As this new school year is getting started, Mrs. Shemansky and I are finding ourselves so busy every day with tasks that range from the mundane (attendance) to the idealistic (teaching our kids to express their ideas and make connections with people and projects from around the world!!). I think I can speak for us both when I say that there is not a minute in our day that we are idle. So when a student asked me the other day, ‘Do you only teach art?’ I saw this big opportunity to tell her everything I do that is art but is so much more than art. Unfortunately, after a long pause, I said, ‘yes’. I wasn’t prepared to put everything I do into words- let alone a few really well crafted words that a polite response would entail (I’m sure she didn’t want a dissertation on everything I think I do all day). But I knew right then that I had to do some serious thinking about this so that next time I’m asked what I teach I have a better answer.
It’s not all about art.
First and foremost we are here to provide students with a space to learn and talk about their art. We give them a vocabulary to use that allows them to see art in a more knowledgeable way. For example, in our Zentangle project we talk about positive vs. negative space in an artwork, and we ask kids to focus on the negative (empty) space. This is actually harder for many kids than you’d think! They are so trained from experience to focus on what’s there that when you ask them to ignore that and focus on what’s not there they sometimes look like little owls with their large, blinking eyes, wondering what this crazy lady is asking them to do.
But isn’t this a skill that we should teach? In all areas of life, to truly understand a situation or encounter shouldn’t we pay attention to what’s not there? When you tell me a story but leave out a key detail, am I not better off if I can recognize that you left something out? Did you do it on purpose? Why?
Every project teaches skills that can be applied to another subject or part of life. Every. Single. One.
I was once in an interview and I was asked what I would say to a school board member if asked why the arts were important and should not be cut. The answer I gave was out of my heart, and not off of a website, and it was this: Art is the only class in which you are rewarded for being different than anyone else. When your answer to a problem is completely different than any other student’s answer then you are thinking creatively, and we actively seek this skill. In math you are correct when your answer follows the prescribed formula for that problem, and when your answer is exactly the same as your teacher’s answer.
In art, if a student turns in something that looks like what I did, I ask them to try again and show me something I haven’t seen before. Johnny art student doesn’t have to be ‘good’ at art to share an idea that is unlike those of his classmates. He has to work his creative muscles and do some thinking, which is a good thing no matter who or what you are.
Make it, take it
Nobody ever got good at something without getting a little help along the way. Each kiddo comes into the art room with some ability to draw, and some ability to see. We take them and ask them to put their skills on paper, which is hard for some kids to do. When they put that pencil to the paper they are exposing a part of themselves that they may not be comfortable with sharing. Sure, some kids love to draw and do so proudly. But some kids aren’t so sure, and it’s hard to hide from a fear of exposing your weaknesses when I’m asking you to put them on paper and sit behind that paper for all to see.
Beyond that challenge, I ask kids to look at the artwork being done around them and critique it. Ouch! Now, not only have I had to bare my soul on paper, but this kid I don’t even know is looking at it and commenting on it. This is hard. This is not a skill we are born with- the ability to open ourselves up to the prying eyes of people around us and hear what they think about what we do. But it’s a skill we have to teach early and continue to foster as kids grow, that ability to put yourself out there and accept constructive criticism. Because ready or not, it’s coming their way. In school, at work, at home, wherever they go they will do better if they can accept a suggestion and not take it to heart.
I’m still working on this skill!
To be continued….
As the school year continues I will continue to reflect and post about what we teach. Reflection…..another skill we work on in the art room…..but I’ll save that for later!