Drawing on the Heart

4468580706There are certain things I do each school year that are not just part of a curriculum. They are necessary to me as person. Necessary as part of what I want to teach children. I’ll tell you a secret. Every teacher teaches some things drawn from their heart. It’s part of the same package; teacher as a delivery system of a predetermined set of knowledge and skills and teacher as a human that filters teaching through their experiences, beliefs and communication skills.

In my realistic moments I understand that very few of my fourth, fifth and sixth grade art students will go on to be famous artists; if fame in that sense even matters. What I do hope is that I leave behind a legacy of kindness and commitment.

Kindness, in that from something I’ve said or shown to my students that they realize there is a common thread of good, decent behavior that runs through people, no matter where you were born or what life has dealt you. This presents the age-old question, “Is the glass half-full or half-empty when you are looking at humanity?” I want my students to choose half-full. Be realistic, yes. Cautious, yes. But giving, trusting and being kind is a risk that should be taken. No matter the outcome.

Commitment, in that seeing people as essentially good is a choice, and sometimes a tough choice. In the sea of negativity that my students face every day in the media, online and sometimes at home, choosing to create your own atmosphere and point of view is your right, really your obligation. It does not mean being a push-over or wearing blinders to the ugliness that exists. But choose to see the up-side. Choose to take a stand on what you like and don’t like. Choose to be kind.

So how does this connect to teaching art? What got me thinking about this is a story that I tell my fourth-graders each year. I told it last Thursday. It’s called “The Coming of the Bluebonnet” and is from a wonderful book called “Texas Tales with a Twist”. (https://www.amazon.com/Tales-Texas-Twist-Original-Enduring/dp/B0064XN59UThese are all short stories, tall tales and legends meant to be read or told aloud. (Spoiler Alert) Each spring when the bluebonnets first appear I tell a story to my fourth graders about a little Comanche girl who gives up what she most values most to save her people from a drought. She sacrifices her doll as a burnt offering and spreads the ashes to the four corners of the earth. She asks for a sign from the Great Spirit that her offering was worthy. In the morning, wherever the ashes of her doll touched a sea of bluebonnets appear. Then it begins to rain and the people are saved from the drought. The little girl gets her name, She-Who-Loves-Her-People.

I tell this story because it makes children think about giving. I tell it because it teaches about legends (I am careful to explain this is a legend) and interpreting the ideas presented in the story. Then we draw bluebonnets and talk about our state flower.

This is the concept that I really want children to understand. Visual art, like all of the arts, is a way of communicating what is important to people, a record of the good and bad ideas and events since our recorded history began. The stories, the ideas represented are what draws me to art, whether the ideas are abstract and mysterious or simple and obvious. I love the sophisticated artist and the folk artist all the same because of the thoughts that they show me. And I choose to teach that kindness, compassion, wonder, humor and understanding can all be taught through art. And that most of the wonderful ideas that humanity has cast upon the world are created, struggled for and born through the imagination and drawn from the heart. It is that idea that is important.

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Child In A Strange land

 

 

It must have been like dropping onto a new planet. He had been in America for a little over four months and he is German.  In a small Texas town of just over 16,000 people, where the largest employers are two brick plants and the public school district, he was  in fourth grade.

As he steps to my classroom doorway, I extend my hand and say hello, my name is Mrs. Strandberg, I’m your art teacher. I immediately notice his clear blue eyes and straw blond hair framing a hopeful face. He has a medium athletic build, even for a ten-year old, like a miniature rugby player and an inquisitive, engaging curiosity that beamed out from his ruddy face. His eyes light up at the Scandinavian origin of my name. I can see he thinks he’s found a European kinsman. “Are you Swedish?”, he asks in heavily accented, but perfect English. “No.” I say and register the small disappointment in his eyes. “My husband’s ancestors are from Sweden.” ” Oh.” he says, then continues, “Well you should visit there, but it is not as pretty as Denmark.” He says this without malice, to him it was simply a fact. I turn to introduce him to a room of open-mouthed fourth graders.

This was my introduction to Nikolaus (not his real name), a remarkable student whose real name was almost unpronounceable for me. “Just call me Nik.” he finally told me with an exasperated smile. Nik was born in Germany, had lived there and in Denmark and had journeyed here with his mother after she divorced. “I still have brothers and my father in Germany.” he told me matter-of-factly, “But my step-dad is great. ”

I began to look forward to his arrival each day, bursting into the room like a large and nosy puppy, full of talk. “How did you learn such good English in such a short time?”, I ask. “My mother taught me. She speaks eight languages. Don’t you speak any other languages?”, he responded, clearly feeling a little sorry for my lack. I’m reminded once again of the European custom of teaching their children different languages early in life as a necessity of living in a modern world. I wish we were that smart.  “I’m learning Japanese right now.”, he continued. ” When I grow up I want to go to Tokyo and start a business.” Nik’s curiosity is a palpable thing. He curious about the pencil sharpener, what kind of car I have, how my desk chair works with a pneumatic cylinder to raise and lower the height. His curiosity is insatiable.

I met his mother at open house that year, a slender, confident woman with a penetrating look. She spoke to Nik as if he were thirty instead of ten, clearly proud of her clever son and determined to give him the best.

But the thing that impressed me most was Nik’s ability to let criticism of his newness to the Texas culture bounce off of him.  He had a built-in confidence that was not overbearing. He knew who he was and what he was about. The other kids loved to hear him talk. He accepted the gentle teasing of his classmates about his accent with such a good-natured charm that before you knew it he was giving German lessons to the entire class and he was laughing at their Texas-twanged attempts.

Nik was a dedicated art student, but almost to a fault, critiquing his work in a running monologue, peppered with questions. “What was pastel made out of anyway? Did it come from the ground or the lab? Where could he get these in America?” This phrasing was perfect, not just Texas, mind you, it seemed all of America was open to him. In the midst of a papier-mâché dragon whose wings kept drooping he announced that his dragon was a sea serpent, and needed no wings. And why did papier-mâché smell so funny anyway?  “My sea serpent has bad-breath.”, he says.

And then, one day, just like that, he was gone. Whisked away with his mom, for a job opportunity up north. I felt a real sense of loss and kept one of his artworks pinned by my desk, a precisely drawn geometric pastel with an oriental look to it. I know that whereever he is, he is facing his world head-on, and asking questions, always questions. It makes me smile.

I hope I get to visit Tokyo one day. I have no doubt that Nik will be there, running an international conglomerate with immense enthusiasm.

Punkin Time

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#mwisdmatters

Doing clay with fourth-graders in thirty minute classes is problematic. I know you are thinking, “Are you nuts?”, but it can happen. This lovely lesson from Ceramic Arts Daily filled the ticket with a cute little ceramic Jack-O-Lantern.

Check out their great how-to video here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnViFPenWeo

Prep

We watched a short video on where clay comes from and what it is used for in every day life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhYWuAGVU8k My kids had no idea that things like sinks and toilets are made from ceramic. I portioned out the correct size balls of clay for each student before we began the project. I covered the work tables each day before they arrived.

Day 1

I demonstrated how to make a pinch pot. Students used sharpie to label a quart-sized sealable baggie with their name and class period. Whoa they were excited.

Day 2

Students made their pinch pots using a circle on their work table to measure their pot size. The idea was that it could be no bigger than the paper circle and that both pinch pots had to be approximately the same size. Both pinch pots went carefully back into the baggie until the next day.

Day 3

The students scored and slipped the edges of both pinch pots and joined them together. I gave each student a new portion of clay for the stem. They shaped and attached the stem. Using a sharpened pencil they carefully engraved their name on the bottom.

A Few Days Later

leather hard

I’ll admit it, I almost waited too long. The pumpkins were pretty hard when I went to carve the faces. I carved the eyes and the mouth with an X-Acto knife for each student. The idea of X-Acto knives and fourth graders made me a little queasy and to be honest I thought they might crush the pumpkins trying to carve through them.

Air dry for at least 10 days or until bone dry and fire to bisque. Glaze and fire again.

My students were so pleased with their Jack O’ Lanterns. I wrapped each one in tissue paper and hopefully they  made it home in their backpacks in time for Halloween.

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My Favorite Meal

#mwisdmatters

My 4th grade art students always seem to have fewer barriers between their art and their imagination than my 5th and 6th graders. I’m not sure why that is, but is delightful to watch and listen to them as they open up to a project. I revisited an old classic recently when I asked my 4th grade artists to draw their favorite meal.

The set up for the project is a discussion about going on a picnic. Students get to pick their favorite foods to have at the picnic, which must include a main course, sides, drink and dessert. They must also include silverware and a napkin and a tablecloth under the plate.

I have three goals for this project.

  1. They must have their food shown from a bird’s-eye point of view, which involves a demonstration and discussion of how shapes change when they are shown from different perspectives.
  2. They must show a place setting, which involved a discussion and pictures of how you set a table. Social skills in art class. I wonder how many families sit down at a common table for dinner these days, so I hope I filled in a gap for some of my students who have not ever set a table.
  3. They must show a pattern of some kind on the tablecloth, which reinforces the definition of a pattern in art as a repeated shape or color series.

Students have a large sheet of paper as their format, 12 x 18 inches, and draw first in pencil, then outline in sharpie and color with crayon. I give them a paper plate to draw around to make sure we don’t have miniature plates.

And oh the stories about what food my students like the best!

And the extras! Ants on the tablecloth. Butterflies flying over the picnic.  Good memories about family. Great fun.

Secret Caves

There is a mystery to the Lascaux Cave Art discovery that has a siren call for me as an art teacher. Perhaps I love to teach this lesson so much because the boys who were out walking their dog and discovered the cave are about the same age as the students I teach. What kid wouldn’t want to discover a secret cave? Maybe it is the need in all of us to discover who are ancestors were and how they lived.

But finally I think it is the mystery of the message in the cave drawings that brings me back again and again. No one really knows what these artists were recording. Magical images used in religious or hunting rites? A record of their hunts? How did those people perceive their world and what muse made them create these images ? And what of those handprints left behind? I long to place my hand where that ancestor placed theirs. But as we discovered, the bacteria on our hands and in our breath can destroy the ancient pigments, so the caves are sealed off except to scientists.

I found another year’s exploration of the subject in these images from 2007. We made our own cave in my room and printed leaves and our own hand prints. Other students drew pastel animals and a mural of the discovery for our hallway display.

Lascaux Cave 1
We created our own Lascaux Cave in my classroom. We sat in our secret cave and drew.
Lascaux 005
We created our hand and leaf prints.

 

Lascaux 002Lascaux 004

 

Front and Center

group 2Every 4th grade child wants to draw whatever it is we are drawing (excuse the Texan phrase here) smack dab in the middle of the paper. So, in this simple 4th grade exercise, the goal was to place half our main subject, in this case a snowman, off the plane of the picture. Asymmetry vs. Symmetry.

We watched a clip of Olaf, from Frozen, (Please don’t stop reading, I know, I know…that song!) and talked about how he MOVED around in the frame. We talked about the phrase “dead center” and how that placement for your main subject can be kind of…well…can be…..frozen. Sorry.

duoWe talked about the mystery of what is off the edge of the page, but is implied to be there. The undiscovered country. An invisible world that is just around the corner, out of sight. That implied part of the image can be so intriguing and make your composition much more interesting to look at.

big group

Another highlight for my 4th graders was to use oil pastel on this artwork on a blue background. Lovely, messy pastels used on their side for the black border and large areas. Pastel on point for the outline and fine details of the snowman. Swirling snowflakes and a snowbank finished our composition. More fun than a snowball fight on the playground…well ok maybe not. But fun was had by all.