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.
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.
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!