Breaking Rules

Contemplating impending retirement, I revisit works of art created by so many students over the years. What a complete joy and privilege to nurture and witness creativity unfolding. Even after all these years, I wonder at the creative process. It is a dance, the partners, freedom and restriction, taking turns leading the steps, sometimes in sync, sometimes out of step completely. Art projects, in a classroom environment, are like problem sets for critical thinking. The teacher's role is to pose a question, provide some tools and skills, then step back and let it all happen. MUCH easier said than done, to be sure! My favorite admonishment to students, given after project instructions and usually with a wink: "Rules (in the art room) are meant to be broken." 
Over the years, I have discovered that the richest creative moments and art experiences both in the classroom and in my own studio occur when rules are broken either accidentally or intentionally. Nurturing the capacity for students to create, follow and BREAK their own rules is true teaching, far more an art than a science.

Handy Work

It's intensely satisfying to make things with my hands: pie dough, needle point, pencil drawing, painting a wall or a canvas, it makes no difference to me. Most of my students, too, enjoy doing things with their hands: things with yarn like finger knitting, cat's cradle, friendship bracelets. Some kids love to sit at their desk flipping those little skate boards, finger decks, drives me crazy. I toss them in my bottom drawer and give them back after school, so then they bend their id's into finger decks and flip those - they don't make as much noise, so I ignore it. Toys are forgotten anyway once the fun art materials come out. Most kids love playing in clay, and mention finger painting and the class goes nuts.
There's always a kid or two who can't stand getting their hands dirty. Sometimes its a sensory overload for them, a special need they deal with, sometimes they're just very tidy kids. Surgical gloves come in handy.....except some kid always fills them up at the sink...you just have to laugh and keep a mop at hand. 


Who Knows....

what fun and silly art you will get when you hand kids a hunk of clay and suggest they make a nose? Here are the noses created by my awesome art students at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp.
And here are some Nosy Bust Up projects created with chicken wire, ceramic noses and spray paint. Pretty fun!


Head Down, Hoody Up

Head down, hoody up - That's how some middle school students enter the art room on the first day of class. This is NOT where they want to be; what they want to be doing. Sleeping, music, texting, gaming, maybe even reading a good book are all preferable activities. Art class is scary, the potential for leakage of authentic self, great.

First day of school: I will station myself in the hallway, greet and smile, exchange a few hugs with returning students, try for eye contact with the newbies - so hard to reach into, beyond the lacquered shell of young teens. We'll get there, step by tiny step.

Backward portraits are a way to save face for this perpetually embarrassed age group. So is lots of choice within limits. "Freedom is moving easy in harness." I've always loved that quotation despite having to write a timed Senior Essay about it some 35 year ago....

Technology will help me increase options. Have a friend snap your own rear-view portrait and work from your phone or class iPad, or have a friend pose and create a portrait of someone else which feels safer....unless you have to pose.

But when it's all done and up, the pride and fun as we identify who's who, artist and model. After all, everyone likes a little positive attention, even if eye contact is still a challenge.


Art Style and Art Movement

A head and shoulders portrait of a thirty something man, with a red beard, facing to the leftUnderstanding  and describing artist's unique styles is really challenging for middle school students. Today students looked at a work by Vincent Van Gogh and we discussed the unique way in which he used line, color and texture. These elements are pretty easy to discern. But then we discussed the way in which he divides space across the picture plain. That's when things got a little complicated. We muddled our way through together only to end up with confusion once students were tackling these ideas in their groups.
That's kind of how learning goes. Order is replaced with chaos when new learning upsets the 'working model." Then, for a time there is comfort in stasis, only to experience chaos again with new learning. 


Working Together for MLK's DREAM

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr and in celebration of Black History Month art students at my middle school and a neighboring school district worked together during February to create art. My friend and fellow art teacher, Holly Lampen,  received a grant to support this project and generously invited my students and me to join her in this creative effort. Hundreds of kids at our respective schools painted designs in individual squares on two canvases. The warm and cool toned squares spell out MLK’s iconic word: “DREAM.” Each school is working on two of the large canvases. The schools will soon trade one half of the work of art so that the final work on display at each school will represent the collaborative effort of Wildcats and Pioneers joining together to make art. Thank you, Holly, for the inspired project!


Color Theory: Hands-On Practice

You're never too old to finger paint, or, in this case, paint by hand! Students had a blast today covering sketchbooks with multi-hued hand prints. I over heard one young man say, "Haven't done that in a few years." In answer, another boy replied, laughing, "I've NEVER done THAT!"
We sometimes forget that not all children come from homes or backgrounds where they have the joy of just playing with paint or nice colored pencils, or even making mud pies in the back yard.
There was a fun twist to this "beginning of the term" activity which required groups to work collaboratively to accomplish the task of covering their sketchbooks with hand prints in primary, secondary and dark and light hues - 8 colors in all. Each group  had five small tubs containing one color of tempera paint: red, yellow and blue, as well as black and white. Each group member took charge of one color. They spread it on their palms and delivered prints to group members' sketchbooks. Then the real fun began as they gently 'high-fived' a classmate, giving palms a little back and forth twist, to create the secondaries as well as at least one light and one dark value of color. They knew they wouldn't be allowed to wash their hands until they were done, so it took some careful planning and coordination.
It was so fun to listen to the kids as they discovered and named the colors they created. There were some surprises such as the 'army' green which resulted from mixing black and yellow tempera. Tomorrow's Art Start questions: Why did black and yellow create a dark green? What does this tell us about the particular black paint we used? What IS black, anyway?


Process vs Product

I've been thinking a lot about the art making process versus the creation of art product. Bulletin board displays of student work may display the fruit of my teaching labors but do not always represent the great learning that takes place.
Separating my ego from the quality of art on display is not always easy. Let's face it, some artwork produced can be fairly devoid of visual interest, for all but the loving parent at home, yet I know student artists engaged and struggled and came out the other end with an acceptance of new ideas and ways of thinking.
Yes, there are a myriad art projects available on-line that will result in 100% cool-looking objects, but this canned approach to art making isn't really for me. I also don't like to sort out the "best" work to exhibit.
Sometimes, I just hand the staplers to my students and have them plaster the hallways with their work. They love it and it saves me a lot of time. However, it may be best not to try this display approach if you and/or your site administrator are perfectionists!


Art Stations

I've experimented with using Art Stations -what we used to call "centers" in elementary school-  this fall as a way to engage middle school students by giving them opportunities to make choices and work with friends. The first go around back in September was definitely a fun way to run class. The kids loved the freedom of moving from station to station at their own pace. However, it wasn't the most expedient way to reach my learning targets for the unit. Keeping track of learning targets and student achievement was difficult without adding more testing- something I am loath to do in the art room.

 So, for the second go around with the next unit I improved the system of checking student understanding after each station. However, it took both my student teacher and myself to keep up with the larger classes. I won't have that luxury in a few weeks when my student teacher moves on.

For the third go around I built the 'assessment' into a more rigorous set of expectations for the artistic end-product and also added a quiz: three questions, short written answer. This helps me meet common core literacy objectives. It was apparent from the quiz and the artwork who 'got it' and who didn't. Now, I just have to figure out what I'm going to do about the students who didn't do well on the quiz.

My basic philosophy of teaching and learning is that every kid can have an "A" if they want it. I see no issue with allowing endless re-do's except, of course, the obvious constraints of time and energy!


Ceramic Pendants

 Students learned about the Elements of Art by studying ancient symbols. I added two ipads to my classroom tools, much to the delight of my students. They found thousands of symbols online at www.symbols.com. A really cool site that allows the user to search symbols in a variety of ways, from the visual attributes to the meanings.
During a week of station work students rotated through six activities exploring signs, symbols and designs through a variety of media such as colored pencil, India ink, oil pastel and tempera paint.
They loved the freedom of moving through the stations at their own pace, working with friends and trying out different media. It was a fun, relaxed time that allowed my student teacher and me to really get to know our students as we had time to talk to individuals and small groups.

After station work the unit culminated with everyone creating several pendants in clay. One could be a modern, everyday symbol and one pendant needed to incorporate an ancient symbol into the overall design. We cut shapes from slabs, allowed them to dry to leather-hard, then carved designs into the clay. A very fun process!
We decided to paint the pendants in acrylic paint rather than glaze as this allowed the students greater control of color and detail.
I was amazed that these 7th and 8th graders, boys and girls alike, enjoyed stringing and beading and walked out of the classroom wearing their pendants! who would have thought this could be cool!


How Is A Work of Art Like a Toaster?

Wow, made it through another First-Week-Of-School! I love my students. These young teens are so talkative and yet so mute. So, so awkward and yet so sure of themselves. So cool and yet fun and funny. On Thursday we made toast and talked about how a work of art is like a toaster: when all the elements are functioning well the out-come is a complete experience like a a lovely, piece of buttered toast. This silly opening activity was a fun way to introduce the Elements of Art: line, shape, form, space, color and texture.

Breaking Bread together is a time honored tradition of connecting with others. A not so traditional ice breaker activity this week that helped us cool down while building bonds was an ice melting relay race. I gave each table group of 4-5 students an ice cube. The winning group melted their cube first. Such a simple and silly activity. We do not have air conditioning and it was a stifling 90 degrees in the art room with humidity to match. This was a very popular activity that left me with clean art tables!

Breaking Rules

C ontemplating impending retirement, I revisit works of art created by so many students over the years. What a complete joy and privilege ...