As long as I live I will never forget the special education students in my art classes. They have provided the most genuinely sweet moments for all the students in my classes over the years.
Today a little guy named Pete (not his real name) broke up my entire sixth grade class with his reaction to the color paddle chain I use to teach color mixing basics. This is a child who literally had to have his little fingers lifted off the door jam one by one as he entered the class. To say he was not feeling interested in attending art class was an understatement.
I took a calculated risk and brought everyone to the table where he sat with a paraprofessional to explain a color theory project to the rest of the class.
As I manipulated the red and yellow paddles over each other….I said to Pete, “Look, it’s magic…orange!” His face lit up like a Christmas tree…he grabbed the paddles and we were off to the races. He spent the rest of the class in a rainbow-colored trance, combining the colors, looking at his world through those paddles. The students gathered around us were smiling, laughing at his joyful reaction. God, it was a nice moment. Can you ask for a better explanation of the effect of color on the world?
As I walked around the room the rest of the period he kept looking up at me through the green paddle with this mischievous grin, saying “You look like the incredible hulk Mrs Strandberg, …..green…aaarghhhh!” I’d say “Aaaargghhh” back.
I’m sitting here at the kitchen table the first Saturday after school started this week. We had the students Thursday and Friday. What was old in May is new again in August. It is my nineteenth year of teaching elementary art in a small rural Texas school and my first days of school were good.
In the hallway the first day I saw a mom come in with her fifth grader. Mom had on what we used to call “a house dress”, big wire curlers and fuzzy house shoes. The daughter was holding her hand and grinning from ear to ear. The Granddad was carrying two bags of school supplies. They stopped and the Granddad said to me,”She said her mom couldn’t embarrass her the first day of school.” The girl laughed and posed with her mom for a selfie. As they separated and the girl walked on to the gym the mom looked like tears were close. But she also looked happy. And so did her child.
Harry Wong’s words ring in my ears. “The first days of school are so important.” As I welcomed my students this year I remember again that the first two things in their heads are, ” Am I in the right place?” and “Does she know my name?”
On the first day of school, your name is the only thing that really belongs to you. Everything else, your time, your brain, even when you eat and go to the bathroom becomes part of “the schedule”. So to a kid, ” my name”, “my seat” and “my chair” become a big identity thing. After a couple of months of summer freedom that comes as a shock to the system.
Lots of good things happen. Like a student that brought me a cookie at Meet the Teacher night. It said something like”May your days be great and your coffee be strong.” I can’t remember exactly because I ate that sucker the first day of school. It helped.
I get to see big brothers and big sisters walk their siblings around my room and say ” I used to sit here.” And “This room looks so small, I thought it was bigger!” I even had a former student bring their child to meet me because they were going to be in my class this year. I’m getting old.
Even the challenges are somehow familiar and endearing. “No you can’t say fart.” “No, you should not make a fart noise even if you are not farting.” There is nothing in the world funnier to a fifth grader than a fart.
I had a small sixth grade class practice safety drills. As we practiced the lock down drill the mood turned quiet. They were sitting on the floor, away from windows with their backs against cabinets. I turned off the lights to show them how the room would look, “See, we can still see each other with the light coming through the cracks in the blinds.” I told them how my number one job is to keep them safe, even before teaching art. And you could see the concern in their eyes. I hate that our world has put that concern there. The one student said, “It’s ok, I’m a black belt.” Everyone laughed and came back to their seat. But I got hugs as they left the class.
And so I realize once again how precious these children are and what a privilege it is to be with them each day. It was a good start.
Another summer workshop at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth has come and gone. I can’t say good enough things about the Education Department and this workshop at the Kimbell. I think this is the 5th or 6th Summer Institute I’ve attended and they get better every time. Lectures concentrate on the special exhibit, as do the docent led tours and studio art workshop activities. The four days end with a sharing of lesson plans prompted by the exhibit from all the teachers in the group.
This year’s exhibit during the workshop was From the Lands of Asia, the Sam and Myrna Meyers Collection. An extraordinary exhibit consisting of Buddhist Sculptures, Asian Textile works and an amazing collection of Jade, which is as I understand it, the largest privately held collection of jade in the U.S. and perhaps in the world.
Connie Hatchette Barganier, the Education Manager for the Kimbell is responsible for this wonderful workshop and along with master teacher Marilyn Ivy they never fail to come up with techniques, tools and information that can be shared and implemented in my art classroom. The group usually consists of art teachers, teachers of other subjects and just people who are art lovers.
Imagine being able to sit in the gallery and draw these items without any dirty looks from the very patient and worthy museum guards. Imagine several docent led tours stretching over the four days of the workshop, there to help you understand the exhibit and answer questions in a small group of about twenty educators. For me, it is just heaven….but I am an art teacher and I love museums. I was fascinated by the stories about how the Meyers got their first pieces of jade in a shoe box from a Philadelphia antique shop. The bought the box for a $1,000, not realizing it contained Chinese jades from the Han Dynasty to the 19th century. That’s my kind of shoe box!
The jade collection was fascinating. I certainly did not know that jade came in multitudes of colors based on its mineral content and that the color changes over time and with exposure to the elements and environment, like the decomposition gases in Chinese tombs or with the additional firing that produces the coveted “chicken-bone” white jade. It is even more astounding to learn that all of these jades are cut with abrasive materials, since the nephrite is harder than any diamond drill, so most likely with hand labor with sand or other abrasives.
The jade Cong were delicate and mysterious, their function and meaning unknown, carved with such care and placed in Chinese tombs. Perhaps scholars will discover their function one day.
Organized into three distinct sections, the exhibit also featured exquisite Asian costumes and textile works showcasing the all important silk and the technical virtuosity of needlework that characterized the Chinese, Japanese and Korean clothing of that day.
Asian textile with Kumihimo braiding
This section gave me the nudge for my lesson plan on Kumihimo, the Japanese art of braiding, which I’ll post on another blog.
To stand in these galleries is to get a sense of the enormity of time these objects represent and the depth of the Asian culture which is awe-inspiring and humbling.
In many ways, the Asian search for spiritual answers reminds me of many cultures, including our own, but it is in the depth of their ancient societal structure, their sense of belonging and honoring family and their ancestry is where I find the deepest lessons in this exhibit. These beautiful works will certainly occupy my thoughts for a long time.
Combine an excess of scrap cardboard and 6th grade art students. Ask for them each to build a house that has a roof, four walls, a door and at least one window. Shake well and add end-of-the school year energy, paint and about thirty glue sticks. You get a small cardboard city and a lot of fun.
Lots of good discussions about hinges, doors, roof lines, balconies and interiors. The best part is the creativity my students showed in bringing their house to life. Good choices and problem solving were encouraged.
Four square. A playground game that has been around since I was in elementary school. I was supervising a group of
sixth-graders playing four-square at recess today and I blew it.
You know, it’s been a long time since I played the game and I forgot that the inside lines are out-of-bounds if the ball touches it and the outside lines are in-bounds if the ball touches it. Read that sentence a few times and it makes your eyes water.
I preferred a simpler solution. If the ball touches a line, you’re out.
Wrong old-teacher-lady. So wrong. The drama-llamas hit full bore whine-o-rama level when I started enforcing that rule. An eleven-year-old has a more finely developed sense of justice than a life-time supreme court justice.
After much gnashing of teeth during recess I did what any good teacher does, I googled four-square rules when I got back inside.
So tomorrow I must do a mea culpa and let the outside lines be in-bounds at all costs. For Pete’s sake, there must be SOME order in this world.
There are those great moments in teaching art that hit like lightning. They’re usually not on the lesson plan. They rush in like the tide and swamp everything else that you had planned with a sweet crash of excitement. God, I love those moments. They breathe life into your bones. I had one today.
We were drawing detailed eyes in 6th grade art. We had gone through feeling our face for eye sockets and glaring at irises and pupils. I had given each student a mirror. Oh, the hair primping and soulful staring at reflections. It is a riot to watch. We used blending stumps and erased highlights on watery eyes …we hacked our way through a forest of stick eyelashes and caterpillar eyebrows that wiggled over lazy eyelids. But my students were game. This was hard stuff and they were trying….and then….
One student propped his mirror over his drawing and noticed the reflection …he called me over excitedly. “Look at this Mrs. S!” I was blown away by what he had seen and called everyone over to look. It was like a current went through the room. They all ran back to their drawings to create the same optical illusion…”Look, look!” filled the room.
And there it was..the moment they saw their drawings like artists. They went into undiscovered territory. They were excited, they were engaged. I took pictures. What else could I do? It was a moment worth saving.
As I heard my teaching partner Skipper Bennett describe this museum the other day, The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is “an exquisite little jewel-box of a museum.” I explored that jewel box again as we visited the museum with a group of 6th graders from Travis Elementary School this week. I found some new gems inside.
The building, designed by Philip Johnson, is a work of art on its own. But for the next two years, the building atrium is graced by a lovely installation work by Dallas-based Mexican artist Gabriel Dawe, Plexus no. 34, 2016. What fun to see the open-mouthed astonishment of our students inspired by this ephemeral art work.
A soft web of over 80 miles of sewing thread is on display in the changing light of the atrium. In my head the colors sang to me, sounding like the whispers of wind over a harp.
With a little over one hundred students in two separate tour groups, the Museum Educators split our students up into workable groups of eleven or twelve and went on a 90 minute tour. The trip combined the study and writing of poetry and how it can be inspired by art. So with a dual purpose, our students got a lot of mileage out of those 90 minutes.
One of the second gems on the trip was our students’ access to the Amon Carter’s research library, which I had incorrectly assumed was only available for scholarly research. The library was manned that day by Archivist and Reference Services Manager Jonathan Frembling, who was absolutely wonderful and friendly with our students, showing them Josef Albers color plates and Calder pieces and reading poetry with enthusiasm and great feeling. He said something that stuck with me, “Writing is your chance at a kind of immortality, the words you write may live long after you are gone.” What a great way to talk to students and a key concept when art work (visual communication) and poetry (written communication) are compared and combined . Our students separated out and wrote poetry, then read it aloud. It was a nice moment.
He invited us back to bring student groups and offered to put together any research materials we might need to use on a future project or artist. He showed Mr. Bennett and I an original survey of the Grand Canyon, made before photography was available, illustrated with stunning intricate line drawings. I found this part of our visit especially meaningful, surrounded by hundreds of art documents and books beautifully bound in leather and carefully preserved. There is a rich musky scent and feel to a quiet wood paneled room filled with journals and old books that just can’t be duplicated.
As the tour wound through the museum, they made several stops, taking in and writing about a diverse group of artworks, one of which is a newly acquired piece by George Bellows, with a surprising vivid color that was unexpected.
We also stopped at the classic Dash for the Timber, hands down my favorite of the western art in Amon Carter’s collection.
It was a memorable trip, made comfortable and meaningful by the Museum Educators. A special thanks to those Educators, I don’t have all their names. But to Erin Long and Bridget Thomas and all the others, thank you so much. We felt very welcome.