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.
One of the cool things about teaching/guiding/coaching in a choice classroom is getting the chance to listen to artists at work. I love that low hum (slightly less low in kinder and first grade, of course) of kids who are sharing their thinking and techniques with each other. Here are some recent excerpts:
From the painting center -
- I have to use this special blue really quickly before my mind forgets how to make it.
- How did you make that tree look so happy?
- I made a stupid mistake and if I stare at it long enough I'll be able to see a bush or something – Ms. J. said so. (Gulp – nothing like being quoted...)
- I'm making another house. I'm the expert at making houses, you know.
From fabric arts -
- I invented this new thing – twisted yarn. I think I'll be famous.
- If you don't do the McDonald's arch thing it'll be too tight when you bonk it.
- I wonder if Ms. J. will let me make one of these yarn balls for my cat. Is that art? (I'm certain the cat thinks so.)
- OK, Ms. J. I'm ready to take mine home now. I waited a whole week. (This, from the second grader who still isn't sold on the concept of group pieces.)
From collage -
- This is so cool. I don't think I'll ever run out of weird heads to put on bodies.
- It's my best hat yet – my mom will be so proud of me.
- (After finding a picture of a human heart in a National Geographic) I think I'm going to be sick. Do you think Ms. J. knows this disgusting stuff is in here?
From 3D Construction -
- (from dancing first grader) I can't be quiet, Teacher. I'm just too exciting! (not typo - exact quote) Look how it flies!
- I don't see why there has to be a shake test. I NEVER shake my toys.
- This bedroom is perfect. See? No little brothers. Anywhere.
The tone of their conversation is almost always gentle and supportive. I've only had two or three “He insulted my art!” comments in a whole year. Something about having the space and time to design and create lends itself to fairly deep conversations. They share everything. I hear specifics on how to make prickly trees to the rules of stylized flowers. Once in a while, a child will say, “Hey – you're copying my ___” only to be answered from someone else in the studio who says, “Yeah – you're teaching it to her.” or “It's OK – we all learn new stuff this way.” I have to avoid doing cartwheels of joy - the ambulance calls would be cost prohibitive.
The concept of child as content area specialist intrigues them, too. I have one intensely quiet second grade girl who is the acknowledged “Ojo de dios” expert in her class. Other children have seen her work and go to her for techniques. Getting the winding pattern of an ojo isn't simple, and many seven year olds aren't ready for it yet, so her expertise is special. She's proud of it, too, and beams when kids ask her to share how she does it.
I believe that the depth of these conversations reflects the deep learning that is going on. They also reflect what happens in their regular classrooms. Many teachers here at Evergreen Elementary are masters at group processes. The Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) emphasizes conversations between children as they discuss their learning. Teachers “front load” vocabulary and enrich lessons with detailed, labeled drawings, and a general tone of sharing knowledge is the norm. It's cool stuff, and if you get a chance to see a GLAD classroom in full swing – take it.
Kidspeak - catch some now in a classroom near you!