One morning, as I finished demonstrating drawing a face on the board, a little boy looked at his paper and then looked at me. “I don’t like this,” he told me. I replied, “Let me look at it for a moment.” He looked at me with a sense of hesitation and, I could tell, was awaiting some kind of “yes,” that it was not good. I asked him if I could take his pencil and show him something on his drawing. He gave me his pencil, and I said, “You make sure to look at what I do because you’re going to love your picture after we’re done.”
This interchange happened during a residency I had with thirty first-graders at Oakman Elementary in Detroit through VSA Michigan this past June. Throughout the residency I observed over and over again students who were unhappy with their artwork.
It was startling to me that these first graders were so self-critical.
In my experience by third grade it’s pretty normal to see kids erasing what they created or ripping up their art, or deciding to just not create. I feel that it is crucial for a child’s creative and educational development to counteract this “criticalness.” This self-criticism is not the same as critical thinking that kids are encouraged to do, but rather it’s a sense of shame, a feeling of failure, and a feeling that what they have created is “bad” and absolute or unchangeable. Teaching artists have the ability to counteract these feelings.
In the story I started above, the boy looked at the paper as I showed him how we could change the face’s eyes by adding triangles at the end of the circles. I had been teaching basic shapes in this class, so I wanted to emphasize this idea. He still was not sure. He said, “But look at the mouth.” I said, “OK, now look at what I’m going to do to the mouth.” I added an upper and lower lip. The child started laughing and smiling and you could see that this had become a moment of magic for him. He said that the person in his drawing was laughing. In that moment his perceptions changed. Instead of limiting his world he opened it up with the idea that by adding a simple shape he could change his picture. And, in that moment, he also learned that nothing you do is absolute.
This kind of self-criticism that children develop often extends into adulthood due to early experiences in school. As children enter school they’re told that there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, especially in math and spelling. So when they begin to work with the teaching artist they second-guess what they are doing as if they are doing something wrong. They are ultimately surprised when they find there is no one right answer.
The children may be surprised, but it doesn’t surprise me that children are feeling the pressures of a product-oriented education. If we teach children that there is always only one answer, they will follow this model and not look for alternative solutions to problems overall.