So...... what are the underpinnings of this method of teaching art? We call it "Teaching for Artistic Behavior." Identifying just what those behaviors are is an important part of setting up the studios for our work. We spend lots of time, especially when a new studio is set up, talking about what artists do there and how to use, clean, and store the tools that are specific to that media. With nearly 500 students using the studios over the course of our eight day rotation, the logistics of keeping things in order is important shared work.
As important as organization is, though, other artistic traits are just as essential for successful learning. The physical mindfulness is the bedrock upon which we base the rest of our exploration. "Doing" art the way that studio artists do is very physical but includes many cognitive processes, too. What are the behaviors that we cultivate in our art journey? How will we know them when we see them? This post is intended to be the first in a series that will give you a picture of the specific trait that make our studio experience so rich. Knowing the author as well as I do, it's likely that we'll do a little birdwalking along the way, but that's how learning works.
Persistence is important to artists because of the way we learn. Children are instinctive artists and those of us who are fortunate enough to spend our days with them appreciate the attitudes they bring to their art. Following a project through to its natural conclusion might result in a product of some sort - like Jose's giant black whale that's crafted from several scissor-cut pieces of black construction paper.
Persistence also shows up in other kinds of mindful practice that young artists choose. I was a little worried about the kindergärtner who slowly and purposefully filled an entire 11x14 sheet of white paper with black watercolor strokes. When I asked her about her painting she said, "I like the shine before it dries." When I nodded to show I understood, she added, "And I'm practicing my outlines." A volunteer confided that she takes all the black pots out of the watercolor sets in her kindergarten Sunday school class. I pondered doing the same thing for a short time and decided that painters needed to see what a large puddle of black looked like. It's along this pathway that shades of gray are discovered, too, both in the rinse water as it darkens and on paper when the pigment is diluted to just a whisper of color. Many painters spend whole sessions mixing, painting, and re-mixing colors. One question that is guaranteed to *never* receive an adult answer is, "What do I mix to get ____?" (Insert color here.) Even if one of the three primaries is the color in the blank, I always try to ask, "What will you need to find out?" Yes - color wheels are available, as is a gorgeous hard-board copy of Mouse Paint, so there are a few other ways to get the information, but oftentimes the advice from a peer - cross checked with appropriate puddles of paint - is more valuable than the words of an adult.
Persistence shows up in the folder of a child who's in the middle of a grand project of collecting as many magazine photos of baby heads. "I'm going to make a collage, Ms. J. All these babies will be smiling, I think. I don't know why they don't take pictures of babies when they cry, which is most of the time." Good question. Unhappy babies don't sell disposable diapers?
Persistence shows up in the patient practice of a favorite car shape, repeated renditions of faerie queens in long, flowing dresses, and the fifth pony bead bracelet in a series. ("Today is the day for green, Ms. J. It's my mom's favorite color.")
Among my colleagues at Evergreen are several masters of the "laying down good habits early in the year results in increased success in everything later" mode of teaching. I have watched the magic these folks create for years in many settings. Their classroom footprint and choice of grade level vary widely but they share a few traits that I love to implement. I hear softened voices - deliberately lower so that high, pipey voices have to get quieter to hear. I see patient smiles and hear gentle requests, always followed by specific praise given to children who are sitting and listening, sharing their space gently, or simply doing what the teacher needs to see. Many of my she/heroes use music to impart instructions, too. Who can miss a direction when it arrives in the form of Old MacDonald sung softly?
My challenge: Design ways for up to 25 five year old artists to explore media (translation: splash paint, pummel clay, print on everything that moves, and collage with the enthusiasm only a short person can muster) simultaneously. Added difficulty - sometimes there will be a talented volunteer but most classes will just be kinderpeople and me. Additional challenge - add all the Spanish language art and behavior vocabulary so lessons can be understood by 50% of the children who are still monolingual in that tongue. Little ones are happy to help me when I find holes in my fluency, so that's another joy.
Late October found us beginning to look like "big kids" as we could listen a little, get our materials (mostly) gathered together at cleanup time ("Listen to my marker click, Art Teacher!") and, sometimes, even stop "arting" when it was time to go back to our classrooms. It was time. We'd been talking about almost being ready for big kid centers for quite a while and it was time to split into groups and get to it! First we practiced standing around the mini-studios with ears wide open, eyes on the teacher person, and hands in pockets. I demonstrated how "big kids" write their names on both sides of their papers. Then we see how to use watercolor brushes (a wise TAB colleague suggested telling children to paint as gently as one would stroke a butterfly wing) to hydrate the paint and lay it gently on paper. We all watched (voice still low with lots of drama - reality TV has nothing on me!) as I carefully rinsed my brush and changed colors. We seriously re-placed our hands in pockets (odd, how they escape) and moved to the drawing center for more big kid information.
The drawing center is full of all sorts of wonderfullness. THIS is where you find the markers, crayon pastels, a zillion pencils, and everyone's favorite - the melted crayon trays. Safety is crucial around the trays. Children watch as I show them the hard plastic sides of the trays (old warming trays from the thrift stores) that are safe to touch. We practice licking fingers that are too hot and blowing on them to cool them off. The extra safety precautions are well worth the intensity of bright, melted wax in the children's pictures. They all love the feel of the heated colors as they flow onto the heavy construction paper.
Hands firmly replaced in pockets, we move to the print center. Bright, curious eyes take in every detail and dart to take in the all important tools: paper, stamps, sponges, paint-covered sheets of acrylic, and brayers to spread our ink (thinned tempera... shhhhh.) Independence is important to all artists, and these are no exception. They watched as I squeezed open a large clip and showed them how to hang their prints to dry.
The teacher noise at the small clay center is blissfully minimal. Children are intuitive sculptors and the moist balls of gray clay call to them. They need nothing more than time, a table, and lots of clay with which to explore. There will be time later in the year to talk about joining, planning for thickness, and how to create things that will survive firing. For today, though, we'll just share the fun of clay with our friends.
Collage needs little explanation. We've practiced lots of the techniques we'll use as we've practiced following directions and gotten lots of practice with cutting and gluing. I showed them where their favorite colored paper scraps are and we reminded ourselves where we can find scissors, glue sticks, markers and colors, and fancy papers. Let the flurry of cutting begin!
Back on the rug, sitting "criss-cross," we gleefully receive our studio assignments for the day and literally fly to get to work. Kinderart - the most powerful force on the planet!
It's an amazing thing. The art teacher goes to the restaurant supply store, comes away with a thousand white paper bags (two sizes - one about kid lunch size and one a little smaller - just because) and whips one out in front of a group of short artists. I cheat a little, inserting my hand in such a way as to make a mouth of the folds with my fingers and ask in a theatrical, stage-whispery voice, "Whisper what you think of when you see a bag like this." Nearly every voice responds, "Puppets!" One literal child whispered, "Lunch" and another added, "Halloween candy!" but we have room for diverse opinions. There follows a brisk discussion about what kinds of figures make good puppets. Godzilla, my sister, dogs, cats, alligators, frogs, monsters are immediately offered up.
We stop for the obligatory "Remember - you have lots of choices to make and we don't want to make anything that will frighten a small child, make your grandmother break out in hives, or get the art teacher fired." and go on.
Nearly everyone dives in. As soon as we talk about how many different tools are available to make puppets with, kids split off into drawing, painting, collage, and 3D construction and go to it. I realize that my gentle admonition to choose scrap paper (we have a small mountain of it - ANYthing is possible with this many choices...) is being ignored. Nothing brings out the environmentalist in me more than a giant (all things are relative) green sheet of construction paper with two tiny eyeballs cut out of the center.
I growl softly, quietly put the whole sheets somewhere safe from hungry scissors, and watch as the kids start to use their imaginations AND the scraps. Yea!
What puppets are born? I'm astounded at the diversity that comes from these imaginations. We have alligators, kittens, little sisters, grandmothers, pigs, cows, horses, frogs, dragons, giant insects with movable mouth parts, robots, butterflies, video game characters (sigh), devils, angels, snakes, birds, and several critters that simply defy description.
It's been a great week. and the best part? Several of my third graders have returned to ask for additional bags - they're putting together puppet shows to perform for each other in their regular classes. They're excited and having a great time and their teachers just smile. Busy, engaged kids make for a great last week of school.