The Christmas Quandary

I’m a bit of a scrooge, I’ll admit it.  I do not slip easily into the holly-jollies of this time of year.  I’m pretty serious by nature and it’s a difficult posture to shake.  I find it hard to toss life aside, to suspend disbelief, to step outside of myself for a while.  I’m working on it.

The contrast between my scrooge-ish tendencies and the general December explosion in schools is always a bit jarring.  The tinsel, the Santas, the trees, the gingerbread men, the sparkly, doo-dad, whoop-it-up craziness that barrels into most schools on December 1st and overtakes programming until the end of the calendar year always feels more like a tidal wave than I’d like it to.  There I stand on the beach, watching it tower over me, unable to stop it.  I can’t run away fast enough.

When I had my own classroom I would actively buck the trend,  looking for ways of acknowledging the cultural significance of the holidays without completely giving into the madness.  And, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t about the much vaunted but largely fictional “War On Christmas” that we hear so much about in the media.  For me it was more about creating an oasis in the classroom, a place where my students could rely on a routine that would be sustained, a rhythm that would be protected, even while the rest of the world was going mad.  

Kids are tired right now.  In most Canadian schools, we haven’t had a holiday weekend since the middle of October.  That’s nine weeks without a day off.  Oy.  Kids are also up late, eating foods with a lot more sugar, and very excited about the big day(s).  My own kids have been having full-blown Hanukkah meltdowns.  Eight crazy nights… picture it… let’s just say it doesn’t lead to Norman Rockwell scenes of familial peace and harmony.  It’s more like eight nights of cage-match parenting.  As much fun as Hanukkah is, I’m always happy when it’s over.

One of the biggest obstacles to fundamentally changing practice in Kindergarten classrooms is our adult attachment to holidays.  We seem to be very stuck on how to manage without “doing Christmas” or “doing Easter.”  

Here’s my observation, for what it’s worth: we are our own worst enemies.  We complain that the kids are “crazy” at this time of year but we feed into the craziness by completely giving our classrooms over to Christmas.  We abandon routine, we abandon inquiry, and we steer children in the direction of focusing on one event at the expense of everything else that might be interesting to them.  We complain about the madness as though it’s something that’s happening to us instead of something that we are actively participating in.  

We have this idea that we’re “doing it for the kids” but I really question whether that’s true.  Yes, the children like Christmas but they don’t like it at the expense of everything else in the universe.  For them it’s one tile in a mosaic of interests.  They don’t stop building because it’s Christmas.  They don’t stop making art because it’s Christmas.  They don’t stop dramatic play because it’s Christmas.  In fact, when I surveyed my documentation from Decembers past, I couldn’t find a single instance of children “playing Christmas” spontaneously.  

clay play (1)
4 days before the Christmas holidays: “Now you’re just like me, we all have capes.” ~ superhero play

If we believe that play is a window into a child’s inner life, then what can we learn by noticing the absence of Christmas in their play?  Maybe we’re not “doing it for the kids” after all. Maybe we’re doing it for us and maybe, just maybe, if we want December to be a more productive, more pleasant, less crazy time in schools, we’ll need to dial back our adult preoccupation with all things green and red and offer our students a more neutral space, a space into which they can project their own values, create their own celebrations, and express their own sense of festivity, unencumbered by an adult agenda.  There are other colours out there… we can choose a wider palette. 

pencil spectrum (1)

 

 

Advertisements

What’s the Medium? What’s the Message?

“Ugh… I hate art.”

“He never wants to do art.”

“I can’t draw.”

“I’m not creative.”

I’ve heard all of these words, and more, coming from teachers and students over my years in Arts Education.

It’s often a self fulfilling prophecy, this dislike of art or the Arts, as the case may be.  If you tell yourself over and over you’re not creative then you’re not likely to develop much creativity.  I find it particularly distressing when a teacher says “I’m not creative.” because I believe that teaching is a creative process.  All of the steps that creative people go through as they make Art, good teachers also go through as they try new techniques, experiment with ideas, and reflect on what to change.

What I’ve found over the years is that the negative self-perception of self-identified non-artists is largely shaped by the materials they’ve been exposed to.  Most of that exposure happens in schools and it’s mostly paper-based.  Children paint, they draw, they might do some collage, but most of what they do is confined to the limited geography of a piece of paper.

So why is paper-based art so priviledged in schools?

#1 – We have paper.  Many schools have very small Art supply budgets but there’s always paper.  The paperless school is still a long way off.

#2 – Paper is easy to store.  It doesn’t take up a lot of space, it fits in a portfolio, and it goes home in a child’s backpack without too much fuss.

#3 – Bulletin boards.  Paper-based art is easy to display.  Anything 3-D requires a shelf or table and those are in short supply in many schools.

#4 – We teach what we know.  If you were never exposed to anything beyond paper-based art as a child, that’s what you’re most likely to feel comfortable with as a teacher.  It’s cyclical.

The trouble is this: paper-based art, like writing, is just one language of expression.  Cutting off all other forms of Art (sculpture, carving, ceramics, environmental art, digital art, etc…) severely limits children’s expressive capacities to the point that we may entirely miss a child’s talent and passion in a particular area because we never give them the opportunity to demonstrate it.

This past Friday I was visiting a class of grade 5 and 6 students (ages 10 and 11).  Several of them, at the outset, declared that they didn’t have any ideas and didn’t like art. Arms crossed, head down, done.

The lesson was on mixed media sculpture and I had available for them plasticine, a bin of stones, pieces of copper wire, and their teacher provided a large container of mixed beans.

“What are we supposed to make?” they wanted to know.  By this age, students are often very used to being directed towards a product and they may struggle to figure out how to approach any open-ended task.  The struggle is good… stay with it… it’s supposed to be hard.

I let them stew in their juices as they played with the clay.  Slowly, things started to emerge.

b2ap3_thumbnail_clay-abstract-process

The teacher sat down and started to work with her own piece of clay.  What a difference that makes: watching your teacher struggle with an idea is so validating for students.

I walked around with a piece of clay in my hands, making suggestions about technique and assisting with the development of some ideas, while creating my own little piece.

The creativity was astonishing.  Students who had been most vehement about not having any ideas and hating art were engaged, on task, and, clearly, very creative ideed.

Just changing the medium was enough to show them that they are creative, they can “do art” and that they have great ideas.  Plasticine is very forgiving; if you don’t like what you’ve done, just smush it and start over.  There really aren’t any mistakes and it’s the medium itself that sends that message.  Teachers can speak about the value of mistakes until we’re blue but if we’re always doing it in a paper-and-pencil context, our speeches will have a limited impact.  You have to change the medium to change the message.

2e1ax_elegantwhite_entry_clay-abstract