It's Sunday. My birthday was yesterday and yes, of course I wore my birthday crown all day. Why wouldn't I? I spent my birthday surrounded by my art family at the Tennessee Art Education Association Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. So, today I am feeling inspired, refreshed and blessed by the amazing things I learned, experienced and made at the conference. Tomorrow, I will enter my classroom with my Art Bag packed full of new ideas, skills and renewed passion for teaching...and I also managed to pick up some "freebies" for my students who will ask me if I brought them something from my trip. I also presented a workshop on Narrative and Folk Art. I shared Faith Ringgold's Narrative Quilt, "Tar Beach." I spoke about Faith and how she has inspired me. I also shared the work of Louisiana Folk Artist Clementine Hunter and compared it with my Aunt Sibyl's folk art--both equally wonderful art story-tellers. I also shared my own narrative work..a triptych music box that I made in honor of my mother and artist Aminah Robinson. I showed those who came to my workshop story blocks that my students had made. Then they made art blocks with their own stories painted on them. It was a moving experience for some of them as they began to remember their stories and consider them as art. It moved me to hear their stories and to see their art. It needed to be revisited...it needed to be expressed. Art has that power. I hope that if you teach art and if you are reading this that you belong to your state art organization. If you join the National Art Education Association, you already are a member, but you need to connect. Go to your conference. Meet your art family. They need you..and even if you don't realize it, you need them. If you're not an art teacher, and you still have a story that needs to be expressed, grab a scrap of anything and begin to make marks that expresses how you feel about that memory. Hopefully it will be a pleasant reunion..like the reunion I experienced yesterday on my birthday.
I use this gradation chart for students to learn how to manipulate tone to turn shapes into form. When I started using this scale exercise several years ago, I noticed an improvement in their ability not only to identify the different degrees of light and dark values in other's art, but also how to apply it to their own. It also become a healthy challenge for them to perfect this scale. The next step is to let them draw a shape using a template and to shade it using these methods. Then they are ready to look at a still life of forms or objects and draw applying these principles. You are welcome to use and reproduce this chart to use in your classroom. Click here to download this chart. If you would like to see this chart explained, you may visit my YouTube Channel: https://youtu.be/_4lXLfjJPB4
Perhaps the most powerful tool we have in teaching children that "Art Speaks" is to let their own personal voice be heard. Find something that your students feel compassionate about. Different age groups have different responses to the world around them. Those of us who have taught elementary know well the experience of beginning a mini-lecture on a work of art, only to be "interrupted" by a random comment that seems totally unrelated to the discussion. If we dismiss their comments, we are communicating to them that their personal voice is really not that important. Find a way to help them bring those passions into their art work. Recently, a co-worker's dog died. All of my sixth grade art students know about it, so we are working on a collaborative art project to present to her this week. This aligns with the "Pet Project" we are currently working on. My student sample is the image of a kitten that my daughter recently rescued. This is leading to a larger service project that I will blog about later. At this point, my students feel very connected and engaged not only to this lesson but also to ways that art can reach out to borders beyond the classroom and speak volumes!
There it sits in the corner of the art room. Hopefully you have never had to use it, but it’s there in the event of an emergency. The fire extinguisher can serve as a reminder to you today that we never want to extinguish the inspirational fire that we have ignited with our students. It is much too difficult to get that burning desire for making art to light again and far too easy to extinguish it forever by our words, our actions and attitudes. Sometimes we allow our own discouragement to wind its creepy way into how we respond to students. It’s not their fault that our evaluation didn’t go so well, or that our student loan is still not paid, or that our supply budget was cut or that we came to school unprepared. It’s also easy to let others drench the flame that we once had for teaching art in the first place. Remember during your first year teaching how you loved seeing the wonder of imagination in the eyes of those students? Remember how you decided that you’d rather make a difference in the lives of children than have that desk job? Remember how your middle school teacher seemed to understand you when no one else cared? Remember how that high school art teacher inspired you to become one yourself? Remember how that was going to change the world? Well, world-changer whatever you are doing now as you are reading this, I can book that somewhere there is an inspired art student who is going to change the way the world thinks about art. All you have to do now is fan the flame!
Most of us who teach art like art. Face it. We are art nerds. Most of us like hanging at art-related events, talking about artists, looking at art, reading about art and making art. We like to try out new art products, experiment with materials and find new ways of using them. We like to tell others how we solved a particular art problem, because we are..well..teachers.
Even though we are all well aware of the importance of art in “leading to world peace,” we must remember when advocating for the arts whether in our classroom or the community at large, that some people have not been so..enlightened. It might do us (and our students) some good if just once in awhile, we step away from the comfort of our easels and the latest addition of Art News to try something..different. I am not an athlete. Never have been. But one day about 10 years ago, I decided to try out for the local women’s professional football league just for fun and to step outside my comfort zone for the sake of my students. I asked a friend to come along to film it. However, a news crew also showed up, so I ended up being interviewed on the 6 o’clock news, because..well..I sort of stood out in the crowd. I have shown replays of those films countless times to my students. Once the laughter subsides, I begin my comfort zone sermon. Most of them still ask me if I made the team. I tell them that we don’t need to be successful in football to learn how to appreciate football. Ties into art, doesn’t it? Not all of our students will be successful professional artists or even like art the way we do, but we are also raising awareness of the value of art in the lives of our students..some who might even become great patrons of the arts and some who might become creative problem solvers..making our world a better place to park our easels. Let’s model for our students what it’s like to step outside of our comfort zones and perhaps they might be more willing to listen and take calculated risks with their own art making in the classroom.
When was the last time you introduced a new art lesson by reading a children’s book to your students? They are never too old to listen. Some of them even miss that no one reads to them anymore. When I taught Art Ed. at the university, I often began or ended a lesson by reading one of my favorite children’s books. One of my students told me it was her favorite part of the class. It was mine too. Listening to stories helps us relax and visualize. It feeds our imagination and imagination feeds creativity. Find a book that matches your unit of study. Begin the unit with a book. Read the book aloud to yourself several times before reading it to the children. Don’t skip pages. Show them the pictures. Point out how it relates to something you have already taught them. For my middle school students, I read to them sometimes while they are drawing. I know that you may have already started building a library of art books in your classroom, but here are some of my favorites. You can find most of them on used and out of print book websites. Enjoy!
Tar Beach, Faith Ringgold (1991) Crown Publishers
The Little Engine that Could, Watty Piper (1930) Platt and Munk, Publishers
The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, Tomie dePaola, Penguin Putnam Books
I Aint Gonna Paint No More!, Karen Beaumont /Illustrated by David Catrow (2005) Harcourt, Inc.
Degas and the Little Dancer-A story about Edgar Degas, Laurence Anholt (1996) Barrons
Picasso and the Girl with a Ponytail-A story about Pablo Picasso, Laurence Anholt (1998) Barrons
Camille and the Sunflowers-A story about Vincent Van Gogh, Laurence Anholt (?) Barrons
Art, Patrick McDonnell (2006) Little, Brown and Company
Not a Stick, Antoinette Portis (2008) Harper Collins Publishers
Not a Box, Antoinette Portis (2007) Harper Collins Publishers
The Dot, Peter H. Reynolds (2003) Candlewick Press
Ish, Peter H. Reynolds (2004) Candlewick Press
What Do You Do With an Idea? Kobi Yamada, Mae Besom (2014) Compendium, Incorporated, Publishing & Communications
The Day the Crayons Quit, Drew Daywalt, Oliver Jeffers (2013) Penguin Young Readers Group
Drawing Lessons from a Bear, David McPhail (2000) Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
When Clay Sings, Byrd Baylor (1987) Aladdin Publishers
The Wonderful Little Boy, Helen Elizabeth Buckley (1970) William Morrow
The Little Bluebird, Melody Weintraub (2001) LeBonheur Club.
It’s that time of year again..you know, when we are called to pause, gather, eat, maybe watch a little football or do some crafts and..give thanks. Pausing to think of everything we have to be thankful for is actually energizing. Pausing to think of everything we wish we had drains our creative energy. Pausing to think of how the little we have towers above what some have and are thankful for produces humility. Giving to others in need without regard to ourselves is powerful. This kind of giving includes time, money and talents. We do this everyday when we enter our art classroom. We are giving and most of the time, not expecting much in return. We are seeking out better ways to reach troubled students. We are cleaning out palettes and sorting markers long after most of the other teachers have gone home. We have little time, sometimes, for our own art making, but when we, as Einstein put it, “awaken the joy in creative expression and knowledge,” in the hearts and minds of those we teach, perhaps that is the best reason of all to give thanks.
I just returned from my state art education conference where I presented a lesson to my peers on how to use a Styrofoam head in the art classroom. Participants received a head and I brought all kinds of materials they could use to embellish it. I showed them how I used the heads, but gave very little instruction, except how to use the materials. In other words..I let them play. They didn’t want to leave, so I pulled some strings and extended their time. They walked away smiling and refreshed. They needed it. I did too. Before they left, I gave them a little clay medallion that I had made with a face embossed on it along with the word, “ART.” I told them to keep it nearby always to remember to, “keep their heads up.” No matter how tough your day is going or has been, keep a little reminder nearby..a pretty stone..a handmade something..that you can touch to remember that in spite of the dirty sinks, piles of paperwork, classroom management issues, etc., you have a job where your“office” is a studio filled with your favorite things. Inspire those little ones who come to “play,” and you have had a successful day. Keep your heads up!
We can get busy. Sometimes we can get too busy. In the heat of a busy, fun, exciting, wonderful day occasionally we make a promise..which we forget..which our students do not forget. It might be something random, like, “Yes, I promise to bring my banjo to Art tomorrow.” Then like a paper airplane icon on the laptop it flies right out of our mind. Promises are important to children. If we did a survey, we might discover that promises are the most important thing to children. A promise could be evidence to a child that they are loved. It is definitely reassurance when fulfilled. Children need promises, but they also need to see follow-through. It gives them a sense of security and stability in a world that is sometimes shaky and definitely ever-changing. Be careful about making promises you can’t keep. Children are handed enough of those throughout a lifetime. Let your promise be something simple and do whatever it takes to fulfill it..even if it means letting a 6th grade student misspell it on your hand in black marker.
Sometimes the lesson turns out better than you expected. Sometimes it happens to be the day of evaluations. Sometimes you actually witness an artistic awakening in the eyes of a child. Sometimes you get recognized with all of the “real” teachers. Sometimes you get recognized with all of the "real" artists. Sometimes someone thanks you for helping her with her bulletin board. Sometimes the teacher down the hall brings your scissors back. Sometimes you get a nice note from a parent. Sometimes you get an amazing note from a student. Sometimes it just says, “I love ART!” Sometimes that’s enough. If you’ve had a bummed day, don’t forget that good things happen too. Be the one who writes a happy note to a fellow teacher. Sometimes you can be a rainbow.
So..how are you? Read any good books lately? What are your plans for this weekend? How’s that painting coming? Remember that blog you were going to start? How’s that going? Didn’t you say you were thinking of picking up the banjo? Isn’t this the third time your friend has called to get you to go with her to that improv theatre? No time? Too exhausted? What’s the use? If you feel like you are closing in on burnout, or if you have already arrived, stop to consider what you are doing for yourself that is fun and unrelated to teaching. All kinds of studies show that Play can actually recharge your brain and fight off the stress factors that are driving you to the brink of giving up. We can complain all day about mounds of mindless paperwork, and unfair policies, but at some point, we need to accept it and move onto something we can actually change. Ourselves. Focus on taking care of yourself, not just the physical self, but also the emotional self. Build in time to treat yourself to something fun. It will refresh your soul, recharge your brain and revitalize your teaching.
I recently heard a song by the recording artist, Plumb titled, “Exhale.” The first few lines say, It’s okay not to be okay. This is a safe place. I thought about how very much we need to communicate to our students and to ourselves that our art space is a “safe place.” Even if you never taught them anything else, let them feel that your art room is the place they can come to be themselves. If they feel that kind of security in the art room, you will probably begin to see it evidenced in their artwork. Create lessons that leave room for self-expression. Build time into your lesson for students to think about universal themes. Show them art that you didn’t learn about growing up from artists whose names are still not widely known. Maybe they’ll find a connection. Then watch them thinking and creating. Soak it in. Take a deep breath and exhale. Well done, art teacher.
I have never met an art teacher who said that they had adequate storage space in their art room. This is quite possibly because we like to “collect” things for lessons we might do…someday. We also like to “collect” supplies, books, posters, tchotchkes, freebies, cardboard, buckets and the list goes on. After all, the art teacher with the most toys..wins? Not! We need to support each other along this journey. Evaluate what you have, what you are actively using, and what you can actually part with by starting with duplicates. Then seek out other art teachers in your community who might need what you have due to a lack of funding or because of a new position. Check with your administration to be sure it’s okay for you to dispose of it. Post it on social media. Be willing to deliver it if possible. Or, set up a trade fair at your school or at your state conference and swap art stuff. Due to budget cuts in the arts that continue at an alarming rate, there is even more reason for us to share the love!
As a veteran teacher, I can think of no single factor that has inspired me more than my relationships with other art teachers. Not only do I glean ideas from them, but I find among them..among you..a group who understands my passion. I remember the first National Art Education Association Conference that I attended. I knew no one there, and yet it didn’t take long to find out that I actually knew them all too well. We lived hundreds of miles apart, but in some cases, it even looked like we shopped together. It was easy to strike up a conversation as we made art together or attended sessions. Even though I have a wonderful group of art teacher friends here in my region, I still try to expose myself to new art acquaintances whenever I visit the NAEA Conference. I suggest you do the same. Find a group. Join your state organization. Join an Art Teacher group on social media. Go to conferences. Meet for coffee. Mentor and Observe when you can. We need each other. I want to learn all I can from you and I’ve been doing this a really long time.
We need to be cautious in the art classroom not to show favoritism to gifted students. We also need to be careful not to ignore them. Our lessons need to include modifications for the gifted students, “who finish early,” or “who would like to include…” However, we need to find positive things to say about the progress of each type of learner. A positive, truthful comment could become a key that unlocks a world of possibilities for that student. By differentiating not only our approaches to lessons, but also offering students a variety of ways to express themselves artistically, we give more students an opportunity to find “their” medium and thus make a connection to art.
It’s a little difficult to do what we do everyday and not be passionate about Art. Each of us can probably point to a particular artist or art movement and find our personal voice resonating with every brushstroke or found object. We have an experience with that particular work or artist that sometimes goes beyond or trivializes description. We need to realize, as art teachers, that although our passion and excitement for art may be inspiring to some students, others will either not have or refuse to have the ability to relate either because they haven’t found that art voice yet, or because they are a 12 year-old. So when you are introducing that particular art passion to your students and they don’t seem to connect or even snicker, don’t take it personally. If you feel your blood pressure increasing because of a student comment or that all too familiar roll-of-the-eyes, back down. Move on. This also goes for the project that you were sure they would love. It may be a successful lesson plan and, at the same time, not be a success with all of your students. Don’t take it personally. This even relates to classroom conduct. Anger to anger solves nothing. You can discuss the issue with the student without taking the conduct as a personal threat. Try to imagine what horrible underlying conflict this student could be facing at home or at school that causes the negative behavior. Above all, when you are dealing with the issue, do not take it personally. Address it and move on. Let Art Class be the place the student can find solace and their own personal voice.
Sometimes in our day to day drudgery of slopping buckets of water around the art room or down the hall for Art on a Cart or going through stacks of papers on an already cluttered desk, or trying to soak paint out of a school uniform, we fail to look around. Sometimes as we squeeze through an inadequately-sized annex to see if students are, “getting it,” or picking up fifteen pencils in the hallway that you need in the art room or “decorating” the school’s bulletin boards, or matting work for art contests, we fail to look around. Pause for a moment today even a brief moment, while students are working and look around. Look what is going on. Realize it for a moment. This is an amazing calling. Tell your students to stop working and to look at you. Repeat this to them and mean it, “I have the best job in the world.”
Just for a moment, remember what caused you to want to be an art teacher. As we think back on it, most of us recall a positive experience in an art room somewhere. Some of us will even tribute our career choice to a person..maybe even an art teacher. What was it about that teacher that you remember most? Was it the swell way that she wrote the lesson objectives on the board? Was it the manner in which he delivered Bloom’s Taxonomy to the door of your creative brain in 30 minutes or less? Is it the strategies that your favorite art teacher used to teach you skills, techniques or processes? No? What was it then? Was it, just maybe, the way that your art teacher made you feel? You can’t exactly recall every detail of the bulletin boards in the art room, but there are certain memories that bring back a sense of belonging that you once felt entering that elementary, middle or high school art room. Remember what did it for you and remember how important it is that you show up for your students. Show up and show them you care. Give them a reason to want to come to school. Say that quiet student’s name when you greet them today. It might be the nicest way anybody has said their name in a really long time. It’s the simple things that count sometimes. Thirty years from now, they may not be able to recite the Elements of Art or identify all the art movements, but I’m fairly certain they will recall you and how you made them feel.
Young teachers, you have an advantage when teaching young students. You know their interests. Knowing their interests and implementing aspects of it into your lessons when possible, keeps them engaged. There's a real danger among veteran teachers if we tend to teach the same lessons using the same examples year after year. Sooner or later, the engagement will wane as student interest changes. Also, what might have been a rockstar lesson in one placement simply does not work within the culture of another placement. It all boils down to "Keeping Up!" We need to know our students' interests (material culture) and keep updating our pedagogical gray matter (teaching brains).