Art rooms are busy places. For much of the school year, the heartbeat in our studios is a rapid one. Our schedule is set up to support our colleagues' shared planning time as well as their students' fine arts/library/PE needs. Because of that, an entire grade level is with us, albeit all over the building, for their designated specialist time. The pace is intense for lots of good reasons - kids are naturally curious and the wise adult provides LOTS of choices to keep them focused on learning; our standards and benchmarks are comprehensive and detailed so we have to hit the palette running to have half a chance at meeting expectations, and, as is the case in all schools, there just aren't enough hours in the day.
Still, following the sage's advice, "If you want something done, ask a busy person," there are additional tasks that are done "for the good of the order," to celebrate hard work, or, frankly, just to celebrate. What school improvement committee work can't be improved by siting it at a broad studio table surrounded by brilliantly colored child art and accompanied by an obscenely large tote full of chocolate in the center? Is there any day that's too busy to drop what you had in mind for planning time, pack up your French horn, and introduce her to a couple of classes of Mozart-loving second graders? What better activity for a winter teacher conference day - when people are coming and going and an artist might just need to drop buy and......decorate an edible masterpiece? And what about the care and feeding of the most vertebraically gifted inhabitant of the program? We offer public interaction (with a parent permission slip and snake lover hallway pass, of course, and don't you think those are some interesting conversations over the dinner table?) every month or so at feeding time. Sometimes it's just the art club kiddos and me, but Jezebel has a few slightly taller, adult friends, too. A couple of "cases in point:" Mr. E and Ms. B have worked hard on their snake befriending skills over the past two years. Initial reticence has given way to closer interactions, more and more comfort closer to a goal of actually touching Jezebel, and, finally, full contact snaking. I present to you the latest members of the "I don't like all snakes - just this one" club. One set of pictures proudly made the rounds of family and friends and the second set actually had to be printed out in wallet-sized versions so a certain teacher's mother could share with all of *her* friends. I'll let you guess, fair readers.
In my first visit since the new hip debuted just over a week ago, I found the art classroom in yet another metamorphosis - plant hospital and spa. We did surgery on a waterlogged angel-leaf begonia, re-potted several leggy pot poaching types, and watered the collection that's grown into a lovely jungle. Art and kids and plants and kids and animals and kids and cookies and kids and people who like being around kids and kids. Yep. I'm in the right place.
June 17th was the last day of school, for some value of day and some value of school. Just as every beginning is unique, the closing of a school year is remarkable in the way we observe it. Children are simultaneously thrilled at the prospect of a summer filled with time to swim, play with cousins and friends, and to reconnect with their natural clocks (read: younger, bouncier up at 5 am and older making plans to sleep in every morning) and nervous about a summer without the routine and security of school. Passages and cycles are more obvious at certain times of the year, and the conversations that accompany art time tend to be focused upon change.
I do "take down" a little differently each year. Classroom activities vary widely depending on my energy level, the culture of the school in which I'm currently nesting, and the needs of my students and teammates. Some years were notable because of the culture that insisted on a "summer ready" room on the last kid day that was completely ready for custodial attention. Desks were stacked, boxes labeled, and walls were shockingly cleared of any sign of life. Keys were turned in and summer began more or less on time. Later years offered the freedom to experiment a bit. What would it be like to offer children a full 180 days of instruction - to keep the room intact and the schedule of activities in place until the last hour of the last day? If I had the time to take a few days to sort, clean, and store the contents of a classroom (and the custodial schedule wasn't unduly disturbed) I enjoyed a more leisurely leave-taking of the year.
The complexity of a TAB classroom is both its greatest promise and its heaviest time commitment. I began cleaning and packing some of the centers that lend themselves to lengthier artwork a couple of weeks before school ended. Printmaking left first, by virtue of the facts that interest in it had waned a bit, it's one of our messiest efforts, and the table where it lives makes a good staging area for other cleaning efforts. Our 3D construction area went next - kicking and screaming ("But I NEED another spaceship because my brother smushed the other one!" "I'm sure I was still working on something, Ms. Jaime - let me dig through these boxes. I'm sure I'll find it." "Just one more papier mache turtle..... pleeeeeeeeze?") Blocks and fabric arts followed next, by virtue of my need for a little more serenity and my custodian's need for fewer pony beads in the urinals (gravity is an unpredictable force in elementary schools...)
After the fun of taking portfolios home there is still quite a bit of art that's been on display left to return to artists. I had the help of a couple of interesting crews. Some of our most expressive, verbally gifted students who've made peculiar behavior choices aren't eligible for end of the year field trips or huge picnics in the park. Taken away from their usual audiences, however, even confirmed pillpots (that's the technical term) shine in helper roles. They're good at sorting and organizing (with a little bit of bossy teacher direction) and they love delivering artwork to their old teachers. If some of the sticky tac ends up in peculiar places, it's a small price to pay for some energetic legwork and the look on the faces of kids who are rarely their teachers' first choice for helping roles.
The end of the year is special/chaotic/wonderful/insane because of a few other traditions, as well. Western Days offers a chance to wear boots and hats (next year I'm making hobby horses for my specialist partners - I promise!) and to do a bit of dancing at the annual assembly. My musical teammate shoulders the responsibility of staging an annual talent show the last week, too, so we get to help with logistics and support. I take the chance to experiment with the video capabilities of my digital camera and will figure out how to embed short clips in my blog soon.
What's next? Cleaning out, sorting, storing (thanks, recycling fairies!) and getting things ready for my custodial partners to do their annual magic job on our art space. After it's all done, I can get into my files and do some reflection on lessons and systems and plan for next year. Woo hoo!
It's not our art, but our heart that's on display. - Gary Holland
Things I've learned about elementary art shows:
- Start early. No - earlier than that.
- Keep a rich collection in children's portfolios. Don't depend on fabulous work to return once it's escaped to the refrigerator or Grandma's house.
- Estimate the amount of time you'll need to mount the artwork. Now, double it. That's about half the time you'll need to make sure everything is perfect.
- Invite everyone you know. Celebrate the people who came and don't worry about those who couldn't make it. Offer art-related door prizes, drawn from the names of students who attended with their families. Celebrate the class with the most visitors with a colorful ice cream party.
- Take good care of your friends, lovers, and volunteers. You'll need all of their help setting up and tearing down the show.
- Write thank you notes to everyone - the facility manager of the venue you used, the webmaster of the radio outlet who added your show to the community calendar, the newspaper staffer who added your press release to the weekly paper, every volunteer who helped, and every colleague who attended.
- Take lots of pictures.
- Don't get the flu. If you DO decide to get the flu, don't stage it during a swine flu pandemic. (See #4 - double and triple your be good to everyone close habits. All those sweet people will come in handy when Public Health and the school district nurse forbid anyone with flu symptoms from contact with normal [non-art show stagers] until further notice.)
Enjoy. Children's art is glorious, but the collective effect of 500 pieces of kid art will give you goosebumps. Or tears. Or both.
For all grand and glorious efforts, there must be a "this is the first time I've tried this" time. I decided to stage a whole-school show to showcase our kids' art about when started enjoying the collective impact of our hallway displays last year. I started a file with ideas and suggestions before that school year ended and added to it through the summer. The challenge of a venue is tough. Encumbering our gym/cafeteria for two or three days isn't a good choice. My PE partner already has lots of interruptions that take his classroom away and April weather in western Washington is usually too rainy for him to teach comfortably outside. Commandeering the hallways in my school is problematic, too. An important part of instruction at my school is a program called, GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Development.) Bulletin boards in the hallways are filled with colorful examples of children's writings and drawings about their lessons. The school is fairly new so the halls aren't wide enough to accommodate vertical displays and the three "pods" that cap the three hallways, while roomy, are always in use with small groups of children in special interest or intervention groups.
Hmmmm. On the other hand, there's a great space at our small town's city hall. It's an easy walk from our school - about 4 1/2 blocks. I reserved the main room the second week at school and began "talking up" the show to the kids. An art show like this one is a great chance for students to choose a favorite piece of artwork from all the work they've completed throughout the year. The stage was set - if you'll forgive the cliche - and the artmaking continued throughout the year.
The impact of all that child art in one place was amazing. I'd spent a year and a half researching display methods and settled on a combo approach. Some of the work was mounted on the walls, some laid out on long tables, and some was hung on livestock panels that we hooked together in sets of three to stand like vertical kiosks of sorts. It was an crazymaking amount of work and probably contributed to how hard the flu hit me that week. It was interesting in another way, too. We'd rented the whole room but found, when we came to set up, that one wall was covered with Arts Council pieces from professionals and that black curtains carved out a 20 foot, entire width of the room section for the Peninsula Art Association's annual spring show and sale. As it turned out, there was plenty of room for all of us, and the adults were interesting. We had everything from sniffing, look down my nose at children's paltry offerings to smiles on quiet faces that looked at every single piece, reading the artists' statements as the artwork was savored. We didn't have enough attendance from the school but I'll figure out another way to make a run at it next year. The people who did come loved it and the kids who were there were proud to see their work on display. I put together a guest book for people to share comments and left it on the entry table. The written comments were fun to read and supportive, but my favorite adult comment was from my principal, who said, "I loved the artwork, of course, but I lost myself in the artist statements that were attached to each piece. I read those for a solid hour - they're windows into those kids' souls."
My favorite child response was from a brother and sister (K and 4th grade, respectively) who brought every relative in town - totaling 14 people - to stake out their claim to the ice cream party prize for most guests. They didn't win that contest but the special art supplies they won pleased them even more.
As grand first efforts go, I think all of us did a great job.