I'm amazed at the variation that marches/creeps/dances/floats/twirls into my art program with the new kindergarten class each year. Some of our ducklings have attended progressive pre-schools and some have been spending their time with siblings at home. Some children travel to visit extended family across the country, learning how airplanes and trains and long car trips, motels, and amusement parks work. Others know the joy of having close relatives in the next room or next door, or just across town. Some of our children have songs and fairy tales read to them even before they're born and some of them grow up with less deliberate soundtracks, no less rich, but designed for the adults in their lives.
Even though there are at least three languages in the room, we all have a couple of things in common. We all know what large expanses of white paper are for and we all love brightly colored crayons. And we all love our friends. One recent afternoon we talked about friends, I hugged Miss Nancy, my most faithful volunteer, the two of us hugged our trusty para educator friend, and we talked about who our friends are. We decided that lots of our friends were right here in our classroom but thought about friends in other places, too. We even decided that some of our brothers and sisters were friends.
And we drew.
And what does an art teacher learn from the drawings of five year olds? All things. Within children's drawings are their perceptions of their places within their families, their favorite things, their loves and fears, and their very selves. The developmental stages of children's artwork are well documented but I never tire of getting to know each of my students.
Here's your challenge: Take a look at these clever students and make a list of what they're looking for.
Active learners need quality tools. Spend your money wisely, but find the highest quality artists' materials you can for your students. Crayons and markers need to be vibrant, true to color, and fresh. Eight colors are never enough. Order a complete spectrum. That doesn't mean you'll always put all the colors out because inventing your own colors is a cool part of being an artist, but make sure the possibilities are there. Take the time to teach how to use Mom Scissors (those lovely, honking, huge things that really cut) and make sure we use the correct names for the tools. Brayers, triangles, protractors, rotary cutters, and linoleum knives aren't mysteries if they're in common use by all the artists in the room.
Anticipate questions and make sure the answers are developmentally and second language learner appropriate. When I introduce the tools in the drawing center, I'll demo colored pencils, pass out hand sharpeners and have the kids compare the shavings with those of a graphite pencil. They'll be able to feel the waxy texture and understand why colored pencils kill off electric sharpeners. We'll practice borrowing and lending pencils in Spanish and English, setting the tone for a respectful classroom with please and thank you.
I LOVE thinking about the next project, planning for materials and thinking about how I'll put something together. So do my kids. Their job is to show up at art, alert and ready to work. My job is to assemble the materials they need, provide the lessons that their interests have shown me they need, and get out of the way. Artists need to be able to experiment, to try new ideas, and to fail. The coolest learning comes from rescuing a construction disaster, discovering a new texture in a puddle of wandering paint, or watching how a friend solves a similar problem.
Kids might argue with this one, because learning how to keep an art studio clean and making it ready for the next group of artists is a bit of a pain. It's complicated, because cleaning lessons are part controlling chaos, part doing one's share of work in the studio, part learning to be a part of a learning community, part using resources wisely, and part planning for the next session. Couple that complexity with the reality that some artists are tidy and some are pack rats, (this is *not* the place to make a comment about the teacher) some have families that teach responsibility to little ones and some don't, and there are varied systems in their regular classrooms. No matter the habits that artists bring to our shared studio - we all gain a sense of pride when we learn to work together.
All of us have snug areas of comfort with our art schema. Symbol drawings (hearts, rainbows, puffy flowers, and even symbols like Kilroy) have been shared and practiced whenever people gather since people started making marks on their world. We learn about symmetry, patterns, and replicating detail when we practice our favorite symbols. There's a real sense of community when children teach a special pattern to each other and a sense of accomplishment as its honed and practiced over and over. The tricky part is creating a safe place to try something other than those favorite patterns. That's one of the most important art teacher jobs - sharing a wide variety of materials and techniques designed to pique a child's interest. Yes, we have lots of choice in what to make in studio. No, it's not OK to make your fourteenth pair of binoculars with cardboard toilet paper rolls. You can trust me to nudge you into trying other things.
Learning about pattern, color, sequence, engineering, and properties of matter while playing with paint, clay, fiber, beads, and melted crayons - what could be better? Developing organizational skills, forming friendships and practicing a second (or third) language while stacking blocks, making books or researching animals for drawings is endlessly entertaining. Children are naturally curious and love acquiring new skills. An art studio is one of the best places on the planet to grow.
We'll be seeing you around!
Staging an art show is an interesting exercise. It's one part celebration, one part pulling teeth, one part planning, and one part total surprise. As our choice-based studios have matured at Evergreen Elementary School, we've taken on a bit more with our end of the year exhibition. Year one was an art walk. Our current PTSO president, Donna, contacted area businesses and arranged for display space. She has considerable artistic ability in her own right and the displays were well received in coffee shops, cafes, libraries, and utility companies. Artwork was chosen on the basis of variety and pithy artists' statements and Donna did ALL the legwork involved in hanging and retrieving the displays.
Year two (last year) was our first year staging a big show in a public space. Since our gym/cafeteria is used for so many purposes during the day and is also booked for athletic and dance practices in the evening, it wasn't a good idea to display our artwork there. Our hallways have some bulletin display space, but with active, innovative teachers, they're always full of children's writing and poetry, artwork, and science and math project work. Our experience with staging the show at our local Civic Center was a positive one, so we booked the big main room again this year. Only four blocks from our school, the two story "big room" lends itself well to weddings, big meetings, community events, and elementary art shows! The city offices that are there - police, court, and water payment offices result in lots of foot traffic and their facility manager, Mark, has a crew that is adept at setup and take down.
After I looked at the attendance data from last year I realized that having the show in the evening hours, alone, resulted in fairly modest numbers of visitors. We'd also attempted to gain larger crowds by scheduling the show during our annual Dia de los Niños celebration. Instead of bolstering attendance, that split the crowd. A brainstorming session with my specialist team (PE, music, library) started the planning for walking field trips to see the show. Grade levels would make the trek in pairs (K-1, 2-3, 4-5) with lots of adult walkers to help with safety and behavior choices. Our specialist time provides planning time for teachers but after presenting the proposal to the Leadership Team, people were willing to juggle their schedules for the day so that all children and staff could see the show. To help support the goals of my library partner we scheduled a book fair for the evening of the show in the school library.
Perhaps I'll track the amount of time it takes to mount 540 pieces of artwork on black construction paper and convert oral or written artists' statements from each child someday. This year's effort began last June, when the order for 18"x24" black paper went in. The April, 2009 show taught me that gluing enough 12"x18" paper to mount the number of large paintings we had was seriously time consuming so the larger paper size worked great this year. I talked to the students about the show early in September when we decorated our portfolio covers, promising that they'd enjoy the process of choosing a favorite piece when the show came along in the spring. A few children proudly announced, "This one is for the show!" when they finished a particularly satisfying piece of artwork. Others needed to be nudged a bit. Ours is a methodology that focuses more strongly on process than product, so many children prefer to try to "just do one more picture of X" to choosing a piece from further back in the year. After much shuffling of artwork, deep consideration of everything in the portfolios, and only a little bit of BossyArtTeacherStrongArming, works are chosen.
Artists' statements are amazing things. I watch adults and children alike sink into the fascination of listening to the artist's voice in print while their eyes look at the art. Some are tidy lists that highlight process. Others are rambling stories
that beg for more print space. Still others are almost too private - windows into that artist's mind. Younger students dictate their statements and they're dropped straight into a computer template. Older students do their own first draft and submit the statement when the art is submitted for the show. A few find it difficult to talk about their art (hence the earlier reference to pulling teeth) but I politely insist. You won't be there to discuss your work with your viewers. Share just a little about what you were thinking, please. This year's format was two statements: Share something about why you created this piece. Share something about how you made it.
Thank you notes have gone out to the volunteers who gave us their afternoon to help hang the show, to the maintenance men who transported the livestock panels for my display kiosks, and to the facilitator of the room, for being such a pro in how he deals with our wandering art hordes. Data from the surveys I distributed to staff are being collected to help in next year's planning, and the artwork from the 2009-2010 art show is safely posted on refrigerators all over town. Life is good.