Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What's on my mind...

This post is not about a waterlily or a turtle on a log. I just wanted to have an image at the top of the blog so I used pics I shot while kayaking in the marsh a couple of days ago.

I've been planning on writing this post since last spring, but instead of putting down the words I've been thinking, I've posted just about everything else this summer -sewing a new art shirt, African animals, blueberry pies...

But today I went to my sparkly shiny classroom to start unpacking colorful art supplies, in anticipation of the opening of school in a few short weeks. And on Friday I'll be reading applications from candidates for the sudden job opening for secondary art teacher in our district, and thinking about what is important to find out when we interview the candidates next week. And I got to thinking I need to say here what has been on my mind. I hope I don't offend any of you; certainly no offense is meant. I just want to get us all thinking about our jobs and what it is that we do and should be doing, so that we can all be the best we can be and encourage our kids to be their personal best as well.

I'm not one for all sorts of professional/philosophical mumbo-jumbo or fancy terminology, so I'm going to be pretty simple here about what I want to say.

I've been regularly reading lots of blogs, and I think as a whole, art teacher bloggers are a pretty amazing bunch. Every day I see something that makes me say "I want to try that!". But I also see things that make me think about what we as art teachers should and shouldn't be doing. I have to step back and remind myself that we all bring very different educational training, experience, and backgrounds to our jobs, as well as we are working in schools and states and even countries that have completely different requirements for art instruction. So maybe I'm too judgemental. Anyhow, after a bunch of avoidance, here comes the real text of this post, which I should call "Templates, and Tracers and Mess, Oh My!"

Here's something that I've noticed - lots of bloggers seem to promote using templates and tracers to make artwork look 'better'. My concern is that this is not teaching kids how to think independently, and instead the template becomes a crutch. When you want them to do it on their own, they say "I can't" and instead want something someone else has drawn to use, to copy, to trace.

I say we should be giving the kids the tools and the confidence to do it on their own. Give them examples to look at, break it down into a way that they can be successful without everyone's artwork looking the same. Give kids lots of opportunities to draw from observation. Have them take turns being models, set up an interesting still life, practice contour line drawings of hands and shoes using felt pens so there's no erasing, etc. Draw with sticks or bamboo dipped into India ink and let mistakes become a part of the drawing. The kids are always pleasantly surprised at what they can do without copying or tracing.

Another thing I've noticed on the blogs are those folks who express fear over doing some lessons/projecs because they are messy or 3-D. In this technology-heavy world, my top priority is giving kids regular hands-on experience with a variety of art materials, both 2 and 3-D. I want them dipping their hands into gooey papier-mache, loading up brushes with thick creamy paint, drawing with a chalk pastel on wet paper and watching it turn into paint, gluing together hunks of cardboard, weaving with fibers, covering their hands with charcoal, and so much more. I want the kids exploring their imaginations and generally stretching their creative muscles, learning to think and figure things out on their own. I want them to be independent thinkers and take ownership of the work they do in art. I want to teach them how to clean up so that everyone wants to take part in cleaning. I can't imagine choosing to teach art if I was afraid of dealing with the mess.

None of this means that I'm one of those teachers that puts out a bunch of materials and says "have fun". That's not teaching. I strive to give the kids the information and tools they need to be confident independent thinkers and problem solvers.

We do learn about artists and multiculturalism. I have an "artist of the month" bulletin board in my room, where I showcase a variety of different artists each year. The photos above are (obviously) from a lesson on Jackson Pollock. The 4th graders loved making these paintings, but we struck a deal ahead of time regarding cleanup. About 1/2 the class time was set aside for cleaning! And the kids were happy to do it and worked enthusiastically and respectfully. The paintings were a real hit when I displayed them in the hallway.

I'm afraid I've gone on longer than I intended, and I'm not really sure I've made my point. I do know that certification requirements, professional development requirements, and standards vary from state to state, and maybe this colors my perspective on what art ed should be.

Anyhow, please weigh in with your opinions, and don't be afraid to tell me I'm all wet. I won't be offended! And if I've made you think, that's always a good thing, right? Maybe some of your insights will help me when I head into the art teacher interviews next week. Can't wait to see what the candidates bring and who my new colleague/teammate will be!

Thanks for listening!


  1. very good insight from an educators perspective! i struggle to maintain a balance between the experience of creating, independent of the final result, and wanting to treasure the final products, whether it be photographing the process and final product and making a portfolio for my child for each year, or taking a drawing and embroidering it and incorporating into other projects, or scanning artwork and making a set of note cards. But i try to let the art experience be for the sake of creating without focus on what we'll do after, and if/when we're inpsired to take it further, make that a separate experience. I would be curious as to your thoughts on juggling these two goals and maintaining a balance that honors both the process and the product, sometimes simultaneously, but usually separately.

  2. I just stumbled upon your blog yesterday and love it! I call this "cookie cutter art", which I loath. When I subbed, I came across way too many "cookie cutter" art projects. It drove me absolutely nuts. Who wants 20 some pictures of the same thing? And then when they are hung, the students who might not be quite as talented sure know it. One of the words I use the most in class is UNIQUE, I want to see unique ideas. And guess what, the students who might not have the most natural talent are sometimes the most innovative and creative when they are given the chance to express their unique ideas.

  3. Ooh, what a delight it is to see comments from newer visitors to my blog. I love watching our blog web spread wider and wider.

    Great comments. MotherLode, (by the way, I like your name), I absolutely believe it is important to honor the product, not just the process. Just like music is meant to be heard, art is meant to be seen, so I am a prolific exhibitor as a teacher - I actually have five hallway bulletin boards and more in my room, that are changed on a regular basis, plus I display 3-D work in our school library and showcases.

    But I do have some basic expectations about what I display. Here are 2 examples: If it is something with words on it (say a poster) I expect the words to be spelled correctly. (You can look back into an older post to see my poster guidelines if you are so inclined.) If it was a portrait assignment and the goal was to try to create a likeness, I'm not going to hang it up if it has green skin, horns, and stuff coming out of its nose - blatant defiance of the assignment. However if it was an expressionistic project where we were not trying to create a likeness but were instead trying to capture the emotions, the green skin MAY be appropriate.

    I think, as a whole, when the artwork is not "cookie cutter", as A.Roadman so beautifully called it in the comment above, it tends to be more meaningful to display, and the kids are oh-so-proud, much more so than when they were all created by tracing the same template. Because they can truly take ownership! And they will be much less likely to pitch the artwork in the trash the minute they leave the art room, if it is truly THEIRS.

    As for my approach to my child's art as a parent (well, he's 21 now so not so much any more), I absolutely approve of making that artwork even more memorable by scanning and reproducing, embroidering, or framing, etc. I think those ideas value the individuality and uniqueness of the artwork and will make your child feel special. And this can make wonderful keepsakes as well, so go ahead and celebrate your child's creativity! Am I making sense?

  4. For the most part I agree with everything you said. Most of the time, I agree that stencils are not the way to go when teaching an art lesson. However, I have been guilty of doing it once in a while. Quite honestly, I have mixed feelings about the stencil thing. I do absolutely hate stencils if the teacher expects all of the artwork to be identical to the teacher's example. However, I have had stencils become very useful in teaching a specific concept.

    For instance: This summer, I wanted to teach my kids to use slabs to create clay objects. This is a hard concept to teach little kids because they have to think about the object from all sides. I ended up giving my students stencils to create clay shoes. They had a stencil for each side of the shoe. When putting the slabs together, they could see how each side of the shoe was really just a flat slab of clay. After my students created this clay shoe, my students began understanding how slabs can be used to create a 3D object. I really do think the stencils helped them understand the concept. During the next class we had free time in clay class, and I saw my students creating their own slab creations. So in this instance, one stenciled project helped my students learn an important skill, which they can use in the future.

  5. Love this post.

    I agree that the template and trace method isn't the best. . .But, I admit I am guilty about having certain parts of things pre-cut for my 3 and 4 year old classes. They may do extra cutting and/or glueing of things (I love watching them glue so cute), but I may give them a big pre-cut circle (or something like that) to build off of. I'm mixed on how I feel about this. . . And, as such, I keep any pre-cut shapes to a minimum. As an aside, I definitely NEVER let them trace and/or use a template to trace.

    And, here is the rub (I think) for a lot of art teachers. We straddle a hard line between fine art and crafty-cuteness-for-the-hallways when it comes to principals. I know that my admin. loves art a lot, but (esp for the smaller students) they really want to see a lot of "cute." And, the parents of the little students think that all that "cute" is the art their kids should be making (are we conditioned to think that? I dunno). Soooo, while the mobiles I recently hung look like they are covered in scribble-scrabble and oddly-bent strips of paper I know that these artpieces represent 4 year olds translating their understanding of different lines both drawn and in paper. But, parents and some other teachers see a hot mess (albeit a colorful one!).

    So, this is a long way of saying that -in my opinion- a lot of this crafty "cute" madness is due to a lack of understanding on the part of others as to the function of art education. . .And, as such, that leaves it to us ole art teachers to educate them. :)

  6. Love this post, thanks Phyl for putting it out there. I definately agree with you! Most of the time I have teachers and parents say things like - how did you get them to do that? Most of the time it is simple - I never thought they couldn't do it. I showed them how, gave them the tools and the inspiration and let them go! Sometimes I think the 'can'ts' come from the adult attitudes and then trickle down to the kids. I get a chance to teach each lesson 4 times - if the first class struggles with a certain part - it usually tells me if they need more tools or guidance from me - but never precut pieces or stencils! I am very proud of my students - and I KNOW they CAN do it!!

  7. The ELEPHANT in the blog room! Thanks for talking about it! We need to stay strong and support truly creative thinking, teaching and learning. I become discouraged when I see other art teachers products online or in the district that are so "cute." I have to remind myself that I am teaching children to think and find their voice. I am so proud of you for being brave and putting your foot down to this awful trend that is destroying children's creative souls. Last year I tried this "template" thing once after seeing it on a blog. I knew it was wrong but I so wanted to see what it would feel like to be PRODUCT oriented. I felt like such a bad person/teacher that I couldn't even display the "cute" work.

    I have students label or write about their work. I will have younger students dictate what they are doing or making. I display the writing with the work. That takes care of the pressure to create something that "looks" like what it's supposed to. It is powerful to see how the kids talk about their own art and answers many questions for administrators/parents who might need to know "what" they made. I don't care about "what" they make at the elementary level as much as "what" they learned.

  8. P.S. I wish I could be in your school with you!!!

  9. Hey, Erica, we do have a job opening in my school... though the applications closed today, and it would be a bit of a commute to the boonies of northern NY from your home in Connecticut! But I appreciate the kind sentiment! :-)

    By the way - a teensy bit of clarification for
    Amy and anyone else working with the youngest kids - 'tadpoles' (those not-fully-formed wee ones who are coming to school for the very first time in their short lives) - YES there are times I have given these little tykes pre-cut geometric shapes to work with. Or sometimes if we are doing something in the art room that requires circles, I let kids find things in the room to trace (paint bottles, rolls of tape, etc). I don't think that's the same thing as tracing a horse or a cat, or an oval for a face because you don't think the kids will make them good enough or big enough on their own. Hope this makes sense!

  10. I agree with most of what you said too! It's a hot topic. I rarely have kids trace or have PRE made sheets, but there are certain concepts which tracers or stencils are useful TOOLS> for example, I have kids create their OWN tracers for an OP art project ala Bridget Riley. It is a tool that creates unique artwork. Each child makes their own so no two are exactly alike. I'd like to think I have a good balance between artwork in which the projects are similar outcomes due to topic and technique and projects that are unique to each child in which requirements for the project are more open and loose. I am not afraid of a mess! I did a color mixing project with kinders that got them completely messy but I had alot of wipes ready! It was fun, experimental, and I bet they remember how to mix those colors because of it! It stuck with them!
    BTW.. I'm not too far from you... Syracuse area!
    Here's my blog:

  11. I guess I really opened up a can of worms. Thanks, ladies, for not bailing on me when I get opinionated. My next post is bound to be less controversial :-)
    I love the fact that a real dialogue is going on here, and that people who have never left a comment on my blog are speaking up. I gues I'll have to express myself more often!

  12. I found your blog recently and I bookmarked it for the exact reasons that you speak of. Art for the young ones is about expression and excitement. It is about creating something that is ones own...a true piece of art, ones own expression. It kills me to see artwork that looks all the same. Yes, it is "cute", yes it "looks great"..but every child is a unique person and it would kill me if my kids created robotic artwork. I hear all the time "I can't believe what you can get these kids to do" approach is "what CAN'T they do." If you believe in your students they will believe in you as their teacher.

    I just started following you on Tumbler..can't wait to see what YOU find!
    mycreativebuzz alias Stephanie