Artists in deep

DSCF4130We have had a wonderful project running in many of our schools over the past few years, a project that brings working artists into classrooms to work with young children and their educators in and through the arts. I hope you’ll have a look at the incredible work they’ve been doing, share it with your networks, and leave them some comments. I look forward to hearing your thinking! Visit them at: https://4elementslivingartsreggioproject.wordpress.com/

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They aren’t interested in anything.

The last several weeks and months have been busy ones as I’ve been getting used to my new job and figuring out how to manage all the competing priorities in my life.  How does she do it all? Well, I don’t always do it all very well, so there’s that!

It’s been harder, in this new role, to tease apart the thematic threads of my work and to find things that are worth writing about.  It’s not that they aren’t there, it’s just that every day is so different.  Just when an idea springs forward, another idea replaces it in an endless loop of upstaging.  If I don’t have time to write about it right away, poof… it’s gone.  People ask me where I went in a week and I have to check my calendar to remind myself.  The whirlwind suits me but it isn’t really conducive to thoughtful reflection.

But, as I looked back on my notes over March break, I noticed that one phrase has come up several times in my conversations with Kindergarten teachers.  We talk about their challenges working with an inquiry-based program, often for the first time, and they mention that they’re frustrated because, it seems, the “kids aren’t interested in anything.”

Now, I’ve taught a lot of kids over the years, I worked as a nanny and a camp counselor, and I have kids of my own.  I have yet to meet a kid who, literally, isn’t interested in anything.

So, what does this really mean, this lack of interest?

Does it mean…

  • they aren’t interested in anything that I’m interested in?
  • they aren’t interested in anything that I already know about and feel confident teaching?
  • they aren’t interested in anything that I can link easily to the curriculum?
  • they aren’t interested in anything that looks academic?
  • they aren’t interested in anything that resembles a theme?

It could be any one of those things or it could be something else entirely but more than anything, what I notice when I spend time in the classrooms where that frustration sits, is the lack of patient observation.  Several bloggers that I follow, Teacher Tom most notably, talk a lot about not doing.  He often mentions what he could, but doesn’t, say or what he could’ve, but didn’t, do in his interactions with kids.  We get a glimpse into this alternative, teacher-led universe, and are then reminded how things turn out when the adults don’t lead and choose to listen and watch instead.

I think the biggest barrier to students expressing genuine interest is our adult desire to teach, to make it look like something is happening, to busy the room with activity, even when the child’s pace is slower, more meandering, completely un-linear.  As I’ve learned all too well in the past few months, activity can be the enemy of observation and reflection.

I think we also sometimes suffer from a profound lack of imagination.  We wait for an interest that looks like school and, when it doesn’t land at our feet, we get annoyed.  I have a 7 year old boy at home and, while he has many interests, he is very, very interested in poop.  He isn’t the only one.  I came across this documentation in a small rural school I was visiting and I thought it was delightful, a great example of locality in pedagogical documentation.  I wonder, where would you go with this?  What questions would you ask next?  How would you develop this interest if this were your classroom?  Happy kid-watching and, as the snow melts, watch where you’re walking!

who pooped (1).jpg

 

 

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)

 

 

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

Where do the Arts Belong?

Last week, I had an interesting conversation with one of my sons’ teachers. He has a classroom teacher who delivers the “core” subjects (not my favorite term, by any means), a physical education teacher, and a teacher whose job it is to teach social studies and the arts. I had asked her to call me in response to some assessments she had sent home. I was a little bewildered as to how she could manage to teach all of these subjects (Dance, Drama, Music, Visual Arts, and Social Studies) during the approximately 30 minutes a day she has with my son’s class.

It turns out that her background and mine are not all that different and that, until this year, she’d been doing a similar job in her school board to the one I have now. So we had a good chat about the challenges of her current role, the ways she’s trying to cope (by focusing on one subject per month in a rotation) and the near impossibility of giving any of these subjects their due in 30 minutes per day.

When I hung up the phone and went back to cooking dinner, I found myself thinking about these strange things we call subjects and how we often treat them in schools. I’ve come to realize that we really like boxes. We love boxes. We like boxes that describe our roles and we like performing those roles inside more boxes. We like boxes for timetabling and boxes for drawing. We can’t get enough of them.

But is that reality? Does it give students a real sense of the scope of a subject or a domain when we point to something and say “Here, this is math… that is science… and that is Art. They are different. They don’t go together.”? I don’t think so. I think that not only does it do our students a disservice, it doesn’t reflect the reality of the work being done in those fields.

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I have observed an interesting phenomenon over many years of teaching and learning in the Arts. I’m going to call it the Beginners Paradox. Often when someone starts learning in an art form, they are very open, very curious and are willing to try almost anything. They don’t have a preconceived idea about what is and isn’t part of that form. As they become more advanced, however, their ideas narrow and their willingness to experiment with techniques or ideas that they perceive to be outside of their sphere dramatically declines. Only at the most advanced levels do people again become more willing to open up and, ironically, try to become more like beginners – to see their domain with fresh eyes so that they are able to innovate and push the work forward.

Yesterday, I was asked to create a question that would guide my work this year. We were working with Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question (put it on your reading list, it’s really good). I’m not sure that my question is all that beautiful but here it is:

How do I move teachers towards a more integrated model of Arts education that sees the arts less as discrete subjects (stop and teach) and more as languages of expression (ways of knowing) that are available all the time for all students?

I think that in most cases, in most schools, this is the way forward. If we want the arts to be central to education we need to integrate them into the curriculum, seeing them both as valuable subjects and as teaching tools that infuse the day with creation. However, I know that some artists and arts educators won’t agree with me. This model won’t produce as many technically skilled musicians and dancers as perhaps we’ve been accustomed to. High school music teachers will find that students don’t have the same knowledge and skill base as they have in years past because they’ve spent more time composing a body percussion opus describing the European settlement of North America and its effects on First Nations people (for instance) and less time learning how to read sheet music. That’s the trade-off.

In the introduction to his amazing little book, HearSing, R. Murray Schafer writes an indictment of music education. We could easily substitute any of the other arts (drama, dance, visual arts) and the indictment would still stand.

“This is the indictment I make against music education as currently taught:

  • That foreign music is valued above our own;
  • That music composed by others is valued above anything we could achieve ourselves;
  • That in trying to meet excessively high technical demands, many students become discouraged or are forced to forgo the pleasures of music-making;
  • That by insisting that music is an expensive subject, opportunities for inexpensive music-making are ignored;
  • That teachers (and parents and principals) fail to understand the value of music beyond the year-end concert or tour;
  • That music has been isolated from contact with other subjects (science, the other arts, the environment);
  • That teachers do not speak out strongly enough against the commodification of the music by the entertainment industry and the trash that it produces.

The music room is neither the beginning nor the end of music. Music is the whole sounding universe. We are simultaneously listeners and performers and composers of the universal symphony.”

Drama is the whole emotional universe.

Dance is the whole moving universe.

Visual Art is the whole seeing universe.

That’s how beginners see it. It’s how every 4-year-old I’ve ever met sees it. I think that’s how we need to teach it. Weave it into the day. Take away the boxes. Those subject divisions are illusions; we created them and we can make them disappear.

Accidental Assessment

I’ve had several anguished conversations with friends in the past few weeks.  These are people with young children, particularly boys, who are watching their kids disengage from school, start to feel anxious about school, begin to dislike school.  Whereas backpacks and shoes used to fly on in the morning, now they have to coax and cajole to get their kids out the door.  They feel powerless to change the classroom environment and they are desperate for their kids to feel successful and happy at school. They are at their wits’ end.

What’s happening?  I have one word: assessment.  Assessment is happening to these kids.  Assessment is the reason that teachers have all kids sitting at desks doing the same task at the same time in the same way.  Their success on that task is assessed based on whether they’re doing it the ‘right’ way.  This is the way assessment gets done in many classrooms.

So let’s talk about assessment for a few minutes.

How do you assess student learning?  What tools do you use?  What data do you consider relevant and what data do you exclude?  Does assessment information only count when it comes nicely packaged on a piece of paper?

Here’s an example:

I was in a kindergarten class earlier this week.  I noticed a little girl lining up dominoes on a cookie sheet.

As she finished, I approached her and said:

“I like the way you’ve arranged those dominoes.”

She replied: “They’re not dominoes, they’re cookies.”

“Oh”, I responded, “can I have one?”

She nodded and I took the cookie at the top of the left-hand row.

I pretended to eat it and asked if I could have another.  Pointing at the row from which I had taken my cookie, she said: “You have to eat this one first.”

dominoes

I asked: “I have to eat the whole row?”

She replied while pointing at each row on the cookie sheet: “Yes, this is the first row, this is the second, this is the third, this is the fourth, and this is the fifth row.”

We have a curriculum expectation in Ontario related to understanding ordinal numbers in Kindergarten.  It reads:  “As children progress through the Full-Day Early Learning–Kindergarten program, they use ordinal numbers in a variety of everyday contexts.”

Clearly, this little girl understands what ordinal numbers are and knows how to use them.  For me, this photo and conversation sample is all the assessment data I would need to feel confident that she is progressing well in this regard.  The idea that I would need to stop her play, sit her down, and formally assess her on this expectation using a paper and pencil task is ridiculous to me; why wouldn’t information from her play be enough?

I don’t have an answer to that question.

What I do know is that we are imperiling student engagement on the altar of assessment and it’s a completely unnecessary sacrifice.  There is lots of good data out there; children show us all the time how much they’re learning, in all of their 100 languages.  We just have to be open to seeing it.

Cultural Navigation

I had an interesting experience this summer watching the musical Fiddler on the Roof.  Produced by one of our local community theatre groups, I had been following the rehearsal process with interest and was looking forward to finally seeing the show after hearing great reviews from friends.  Now, you should know that I’m Jewish and that I live in a small city where most people aren’t at all familiar with Judaism; for this Northern town, Jewish is exotic.

The show was very well done; beautifully staged and directed.  The performers were committed and deeply in role.  They were physically present and their characters were wonderfully embodied.  It was a great night of theatre.

But I had a strange reaction to the play, one I hadn’t expected.  At points during the evening, I felt very uncomfortable.  It was unsettling to watch actors pretending to light Shabbat candles and bless bread and wine as an act of entertainment.  These are rituals that I perform every week as part of our Shabbat meal either at home or at synagogue.  To see them on stage was very odd.

Later on in the play when Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, marries the non-Jewish Fyedka, the actor playing Tevye inserted the mourner’s kaddish prayer into the script, to make the point that Tevye now views his daughter as dead.  Again, I had that ticklish feeling of discomfort.  Here’s a very solemn prayer that we only say when we have a prayer quorum or minyan of 10 adult Jews (or 10 men, depending on your branch of Judaism) and there it was being performed on stage.  I found myself reflexively muttering “amein” under my breath at the appropriate moments.

My final moment of discomfort came during the scene when the soldiers arrive to advise the residents of Anatevka that they have to leave.  Behind me, a woman whispered “it’s the Germans.”  “No!”, I wanted to shout back… “It’s the Russians!”  Having that historical inaccuracy hang in the air, uncorrected, really bothered me.  It itched at me the whole way home.

Altogether, it was a revealing experience; this is what it’s like to have your culture on display, represented as entertainment… appropriated, to some extent.  Now, I’m not suggesting we halt all productions of Fiddler on the Roof.  It’s a great play; if I were a rich woman I’d see it again.  But I think it was a really good experience for me to go through that discomfort.

In the community where I teach, we are confronted daily with the legacy of First Nations residential schools.  We are struggling as a system to find ways to reach out to First Nations communities, to repair the damage that years of at best assimilationist and at worst genocidal policies has created.  One piece of that effort has been to ensure that there are opportunities for First Nations students attending our schools to have the opportunity to study their language and culture while at the same time building some cultural literacy among the non-native students too.  Sometimes, this work involves having First Nations teachers and elders presenting cultural teachings to classes, to familiarize all students with First Nations cultural beliefs and practices.

Last week, I was asked to come into a class to follow-up a cultural teaching with an arts-based activity.  Now, as far as I know, I have no First Nations heritage.  My children have Haudenosaunee heritage but, alas, not from me.  So it’s awkward, to say the least, to be in the position of having to support teachings that I’m not that familiar with and which don’t belong to me.  It’s additionally loaded with meaning because of the many ways that First Nations Art has been appropriated by the mainstream culture over the last several hundred years, including some particularly egregious examples in the past few years.  The optics of a white lady standing in front of a class “teaching” First Nations Art… it’s not good.

But there I was, trying to figure out a way to compliment a cultural teaching on the subject of long hair through a Visual Arts activity that wouldn’t just devolve into cultural theft.  I wanted to share with you what I came up with, not because I consider it some kind of authoritative solution to what will remain a challenge, but both because I think the wrestling itself is a meaningful process and because I think it’s important to share our discomfort and to respectfully ask for guidance.

One of the things I have taken away from my years in Kindergarten is a healthy respect for materials, guided by the practice in Reggio Emilia of establishing material-rich ateliers in schools.  I’ve been trying to position myself as an atelierista, a provider of materials, of techniques, of curation, but not an instructor with any particular end in mind.  So for a teaching about long hair (here are two videos if you want to learn more), I decided to work on the ideas of personal identity and expression of belonging that seemed central to the teaching while working with textiles, to link to the idea of hair.  I taught the students how to braid, presented the materials (beads, thread, pipe cleaners, and wicker) and off they went.   They produced amazing work that had symbolic meaning for them, using the cultural teaching as inspiration.  A perfect solution?  Likely no, but maybe a step forward.

long hair art

I will never forget the feeling of discomfort I experienced sitting in that darkened theatre watching Fiddler on the Roof.  I hope it remains fresh because it’s helping me to approach this aspect of my job with a greater sense of understanding and compassion.  I think it’s making me a better teacher.

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