Monday, October 31, 2011

Capturing Impressionable Minds

"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see"

I used to think history was a bore. I hated history. My flighty, day-dreaming, cluttered mind would only slow down long enough to be captured by something historical if I could relate to it in my daily life.

I am still adapting to the lack of moans and groans in response when I introduce my course outline to a new group with the disclaimer that we don't just make art here. We learn about art. We talk about art. We look at art. We make connections to other subjects. We read. We brainstorm. We discuss history. They're used to me now, and know that I have high expectations and mean business; they are more accepting of my teaching style. It wasn't always that easy, but now I can reap the rewards of having seen my 3 year curriculum plan through almost to completion. For the first time in my teaching history, this week a half period art history lesson because a 3 period lesson.

Impressionists captured the overall impression of a scene and communicated through the use of vibrant colors. Kids can't fathom a world where you can't snap a photo of a moment in time as it happens and upload it instantly to Facebook for the world to see.

Why? I think maybe we stumbled upon something that stuck. I have always covered Impressionism and Post Impressionism briefly with my 6th graders. I've always loved the use of color in these paintings and thought it was a great way to introduce parts of a landscape, watercolor techniques, basic color mixing, texture... all that stuff I want to cram into a 25 day course when I still want to have time for drawing and sculpture. With each new rotation (I am now on my 16th rotation of 6th grade art), the spiel gets longer. The first one took 5 minutes. This rotation it took 3 days. I'll admit I never delved very deeply into the art of Monet or Van Gogh prior to teaching art. I knew who these men were, of course; I have had a print of Starry Night on my bedroom wall since I was 15. I've received a few Monet calendars as Christmas presents over the years. I had stood in awe before the magnificence of their paintings in museums before, but even after 7 semesters of college art history, well history has gone on for so long, there isn't time to get into all of it. And I don't even like history. I hated history. I never did well in history, which made my life as a college student very difficult in my art history classes. Add that to my ignorance of basic religion (I can blame my parents for that), and I was far too lost trying to figure out who on earth these Mary and Joseph people were that my professor kept talking about to really grasp the breadth of what was being taught. I studied, I memorized, I made stuff up when necessary, and then I moved it along through my conscious mind to make space for an onslaught of new information.

With each new unit I teach, no matter how many times I have taught it, I do a little refresher background research. So I have read up on Monet and Van Gogh over the years, and added more to my knowledge to share with students. When I get to the painting of Starry Night, right as rain, each time one kid will yell out "the guy who cut off his ear! Didn't he go nutzo and kill himself?" Each time, I would nod, dismiss the comment, and focus on the art. Focus on the colors. Each new rotation would have the same kid, usually with two legs of his chair 6 inches above the ground, chewing on a pen cap, scribbling on my desks, would chime in at the same point in my Powerpoint presentation with the same comment. Usually this kid would be one who I was surprised to see had been listening. Still, I dismissed the ear cutting/nut house/suicide/bloody mess comments every time. Well, when you know better, you do better. Why would I disregard the comments of a kid who I didn't even know was paying attention in the first place? Why wouldn't I ask myself "how did I inadvertently pique this kid's interest? How can I keep it?"
When I look at the texture of the brushstrokes in this painting, I always think about how it feels when your worries and emotions are all tangled up and rolling around in your stomach. This is how I imagine it would look if all that tumultuous surge of emotion were let go into the night sky. What if we all found a way to let that all out, the way Van Gogh did?
 Thank you, 60 minutes, for hitting me over the head with a proverbial sledgehammer. You are older and wiser than I, and I should have listened sooner. 60 minutes did a piece 2 weeks ago about the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, bringing to light new research regarding the circumstances of Vincent's untimely and tragic death. The images of the paintings were amazing, the views of the French countryside breathtaking, the ending sad, yet memorable. Ironically, I heard of this segment just a few days before I was going to run through my Post Impressionist spiel. This group knew more about the artists than any prior group. They couldn't contain their excitement to share with me their thoughts and observations about each new painting we looked at. Like clockwork, a kid who I actually refer to by the nickname "Michaelwith4legsofthechaironthegroundplease" shouts out "the nutzo guy who killed himself!!!" To which I replied, "that's funny, I heard somewhere that there was something on TV disputing that fact." They wanted to watch it. They wanted to know all about it. I told them we were going to paint the next day, and that this would take away from painting time. They didn't mind a bit. I read the transcript online, to make sure everything was appropriate to show. I worried that the monotonous voice of Morley Safer would leave them all snoring. I went for it anyway. We paused halfway through, and they were still on the edge of their seats. Several students told me they had watched it at home and "It was more powerful here without the commercial breaks". Many of them inched their seats closer to the big screen to get a better look. At the end, several students who had already seen the video told me how much more powerful it was to have seen it a second time.

60 minutes didn't just show the artwork, they showed photos of Vincent. We now had a face to connect all of this work to. We heard about his life. We heard about the way he was treated. We heard about how he failed at everything, yet didn't stop painting. We heard about all of his failures. We heard of his attempts to help himself. We heard that he wasn't just "crazy"; he had a medical diagnosis and was not well. We heard about his struggles. We saw the places that mattered to him and how he had depicted them, exaggerating and altering shape and color and form to express the anguish that he could do little else with. We saw the faces of the people who had put him down, disowned him, played cruel tricks on him, tormented him, possibly murdered him. We heard about how he used art and painting to find an outlet for this pain; how badly he wanted friends, but couldn't find any.

While my students saw all of these things and more unfolding on the screen, I saw 20 faces who had just recognized the face of someone who understood them, even if this person had died over 120 years ago. Who didn't experience at least one day of middle school either feeling the disapointment of failure, the loneliness of not having friends, the fear of being a disapointment to your family, or the cruelness of other kids who took their own insecurities out on you in the form of teasing and harrassment? Many kids feel this way every day. Most of these kids have no idea that not only have other people felt this way, but have eventually thrived and had an opportunity to shine later. In contrast, many of the kids who are doing the teasing, the harrassing, and the torturing, don't see the impact their behavior has on the target when he or she is alone. They don't fully comprehend the power of their words and actions or the pain they inflict.

Vincent died, of course, but he wasn't in pain anymore. He hadn't wanted to struggle. His legacy was able to live on through his paintings and be a source of comfort and inspiration to generations. Now, years later, we as a society are older and wiser and recognize his genius for what it was. In today's age of bullying, so many people comment that the world wasn't this way when they were growing up. It was in the late 19th century, and I don't know of anyone who was alive then. While Vincent Van Gogh might not be the number one role model for the new generation of art students to emulate, his message was a positive one: He never gave up. When life got harder, he worked harder. When he had no friends, he created them. When he could not communicate how he felt with words, he found a way to do so with color. He didn't bottle it all up inside and take it out on someone else. He confronted it. He looked for help. He made peace with himself and the world before he left it, and he left the world a more beautiful place than he had found it. Aren't those lessons sometimes the most important of all?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Swept Away by Hurricane School Year

I simply can not believe that we are in the middle of October already. It seems like just yesterday I was packing up my classroom for the summer.  As much as I love the school year, entering school that first day sometimes feels like boarding a space shuttle that will be hurtling through the atmosphere for 9 crazy months. There is no slowing down, and no getting off. As enjoyable as that wild and crazy ride ahead is sure to be, it is also the cause of some mourning, apprehension, a lot of planning, and a healthy dose of last minute panic. It has been a hectic few months and the blog postings have fallen by the wayside, but there is lots more to come. I've been spending a lot of time thinking, reading, and practicing:
  • 21st century learning skills and what that means in the world of art education
  • exciting new technology
  • organization nation (that could be a catchy new nick name for my class room)
  • working smarter, not harder
  • working twice as much (oops!) with all that time I have freed up working so smartly
  • making connections across curriculum
  • collaboration
and last but not least:
finding ways to slow down for a few minutes to capture and enjoy the fleeting quality of light and nature while it lasts (and how that can benefit your students as much as it benefits you); because isn't essentially what got us all started as artists in the first place?

More on all of this in the weeks and months ahead.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Subjects at War

There is an uproar happening right now in our building regarding the wording of the announcement for our annual award ceremony which has resulted in a large divide amongst colleagues. As educators, we have found ourselves separated into 2 opposing sides consisting of those who teach core subjects, and those who teach "the other stuff".

The award ceremony in our school is a long standing tradition in which friends and family are invited to share in our celebration of excellence. This year, teachers requested a drastic change in the way that they want to see this handled. Teachers whom I work with in our building and have had the utmost respect for have actually been very vocal in stating the fact that if their child were to receive an award of excellence in art, music, wellness, or physical education, they would be offended. That's when the claws came out from all angles. Despite the fact that I teach 3 drastically different courses throughout the day, rather than repeating one over and over, or the fact that I am often the last person to leave the building, or the fact that I design and implement my own comprehensive curriculum by scratch because there isn't one, or the fact that I don't have a textbook to give me all the questions to ask and the answers to expect, or the fact that I care so deeply about my job and the people I work with that I often spend the rest of the night going over and over how I can improve things, I don't work as hard as you do? I shouldn't be respected by students, families, or coworkers? I shouldn't be paid as much as you are? (yes, that actually was a separate topic of debate in prior years)

As a teacher, I feel so strongly about this topic that I have been turned to to be the voice for all of those on "our side" to explain ourselves to "the other side". I am typically the type to be more reserved and think things out of my own, rather than make waves, but I am certainly my father's daughter and as I have previously shared, he is not a force to be reckoned with. Somewhere along the line I must have picked up a bit of his tenaciousness, though it rarely rears its ugly head.  As an adult and a professional, I am so personally embarrassed that other professionals in this field would act in this way. I can not rightfully pick either side, even though as an art teacher it may appear obvious that I would find myself on the latter. I am not. I seem to be standing alone on the third side; that of the student, which I feel needs to have more advocacy.

As I have told my colleagues, I am very proud that so many students have exceeded my expectations in art this year, and I believe that they deserve to be recognized. Each student is different; every single student possesses their own unique strengths and talents, and it is important that their achievements are celebrated, regardless of what content area those achievements are in. So many incredibly hard working art students have told me that something one of us taught in a rotation class helped them to understand something in math, history, etc. Should they not be recognized for their effort and growth just because it didn't all happen only while they were sitting in a room designated for a core subject?

I am personally not offended if the subject I teach is not as respected, or if I am not as respected by colleagues as a teacher, because I know with confidence that what I teach is of value for students. What does offend me is when there is a lack of respect for the students who work so hard in our classes. It is not about me, or about any other teacher in the building; it is about what is in the best interest of the students. We are all here because we share the common goal of wanting to teach students and to see each one of them succeed. All of our subject areas work together to help create a well rounded, well educated student who is able to think critically and apply his or her knowledge toward future growth.

To send home notice that a student will receive an award that is in a core subject vs. a non core subject sends the message to parents that as a school we collectively believe that a student who excels in one subject is valued differently than a student who excels in another subject, and I think that is the wrong lesson to be teaching kids.

On top of all this I spent my morning listening to, and helping to diffuse an issue among students regarding a complex disagreement. I met with a student (who is not even enrolled in my class) to offer study advice, offered extra art time to a student who just really needed someplace to go and be accepted, and taught a group of rowdy kids what is and is not acceptable behavior in the cafeteria. All of this before I have even started my first class in my subject area. I can surely promise that not every lesson learned in my art classes today will be an isolated art specific concept which will be rendered useless the moment that students go home for the day.

Imagine if we all worked together toward our one shared goal of helping our students and respecting each other for how hard and often thanklessly we work for what we love and believe in, what a better place this must be? How do you feel about what the perception in your building is about your value as a teacher? Do you think it should have any contingency on the subject that you teach?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cultivating Creativity

I've heard groaning lately among fellow teachers (including myself) about the utter exhaustion we feel at the end of the week after answering the same common sense questions over and over for the same students who aren't willing to think for themselves. We have so many decisions each minute to process on our own, it would be exorbitant to make that same number of decisions minute by minute for each child we work with. It is our job to teach them not just content, but how to think. What good is content if you don't know what to do with it?

I loved this conversation today:
"Can you tell me what to draw? I'm tired of drawing the same thing over and over again. What can I draw??"


"Well, you could draw:
your pencil
your pencil with a face
your seat on the school bus
an imaginary treehouse you wish you had
the class you just left
the aprons you see hanging up
your route to school in the morning
a roll of paper towels
the mess that roll of paper towels could be picking up
what your pet alligator would look like if you had one
what you would look like if you had glasses
a calculator answering the phone
what the world would look like if it was flat
a crumpled up paper bag
your favorite kind of fruit
the person sitting across from you
the empty space between two people sitting across from you
the pattern you see on the floor
the inside of your locker
your least favorite food..."

"Ok, I get it. I just realized it doesn't really matter what I draw. I can draw ANYTHING!"

20 minutes later:

"I drew a rich penguin with a jet pack holding a water pistol... He's a spy."

"But that wasn't on my list?"

"I know. I figured if you could come up with all those ideas so fast, I could come up with at least one of my own."

Monday, May 23, 2011

My Little Department is Growing Up

"I want more art. Why can't I have art twice?" "Why can't I have art all year?" "Why don't I have art at all this year?" "Why does art have to end?" "How can I make sure I have art next year?" I answer these questions with "I understand how you feel, maybe you should talk to your guidance counselor or the principal about it. Unfortunately, I have no control over the schedule."

Two summers ago, the very day that I had conceded I would never find a job teaching art and finally, reluctantly, broke the news to my restaurant manager that I would, in fact, need a full time spot on the waitressing schedule in the fall, I received a message from an unknown area code. I ran to the ladies room to take the call, and the unfamiliar voice on the end offered me a last minute interview in a part of the state I had never even heard of, let alone knew how to find. I went for it.

During the interview for the .6 art position, I was asked two very poignant questions: The principal wanted to know how, as potentially the only part time teacher in the school, I would make myself known throughout the building. She also wanted to know, hypothetically, if I were to receive an art teacher position with only a week and a half notice and zero materials, how I would manage. I don't remember what my responses were, but apparently they were the right ones, and both of those scenarios became my real life problems immediately. The following days were a blur of running around to gather paperwork, track down transcripts, get immunizations, and fax things that, well, needed to be faxed. I had less than two weeks to design a comprehensive art curriculum from scratch. There simply wasn't one. And she wasn't kidding about the lack of supplies. When the former teacher had decided she would be leaving, she had requested that all prior orders in place not be filled. In fact, the position (and thus, the department) had recently been eliminated and then incrementally reinstated just prior to my interview.

Since then, it's been a whirlwind of activity. I have taught 3 classes a day, all to different grade levels, with very different curriculums, which hopefully is sequential and transitions well throughout the years. There were many nights last year when I didn't leave school until 8 or 9 pm, with just enough time to get some rest before doing it again. A lot of nights I would lie awake and wonder "what am I going to do tomorrow?" The early morning traffic was horrendous. I was told early on in that first year that with the state of the economy and the looming number of layoffs ahead, it was not likely that I would get to teach art full time in the near future. It was entirely ruled out fairly early in the second half of the year. I was told that I was more than welcome to seek out other employment. I was deflated.

I found other ways to make art a part of this school's culture. What should have been my prep period happened to coincide with 6th grade study, so I made myself available for any 6th grader who wanted to come in for more art. I conserved supplies whenever I could so that I could stretch them farther to be available to more students. Before long, I had an unofficial full class of students. I kept going. I entered my school in a regional art show, recognizing the outstanding work of 15 of my students at another school 40 minutes away. I didn't let it bother me when no one from my school or administration attended. I let them hear about it through the grapevine. The following year I requested to substitute the remaining 40% of the day, so that I could be more involved in the full school day. I continued to field the the "why don't I have art?" requests the same way. I kept on going, making little more than what it cost me in gas and oil changes to get there. I took long walks with friends as I ferreted out how I would pay my rent if I kept going this way.

If participating in a regional art show didn't make me a presence in the school, I would just have to host it. I invited the Superintendent to speak to up to 500 attendees on the value of art in education. To my surprise, she accepted. I put so much of myself into that show that I was asked to be co-coordinator going forward. I filled the lobby with artwork for our annual Arts Night, and kept it up for over a month. No one was going to enter the building and not see the art we had created. I let everyone know how hard my students had worked at every opportunity, never asking for the credit. They really have worked hard; in fact they have amazed me time and time again with what they are capable of. I lived by the "beg, borrow, steal" method of aquiring supplies. If someone's grandmother's sister's friend's cousin's uncle just happened to have a penchant for saving old milk caps or coffee cans, I'd take them and find a way to put them to use. I have a list of people who save newspapers for me. I have acquired an unused dusty old skeleton and a few gallons of glue from the closets of other teachers. If you can give it to me, I'll find a way to repurpose it.

We are still in a time of extreme economic hardship. School budgets are still in deficits of millions of dollars, and teachers are still unsure from one year to the next what their employment situation will be. I am both pleased and amazed to be able to share that I will be teaching art full time next September. We did it. The reality of that hasn't entirely sunk in with me yet.

Meanwhile, my brain is on the brink of explosion thinking up all the ways that I will revamp my curriculum and make space for more students, both in my class and in my day. I will need to be more organized than ever, as I won't have the empty morning hours to fill during my sub time when no one is out to cover for. In fact, I'll probably be subbing more than ever until the end of this year while teachers make the mad dash to use up all of their untouched personal days. I will be using my 15 minute prep period each day to dig through old files and paperwork, cutting out the extra and making room for the new. I will need to find whole new methods of organization. I will be presented with new challenges regarding stretching my budget to make it work for me and will face the obstacle of motivating reluctant students now that art will be mandatory for all and taking the easy way out in a study is no longer an option. I anticipate that the year ahead will be as hectic as the first, and that in addition to tackling these issues, many more will arise that I could never imagine today. These and more are topics you can expect to be reading about in posts to come.

Research shows that teachers make more split second decisions per minute than brain surgeons. This 'always on' decision generation, combined with the demand for ultimate and constant patience, results in an extreme mental fatigue that our longer-day working, longer commuting, or physical labor partaking friends can't really understand. It will be an adventure, I'm sure, but for now I am going to take the time to revel in the accomplishment of a job well done, and my upcoming retreat to the serenity of summer.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Other Side (of the job)

Two students hunted me down at the door early this morning asking for large construction paper. I typically turn down these requests: money in the budget is tighter than I could ever imagine and if I say yes to one student or teacher, then there's no limit to how many requests I will receive from the other 500-600 people in the building. I was feeling generous this morning and told them to meet me in the classroom and I would see what I could do for them. One of the girls came up, clutching an envelope that said "donations", and asked for the biggest piece of paper I had. She wanted to make sure that there was enough space for every kid in the 7th grade to sign, and it had to be perfect. I asked her if there was anything else I could do for her, and she thought maybe markers might help.

There was one other thing she needed, but she didn't know if it was something I would have in the art room. She needed to know what you are supposed to say to your best friend when her father has just died. I was not expecting to have this sort of a loaded question asked of me at 7:30 in the morning, and I wasn't sure exactly how to respond right away. It's so hard being a kid. Dealing with death as an adult is hard enough, but we often forget that kids going through these things are experiencing them for the first time, and that they have no idea how to react or to cope.

I was the same age as these girls when my step mother died, and I didn't know then what was acceptable to say either. I remember clearly that when I went back to school a part of me wanted to tell anyone and every one who would listen, so they would understand why the littlest things would make me sad. A C+ on my progress report made me act out in homeroom, not because I cared at all about my grades, but because the last time I had a bad grade and was on the receiving end of the lecture of doom from my dad, my stepmom was the one who gave me a juicebox, cleaned up my tears, and reassured me that everything would be ok. Seeing another girl's brand new white Keds (it was the 90's, afterall) made me aloof and distracted while my friends were in a deep discussion about yesterday's Regis and Kathie Lee show, because my stepmom had given me the same sneakers in my Easter basket the year before.

Going on a school trip to Montreal was the worst, because it had been my stepmom who had adamantly fought both of my parents for my permission to go on the trip, and had ultimately paid for it and signed the permission slip herself. She had always been my biggest and proudest supporter, and now I felt as though I were all alone. None of my teachers or other adults in my life had any idea that I was going through any of this. It was on that trip that I finally broke down and cried for the first time, on the floor in the corner of a hotel room, in front of almost total strangers. That was the day that I made some of my best friends. In fact I had a good cry on the phone with one of them just yesterday, even though it is 18 years later. I don't remember if she had any idea what to say to me then, but by now she always does, and she typically will call and say it about 5 minutes before I even realize that I needed her to.

I may be an adult now (even though I usually still feel I am only pretending to be), but I still don't always have the words to say or know what is appropriate behavior in any given situation. Even so, I am honored to have been asked such a question this morning. The curriculum may be designed to cover the state Curriculum Frameworks in visual art, but as teachers, we are in a unique position to be able to teach kids about life, at a time when they need it the most. Middle school is among the toughest of experiences, and kids can never have too many "biggest and proudest supporters" pulling for them. I am learning more from these kids every day, and although the circumstances in this case are unpleasant, I am thankful for the reminder that while kids are here with us for 6 hours, there is no end to the list of other things that are on their minds and affecting their thoughts and actions every day. When it all comes down to it, getting the subject content across is so important, but it's the lessons that are learned in between that make the biggest difference in the future.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Monday Morning Moment

"There are always flowers for those who want to see them." - Matisse

Everyone knows what it's like to have a case of the Mondays, but what if we thought of those long Monday mornings instead as an opportunity to motivate ourselves? At the very least, thinking about motivation on a Monday allows me to use alliteration in the title of this post.

I may have entered into teaching art mainly because I wanted to share my love of color, design, and aesthetics, but really, above all - this is why I teach:

"My painting is about taking risks. Finishing this project helped me to feel more positive and successful. Painting this type of a picture inspires me and makes me believe in myself every day as I see it improving and looking greater every day. As the days progress, people's perspective changes, not just about my work, but about me. It's okay for this progress to be slow and steady, it can still make something great. I would call this The New Me because I have always been a negative person, but taking this class and getting through this painting has changed me into a more positive person."

If you had ever met this particular 7th grade girl, her words would mean so much more. Since she entered my classroom for the first time last year, I had never once seen her smile. She was upset and irritable, self conscious and nervous. She was unwilling to even attempt anything, because she had zero belief that it would ever even be worth it. She presented a bit of a challenge for me, because she reminded me so much of my former 12 year old self.  This morning she was waiting for me at my desk clutching this piece of lined paper that she couldn't wait to share with me. She was grinning ear to ear and waited for me to read it. When I told her she did a great job and should be proud of herself, she still had to ask me "Really? Are you sure?" But at least it's a start.

This job isn't always the easiest, but in the spirit of positive thinking, I would rather focus on moments like these than on the student who paper mache'd my back (yes you read that right) and classroom ceiling during last period and momentarily reminded me what a case of the Mondays is all about. If having that attitude can carry over just once and help any of my 500 students feel more successful and capable, I think it's all worth it. As much as I want my students to leave my classroom with an understanding of the elements of art, a familiarity with art history, and increased observational skills, it's important to understand that teaching art so often really isn't about teaching art at all. It's about providing a safe place where kids can take risks, experience successes and failures, and learn valuable life lessons about themselves.