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.
I admit that I planned this lesson in my head before I went to the workshop. I knew the exhibit included Asian costumes and textiles, so I felt fairly confident they would have beautiful kumihimo ornamentation. I was right. I can’t even remember where I first came across this Japanese craft; probably hunting on Pinterest for a textile craft I could use with my 4th, 5th and 6th grade art students. We make our own cardboard looms and weave using inexpensive yarn. My students love it. Now I’m hooked. Here is my lesson plan. Hope you can use it. All the photos are my own.
History of Kumihimo
Kumihimo began as a type of finger braiding that was used in China, Korea and Japan. The oldest form of Kumihimo used in Japanese clothing and religious ceremonies is believed to be from the Nara Period (710 to 794 CE). Like many Asian crafts, Kumihimo is all about detail, with many versions having a specific pattern, use and meaning. There are many types of stands made to hold the strings to weave Kumihimo and many types of fibers can be used, like silk, nylon, hemp and even leather.
Translated as a “gathering of threads”, one of the most widely known and studied versions of Kumihimo are the silk Japanese braids used on Samurai armor in Japan during the Kamakura Period (1185 to1333 CE) through the Muromachi Period (1336 to1573 CE). The cords were used on helmets and to bind the armor plates together. Each suit of armor could require as much as 250 to 300 meters of braid. Kumihimo was also used to bind the hilts of swords and harnesses of horses used in battle.
With the rise of Buddhism during the Heian Period (794 to1185 CE), kumihimo braids were made by the monks for clothing and to decorate temples.
Kumihimo is still used in Japan today as a part of the kimono. The obi, the wide sash used as a belt on the kimono is secured by a Kumihimo braid called an obijime. Hand-made kumihimo obijime are on the decline because of the invention of machine-made Kumihimo, but obijime are still the biggest use of Kumihimo made in Japan today.
Luckily this ancient Asian craft has been popularized around the world today because of the invention of the foam hand-held Kumihimo looms for braid and jewelry making.
Interesting notes about Kumihimo:
Tea storage containers used in the Japanese tea ceremony were often secured with elaborate Kumihimo braids. The knots used were so elaborately tied it was easy to see if someone had tampered with them, so you could avoid be poisoned. Tamper-free packaging, even then.
A Kumihimo color pattern of lilac, magenta, blue, green, gold, and an orange specially imported from China was so powerful it could ward off “evil ghosts”. Called “Shōsō-in colors” when these were used in a belt, they were said to ward off bad luck for the wearer.
According to Yasuhisa Fukushima, owner of the Fukushima Store (a Tokyo kumihimo shop) and the director of the Association for Tokyo Kumihimo, 90 percent of the products created by Tokyo kumihimo artisans are obijime. “We have tried producing other accessories such as ornaments for keyholders and cords for keitaiand glasses, but these are still minor sellers compared to obijime,” he says.
The Japanese national treasure “Heike Noukyou” is a set of thirty-three sutra scrolls that are tied with elaborate Kumihimo braids.
Directions for kongo gumi (strong braid)– makes one 20 – inch necklace (including end caps and clasp):
Kumihimo Foam Loom
Four each of two colors – 1.5-yard (54 inches) pieces of 1mm satin cord (I used 1mm hemp cord in the illustrations) – total of eight pieces
Eight plastic kumihimo bobbins
E6000 industrial strength adhesive
Needle nose pliers
Tooth picks and paper to apply adhesive and protect work surface
Pendant with 6mm or larger bail (not shown)
End clasps (5.5 or 6 mm)
Binding thread (to bind braid before cutting it)
Flip foam disk over and mark north, south east west positions with sharpie (avoids the confusion of the numbers on the front until you get the basics down)
Measure and cut your eight 54-inch pieces of cord (four each of two colors)
Tie knot in one end, place tied end in the center of the hole on the kumihimo foam loom
Snap strings into place on loom as shown in photo (one color north and south, one color east and west). Put only one string in each slot.
Wrap loose cord on bobbin to within one inch of loom
Basic braiding technique for kongo gumi:
Take top right cord and bring it down to the bottom to the slot just right of the two cords at the bottom.
Take the left-hand cord from the three cords now at the bottom and bring it up to the slot to the left of the one cord at the top.
Turn the disk one quarter turn and repeat steps 1, 2 and 3. Top-right down, bottom-left up, turn.
Stop Position If you stop before you finish your braid, always leave the three cords at the bottom. That way you know when you resume, you take the cord on the left, lift it to the top-left position and then turn the disk.
Finishing your necklace:
Bind the ends of your braids with beading thread so that they will not unravel before your glue on your closures.
Use a toothpick to apply your E6000 glue to the inside of your closure caps. Be sure to do this over paper to protect your worksurface from any glue.
Insert your braid ends into the closure caps and let them rest for 24 hours.
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.
Being a Mineral Wells Ram has its advantages. Like creating a great little pinch-pot ram to remind you of your great school. Travis 4th, 5th and 6th graders are starting to finish up this fun clay project in art class. Glazed with our school colors and created with a lot of enthusiasm and imagination some little rams are making their way home today!
There 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/B0064XN59U) These 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.