Today, Friday November 10th, I am thankful for the experiences my students give me.
As an elementary school art teacher, I get asked a lot about the meaning of art. What does this abstract art mean? What is the purpose of my child taking art? What did the artist mean when he or she painted that? My reply is,” What does it say to you?”
You want to know what art means?
Today it means a tall, timid shell of a girl, with wispy hair, standing at my desk with a paper card in her hand. “Today is my birthday.” she said quietly, not seeking the ranting Happy Birthday song that usually follows that news into a classroom. “Well, Happy Birthday!” I say, “Are you doing anything special?”
“I don’t know.” she says, eyes darting away from my face. I sense I’ve said the wrong thing. “But my Dad made me this.” She is holding out the card. “You want to see?” “Sure.” The card shows a princess in a Disney–style gown; a scroll proclaiming “Happy Birthday Princess” in elaborately hand-drawn tattoo letters. The card is a much folded piece of white paper, the image beautifully drawn in delicate pencil.
“My Dad is in prison. He made me this for my birthday.” Her eyes search my face for any sign of disapproval. I mentally bless this father who loves his child.
What does this art mean?
When I look at this card I imagine time melts away for the artist as he works and the air takes on that super-charged feel at the edge of a storm. That moment when the summer air is replaced with the cool rush edge of the weather and the first round, fat drops splatter your face. This art says all things are possible. It says “Child, you are loved in this world.” It says, Child, wait and see and don’t lose hope. Ever.”
“Tell your Dad I think this is wonderful and he is very talented.” She smiles at the father that is miles away, but here in the room as she folds the card carefully into her pocket.
That is what art means for me and for this child today.
I spent four days in late June at a workshop for teachers hosted by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. If you are an art teacher reading this, you probably are already mentally recoiling from the mention of in-service workshops. But in my summer The Kimbell Summer Teacher’s Institute is an oasis of art-focused learning and fun. Open to educators of all subjects, it is held in the beautiful Renzo Piano Pavilion museum studio.
See these folks? They are happy public school teachers and just people who like art in this beautiful studio space.
I believe this is my fifth time to attend a summer workshop at the Kimbell, which says a lot. You don’t repeat a bad experience. Each year the activities are based on the special exhibition at the museum. This summer it was the Phillips Collection, a rich and varied group of paintings and sculptures from artists like Bonnard, Van Gogh, Degas, Marc, Klee and Picasso. The well-defined structure of the days, access to the special exhibition and incredible museum educators are what makes this workshop so valuable. Each artist and style is first outlined in a lecture by Connie Hatchette Barganier, Education Manager for the Kimbell. Somehow Connie managed to evade my camera this year. While these lectures are necessarily compact, they enrich and inform each gallery experience. Great docents led our little herd of teachers through the galleries. Did you ever try to get teachers to be quiet and focused? Hats off to the Kimbell docents for being friendly and professional while herding twenty teachers (like herding cats) through the exhibitions. Unfortunately photography in the special exhibitions is not allowed, but if you follow this link http://phillips.kimbellart.org/ you can get a glimpse of some of the pieces in the exhibit.
Back in the studio the talented Studio and Family programs Coordinator Marilyn Ivy leads us through exhibit-based art projects. My photos show Marilyn demonstrating a lino plate printmaking project; one of my favorite lessons this year.
Printmaking is not my strong suit, so it was nice to have Marilyn demonstrate. I think I may finally have enough of a handle on the process that I can use it with my students this school year.
Inking the lino plate
Placing on the chase
Securing the print
The Kimbell provides top notch art materials and we get to try our hand at the painting, sculpture and printmaking activities. Again, happy teachers shown with time to create.
As an added benefit this year the museum had Carol Ivey, a Fort Worth based artist, present a still life from observation clinic and offer a critique of our finished acrylic paintings. She arranged a still life in the studio and we got a canvas and acrylics and got to work. No pressure there, right? Here’s a link to information on Carol. My painting is still a work in progress, but in three hours at the workshop and a few more at home, I’m feeling good about it.
We also did a mixed media interior drawing with a wonderful black multi-media board I had not used before. Here is a beautiful example by Carolyn. Jessica Montes this Great Dane made me think of your sweet dog. Carolyn, thank you for offering to give this drawing. I hope your family loves it as much as I do.
The last day of the clinic is invaluable as each teacher presents a lesson plan to the group inspired by the exhibit. I chose to relate to the Degas painting Dancers at the Barre.
Image courtesy of Google Art project. Public domain.
I chose to break my lesson down into three steps. First, draw the painting upside down to so that my students focus on the shapes only rather than what it is they are drawing. The human figure is very daunting for elementary students. Second, concentrate on the arrangement of positive and negative shapes in the composition. I was really fascinated by the way this Degas painting is composed, the legs of the two dancers are almost at unbelievable angles, but it works. Using tracing paper on my contour line drawing I concentrated simply on isolating the positive and negative shapes of the composition and how they fit into the format. Finally, the third step is using another tracing of my contour line drawing to make a paper collage of the piece, using basic tones of paper and adding chalk to simulate the textures of the painting. So you explore three of the basic elements of art in this lesson, line, shape and color.
I’ve included some shots of the other teachers presenting their ideas. That is one of the best things about these days, hearing ideas from other teachers about how they would present a concept. It is always eye-opening and fun to see what everyone comes up with.
You walk away with a catalogue for the special exhibition A Modern Vision: European Masterworks from the Phillips Collection, a copy of all those lesson plans (40 pages in all this year), a flash drive with all the lecture notes and images plus a binder with the written version of all of the resource materials.
What a treat and a stretch for the right side of the brain at the same time. Next year is Asian art. I can’t wait.
In our elementary school we pack everything up in the classroom so that the maintenance crew can strip and wax the floors over the summer. That means the six-foot tables in my art room have to be stacked against the wall. I have seven of those tables in my room. A few years back I lucked into a end-of-year routine that keeps my sanity, is fun for the kids and guarantees I have clean table tops when I come back the following school year.
I have an inside Bubble Day. This requires a trip to Walmart to buy four giant containers of bubble liquid, hundreds of straws and plastic cups. My treat, because I love the effect it has on the kids. Both exciting and calming at the same time.
You must be sitting to blow bubbles.
Bubble stuff can go on the table, but not on the floor; too slippery.
Don’t blow bubbles directly into someone’s eyes. It stings.
If you bubble up all your bubbles, you are out. No refills.
End of the class all straws go in the trash, all cups go back on the counter, wipe down your table with paper towels at the end of class.
So here’s how it goes. The kids blow bubbles in the air for about two minutes until someone realizes that if you blow into the cup it will bubble over the lip of the cup and onto the table. Sort of like when you blow bubbles into you milk glass when you are having milk and cookies. Viola! Instant clean tables. Children combine straws in a bubble to make the largest bubble. Shouts of “Look, Mrs. Strandberg, Look!” fill the room. They progress from blowing bubbles into swishing their hands around on the table top and writing letters in the bubbly film on the table. Fun stuff.
The art room smells like soap. Clean tables. Clean hands. Happy kids. Happy teacher.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My elementary art student: Think of the best “valley girl”-accented voice saying, “Why do art teachers need a conference time anyway?”
I’m thinking, “You seriously did not just say that to me, right?” I smiled. Actually I think I bared my teeth and took a deep breath.
Me: (think Julia Sugarbaker accent). My answer:
“Ok, We’ll just examine that question, my friend.
Let’s just talk about materials and tools for a sec, ok?
It may have escaped your notice that on days like today when we paint, when you arrive for your thirty- minute art class (that is really just twenty-five minutes because we have no passing period) that these things are already ready for you on your table:
twenty-four large manila backer papers
a paper towel
a mixing plate
and a paint plate with red, yellow, blue, and white paint on it
the paint rack where you store your paintings is empty and ready for you with a clothespin on the front with your class number on the side you are supposed to use
twelve water cups are filled and ready for you to share with your partner
the paint brushes you used yesterday are clean and ready to pass out
soapy water is in a tub for your used brushes
Now, about those pesky ideas and goals for my lesson. (I did smile again, really.)
The painting formulas for mixing secondary colors and tints are already on the in-focus screen for you to refer to and your goal for the day is posted on the white board. Ah, vocabulary; like tint, primary, secondary, foreground, middle ground, background, and landscape. Did you think the Keebler Elves handed those to me on a notecard just before class or that I planned what I wanted you to learn?
How about when I carefully taught you procedures for taking out and putting up your artwork and materials by colored table or chair number, did you think that just happened spontaneously through a light sprinkling of fairy dust? No planning involved at all? And that I do all this for six classes a day?
Does that give you a hint of why I might need a planning period?”
The room had become eerily quiet. They were all looking at me like I had grown another head.
This year’s school Spelling Bee is in the can, completed, finished, wrapped up. I was the pronouncer for our elementary school bee; a job you get basically because everyone else says “I’m not doing it.” Oddly enough I mostly love being a pronouncer, my mom had us reading dictionaries at an early age, but I have to tell you it is an exhausting job. Why? Because you have to watch each student, heart in their mouth, come up to the microphone and spell the word you give them. And when they miss, you can not react. My face has to stay deadpan as they labor through the word, looking straight at me. My heart is breaking for the student who just misspelled their word and whose eyes just filled with tears. I’m thinking, “Please don’t cry, because if you start to cry, I’ll going to cry and it’s going to get damp in here.” That’s the exhausting part, the tension. I say the word, then they are supposed to repeat it, then ask me questions, then spell; which most never do. They’re nervous kids, they forget to ask for help.
By the way, just in case you don’t know this, the pronouncer does not pick the word; it is part of a prescribed, numbered list issued by Scripps each year and brother, I go in order. Anyway, my job is to help the kids. I can say the word again for them, give them the part of speech, origin of the word, a definition, use it in a sentence and give alternate pronunciations for the word, which is really hard for this southern girl. Who knew there were three different pronunciations for “equestrian”? And why? It takes me several weeks to get ready all 375 words and my donkeys all have an expanded vocabulary.
And while I’m at it, I have to say I have never met a fourth, fifth or sixth grader that has voluntarily used the word thaumaturge. Look it up. But now if I ever witness magic or a miracle, I’m ready.
Speaking of miracles, let’s invent a sound system that does not sprout gremlins the moment the Bee starts and begin issuing unearthly feedback when it did not do that yesterday when we practiced. Thanks again to a very nice parent who routed the feedback gremlins. Thaumaturgy! See I knew I’d use it.
But at the end of the day I am proud to be a part of the Spelling Bee and appreciative of all the hard work our students and teachers put into learning to spell. Spelling is a skill they will need their whole lives. Language is the accumulated knowledge of many people, many ages and it is an important thing to pass on.
And yes, I remember the word I missed in the Spelling Bee; it was “magazine”. Really.
Early morning discussion at the coffee table about passive and active transport. “What is that?” you say? My husband and I, both teachers, are looking at my clear glass coffee mug, to which he just added my weekend teaspoons of Bailey’s.
A beautiful thing, passive transport, where the slightly darker Bailey’s makes cloudy swirls through the coffee. Passive, because it moves through that liquid with any other energy being applied, versus active transport, which is when you stir it with a spoon. Of course it is the first day of Christmas break from teaching for me, which makes anything quiet and peaceful and that tastes like Baileys even more beautiful.
We’ve had this conversation about passive and active transport often, because George really liked his high school science teacher, Mrs. Vanderpool, who taught him that concept. Great name for a science teacher, don’t you think? He graduated in 1973, and I graduated in 1974, so here we are forty-three years later…still talking about her. Funny thing about teachers, you usually remember what they never intended to teach you. He remembers her as being up there in years (which probably meant over thirty) when she taught him, unmarried and that her mother lived with her. He also remembered that she pointed the fan out the window of the classroom to draw the hot air out of the room. Really, who does that? I didn’t remember that we didn’t have air conditioning in the high school back then. In Texas? I must have been tougher then.
I remember one of my high school science teachers, although I don’t remember his name, for a specific skill he had. In the middle of a lecture, he could kill a fly in the room with a rubber band. He would not skip a beat as he shot it and then would go right on talking. Now that was skill.
But I have to say, one of my favorite teachers was a music teacher. I had a choir teacher named Mr. Potts, which was funny enough all by itself, but he was a kind and patient man. His wife was also a musician and they had small children, so we would describe the family as “Papa Potts, Momma Potts and Potts tots.” We thought it was hilarious.
He taught me that teachers could cuss. I was in a school production of H.M.S. Pinafore. I was one of the “sailors on the side”, which means I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket and he had to give me something to do. So I was helping him after rehearsal when he accidently stepped into the unlocked footlights on the edge of the stage. They were the kind that flip up and they recessed about three feet into the wood stage floor. He had an armload of sheet music at the time and I remember it flew up into the air and floated down like snow all over the first few rows of seats, punctuated by some words I had never heard a teacher say. He was ok, but I honestly thought he had broken his leg and he carried a bruise for weeks. I loved Mr. Potts because he taught me a valuable lesson. He was a teacher and a human being; with a sense of humor and shortcomings and a family. That thought has sifted down through my teaching all these years. Now that’s passive transport.