Tag Archives: Art Education

The Power of Reflection

This week I was awed by a shared storytelling experience hosted by the Salvation Army in Chattanooga. In A Walk in My Shoes, the stories of local people, many of them homeless, are shared and retold by actors and storytellers. This summary doesn’t really do justice to what the program accomplishes. Here is a link to a short video about the project:

If you see it, you should know that the man featured in the video is no longer homeless and he attributes this project, in part, for how far he’s come.

As an art educator, what struck me as I listened to Ms. Dye describe the work was that this is an exercise in learning and growing by externalizing our experiences and reflecting on them critically in a shared safe space. I don’t say safe in the sense of easy, but in the sense that we can look on our own experiences and choices externally with others who look with us at the experiences rather than at us.

I kept having flashbacks of very uncomfortable critiques of my artwork in my early years of college. I had to listen to all that was wrong with a given piece that I had not done so well and then share in the criticism.

I hear people say that we need to learn from our failures and provide situations where it is ok for learners to fail. I agree. But I agree in the sense that we need to provide opportunities for learners to REFLECT on their failures, their successes, and even those experiences beyond their control. I feel strongly that no work of art is complete until the maker has viewed it and reflected on it. Without response, the creative process is incomplete. And for students, that process needs to be facilitated.

The most profound things we can do sometimes are to talk with each other about our challenges, the snags and failures and difficulties we have overcome or been overcome by. I cannot think of any place in school or elsewhere that provides those conversations better than learning in the arts.

Why educate?

Student Art ExhibitI am occasionally asked what I think about this educational issue or that, and I can very easily rant upon my soapbox about any and all of them. But what strikes me about many of the arguments we have about how best to educate or who should do the educating come down to very different ideas about the primary purpose of education.

Lately, it seems, the whole job of schools is to produce people who can make money and grow the economy.

In the past, it was about instilling our children with a common cultural identity (sometimes by destroying the ones they already had).

Some among us have even argued that for a democratic society to function well requires a well-informed citizenry.

There are strengths to all of these, depending on how they are implemented. The problem we face is that in this country we tend to latch onto one idea and spout about it as the only thing that matters. Lately educational policy has been pushed toward functional literacy and numeracy with the idea that schools are factories for producing workers for American businesses. I don’t entirely disagree with the premise that preparation for the workforce is one function of education, but if it is the only thing we consider, then there is no room for anything that does not directly show an economic benefit. Is the quality of a human being merely the amount of money they can earn? Is, then, the highest of human achievements membership on a Fortune list of the wealthiest muckity mucks?

Before we can really have a conversation about how we educate, we need to have a clearer agreement about WHY. Our why determines what we teach (and don’t), how we teach it, and what gets the most time and energy in a world where time and energy are finite resources.

So the next time you read an article about teacher quality or standardized tests or changing standards ask yourself, “Why are we doing this?” and “Is this getting us what we need from education?”


Blessings & Curses

Concept Art - EnvironmentThe really exciting thing about technology is how inexpensive and available many processes are to us in the classroom.

The really terrifying thing about technology is the massive amount of stuff we have available to us and the expectation that in addition to the processes we’ve already become comfortable teaching, the things we were taught to do, we must engage in things that we do not feel fully prepared to take on.

We are faced with questions like:

What is art now?  What does it mean to be an artists and what skills do artists need?

How do the answers to these questions change the choices I make in materials, time spent, and learning experiences for my students?

These aren’t just questions for higher ed or high school.  If the nature of the field has changed, and the skills needed have changed, then the way we teach and what we emphasize changes all the way back to kindergarten.

Yes.  Composition is still composition.  Drawing is still drawing.  These are things that I think will always be foundational.  But we can’t prepare students for art in the 21st century and beyond by only providing them with the tools of the 20th century and before.

I confess that I am conflicted about this.  There is no question of whether this process or that is valuable.  They all are.  The challenge is, given limited time and resources, where do we place or emphasis?

It’s all about the stuff.

Student Collage

Each discipline has its own pleasures and pains.  Dancers have the joy and simplicity of using only their bodies as the medium of their work, while bearing the burden of a need for constant maintenance and discipline of that tool.  Visual art is necessarily material in nature.  Even art created digitally requires the artist’s physical interaction with keyboards, mice, graphics tablets, screens, etc.  We have the joy of messing with STUFF – our interaction with the world is visual and haptic.  We are the children who terrified our parents in places with fragile and expensive merchandise.

But this handling and manipulating comes at a price.  To teach art is to share this joy of creating with students, but every day is a process of design and construction followed by cleaning and redesigning.  A friend and former teacher once told me that half of his job was custodial work.  In my own career I have spent hours washing paint out of ice trays with a water hose behind the school, collected enough paper scraps to repopulate the thinned forests of South America, and spent countless hours cutting, collating, folding, tearing, arranging, etc. etc. etc.

Every day is like a dinner party.  You spend hours getting ready so that some people you like will come and enjoy what you have made.  Then they go away and leave you to clean up the mess.

Ocean Habitat-1I just finished working with a great group of second graders on a series of lessons that involved making little habitat installations.  We built forms out of paper bags and masking tape, covered them in papier mache, painted them to suit a variety of habitats and added bodies of water, created vegetation with paper sculpture, then populated the habitats with animals modeled out of clay or model magic.  The results are really nice, but it’s easy not to realize that for every hour I spent with the classes, at least two happened outside of class.

The products demonstrated students’ understanding of the habitats they had researched, but just as important was their exploration of the different kinds of materials we dealt with, and from my perspective in my role here at the university it was an opportunity to give that experience to a group of second grade classroom teachers as well.  These four ladies took up that challenge quite well.

DSC08091Now the project is complete.  I did a little repair work yesterday on a few animals who needed surgery, and today, I’m heading over to take photos of the completed works.  The really daunting part now is re-organizing my supplies in the aftermath of the project.  The dishes are in the sink.  Now I have to roll up my sleeves and get to work.