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.

 

 

 

An Art Teacher Goes Abroad

When the opportunity to accompany four of my students to Peru this summer arose, I was more than thrilled (if not also a little apprehensive) to take on the role of “chaperone.” Almost as soon as the school year had ended, my students and I, along with four other adolescents and their chaperone from Green Acres, boarded our plane and set off for Lima.

The trip, an exchange really, places students with host families for three weeks. Two of those weeks they attend school at Leonardo Da Vinci, while the other week is spent visiting Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and the abundance of archeological sites in the region. Like many chaperones to come before me, it was this latter week that I envisioned as the highlight of the trip. That week, which I now affectionately refer to as “the summer of rocks,” was indeed an experience of a lifetime.

But something else marvelous and magical happened on this trip, quite organically and without any hype:

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This here is a bottle cap mosaic. During one of my first days roaming the campus of Leonardo, I came across a large collection of colorful bottle caps. They filled a glass aquarium (something I find particularly amusing looking back), and overflowed into a series of plastic containers. All of this sat in a kind of enclave, seemingly designed to house a large flower pot or sculpture. In this regard, I almost immediately read the collection of caps as a contemporary art installation. My second thought took me to the Maker Space at my own school, where we have our own collections of objects, occasionally in such large quantities that I am left perplexed as to why anyone would have accumulated so many foam snowmen, monographed stickers, or metallic pizza trays. But I digress.

Mosaics had been on my mind for a while. Some of the best projects I can recall from my early teaching days had been mosaics. Like these:

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The tree and the flower were made by a group of 3, 4, and 5 year olds during my days as a preschool art teacher. Students were free to meander through “centers” like math, science, reading, and my own “art studio”, spending anywhere from one minute to one hour. This choice-based approach (which I have written about in a previous post), is a great way of getting students excited about learning because it cultivates curiosity and autonomy over the monolithic culture that dominates the majority of classrooms in the United States and elsewhere. In the art studio, Choice lends itself well to collaborative projects because it is centered around process. Students can contribute however much or little they want, but they are all investing something towards a larger goal. And the contribution is authentic, enthusiastic, and un-forced.

Despite having  a huge supply of ceramic mosaic pieces in my current classroom, and having successfully made collaboration a cornerstone of my teaching philosophy,  in my first year at Barnesville the list was long and those ceramic bits sat waiting for another year. The idea, however–to facilitate another collaborative mosaic–would not.

As chance would have it, the same day I came across the bottle caps, one of the English teachers at Leonardo asked if I might be interested in doing an art project with her sixth graders. Not only that, she wondered if I might somehow use the bottle caps. I enthusiastically agreed and the bottle cap mosaic was born.

In another twist of fate, the sixth graders were entering a unit on the environment, a passion of mine and a theme I return to frequently with my own students. The bottle caps lent themselves so well to a conversation about plastic in our oceans, and it was from that conversation (and some help from the internet) that project planning for an ocean-themed mosaic emerged.

Students sort caps by color.

Operating on a limited time frame, I recycled a lecture (I use that term loosely) from a previous lesson, which discussed how artists use data, or “visualize data” to make work that engages with some of the most pressing issues facing our world. In this case, the issue is water pollution, the data is how much plastic is dumped into the ocean (more than 8 tons per year), and the artwork is a mosaic made out of plastic and a snapshot of the ocean.

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Barnesville and Green Acres students, along with the sixth grade class. Our students helped with various aspects of the project. 

What I love about this project is how it functions simultaneously as a celebration of the diversity of life and beauty within the ocean and as a warning of how human activity is threatening this natural resource. As students worked sorting and gluing the caps, it seemed there was a never ending supply. Even when we ran out of yellow, it happened that one of the host families was connected with the Inca Kola factory, and the very next day they brought in a large plastic bag filled exclusively with yellow caps. I was at once thrilled to submerge my hands into the pool of caps, and alarmed by how easily they were acquired.

The prevalence of plastic in our lives has become such that it is hard to envision a time when it did not exist. In truth, plastic as we know it today came about less than a century ago as a result of one of the most deadly wars in history. While great measures have been taken to encourage the recycling of plastics, the process is costly and fails to address the need for more biodegradable alternatives.

One of the most effective ways of changing the way plastic is regarded (cheap, disposable, efficient) is by simply drawing attention to its pervasiveness. The speed at which we were able to collect and create this artwork documents the powerful role plastic plays in our lives, and in a more nuanced way, underscores how the rampant use of plastic communicates our values as a society.

Art can become the platform for changing how we see and think about the things that have become engrained in our daily lives. Put more simply, art makes us tourists in our own lives. From this unique vantage point, we can begin to do the work of deciding what sorts of objects, people, relationships, and values we want for those lives.

 

 

 

Hand-Lettered Secrets

This is just one of the many wonderful lessons I came home with from this year’s National Art Education Conference:

Students in sixth through eighth grade wrote a secret on a card, folded it, and dropped it into a bowl. Then each student picked a secret out of the bowl and created a text based work of art considering font and page layout.

To aid in the craftsmanship of the finished work, we used the app Whitelines, which allows students to work on a gridded paper. You then hold your phone over the finished artwork, and the app removes the grid and ups the contrast. Color can be added before this step, but I found the app had a harder time recognizing color so we added color after printing the first version.

 

Stop Motion Animation

As the first session of stop motion animation comes to a close, I am thrilled to share some of the projects we have worked on over the past 10 weeks.

We started by making what is arguably the most simple kind of animation, a flip book.

Week two, we made our own zoetropes. The first, a template, based off of Eadweard Muybridge’s famous horse images. The second, a design of each student’s choosing.

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Week three, we used our iPads and the app “Stop Motion Studio,” to create our first animations. Students worked in two groups to create films about breakfast, using cut paper.

And here are some other highlights from the class:

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Middle School Collaborative Day

 

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Barnesville’s Middle School dedicates one full day each month to “Collaborative Days,” built around cross-curricular projects, hands-on learning, or field studies. October’s Collaborative Day combined hiking, art, and service on nearby Sugarloaf Mountain.

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Before leaving campus, students viewed a portion of the documentary Rivers and Tides, which showcases the work of Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy is a British artist who curates natural materials within the landscape, creating ephemeral works of art known as earth art. As students hiked up Sugarloaf, they looked for opportunities to create similar works of art, which were then photographed by each teacher.

At the top of the mountain, students worked in their advisory groups to create a collaborative panoramic sketch. Sitting in a circle, with their backs facing inwards, each student drew what they saw so when the drawings are pieced together, they create a 360-degree view.