teacher's blog

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It's Half-Past March. Do You Know Where Your Schemas Are?

All in a rowAll in a rowWe are such creatures of habit. When children come into Evergreen's art classroom, no matter how they were lined up by their teacher, they inevitably sit in their favorite place on our burgundy (most days – this IS an art room, after all) rug. Chances are good that the same peers who flanked them the last time they were here are in the same places, too. Teachers and other life forms exhibit the same behavior. Next time you're at a meeting, in a class, sitting in the library, or at your favorite restaurant, look around. Yep. Familiarity is important to us.

Repeating behavior isn't simply comfortable for us, but is central to many teaching and learning premises. We value practice and reward repetition with adult bobble-headed nods and praise. It simply works well for all sorts of things: learning to walk, jumping rope, drawing stick figures, forming cursive letters, making tortillas, writing computer code, and knitting. Even a skill like driving a stick shift takes repeated motions that, once familiar, become more or less automatic. Such is our dependence on schema.

In a TAB/Choice classroom, there is plenty of opportunity to explore comfy schemes at great length. I'm reminded of three fourth grade boys who are still enjoying pencil sketches of action figures on thin paper. After adding details that give clues to their powers (it's dangerous for an old person to attempt to interpret anything that's cartoon or video game-based, but I keep foolishly wading in) they cut them out and share/trade/fly them around the room and draw worlds on more white paper for them to inhabit.

I have a confirmed crew of Ojo de dios makers who love playing with color variation and are proud of their ability to teach related skills to other kids in their class. They report construction of biggerbettercooler models at home and tell stories of dragging unsuspecting grandmothers to the store for yarn and craft sticks. I smiled at one brought from home (BFH) creation. A loving dad with tools had used pliers to stabilize some eight or nine inch alder twigs with heavy gauge wire so his third grader could craft her own ojo.A fresh look at a well-loved bedroomA fresh look at a well-loved bedroom

Familiar schemes are often evident in the painting center. Whole generations of children learn that a Proper Painting of a landscape begins with a blue line at the top of the page to represent sky and a green line at the bottom to represent earth. Before exposure to coercion (read: mini lessons on other possibilities) I can predict the squareboxhousewithchimneytwocurtainedwindows and obglitory sun, trapped high in the corner. Symbolism is a great way to practice using art tools, and it's developmentally appropriate to follow predictable stages on the way to other expressions.

So here we are, comfortably sitting in our same places on the rug, and the art teacher suddenly asks, “What's easiest for you in art? What's the most difficult thing you've seen a classmate do in here? Which center is most familiar for you? How about the opposite?” Then, in classic Evil Adult style, I casually tell the assembled short artists that I'm going to exercise my old wrinkly lady prerogative and insist that they “branch out” to Something New.

Sure enough, the fifth grade sketching phenom quietly admitted to me that he didn't remember how to make basic paper weaving work. We reviewed the process and he industriously worked on a simple creation so that he could do a more complex pattern like one of the hanging displays next time he returned to the studio.

After ___ (name a large number) cardboard binocular/camera creations, a third grade pair who loves to work together confessed to other members of the painting center that they didn't know where the large white painting paper was. I wasn't surprised when they asked if they could roll their paintings into spy glasses, but I did encourage them to think of some nifty PAINTED ideas of someone using said spyglasses before they rolled the paper. Sure enough, some outrageously colorful pirates and large sailing ships ensued.

Perhaps it's a good focus for spring. In addition to some necessary spring cleaning (is that pile of cardboard for the construction center multiplying in the night or what???) we'll sweep out a couple of comfortable ways of creating art and latch onto a new technique or two. Let the mini-lessons continue!!!

Imagination? Oh, Yeah!!!

Mi familia - ¡Todos!Mi familia - ¡Todos!When my kinderfriends first began playing at my clay dough center (home-made, of course!) I included some generic cookie cutters. Being the clever scrounger I was, I foraged used cutters and other tools in lots of places - thrift shops, hardware stores, and my "junk" boxes in the barn. At first, kids were thrilled with the huge selection of tools they could use to manipulate the dough. I kept things in a long, skinny basket on the center of the table and encouraged kids to use as many as they could during their art time. I was happy. Kids were happy. Play dough was sliced, chopped, pummelled, and tasted (I know, I know - we covered that in the safety stuff at the beginning of class, but five year olds HAVE to taste everything. Once.)

It's my pet elephant!It's my pet elephant!

After a couple of weeks, though, I noticed that the "giggle with joy" levels had dropped substantially. I kept observing and found identical "cookies" stacked on identical, tidy piles. Careful was winning over creative and kids were demanding bigger rollers to make the dough "perfect." A sweet grandma who volunteers on occasion noticed me watching intently and quietly noted, "Maybe they'd do better with fewer things in the basket." Yep. We were both thinking the same thing.

The next time kinderfolk came in, they were met with a fresh batch of dough, complete with a color change and zippy fragrance. (I love Kool-aid colors and smells - and admit it freely.) When the kids said, "Where's the stuff?" we responded with, "Today we're using our fingers as tools and our imaginations when we make things here." Sure enough, the giggle ratio soared and the kinds of things that choice classrooms are famous for - kids using their own ideas, sharing and building upon what other kids do, and putting things together to work together were in evidence. Yes - the noise level is a little higher, but that's a healthy thing. We're having more fun now and the dough is doing a great job of keeping up with multiple squeezing and pounding that only gifted kinderbuilders can offer.
Snow woman and smileSnow woman and smile

I print, you print, we ALL print!

Ta DA!Ta DA!I've been pondering the timing for a print center for some time now. It's always been there on my list - right after fabric arts and just before clay. I spent lots of time digging for good examples of kid-based printing, filtering through reference books in bookstores, checking with peers for tips and tricks, and going back through the archives in the TAB Yahoo Groups list. Like all of my best fun, it wasn't as much a question of what to include as it was the elemental, "How on earth can I make all of this fit in a single center?" question. I inherited quite a few tubes of water-based printer ink, brayers, carving tools, and some clever students with boundless energy.

After visiting the lumberyard for a thick sheet of Plexiglass to cut up for monoprinting (and lots of other fun things) I spent the long weekend playing with color and paper. This week's kids have done a fabulous job experimenting with things and have created some stunning work. We have ink (aka tempera) under all our fingernails and some spiffy prints to show off to our families. Art is a social activity for fourth gradersArt is a social activity for fourth graders

For now, we're most intrigued with monoprints (mostly manipulating paint on the Plexi-sheets with combs and craft sticks) and making our own stamps with styrofoam and pencils. Fun!

Tasks for the weekend - rigging something above the printmaking table that will hold drying prints. Sharing the paint center's racks is a traffic jam.

Enjoy the pictures -
Apron? Check. Ink? Check. Stamp? Check.Apron? Check. Ink? Check. Stamp? Check.

This is the way to pat a monoprint.This is the way to pat a monoprint.

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