If you ask high school students what they think the requirements for original artwork are, chances are that you'll get some version of the artist-as-genius argument. Original art, this line of thinking follows, is totally unique and has never been seen before.
When I have this conversation with my Art 1 students, I say sure, like Picasso.
Yes, they agree, because he's one of the artists most of them have heard of.
I go on to talk about how he played a central role in developing a new way of depicting images - cubism - and revolutionized the western art word.
Totally innovative - except for the fact that breaking objects into geometric shapes wasn't new - artists from around the world had been doing it since forever.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, by Picasso, and a statue from the Vili people pf central Africa, which was owned by Matisse. This work had a huge impact on 24 year old Picasso. Read here for more in depth information.
Picasso genius wasn't in creating something totally new, it was in combining inspiration drawn from other artistic traditions with his own knowledge. This idea of originality, as something approachable that we can all do, is what my students need.
We try this out in a short group exercise. I share a list of some ways to remix the familiar, including juxtaposition, changing a fundamental element, the addition of text and using unexpected media, then show some Dorina Lynde and some Yung Jake.
Next, I share a list of iconic artworks, and challenge groups to use digital media to reimagine one. They have around 30 minutes to create before presenting what they make to the class. They run with it (see student work below) using some apps I've heard of, but others I haven't. I've taught this lesson before, but this is the first time I've required digital media. It makes for a much better experience, because it requires students to consider the art-making potential of technology they use everyday, plus the ease in which these images can be created is very conducive to the sort of play that gives the images below life.
I love this art-making experience because it challenges kids to think about what originality really means, as well as to examine the creative potential of digital tools as they create with images that are culturally relevant to them as individuals. It creates the perfect reference point for the first time someone wants to copy an image from Pinterest or draw copyrighted material.
Plus, it's fun.
Like many art teachers, I feel like I should teach a set of skills that haven't changed much since the Renaissance and I start with those. My thinking has been to "build a foundation to support choice". That foundation, I've slowly realized, doesn't support what I think it does. Instead, it reinforces outdated notions about what makes art worthwhile. Also, the skills I feel pressured to focus on show a western art centered bias - one I'd like to think I don't have.
El Anatsui, Lines that Link Humanity - literally made out of discarded bottle caps.
This is art, I say on the first day. We play an awesome, creative, stimulating game. My class seems fun, they think - then they come in the second day and start with drawing or painting Bootcamp. These are well designed experiences, and most kids enjoy them, but they reinforce an understanding that's probably been building since they first walked into an art room (unless they got lucky and had a TAB teacher) - that realistic art is good and their value as an artist is directly related to their ability to render.
This message is the exact opposite from what they need to hear.
What I need to show them, with what I teach as well as my actions and words, is that everyone can make successful art, that good art is as varied as the individual humans that make it and that they - each and every one - have something important to say.
Just getting started: working with wind, collage and exploring clay technique.
So, this year we aren't drawing until well into October.
The class started with kinetic sculptures. then moved to collage and now clay. As a high school level beginning art teacher, I have to start with a media overview, and and these are all open-ended explorations that have multiple avenues to success. I'll teach a variety of drawing and painting processes this year in a similar format, but I'll do it later, when my kids have started to all see themselves as successful artists.
As for any skill I feel like I "need" to teach, I'll reflect on these words, shared with me by Stacy:
"If someone says to you, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” Ask yourself, whose rule is that? And, how has that rule served to silence those who don’t fit the dominant paradigm?…Standards were developed by people. By sincere people reflecting their best understanding of the arts and culture at that time. Times change. It is our job as contemporary artist educators to teach the most useful, complex, artistically sophisticated version of art education that we can now imagine."
- Olivia Gude, Meaningful Making: Why We Need New School Art Styles
Here's to a year of amplifying student voices and making rules that best fit their needs.
There is a pervasive preference in art education for realism. This school year I'm taking steps to end it in my classroom.
I only recently realized how the choices we make as a teachers communicate to students that representational work is better. I noticed, again and again, kids in my classes with the attitude that the less close work is to realistic the less talent it takes - even students who excel at stylistic expression. Where, I wondered, does this mindset come from?
It starts with the skills we teach. Students need a foundation to support more independent work, we think, so we show them how to capture what they see. Proportion, perspective, value, shading, mixing the correct colors - all of these important things require time and attention. It’s important to learn the rules before we break them, we think.
Once they know enough, maybe then we can ask our students what they want to make, but by then it’s too late for many, who’ve given up because their value gradation was lacking or because they just got bored.
What if, instead (or at least along with) we taught other skills, skills like independent thinking and questioning? Instead of showing students “the right way” what if we asked them what the possibilities are? Sure, we could include some traditional technical skills but they need to be in their proper place for the contemporary art world. Not in front, but instead to the side, driven by how they can support the artists' intent and meaning. If we taught this way our students would start to see talent not just as who can paint the most realistic apple, they'd see in in something innate in all of us.
Of course, we teachers have to believe that first.
On the first day I always provide an overview of the class, but I don't do it by reading from a syllabus - I do it by setting up an interactive team challenge that introduces students to my Artistic Thinking Process.
This year's learning challenge was modified from this lesson from the North Carolina Museum of Art's NCMALearn, which is full of amazing resources that I learned about this summer as part of the museum's Fellowship for Collaborative Teaching.
Inspiration & Development
I started the activity by challenging groups to make a kinetic sculptures. I asked them to develop an idea by observing Vollis Simpson's Wind Machine through the video below. Students looked carefully, writing down observations about how they observed the sculpture moving.
Next, I asked groups to dig a bit deeper by researching kinetic artwork on This is Colossal. Groups used the search function to find related artwork, then presented a work that inspired them to the class. Theo Jensen's work was a favorite.
I passed out bins of materials from the dollar store that contained cups, styrofoam trays, brads, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, cardboard and long strips of paper.
As students worked to have work ready to present in 45 minutes, I observed them at work and prompted groups to test their ideas at the wind station, were a blow dryer was set up, and to reflect on what they noticed. Kids worked, tested, revised and refined!
Students spent the last few minutes of class presenting their work by demonstrating how it moved in front of the class. The goals were:
Some student work:
The ability to create is innate in us all, but many students unlearn it as they go about learning how to be "good students" in school. Often, schooling teaches kids more about how to pick the right answer than to ask the right questions.
In order to teach student how to think creatively, we have to show them what the process looks like, step by step. To make it flexible enough to apply to diverse ideas, we have to teach a range of customizable options and the skill to select the ones that work best. This is what that process looks like in my high school art room.
Acquiring a new set of skills takes time and effort from both teacher and learner. To give our kids the information they need to improve and grow as they navigate an unfamiliar way of thinking, we have to provide clear feedback. I've been giving some thought to what that might look like in my classroom this year, for my students. My plan is to give students feedback on something I'm calling observable creative actions. These are actions taken from my Artistic Thinking Process that demonstrate the creative thinking I'm looking for and that I can observe in class through what I can see or student's verbal description in response to questions.
In my experience, where some students struggle with creative actions is that they are not sure exactly what they look like. Often, they confuse activities that are pre-creative with actual creativity. For example, copying an image instead of combining elements to create a more original one. It makes sense that children would go to activities like copying and re-creating the familiar when challenged with open-ended tasks; that is what our school system often asks them to do. Even in art class students are often asked to re-create a teacher's model.
My hope is that sharing observable creative actions and pre-creative actions with my students will help increase understanding. I'll also use these to evaluate where student are in developing the ability to think creatively and, by comparing the actions I observe to the actions that are the end goal, give clear and specific feedback.
Creativity is a learned skill that is accessible to everyone. We just have to teach it the right way.
I had a moment of clarity yesterday. It involved what I feel like is the most important structure of my teaching, my Artistic Thinking Process. I realized that it sucks, or at least could be improved upon.
The big issue - I'd been teaching steps where I needed to teach kids what questions to ask.
To back up - the Artistic Thinking Process, or ATP, is the structure my entire curriculum is based on. It's a process and set of strategies I use to teach creativity. It's the process I have students follow in every art experience I plan for them, starting out the year with me selecting the strategies used in each stage of the process and constantly scaffolding to ending the year with students using the process independently.
Here is how it looked as of yesterday:
I realized two big things:
Here's the new and improved version:
I am now sooooooooo excited for this school year!!!!
Saying "no" is something teachers are used to to. It's a part of the job that happens again and again.
One "no", however, has stuck with me for years. It might not have had so much impact on me, except for the child I said it to. Jose was a sweet, kind boy, who loved me and loved art. When he came into the room that day and asked me what we were making I thought he’d be excited to finish the collage he’d started the week before. Instead, he looked at the floor and quietly said he hoped we could use paint. He wanted to paint flowers for his mother.
No, I said sadly. Not today.
We went on with the lesson but I felt deflated. It felt wrong to tell a student that they couldn’t make the art they were excited about because we had to finish a project I’d planned. wish I could say that I stopped saying no to original art right then and there, but the truth is it took years change my teaching. I felt the pressure so many art teachers feel - pressure to decorate the walls, pressure to teach skills, pressure to make work that adults consider art.
The problem with work like this, work I was having my students make, doesn’t actually teach art.
It teaches projects.
Those skills I thought I was incorporating? My students couldn’t reproduce them without me planning the steps.
What I now know is that there is little value in teaching projects. I want to make artists, so I need to have my students do the work of artists. I plan everything I do to make sure that each child I teach uses their own ideas to make meaningful art.
I say YES to students.
There are so many things we can do to make room in our space for students to learn to be artists:
As summer winds down and I prepare to go back to the work I love, I’m committed to continue to say YES to student directed art!
I've had a delightful week hanging out at my favorite museum! This year I'm participating in the North Carolina Museum of Art's Fellowship for Collaborative Teaching, along with my school's media specialist, Heather. Heather and I joined an awesome group of teacher pairs from around the state for three days of learning and exploring the museum's collection.
We learned lots of fun ways for students to look at art, like the activity pictured here. Our facilitators had a stack of terms from the NC visual arts standards printed on slips of paper. With a partner, we walked around the gallery and placed the slips near artworks that we connected them with, then talked as a group about some of the artworks with the words participants had selected.
Heather and I decided that we wanted to focus on developing professional development for teachers at our high school that would highlight using art as primary sources across subject areas.
We were interested in work like Tightrope 9, which has connections to a variety of subject areas. It looks like a map but on close inspection is created out of circuit boards. The artist, Elias Sime, uses electronic waste as his material, collected from a market in Addis Ababa where it is shipped from all over the world. This work could be a great starting point for learning about issues surrounding sustainability, globalization or geography.
One thing I love about the idea of using art with students is that it can inject diverse points of view in our classes, which can have a tendency to be heavy on viewpoints that are male and white.
We've planned some PD I'm really excited about for this year, including inviting teachers to meet us at the museum after work in September!
Another idea I'm excited about - having my high school art history class pair with an elementary class to give students a tour of the museum. Any NC teachers interested? I have funds for a bus!
If you are interested in arts integration, check out the free, online resources the museum has created on NCMALearn. They will also be offering this online course this fall, which I'll be taking. The description: "Visual Literacy: Making Connections with Works of Art: This online course will introduce a variety of engagement strategies to facilitate deeper inquiry into works of art. Teachers can receive 10 hours of participation (1 CEU) in Art or Literacy upon completion."
There is an argument in art ed that goes something like this: to teach creative thinking we have to give students problems to solve. We, the teachers, spend quite a bit of time devising problems for our students.
- Fill this pre cut shape with different types of lines.
- Design and draw a themed color wheel.
- Repeat an object, with overlapping, to fill the picture plane.
- Make an artwork using only recycled objects.
The problems we pose have a range; some are so narrow in scope that little room is left for interpretation, other are big and wide open with space for individuality. I have mixed feelings about these sorts of tasks. My primary issue is that they make a big assumption - that kids need that sort of hand holding to make art. Children are born creators. In preschool, in kindergarten, everything is a toy to be explored and creativity is unbridled. When we catch children at this age they need no limitations from us, just a safe space to make and help with understanding new processes and procedures.
Any need for limitation is for the ones we miss, the ones who learn that making art is about following a teacher's plan. Limitations can have a role in helping them unlearn the bad habit of needing an assignment, of needing decisions made for them, until they can make their own plans again.
The limitation, no matter how interesting or open-ended it may be, is not the end goal. That has to be for our kids not to need us to make art.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is missing the point.
Me in the past:
This is charcoal. Here are some things you can do with it.
(students try the things)
Now make art with charcoal.
This was the essence of a charcoal Bootcamp. The idea was to have to have a short period of teacher-directed learning that would, in theory, give students the information they needed to explore and create on their own.
But I've been thinking - how does teacher-directed instruction support independence, inquiry and experimentation? Does it elicit deep understanding of media and divergent thinking?
What if, instead, I said:
Here are a few types of charcoal, here is paper. How are the types of charcoal different? How are they similar? What happens if you add these colored chalk pastels to the charcoal?
(students work in groups to figure it out, record answers, then share findings with the group)
Here is some huge paper. Make a drawing, using what you've learned, that incorporates symmetry. What questions will you need to find answers to before you start?
This is all hypothetical now, but I'm excited to see how it impacts student learning in my classroom this fall. I'm planning student-directed investigations for all media that will replace my Bootcamps. I'm calling them Explorations.
From the beginning, my students will explore and find their own answers. They will have support from me in at the start, especially in the form of guiding questions, but over time the responsibility for developing questions will shift from me to students.
I think this will change everything,
I'm interested in creating a student student centered space for my high school students through choice and abundant opportunity for self expression. I'm also a writer for SchoolArts co-author of The Open Art Room.