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'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.