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.
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 process 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:
Process: a 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.
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.”
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.