Friday, April 29, 2011

The Lost Art of the Thank You Note

 I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.  ~G.K. Chesterton
My Aunt Lillian, at age 96, remains to this day a firm believer in the thank you note. As a kid, every Christmas or birthday would be marked by a neatly wrapped package containing a carefully chosen outfit or a card with a $25 check and a note inside which always ended "hello to your mother and sister".  It was as predictable as the fact that everywhere Aunt Lillian goes, she brings her signature homemade brownies wrapped in tinfoil. She celebrates every occasion with the same brownies she has made since I was born, and I am sure long before that. And just as predictably, after each holiday my parents would remind me to write Aunt Lillian a thank you note, with the same unrelenting nagging that would generally be reserved for making my bed or doing the dishes. Each time, they would recant the same story about the one year that my California cousins did not thank Aunt Lillian. The following Christmas, my always kind and cheerful Aunt Lillian sent nothing to go under their tree. I never understood what the big deal was or why my parents would insist on reminding me over and over of the one time in her 96 years that my Aunt Lillian did something mean.

I think I get it now.

At teacher orientation this year, we recieved cubes with inspirational phrases or words on each side. Mine had the words "hope", "wish & dream", "inspire", "speak kindly", and "give thanks". That last side got me to thinking. Every time I looked at it, I thought of Thanksgiving. I had never heard that phrase outside of the month of November, and here it was, September 1st; I'm wearing shorts and flip flops, still in full-on summer mode, and we're talking about November holidays already? I'm not ready for this.

I received a letter in the mail yesterday from my step brother, who is far away at the moment. I miss him dearly, but life is hectic and times are tough, and sometimes we just don't have the time to call up the people we care about. And chances are, those people don't always have the same block of free time to chat that we do. So life moves on, and time passes too fast, and before we know it, we've lost touch with people. It happens. So I was surprised to receive the letter, and in it, my brother told me about a book he had read recently about a singer, which reminded him of a concert we had gone to together almost a year ago now, and he just wanted to tell me what a great time he had had and to thank me for being there.

That letter was bittersweet. It made my day, and while it made me miss my step brother who is so far away, and made me think of my older brother, Warren. Warren lost a short battle with leukemia 5 years ago and was also a big fan of giving thanks. He made everyone feel important and valued by always making a point to notice the positives and point them out. He said thank you. There are so many times that I want to call him and say "thank you for inspiring me/making my day/making me appreciate things I otherwise wouldn't notice/teaching me how to make awesome pasta/being my big brother, etc." But I can't. Either way, the handwritten letter I received yesterday really made my day. I had no idea that whatever it was I had done last August had made an impact on someone else's day, but it felt really good to hear that it did.

So I decided to pay it forward. Our PTO president had graciously offered to help organize our Arts Night which took place two days ago, and she took care of all the paperwork and red tape that I had just finished going through for Art in the Valley and didn't want to have to do all over again. She made my life a million times easier. So I went out and got a thank you card, and wrote her a short note, letting her know how much her efforts were appreciated. Placing the card in her mailbox made me feel every bit as good as though I were receiving it myself. The more we take time to express our gratitude, not only do we bring happiness to others, but it will always come back to us. So why not do it more? Who can you take a minute of your time to thank today?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Art Show Madness

Today marks my return from a brief hiatus from writing, sleeping, and time to hear myself think, so that can only mean one thing: last night was our annual Arts Night. After all the blood (stapled my finger to the bulletin board - oops!), sweat (it's toasty up here on the 3rd floor and the last minute kiln firings definitely heat things up), and tears (this one's a stretch, but doing all this while wearing heels does make me wish my feet were removable), now I have the time for some peace, quiet, and reflection again.

This year's Arts Night marks our school's third art show ever. I can't comment on the first one, because I wasn't here yet, but from what I have heard, it was a spontaneous decision made sometime in April by our principal at the time, to the surprise of the art teacher, and resulted in a lot of stress. Arts night number 2 will be forever embedded in my mind as a tornado of frustration, worry, and panic. At least I knew about it in September, but as a first year teacher, something that happens all the way at the end of the year was my last concern. My day to day worries were more of the "what am I going to teach tomorrow", "what kind of fairy can I summons to make these nonexistent supplies suddenly appear?", and "how on earth am I going to get through today?" variety. In the end, I was buried in paper, every type of adhesive known to man, and was making last minute panicked calls to every friend, family member, and coworker, to please run to Home Depot for me and find something, anything, that will make this stuff actually stick to the walls! I pulled it off and drove home thinking what a relief it would be to now be able to relax and know that my first art show was behind me. We don't know what we don't know, and boy was I in for a reality check when I returned to work the next day and realized that I had a year's worth of artwork I had been hoarding, created by all 500 students at my school, now coated in layer upon layer of sticky mess, and had no idea what to do with it all or how I would return any of it to its rightful owner. I laboriously looked up the schedule and homeroom of every student I had ever had and tried to track down as many of them as I could, waving papers at them which they didn't remember creating in the first place. I'd say at least 50% of the work didn't even have names on it, and while I am still proud of the speed at which I learned all of their names clever mnemonics to recall 80% of their names, until the day they would leave my class and be replaced by a new group, but in May, I certainly wasn't able to remember which elusive artist had made the clay pineapple which way back in September, still unfired and wrapped in plastic, was now coated in mold. Much of it remained unclaimed and I couldn't bear to toss it, so it was jam-packed  filed in every crevice I could find and remained there to haunt me of art shows past this September. I think I'm just now getting over that.

That lesson resulted in this handy new filing system I implemented back in September. All finished artwork needs to have a homeroom number written on the back in order to receive full credit. When my graded work pile gets too big for me to look at and I have the time, I spread out off the folders on my classroom tables and file everything by homeroom. I pull exemplary work as I go, put it on the "art show" shelf, and check the student's name off in my grade book. Work that is extra extra awesome goes on another shelf, which helps me narrow down choices for our big huge regional art show, which I now coordinate, display in the school committee room, the principal's office, and for awards at end of year. Those names are checked off in my book too. Leading up to Arts Night, I can take a quick scan through my book, and if a name here or there never got checked off, I open up that student's homeroom folder and choose something. In June, I will just drop off the folders in each homeroom and be done with it. Easy peasy. So far. I'll get back to you when the year is done.

So back to last night's Art's Night.. I was so disappointed after last year's poor turnout after all that hard work, that I brainstormed and brainstormed how on earth I could increase attendance this year and get more people to show up. When the application for school use didn't go through until 2 days before the actual day of the event, I couldn't even announce a date for the thing until the day before (yes, you read that right - an announcement was literally made that went something along the lines of "oh, by the way - we just decided we're going to have Arts Night tomorrow - hope you can make it!") I was certain that I would be standing in the lobby alone, looking at the accumulation of a year's worth of art, but I was blown away by how many people made it this year. It was a one hour show, with short performances by the band and jazz band, an intermission to view "the art gallery", and hors d'oeuvres served by Student Council volunteers. It started at 6pm. At 5:57, as I was hanging the last painting (yeah, I live on the edge and cut it close), I literally could not move because I was surrounded by people.

So what gives?

In promoting a new product of any kind, the best advertisement is word of mouth. But it doesn't hurt to have a gimmick.

Last year's Arts Night featured a mural sized photorealistic portrait of our principal, created by the 8th grade class. I came up with it on the fly as a group activity to use for my first ever teacher evaluation. After weeks of studying line, value, and space, we did a unit on Chuck Close and his use of the grid method. I wanted students to work on self portraits, but knew that they would be intimidated and overwhelmed by the whole concept. So I had them cut up a photo of the principal into teeny tiny squares (they liked that part a little too much), and each student had one square to draw. Broken up into manageable parts, they each only needed to be concerned with line, value, shape and form of one abstract little piece, not the mammoth undertaking of "how do I draw a nose?!?!". Finished squares were glued to my giant grid, and with each new class, we added new squares. When the grid was filled, students worked from the photo to smooth out any uneven transitions from square to square, and the result was an incredibly realistic larger than life drawing of the principal. It created a bit of a buzz around the building, and was a huge hit at the art show.

This year, we had a 4 foot tall alien. Two 6th grade boys started this as part of a 5 day paper mache lesson last year, and I must have had a momentary bout of insanity when I agreed to let these two kids make their sculpture whatever size they wanted. The rotation ended soon thereafter, but they returned during studies, lunches, after school, etc., working out how to build this structure. I was not prepared for the amount of physics involved in creating a 5 foot tall creature out of household trash, newspaper, and glue. One student came back this year and kept going with it, adding an elevated plaster base and painted it. Each new crop of students wanted to know what the deal was with the alien in the corner and what I was going to do with it. I would tell them briefly that it was a 2 year venture by a couple of students and that I was saving it to show at this year's Arts Night. Between that and all the hoopla surrounding Art in the Valley, which I hosted here earlier in the month, people must have been curious to see what has transpired in the art room now.

So, what will be the big draw next year? I have no idea, but I'm certainly going to take one very long nap before even considering it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Room With(out) a View

The view from my favorite after school walk.

This week typically marks April vacation week here in the northeast. After a particularly grueling winter, our school is open for part of the week. At first I didn't think it was a big deal: after all, it would keep me from sweltering into July in my third floor room with no windows, but I'm starting to second think my opinion. We have just started our last quarter, and I need a rest to start and finish this quarter with the same kind of energy as the first. I thought maybe I was being selfish this morning while driving to work, wishing I were still in my bed, longing for a rainy lazy weekday morning with nowhere to be. Afterall, we do have 13 weeks of vacation in a normal year. But if there were still any doubt in my mind by this afternoon of the importance of vacation, well then the roomful of expressionless zombies who stood in for my usual rambunctious group this afternoon speaks for itself.

As teachers, artists, and students, we have so many demands on our time day to day that it's easy for us to get so caught up in what we are doing that we forget to take time for us. How do you unwind and recharge during those long vacationless stretches? What are some creative ways you have found to keep your students engaged during these times?

The Art of Classroom Management

I recently had my final evaluation for the school year. I was a little nervous, because it was only my second day with this group of students, we have new administration this year, and I am in the midst of art show season; which means that on observation day I was running short on time, sleep, and patience. At my follow up meeting this morning, the comment that was made by my principal was that it was almost creepy how well behaved my students were. I don't want to toot my own horn here; each new class is a mixed bag, and I often feel out how the quarter will go as it goes along, just like they do. He closed with the comment that "none of the recommendations or concerns from last year were anywhere on the radar at any time this year; I am curious what you are doing differently."

Well, so am I.

I had thought that last year's evaluations were great, especially in my first year as an educator, so of course the first thing I did was head up to my classroom, open up my file cabinet, and pour over each evaluation report in order, looking for clues to piece together my professional self. And somewhere in all that text, I found the subtle hints that point to classroom management "water running, girls whispering, 2 seconds pause..." Many of my lessons were the same as this year. The script of my voice varied very little, which actually surprised me because even though I plan out my lessons in detail in advance, I often feel as though my delivery is a little 'fly by the seat of my pants' in style. But what was different was the change in student behavior; a variable I once felt I had very little control over. So what gives? Art teachers are artists outside the classroom, but we are also artists in the classroom. We are consistently redesigning the art of teaching. Some things work, some don't, but in the end, our classrooms are performance art. So what have I revamped between then and now:

I personalize my approach:
I know my kids. Yes, I said my kids, not my students. I don't teach to them, I teach with them. We are learning together. I try every chance I get to let them know I get them. Except for when I don't. And in that case, I ask questions. I hand out a questionnaire on the first day of each class. I have modified the questions over time. I actually read the responses. When I’m feeling ambitious, I type them up in an Excel spreadsheet to get a feel for the personality of the individuals within the class and the class as a whole before we begin.

I challenge each student to tell me one thing that makes them unique. I had trouble with that when I was a teenager, too, and I feel like if I had one teacher who told me how important it was to know and recognize something special about myself, it would have made a difference. I ask their favorite color. I ask why. I ask about their thoughts on music in the classroom. They make compelling arguments in both directions. More about that later.

I let them see the future:
Who doesn't want to know what happens next. I don't give away all my secrets on day one, but I give them a general big picture of what they can expect of me and what I expect of them. I tell them why. I tell them how I grade. No, it has nothing to do with your love of this class, your talent in art, whether you have the same favorite color as me, or whether you were born on a Tuesday. Grading art and understanding art grades is mystifying to most. Yes, it's subjective. I don't grade art, I grade learning. Regardless of your interest, talent, or love of the subject, you are here to learn new concepts, new ideas, and to grow in some way. I know that this has happened when you demonstrate it to me. I have the same rubric for every assignment that helps me evaluate this. It's consistent. More on that one later, too.

I have common sense rules. Be responsible. (Show up on time, take care of the materials, do the right thing.) Be respectful. (I won't talk over you, so please don't talk over me.) And Be Positive. (You may not like what we're doing, but you're sure to like it even less if you drag us all down by complaining about it. Give it a try and then move on.) I have this all typed up in a document that they bring home and have signed by a parent and returned to me. I know it sounds harsh and strict, but I explain that I don't do this to give them more paperwork or to set them up for a reason to have detention if it isn’t returned. My reasoning is plain and simple: So we are all on the same page. If I have to call Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so to explain that Johnny has a written assignment about Impressionism, rather than a painting, because he painted his hands instead of the paper and chose to leave a trail from here to his locker, Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So already know who I am and why I am calling. When I reason with them in a way they can understand, they usually respond.

I have a routine that works:
Last year we were encouraged to use activators and summarizers in every classroom. I understand this is a great way to make learning bell-to-bell, but with only 48 minutes in the art room, I need every minute I can get if I want to offer meaningful hands on art making. Last year, I also taught in the morning. This year, each and every one of my classes happens immediately after that group has had lunch, so if I didn't understand the need for activators last year, boy do I ever understand them now. Spending 10 minutes of class doing busywork on paper felt like a waste of time, paper, and focus to me, so I did some research. I'm really turning my focus to creativity this year, and its importance not just in the art room, but in life, so I thought that any extra activity should help foster creativity. If all a student leaves my classroom with is an increased ability to use his or her imagination and apply critical thinking skills to his or her science lab, math test, or ELA report, I've been at least somewhat successful here.

So we start every class with 5 minutes of silent drawing time. This works regular as clockwork. I have a massive timer set to 5 minutes on my Smartboard, paper by the door for them to pick up as they enter, and on the board under the date, I have the word "observation", "memory", or "imagination". They know that when the timer starts, talking stops. My lessons may be structured with a desired end result, but this drawing is theirs. It is their time to transition from the cafeteria to the classroom, and to explore drawing that no one will look at, within unstructured parameters. The only rule is to use the prompt, and to keep at it for 5 minutes. I have one student pass out little neon sticky notes as silent reminders to stay on task, and their "sketchbooks", which are folded construction paper with their names on it to hold the drawings. I find they show respect to each other, and the blurt alerts are often unnecessary. The neatly labeled folders help me learn names if I forget. I like observation, because I feel that one can never get enough of observing his or her surroundings as a means of learning to draw, but imagination is our favorite. Everyone wants to have the most original and crazy drawing. I give them a minute to tell us what they drew. Overall, I’m finding that these 5 minutes have not amounted to much time lost from my art curriculum at all, because I’ve cut out the 5 minutes of chaos while everyone enters and gets their things together that I’ve seen in art rooms.

In what ways have you fine-tuned your art of teaching over time?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Teaching and Learning

I came across my Practicum Journal the other day. As a senior in college, in the midst of student teaching, on the road to graduation and teacher certification, we were required to write a journal entry every day. I would spend time before and after class, jotting down notes, reflecting on the day. I would type it up in a long, rambling Word document and add to it each and every day. Some entries were several pages long, others just a sentence. Those are some of the most meaningful to me. On the last day, I printed out the stack of paper, spiral bound it, painted a cover, and arrived at class ready to show off my hard work. To my surprise, the professor handed us each a ribbon, told us to tie it up and put it away; to refer back to it someday. I couldn’t believe all my hard work, my sweat and tears, wouldn’t even be looked at. I had always been a reluctant student, but I have to admit, I had cried my face off that day. I cried leaving the school where I was teaching, wishing I could stay there and keep learning, I cried while thanking and saying goodbye to my professor/advisor who had gotten me to this point; I didn’t even know what it was I was crying about. Learning and teaching is all about growing, and sometimes growing is just plain hard. That isn’t always a bad thing. Reading back, that journal was one of the most meaningful components of my education. I keep it in my desk drawer and refer to it when I’ve had a challenging day in the classroom or an exhilarating day in the classroom. It reminds me who I am and why I am here. Reading back through my 25 year old self’s mind, I am astonished at how I have gotten to where I am. As an undergrad, I struggled every day. I never could find the hours in the day to focus in class, get the homework done, get the sleep I needed, get to my myriad of part time jobs, get the bills paid on time, do my laundry or make my bed. I never could figure out what combinations of majors or minors would make me happy and help me to build the future that I wanted. I tried everything. I let myself fail. I tried again. I added to my student loans while I struggled to figure it all out.

Everything changed the day I began my student teaching experience. I wasn’t even sure this was something I wanted to do, just one more lengthy requirement on the road to graduation, toward the gateway of being a grownup and working some sort of career for the rest of my life and saying goodbye to being a kid. My life changed forever the day I began teaching. I was terrified of my high school students at the onset of this experience, and I’ll never forget calling my Dad at 5am, waking him up, in sheer terror and panic, and asking for advice. His only advice to me was “so what”. To understand the delivery of this advice, one would really have to understand my father. It was more of a loud, stern, reverberating earthquake of an exclamation than a phrase. My father has never been a master at the art of subtlety, and his blunt advice got me through those first few scary dark mornings. When I worried what those rebellious and reluctant teenagers thought of me, my ideas, my rules, I told myself “so what”, and to my surprise, I won them over. I am so glad I chronicled so much of it, or it may have escaped my memory. I hope to someday recapture the energy I had then. I threw myself into my student teaching experience, teaching full time 5 days a week with a 45 minute commute each way, taking a 3 hour seminar every Tuesday night an hour and a half from home, taking an intensive studio painting course, and working full time as a bartender to pay the rent for my studio apartment, which wasn’t much bigger than my car. At that time, I may have been better off just referring to my car as my home, because when I wasn’t working, that’s where I was. For 13 weeks, I did not have one day off. I worked sun up to sun down, I rarely slept, I’m still honestly not sure when or if I ever did my laundry. I probably wouldn’t have remembered to eat if it weren’t for the fact that in my tiny apartment if I were to roll out of bed in the middle of the night, I would have crashed into the refrigerator. And never before or since have I had so much energy or passion for life. I spent every day in awe and inspired by all of the opportunities and accomplishments I found in the classroom that year. The experience wasn’t my road to the boredom of adulthood, it was a return to seeing life through the eyes of a child, with the sense of wonder and amazement and possibility that so many of us lose with age and experience. I think I owe a lot of that to the habit of taking a few quiet minutes each day to write it down; to reflect, to give thanks, and imagine. So here I am, starting this, to inspire myself and maybe others, to connect and to share ideas. I am in my second year of teaching art, and sometimes I find I am in such a whirlwind of art and teaching and life, that I don’t take the time to appreciate and reflect. I am accomplishing a lot, organizing student art shows, developing a rewarding rapport with my students, and recently being appointed co-coordinator of a regional art show which I have been so fortunate to have participated in for the past two years. I am still learning as I go, fine tuning my day to day teaching style, my curriculum design, my displays of student work, my assessment tools, and my hopes and dreams for the future. It is here that I hope to take note and capture not only the big hurdles, ideas, and accomplishments, but the little day to day tidbits that make this career so awesome. I look forward to sharing all of these things with you and hearing what happens in your classrooms, too.