Sometimes art is an individual sport. We spend much time quietly inside our own space, planning and thinking and following our ideas to a solitary conclusion. Other times, the synergy that's generated by working side by side simply carries us away. Meet two talented groups of artists: One, kindergarten collaborators at the drawing center on a recent sunny afternoon. It was one of those days where students practically flew to their studios, ideas screaming to get out of their imaginations and onto paper. I like to have a happy buzz of engaged kid noise going in the classroom, and that day's decibel level was close to perfect. Voices were soft enough that the walls didn't vibrate and loud enough that I could follow conversations if I practiced a little selective hearing. When I looked over at the drawing center, all four heads were excitedly bent over paper and pencils. The thread of the conversation was a little too fast for my translation abilities, but I could see the reason for the thrill. A tiny Spiderman was replicating himself on three separate sheets of paper. By the time I moved closer to see, it was no longer possible to tell the difference between the teacher and the disciples. Wide smiles looked up from nearly identical drawings and the joy in their production was almost palpable. We acquire skills in so many ways. One of the best ways is at the elbow of a friend. Today the Spiderman drawings are identical, but soon they'll begin to show signs of individuality soon. It's also the perfect time for me to share some ways to depict tall buildings, since Spidey is so fond of swinging between them. We'll see if the boys are still in full spider mode when they come back to me in a few days.
Exhibit #2 in the collaboration realm is a little different. The large set of unit blocks gets a fair amount of attention from children who love to create all sorts of buildings. When this crew of four third graders (the maximum for the blocks center, since it has to be rolled on and off the carpet between center choosing and cleanup) began to build, nobody noticed anything out of the ordinary. This class gets along together well, yields few behavior issues, and is usually a pleasure in the art studios. Each child has an idea of what he or she wants to do in art each day and it's their "norm" to get right to work. Even though they're my last group of the day, they bring quiet energy and a steady, focused interest to their work.
As our architects began to build, they quietly planned their structures as they chose blocks. Instead of the large, group-built structure we see often, each member of the team began putting together his or her own part of the "city." As they worked, classmates in other studios started to notice how the builders were creating something a little different. With quiet voices and encouragement to the other three, each of the group helped to distribute specific blocks that were needed around the carpet. Passageways were built to connect four separate structures. Excitement built even further as the students realized that by working as a team they'd used every block on the cart. Surveying their city, pride shone on four faces. "Don't you have any more blocks, Ms. J? We're not really finished yet." I offered them a collection of green foam blocks that I'd cut out of upholstery foam and they happily went back to work. As they completed a city wall that nearly encircled their work, one student noticed wistfully, "But there aren't enough to go all the way around." I asked, "What could be the reason it's unfinished?" and another student said, "That's where the ocean meets the city!" The rest of the class applauded the city and recognized the unabashed glee that was being telegraphed by the team. We spent a moment smiling at each other (and taking more pictures, of course) and then it was time for clean up. True to form, the whole class did a great job at that, too.
Collaboration - one essential element of a comprehensive art program.
Earlier in the year, inspired by some posts from the TAB Yahoo list, I borrowed a set of unit blocks from a preschool colleague. I added them to the list of possibilities, attached them loosely to the 3D Construction center, and fabricated some new rules for the kids. I had several goals. One was to observe some of the motor skill development of my students. Many children, particularly those who haven’t had the benefit of formal preschool, haven’t had much experience with heavy wooden blocks. In some cases there are Lego-type toys at home, but the skills of balancing and spatial manipulation are different with stand alone blocks. I wanted to see how children worked together. Much can be learned by listening to the interplay between small groups – who’s dominant, who generates ideas, who is flexible in thinking, etc. Among my goals was my desire to encourage the kind of planning and strategizing that goes into actual building, as well. Architecture is a special art form that is nourished by “doing” just like the other fine arts represented by the mini-studios in our room.
As I looked at the cart with the preschool teacher’s well loved maple blocks stacked in piles, I had a vision of future chaos, complete with maniacal shrieks and flying blocks. We needed something much more thoughtful than the average preschool experience and, hopefully, to create a learning experience a little beyond what we expected from three year olds. Using my best “Walk this way” teacher confidence, I proceeded to outline how these blocks were different from the blocks the students had encountered in daycare or at their cousins’ house.
- These are special architectural blocks. With them you can build anything you can imagine, from castles to schools to parks to rocket ships to undersea cities. We treat them with care.
- Since we’re artists, we like to keep track of our work. To that end, when a structure is complete (as decided by the artists) the teacher will be called over to take a picture with the digital camera so we can have a record of our creations. (Fellow TAB teachers speak of students drawing their creations but we haven’t found time to do that yet – maybe from photos later?)
- Because we’re thoughtful, caring artists, we have a special set of procedures for our block area. Creations may only be built in the center of the rug with walkways left on all sides so that other studio users may move around us. Special care will be taken to place blocks carefully and to take them down deliberately. We don’t want to disturb other artists, after all, and startling the art teacher can be a dangerous thing.
- Since it takes a bit longer to gently re-stack the blocks on the cart, block artists need to start their cleanup when they hear the three minute warning. Ordering and categorizing are skills that improve with practice, too, and there’s a Zen-like feeling in watching the blocks get reassembled a different way each time.
Life was good and the building trades were brisk… until the teacher needed to borrow her blocks back. How could we argue with preschoolers? Blocks are essential on many levels for the little guys, too. Still, we were crushed. Sad. Bereft. Blockless.
Having the blocks gone was important for some conversations, too. I needed to see how important they were to the students, and they let me know in many ways. Several of the most dedicated builders wistfully drew pictures of themselves and the missing blocks and, when I told them that we had found money in the budget to get another set to share, they were thrilled. The new set, dedicated to the art studios, was delivered last week and is happily ensconced at the end of the “meeting place” rug.
Photographic evidence shows some brilliant structures, as well as some satisfied contractors. I love the look of pride on the faces even more than the carefully constructed buildings. I’m intrigued with the way children choose partners with which to build or how some choose to tackle a structure single-handed. There’s something in shared building that makes even unlikely groupings work beautifully.