An artist's inspiration is an interesting thing. Fragile sometimes, it flits in and out of our thoughts and we struggle to shut out competing interests so that we can focus on its creation. Other times it's as subtle as a sledge hammer, taking over all thought until we get something splashed onto paper. Alejandro came into class today in the throes of the second type of event. We had barely chosen centers when he came to me to tell me he needed pirates - fast. His hands flew around his face as he described, mostly in Spanish, the battle he could see between sailing ships. One hand swooped in the waves as the pirate ship while the second hand fluttered up on the mast in the form of the Jolly Rodger. His third hand (first graders have those, you know...) was the wind and the action, and, probably, the musical score only he heard in his head. He pointed to the computer on my desk and politely asked for a picture, please. I smiled at his faith in Google images and his art teacher and reminded him that we'd found a great picture of a sailing ship that we added to the Idea Book in the drawing center the last time his class was with me. His eyes changed a little, and I watched him remember that ship and compare it to his mental image. His serious face was deep in thought and he nodded and headed off to find the binder with the picture of the ship.
Sure enough, a full fleet of pirate ships sailed across the drawing table by the end of the class period. My first graders aren't into delayed gratification, so most drawings have to go home TODAY, but Alejandro's sketches hit his folder. They'll sit there, percolating quietly, until he comes back to me again. In the meantime, who knows where his interests will fly - sharks and monkeys came up in conversation before pirates captured his imagination.
We are such creatures of habit. When children come into Evergreen's art classroom, no matter how they were lined up by their teacher, they inevitably sit in their favorite place on our burgundy (most days – this IS an art room, after all) rug. Chances are good that the same peers who flanked them the last time they were here are in the same places, too. Teachers and other life forms exhibit the same behavior. Next time you're at a meeting, in a class, sitting in the library, or at your favorite restaurant, look around. Yep. Familiarity is important to us.
Repeating behavior isn't simply comfortable for us, but is central to many teaching and learning premises. We value practice and reward repetition with adult bobble-headed nods and praise. It simply works well for all sorts of things: learning to walk, jumping rope, drawing stick figures, forming cursive letters, making tortillas, writing computer code, and knitting. Even a skill like driving a stick shift takes repeated motions that, once familiar, become more or less automatic. Such is our dependence on schema.
In a TAB/Choice classroom, there is plenty of opportunity to explore comfy schemes at great length. I'm reminded of three fourth grade boys who are still enjoying pencil sketches of action figures on thin paper. After adding details that give clues to their powers (it's dangerous for an old person to attempt to interpret anything that's cartoon or video game-based, but I keep foolishly wading in) they cut them out and share/trade/fly them around the room and draw worlds on more white paper for them to inhabit.
I have a confirmed crew of Ojo de dios makers who love playing with color variation and are proud of their ability to teach related skills to other kids in their class. They report construction of biggerbettercooler models at home and tell stories of dragging unsuspecting grandmothers to the store for yarn and craft sticks. I smiled at one brought from home (BFH) creation. A loving dad with tools had used pliers to stabilize some eight or nine inch alder twigs with heavy gauge wire so his third grader could craft her own ojo.
Familiar schemes are often evident in the painting center. Whole generations of children learn that a Proper Painting of a landscape begins with a blue line at the top of the page to represent sky and a green line at the bottom to represent earth. Before exposure to coercion (read: mini lessons on other possibilities) I can predict the squareboxhousewithchimneytwocurtainedwindows and obglitory sun, trapped high in the corner. Symbolism is a great way to practice using art tools, and it's developmentally appropriate to follow predictable stages on the way to other expressions.
So here we are, comfortably sitting in our same places on the rug, and the art teacher suddenly asks, “What's easiest for you in art? What's the most difficult thing you've seen a classmate do in here? Which center is most familiar for you? How about the opposite?” Then, in classic Evil Adult style, I casually tell the assembled short artists that I'm going to exercise my old wrinkly lady prerogative and insist that they “branch out” to Something New.
Sure enough, the fifth grade sketching phenom quietly admitted to me that he didn't remember how to make basic paper weaving work. We reviewed the process and he industriously worked on a simple creation so that he could do a more complex pattern like one of the hanging displays next time he returned to the studio.
After ___ (name a large number) cardboard binocular/camera creations, a third grade pair who loves to work together confessed to other members of the painting center that they didn't know where the large white painting paper was. I wasn't surprised when they asked if they could roll their paintings into spy glasses, but I did encourage them to think of some nifty PAINTED ideas of someone using said spyglasses before they rolled the paper. Sure enough, some outrageously colorful pirates and large sailing ships ensued.
Perhaps it's a good focus for spring. In addition to some necessary spring cleaning (is that pile of cardboard for the construction center multiplying in the night or what???) we'll sweep out a couple of comfortable ways of creating art and latch onto a new technique or two. Let the mini-lessons continue!!!