“Imaginary Playground,” Frankie, age 7
It’s been over a year since I stood in front of my very first class as an art teacher, and found twelve pairs of shy and curious six- and seven-year-old eyes looking back at me. It only took a couple of days to fall in love with the students, and with the job. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I was often overwhelmed with a feeling of inadequacy. Time, trial and error eventually built confidence. I also realized that my students could be creative even when my lessons weren’t as perfect as I wanted them to be.
‘Alien Invasion,’ Christopher, age 9 (cityscape collage project)
But, the reality is that even though I’m into the second quarter of my second year, I still come into school thinking about a lot of big questions: Am I fulfilling my mission as an art teacher? Are there changes I need to make to my teaching philosophy? Am I truly connecting with the students and their imaginations? How can I relate to that one quiet child, or the one who is having trouble?
These questions led me to the realization that I want to write about teaching art. Writing was my first discipline; my first ‘real’ job out of college was as a reporter and photographer at a small-town newspaper in Leavenworth, Kansas. Writing, for me, is the way to untangle all the strands of art, instruction, and interaction that compose my job. So although I’ve been recording my impressions of my work over the last year or so, I’d like to write a series on becoming an art teacher on my blog.
This first one is about awakening the imagination.
‘Stained glass window’ painting, Ellie, age 6
I can say that, unlike any other work I’ve done, I am obsessed with my job. I always go to school with a feeling of great curiosity, wondering how the children will interpret my assignments with their own vision. The best feeling, for me, is when a student surprises me by taking an assignment in a direction that I could not have imagined. Of course, I want to craft lessons in such a way that there are clear parameters and expectations, so even the most tentative or the most left-brained students can succeed. These are often the students whose work delights me, and them. But there’s a balance between creating boundaries and also letting interpretation flourish.
Owl in tree, Reagan, age 10 (for an assignment to create their own collaged landscape scene from various textures of their choice; Reagan chose tissue paper, patterned fabric, poly-fill, seeds, chipboard, feathers, and aluminium foil)
Sometimes the students want to be told exactly what to do. They are used to following directions and having a single answer be the right answer. They would feel satisfied, probably, if I taught them a step-by-step method of drawing, say, an airplane. They love doing the color wheel and learning one-point perspective because those have very certain outcomes. So, when we do a project about design and invention (studying Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine drawings and watching a brief excerpt from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), as the second grade did last week, some of them have a moment of anxiety or a few minutes of frustration.
“I don’t know what to draw.”
“I can’t draw it right.”
“I can’t think of anything else.”
These are crucial moments for me and the child. I have to be a coach, a midwife for the idea. We brainstorm together. “You’re inventing an imaginary vehicle,” I said to one student last week. “What kind of places do you want it to go?” In the air and on the ground, she said. “What makes a vehicle go in the air? Let’s think of some parts it might have,” I said. Our combined list: propeller, wings, a balloon (hot-air), maybe rocket boosters. “So what makes a vehicle go on the ground?” Wheels or legs. She starts to draw the body of her invention. “Would your vehicle do anything special? Where would people sit? Would it go to any special places in the world?” Now she is smiling, giving her own ideas in the form of questions. “Maybe it needs windows?” she asks. “Maybe it goes to the mountains?” In response, I ask her to think about how the design might be different depending on what specific kinds of places it goes.
Imaginary vehicle, Ava, age 8
Of course as a teacher there is a pull toward having colorful work that would look good hanging in the hallway…but in many cases the process of invention is wild and daring, and the end result is messy or obscure. Regardless of the final look of their artwork, if I see a forehead wrinkled in concentration or a flash of excitement across a face, I feel proud.
Portrait of a man, Christian, age 6 (during a class learning how to draw facial proportions)