are waiting to attack. They’re probably gang members out to get retribution. They are moral-less and uneducated. Before I know it, I have constructed an entire story around three articles of clothing.

In this case, I have the benefit of being able to look back at the photo again, see that the men are completely covered, and that there is no possible way for me to know their race. I can take apart my thought process and begin to see how the ideas I have inherited about black men and violence are so powerful that they exist even outside the observable facts of a situation.  

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Some of you might be thinking, well okay but we need to be able to make judgments quickly in order to protect ourselves from danger. To which I would say, this is true but not to the extent of our ancestral cavemen and women. I think the main problem here is that our bodies haven’t quite evolved to function within the world we now live. And perhaps more problematic, we continue to teach fear at the expense of seeking to understand and connect with people different than ourselves.

The Project:

All of this looking, and thinking, and reflecting is an important part of how I try to start every project with my students; And so with my seventh graders we started by looking at a wide range of Jenkins’ artwork and talking about how he uses the environment to contextualize his sculptures and to break with the model of the white cube gallery. He uses humble and relatively inexpensive materials, not normally associated with fine art. He takes his work and its ideas into unconventional spaces, making the artwork accessible to a wide range of people, not only museum-goers.

Using Jenkins’ tape casting technique, seventh graders worked in groups to create sculptures of people (themselves), which they then installed at locations around the school. They could choose to clothe their artworks or keep them as they were, but all of the sculptures needed to interact directly with the environment in which they were placed. Casting proved difficult, especially as supplies became depleted (for future reference, it takes a whole lot of tape), but in the end we had at least a couple of sculptures that retained their form, and when dressed, were startlingly realistic.

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The students loved this project. You could hear their enthusiasm in the giggles that filled the art room as they wrapped one another, and you could see it in the care they took displaying their projects around our school.  

Then came some concerns about the artworks’ potential to frighten younger students and a few subtle requests to relocate certain pieces. As an artist these are the kinds of moments that I both look forward to and dread. I look forward to them because they are an opportunity to educate our community about the ideas and artists that have motivated the artwork; And in this case, to explain why exhibiting artwork in unconventional spaces is an important tool that artists use to question how artwork is presented and for whom it is accessible. It is a moment I dread because my initial reaction is often to feel under attack and I retreat from the opportunity to express my ideas and values in order to avoid conflict. I can say this comfortably because I know I am hardly alone in this feeling and because it is something I continue to work on within and outside of my school community.

In fact, I had all but forgotten about the requests to relocate the artworks when something (the very impetus behind this post) transpired.

When Fear is the Elephant in the Room:

Sometime during the weekend of a major wind storm, the power went out at school, causing the alarm to go off, and the police to show up. A staff member was at school during this time and later told me that when one of the officers approached the front of the building and spotted one of my seventh graders’ sculptures (below), he placed his hand on his gun. In case the photo is not clear, this is a child-sized sculpture sitting in a chair, clothed in sweatpants, a hoodie, bearing no weapons, and not displaying them self in any kind of threatening manner. Needless to say, I was shocked and mortified.

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I was not there and cannot attest to the accuracy of the story or its re-telling. Nevertheless, I am deeply concerned by what it communicates about the current relationship between the police, students, schools, and gun violence. Without intention, the group of students that worked on this sculpture created a situation that perfectly reflects the fears and anxieties that are surging through schools and communities around the country, including our very own.  

I thought about this story more and more in the days and weeks that followed: Okay, it’s the weekend, the alarm has gone off, perhaps there’s been a break in, maybe the intruder is still inside…maybe all of those things are true, and there’s a “child” hunched over in a chair with a hoodie on. The officer’s heart rate most likely increased, a momentary rush of fear running through his veins.

That feeling is what Jenkins is after when he creates and displays his work because it is what brings his figures to life. Surprise, even fear, at an artwork’s realness pulls his audience in and hooks them emotionally. And as we all know, emotion is at the heart of almost every choice we make. It is as powerful as reason, and sometimes more so. It connects us to objects, and places, and people…even plastic ones. So when we talk about emotionally-charged artwork, it is about creating the connection between object and audience that allows moments of vulnerability and reflection.

Mark Jenkins’ “84 Men” Installation For Suicide Preventionmark-jenkins-calm-project-84-london-1

So whether we call it surprise or fear, this feeling I am talking about connects seamlessly with what happened with the officer and the gun by underscoring the major role that emotion can play in matters of life and death. The responding officer (hypothetical or otherwise) was scared and in that moment failed to observe all parts of the picture, to contextualize the situation and the likelihood that an alarm went off because of an intruder versus the windstorm that had already downed a number of trees.

As long as we have a human police force we will never have a completely objective one. But there are ways to minimize emotionally-reactive decision making, and dare I say, chip away at this deadly culture of fear. Learning to notice how you respond emotionally in different situations and with different people is one way. While looking closely at how we interpret images, perpetuate stereotypes, and breed all kinds of “isms” is what I seek to do as an important part of being an art educator.  

What strikes me most in all of this is the potential to change the way our youngest people learn to read the world around them, and consequently, to save lives. Students that learn to look at things closely and critically not only dispel the lies of stereotypes but they also learn to recognize real threats. Students that are indoctrinated into a culture of individualism, hate, and fear of the “other,” never learn to be critical thinkers nor to reap the benefits of self-awareness and interpersonal connection.  

The views expressed in the post are wholly my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my colleagues or other members of my school community. 

Some of the information presented in this post is hearsay and cannot be substantiated. It is included for its remarkable similarity to incidents of police misconduct that have been documented. 

How to…ZINE!

 

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Zines are low-tech self-published magazines made by artists and distributed in small batches. They can be made up entirely of images or combine image and text, and they address a wide range of topics from the humorous to the political.

Sixth graders wrote and designed their own zines based on the prompt “how to…” They learned to create handmade paper, which they used for the covers of their zines. Then they used Google Docs to experiment with different fonts and page layouts. They printed their text leaving room to paste in drawings and photographs. The collaged draft was then photocopied, unifying text and image and giving the final artwork that quintessential look of a zine.

Once more with Rousseau

I returned to this lesson again after several former third graders told me it had been their favorite.

Using an array of materials, students constructed a diorama based on Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings. We learned to draw various animals using instructional books and images printed off of the web. The animals were cut out and inserted into the dioramas, where students also used feathers, fabric, stones, moss and other materials to build out the environment.

This project offers students lots of opportunities to problem-solve and be creative with everyday materials. By combining sculpture with illustration, students can move between different modes of making and this seems to create the right balance for keeping students engaged.

 

 

The Letting Go

 

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—Illustration by Jori Bolton for Education Week

It’s been a year of letting go. I’m slowly retreating from more traditional approaches to art education, while simultaneously rewriting my own philosophy of teaching.

When once I might have tried to re-direct a project seemingly gone “off track,” saying things like “well, this is not really what the point of this project is” or “uh…I don’t know, could you maybe infuse some of (insert artist’s name here) back into your work?”, I have instead started saying things like, “I want you to be excited about what you are making and if that means it does not look exactly like what I imagined, that is okay.” It is is more than okay. Because learning about an artist is important but imitating one is not.

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“Nice work Jonny! That’s not mine, it’s Tom’s.”

I grew up learning through imitation, making one-off projects that I sometimes loved but never felt I could really call my own. Suddenly I was an undergraduate in college and I had to generate my own ideas, which I had never had to do because my teachers always gave me their best ones. And it’s hard for us art teachers not to. The process of creating a lesson plan is a creative endeavor itself, so much so that it begins to feel like we have some ownership in what our students make. It’s fun to watch your plan soar or crash or land somewhere in between, usually with little regard for how the student may feel about the prRelated imageocess or the finished product.

The arts are one of the only subjects that are regularly presented to the public and as an art teacher everything that goes up around my school feels like a reflection of me. Naturally, I want my students’ work to look polished and precise.

The problem is good craftsmanship is developed over a long period of time, as is the intellectual complexity of a work of art. I can’t reasonably expect my students to make outstanding work every time unless I hold their hand through every step of the process…a set of steps that I have developed for them and which does not actually teach them how to have ideas of their own nor to problem solve.

Luckily, there’s another way to think about this:

Processa way of creating that invites experimentation, challenge, and reflection; where artists engage with materials and ideas through research, observing the world around them (as well as the work of other artists), all while developing their craftsmanship and expressing their feelings, thoughts, and values.

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There’s a lot in that definition but no where does it talk about the product. Removing the emphasis of art making from the product frees art teachers and their pupils to focus on the skills that artists use rather than what they make. This is important because if we follow this model of “process over product” most of what we make, and I mean in all subjects, will fail. But in the process of making and reflecting, students will learn that failure is not an invitation to quit but one to keep going. If instead, we hand-hold through all aspects of teaching, when students do fail (and they will) the effects can be catastrophic:

“Ms. Eargle, can I throw this (artwork I have spent the last month working on) away?”

“Ms. Eargle, do you like this?” (5 minutes later) “Ms. Eargle, do you like this?” (5 minutes later)….

“Well, I think I’ll do it this way because it will be easier.”

“I saw my grade was an F and I knew that couldn’t be right because it’s just art.”

I just want my art to be at least okay. I want standard/average level. I don’t have any big goals for this.”

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My face when I hear these comments.

I love my projects. I love the results and all the parents that tell me how great the work looks. But I hate hearing my students’ lack of confidence and their apathy towards the visual arts even more. And so I find it’s time for THE LETTING GO (which also happens to be the album title of one of my most favorite artists, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.)

What does this letting go look like?

The short answer:

We never know because each student is different and so is their work.

The long answer:

-Rethinking how to present student work and give it context so that the process, the cornerstone of this philosophy, is made visible. This could mean that all of the student’s sketches, research, and written reflection is presented alongside their finished artwork.

-Re-configuring the art room and its materials to be organized and accessible.

-Making clear in all sorts of formats (visuals, text, video, etc.) how to use materials safely, effectively, and cost-efficiently.

-Modeling the 8 Studio Habits of Mind.

-Scaffolding students in the beginning of each year with a number of skills that they can refer back to as they design and produce their individual artworks.

-Empowering students to think independently and use all of the resources available to them. When students come to see their peers as people they can learn from and the internet as a tool for learning new techniques, they are no longer reliant on me exclusively.

-Regular one-on-one conferences with students as I help each to work through a distinct set of problems.

-Being a coach and a cheerleader, and believing in a kid’s project even when it’s not something I would make.

As you can see, letting go does not happen effortlessly. It is not an escape from planning, but a new approach to it. Where once there might have been a lot of work cutting, printing, prepping, there is now more emotional labor: looking, listening, showing compassion and enthusiasm, encouraging creative problem solving without actually solving the problem for students. I get to keep my best ideas for myself and my students get to learn how to generate their own.