Opening cupboards, opening minds

Starting the second year in your new school is like touring an old neighborhood you used to live in – ah yes, here is where I get these items, this is where I found comfort, this is where we had fun etc. Or the opposite feelings too; like my feelings about these grey cupboards. Ah grey cupboards, my old friends – so many secrets, so many hidden treasures, so difficult to access!

IMG_3700In my pursuit of open-ended-what-on-earth-is-this-going-to-look-like-units (I am sure there is a fancier name for this). I did not know what materials my students needed, they didn’t know either. As the briefs opened up, students designed individual, very different and very exciting plans for their artworks. This started happening:

“Ms Anna do you have?” – Ah, maybe… let me check, I have this size and this size… not big enough huh? Let me check this cupboard…

“Ms Anna where is?” – I think its on the left top shelf under the… no the other side, no the other way, actually its in the other cupboard, wait a moment I’ll come and look…

Multiply these questions by about 160 students – arghhhhhh! These cupboards were hindering the creative process.

Students need free access to materials, they need to touch and feel the properties of the materials and their possibilities, they need to mix and match, test and make mistakes, create the unknown… the materials themselves are invitations to play (by the way, Early Years teachers, you know more than all of us!) and experiment. Enter in our “stations”.

These have only been up and running for four weeks now and I have already seen a dramatic increase in ownership, the art sketchbook as a tool to document process, sharing of ideas amongst students (I’m learning new ones too!), curiosity and delight. I love watching students dart across the room mixing and matching materials. Painters are blending wet materials in ways they never had before, constructors are working with three dimensional materials in a new ways I have not seen either. Flip it around, those students who cannot let go of their love of markers are freely exploring other materials with a low-stakes, see what happens environment. My students are artists and they are working the art studio like an artist does. They come in and pick up right off where they left and its so rewarding to watch! For all parties involved, even my wonderful assistant said “Ms Anna I was a bit worried about putting all these materials out, I thought they would go to crazy but its really nice”.

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Giving Feedback in “the thick of it”

We are a week out from our Grade 4 Exhibition. A week out from trailing the first ‘Spotlight on the Arts’ with Grade 4 as our guinea pigs. Our artists will be presenting a final work based on this stand-alone unit:

Central Idea: Artists use traditional materials and techniques (2D & 3D) to remix their subject matter (Lego) in new, unusual and original ways.
 
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Long story short… I’ve taken the students through a series of traditional observational drawing techniques focusing on tone and value, using Jim Dine as our inspiration etc. etc. the usual stuff… as I am always in the pursuit of student-choice / self-directed artworks / student ownership / whatever you like to call it, I wanted them to enjoy producing something for the Exhibition that is theirs. So, handing them this planning sheet with the premise of remixing all they have learnt and enjoyed in this unit into a final work (more on this crucial step another day). Letting go of the reigns and following their lead; I am their supporter, cheerleader and sous chef. But its not all sunshine and roses, as we are so close to the deadline everyone is under pressure. In this pressure cooker my TA is working tirelessly, students are helping  and encouraging each other, and I, well, I feel like a chicken with its head cut off. Its exciting but I am going crazy! So, the reason I am writing today is because I have had a major break through! On a solitary Saturday morning in the art room, I laid out the student work for Monday morning and strolled through each one in silence, in peace and calm… it is what my wonderful art teaching colleague Naomi Feil and I are always harping on about with our kids, creativity needs time, space, and quiet to work. So, I wrote some last minute tips, questions and prompts on post-its that are otherwise quite hard for me to do “in the thick of it”. The idea is when they arrive on Monday morning they can have their art teacher right beside them in the hopefully make and not break last session. I have planned the rest of the week with spaces to do this again for each class with zero interruptions – I may even lock my door!

Yes you can or Let’s try

A Culture of Permission in the Art Class

Yesterday I was invited to join a podcast conversation centered around “A Culture of Permission” in our schools with Sam Sherratt, Frank Hua and Cathy Brown. Inspired by Sam’s post on Inquiry and a Culture of Permission.

Still reflecting on some of the snippets from yesterday reinforces my pursuit of student driven projects in the art room – where everyone involved are left smiling, fulfilled, proud and really feeling like an artist. With years 10 years of art teaching under my belt, 4 years of fine arts training and years and years of creating art – I do not assume to know what will or will not work for a student. Sometimes, I have a pretty fair inclination that what they want to do may not work. A recent example being, this idea a student wanted to try was definitely a book carved out with a laser cutter – the first reaction in my mind was oh dear this is not going to work, it will not have the effect he is after. But… what will he learn if I say “No, you can’t do that”? That his ideas are silly? That he’s not skillful enough? That he’s dreaming and he should aim lower next time? ARGH! Awful! So, instead I said “Sure, let’s give it a try!”. From the sidelines I encouraged gentle slices, slowly and carefully through the book pages. After giving it a good go this student turned to me and said “Actually, I think I’d like to look for a new idea because it’s not going to work”, very neutrally I said “OK, no problem I said, maybe that was made with a laser cutter?”, “Oh yea, probably” he said. What came after was the golden moment, he happily grabbed a couple of art books flicked through them with a much more critical eye and now his new idea is rocking! And maybe what is even more important is he knows his choices/ideas and creativity are valued. As he heads up to the MYP next year I know he is in a good position as he has figured out how to develop ideas, test materials, reflect and regenerate ideas. I am not sure this could have happened if I had just said “No, you can’t do that, it’s not possible”.

Meaning Beyond Words (grade 4 HWEO art integration)

Meaning beyond words… poetry… meaning… message… intention… interpretation… words… letters… form… shape… design… hmmm Typography (?!) were the stream of thoughts that preceded being asked to be involved with the Grade 4 How We Express Ourselves unit of inquiry.

Central Idea:
Being a poet gives us the freedom to express meaning beyond the words
  • Following, adapting and changing the many forms of poetry (concept: Form)
  • Poetry invites us to respond with different interpretations  (concept: Perspective)
  • Reflecting on experiences and knowledge through our own poetry (concept: Reflection)

The students moved through a series of provocations that involved group typography challenges (see some of the final outcomes here). And giving meaning to fake words (fun!). This was all with the intention of students to experience what it is like to deconstruct, reshape and introduce unusual materials to give type/words a new and enhanced meaning. Student to student feedback was used frequently to see if they had indeed done that.

Sounds fun so far right? Here is where it started to really pick up pace and intensity. Each grade 4 student came armed with their poems to the art class. They were then asked to select specific words from their most treasured poems to transform into a typography art piece for their MiniX. We had 3 weeks — enter thoughts of plausibleness…

Did I prescribe the size? No. Did I prescribe the materials? No. Did I prescribe 2D or 3D? No. The only prerequisite was that their artwork enhanced the meaning of the word and the message in their poem. This planning sheet allowed my AMAZING art assistant and I to prepare and plan materials for the students. Did I have enough space? I don’t think so. Did I have enough manpower? Probably not. Did I have enough time? Definitely not. What I did have was an amazing grade 4 team of teachers who were flexible, supportive and encouraging. I had a tech integrator that worked tirelessly with LED’s, circuits, robotics, programming and 3D printing. I had energized students that ran to class and wanted to work through their lunches. I had an art assistant that not only kept everything organized (80+ projects on the go!) she conferenced students through the designing stage and helped them troubleshoot through the creation stage too.

In the end they did it! They finished their work on time, they finished work that they truly owned, they were proud. I finished reading all their reflections yesterday and not a single student wrote they were disappointed in their work. They all relished in the chance to exhibit their work in such a lovely setting. Now, to reflect on the logistics for next year so students have easy access to the materials so more time making and less time “Ms Anna where is the…?”