As an artist, I love mixing colors to find just the right contrast, tone or hue. Do you? I tell my students that I sometimes feel that I can almost "taste" the color I'm trying to mix..like remembering the word that is "on the tip of your tongue" or finding the seasoning that your grandmother must have used in her chicken soup. I hope that I transfer that passion for mixing colors to my students. I love to see them chasing after colors in the condiment cups I distribute. When they finally mix THE color, I love to see them "stash" it in a nook of my art room for safekeeping..like a pot of gold. We use black to shade colors sparingly in my classroom. Unless we are going for a "grungy" effect. We do, however, return to the color wheel to see if the compliment can be added to create a darker shade first. I tell my students to look for the warmer tones..go red..make it deeper with a little blue and then go to green. They know what I mean. I also tell them to return to the reference photo and study the color..over-emphasize it. The results sometimes take my breath away..like the beginning of this zinnia painting by a 7th Grade student. I'm not sure that he realizes the magic that he is creating, but it is inspiring this art teacher to pick up some watercolors tonight and chase a little color myself. How about you?
Recently I posted a photo of a 6th Grade student painting a rose. Several comments mentioned that the rose looked like it was "popping off the page." In the post, I mentioned that this is the first serious painting that this student has done. She is excellent at drawing, but has never applied paint in this way. I simply told her that painting is just like drawing..only with color. This relaxed her and she began to enjoy the process. This reminded me why I love teaching art and watching a student's love and talent for art blossom like the petals on this young, budding artist's rose. Not all students who discover the magic of art arrive with a backpack of talent. Some are searching for a way to express how they feel about the world around them. They are not as concerned with technique as they are with content. For those students, I will present a way for them to develop just enough skills to communicate their message. If their interest continues..skills will follow and so will their individualistic style. Some students come with a love for experimentation. For those students, I introduce a variety of alternative surfaces and new materials. However, sadly, it is just as easy to uproot a student's love for art by fencing that student into a place where only perfectionistic realism reigns. As art educators, we must celebrate a diversity of individualistic styles and differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of students at all levels. The art room of all places must be the oasis..the safe place..where the student can think, plan, design, express, connect, reflect and emerge into a confident, empowered young visionary.
It's that lovely time of year when flowers and trees begin to show us what they have been hiding all winter long. It's also the time when the pollen starts to remind us that winter also has it's own secrets. As these flowers start to bloom and show off across our social media world, maybe we should take a moment away from our newsfeeds to stop and smell the roses blooming outside of our own non-virtual windows. This world we live in is still pretty amazing in reality. Realizing this is perhaps the greatest thing we can do to revive our outlook and infuse in our art classrooms. It might just inspire us to brush the dust off of our portable watercolor palettes, find a notecard and capture the beauty of a budding cherry blossom, fleeting wildflower, potted pansy or purple iris. We don't need a large block of time, fancy studio or isolation to make this kind of art. We don't have to have a purpose in mind for these watercolor cards, except self expression. However, I have found that these cards usually find their own way into the hands of someone who really needs them, so I wait and listen for a moment to cheer, express love or thankfulness. After all, isn't what this time of year does for us? Happy Spring.
Art is essential. It is not just the icing on the cake, nor the cake. It is the meal. Art is what nourishes the soul. It is not just the design of the flag, nor the colors in the flag. It is the flag. Art is the fiber of existence. Evidence of a culture that flourished. It is not just the nice picture in the museum, nor the technique used on the canvas. Art is the story behind the canvas and the voice that must be not be silenced. Art is not just the crunched up paper held with a magnet on your refrigerator, nor the after school program where the picture was made. Art is what made the child want to go to school in the first place. Art is not just the mural on the public building, nor transformation of the area. Art is what happened while it was being painted--the people who came together to make something important.
Art gives meaning. Art connects children to ideas, to diversity, to higher-order thinking, creative problem-solving, to the practical application of math, science, history, social studies and languages.
Art is not an extra or a specialty. It is not expendable. You don’t have to understand, agree with or like all art. But if you take art away because of a misunderstanding that it doesn’t really matter that much, you are not cutting a budget, you are severing a lifeline. Not just for some, but for all.
So, the last day before Spring Break, I decided to introduce my 6th Grade Art Class to the Pottery Wheel. Yes, the class was low in numbers that day and no, it wasn't in the scope and sequence. It was however, a teachable forty minutes..not just for the students, but also for their teacher.
STARTING SMALL- I decided to start them off with a small amount of clay, knowing this was their first experience on the wheel, a larger amount might have been too much for them to handle. LIFE LESSON: Maybe we shouldn't complain if we are given less responsibilities/position than others but instead shine with what we have been given.
SIMPLE DESIGN - No, elaborate designs here and kept trimming to a minimum. Basically the goal was to learn to center the clay, see how it worked and to get over the muddy hands. LIFE LESSON: Sometimes in order to make something remarkable or experience something extraordinary, we might have to step outside of our comfort zone.
NO PROMISES - I also told them ahead of time that I didn't promise that I would fire what they made. The goal of this activity was not the product, but to let them experience the clay. It actually relaxed them to know that their first attempt did not need to be successful. LIFE LESSON: Enjoy the moment.
DEMONSTRATION - I demonstrated the process for them beforehand. I was careful to point out the position of my hands and arms and how important it was to maintain symmetry. I am in no sense of the word, a "master" potter. However, I know enough to teach them the basics of throwing a pot on the wheel. That's why their response took me by surprise as they practically squealed with excitement seeing this ordinary art teacher turn an ordinary pot. LIFE LESSON: Never underestimate the awesomeness of what you teach.
GUIDED PRACTICE - Now it was the students' turn at the wheel and as the first three potters began centering their clay, the other students watching and waiting began cheering them on, reminding them of the procedure they had just witnessed together. And when the second group sat at the wheels, the first group coached them and then something extraordinary happened. A student who was having difficulty centering her clay was assisted by the hands of her "coach." I watched in amazement as their hands collaboratively began to control the clay. LIFE LESSON: If life ever feels out of control, hold on and never resist the help of your friends.
Okay, I'm at the National Art Education Association Convention in New York right now and I am energized. I am energized by the passion these 7000 happy art educators have for teaching and for art! There are no strangers here. As my sweet mom used to say, "A stranger is a friend you haven't met yet." Well, Mom, today I am among friends. Just ask someone where the name tags are and you find yourself deep in a conversation..sharing funny stories..and it's mostly about our profession. No fish out of water here..No matter if you're from Memphis or Montreal..New York or Nebraska..you are among friends. So many, "take aways" from this..I can't even begin to count them. I do know one thing..come Monday afternoon in the Middle School Art Room...I am ready to rock some socks off of some artists! So what's the picture of the hot fudge Sunday all about? See that cherry on top? Well, that's what this conference is to my teaching..and this is just the first day.
As an art teacher, some days are really long. Sometimes classes are overcrowded. Sometimes we stay a couple of hours after everyone else has left, just to clean up and prepare supplies for the next day. Sometimes we feel ignored and our efforts overlooked. We think about that as we scrape pallets and struggle with missing marker caps. Sometimes others don't share our passion for the value of teaching the arts. Sometimes we wonder if we are really making a difference at all. Then that student walks into our classroom. He's a little taller than the rest at an age when everyone is just trying to blend in and find a niche. Maybe we are teaching clay that week and wondering how on earth we can possibly show twenty-four middle school students how to throw on the wheel. We decide to start with that one student after school one day when he comes in to hang out before guitar lessons. That student wraps his oversized hands around that clay over and over again until he gets it centered. Then he throws that small bowl over and over again. Wedging it between throwing like he'd been working with clay for years. He is patient and methodical until he gets it right. You decide you have found help teaching the twenty-four. You knight him as the "Clay Expert" and he begins coaching his peers on the wheel the next day. You go to his wrestling tournaments. You cheer him on. Later he takes art in high school, he decides Art College is his best route. He comes back from time to time to visit. You go to his MFA show and continue to cheer him on. Then one day, his mother sends you a link to a feature article about his work in Memphis Magazine. You weep when you read the second paragraph as you remember that lanky 6th Grade future sculptor:
What was your first attempt at art and how did your passion develop?
"I actually didn't until middle school. In 6th grade I had to choose between choir and art, and I had no desire to sing. Mrs. Weintraub, my teacher through middle school really is the reason I am an artist today. She would let me stay after school and throw on the pottery wheel, give me the specific artists to look up for techniques, and get me to help her with props for the school plays. More than anything, she pushed me and made sure that I never settled for one medium and always tried new materials." http://memphismagazine.com/the-memo/a-onversation-with-sculptor-colton-berretta/
Don't ever feel you are not making a difference. You are making a difference with one student at a time. #Thanksgiving
There was a country hit back in the 1970's, "One Day at a Time," that was co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin. Then there was the popular sitcom by the same name starring, Bonnie Franklin and Valerie Bertinelli. It's a nice phrase for us to remember when we get overwhelmed by the whole of life's pressures..Deuteronomy 33:25 puts it this way, "..As thy days, so shall thy strength be." My Granny Owens, who raised 10 children, had still another phrase, "Don't borrow trouble from tomorrow." Lately I've thought a lot about how this life lesson can apply to an art lesson on drawing with a grid. When a complicated image is looked at as a whole, it can also be overwhelming for students, but when that image is broken down by a grid overlay and the student learns to concentrate on one square at a time, it is much more manageable. Each square becomes a picture in itself and all that needs to be focused on are the lines, tones, shapes and spaces (positive and negative) in that one section. As the drawing matures, one can look back as see the whole complicated image emerge and make more sense. Life is somewhat like that too. If we are in a season of life that has us feeling overwhelmed, it might help us as well, to focus on the day at hand..the art class lesson at hand..the student at hand..the moment at hand. If we don't, we might miss something that will effect the way the whole image emerges..and that something might also be a powerful work of art in and of itself. To view my instructional video on, "How to Draw Using a Grid," click this link: https://youtu.be/ucFWEGmhKjI
While shopping at Whole Foods the other day, I came across a package of mustard seeds. It made me recall a devotional my mother once gave, where she handed everyone in the small group a tiny mustard seed at the beginning of her lecture on Faith. I teach in a religious school and this week being "spiritual emphasis week," I thought it might be a good time to pick up a pack of mustard seeds. Monday morning, I gave each student in the class a mustard seed and asked them to read, Matthew 17:20 from the Bible (the verse about moving mountains with faith as small as a mustard seed). I encouraged them to hold onto the mustard seed for one week. Most of them took the "assignment" very seriously. One student lost the seed about 30 seconds after I handed it to him and the others around him tried desperately to help him find it again. I used this as an example of how we should all help one another when our faith wanes. Some students taped their seeds to their sketchbooks, some kept them inside their billfolds, others taped them to their laptops, some asked if they could go to their lockers and tape it inside. So on Friday, I asked them how it was going with holding onto the mustard seed. About a three fourths of the class not only still had them, but showed them to me. We then discussed what common factors helped those students to hold onto their seeds. It seems that those students placed them in places that were valuable to them. Several said, maybe it would have been a good idea to plant them and watch them grow. I also thought about how this also applies to teaching. How's your mustard seed? You know, the one you started with when you were going to change the world by teaching? Moved any mountains lately? Where did you keep it? What kind of seed is it? Is it a seed of knowledge? Is it a seed of a positive art experience? Is it a seed of motivation? Is it hidden under a pile of papers? Did you forget about it while searching for other things? Did you lose it in the clutter of life and disappointment? By any chance, did you share it with your students? Perhaps they can help you find it again. This time maybe it should be planted and nourished so you can watch it grow.
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.