Getting It Right

It’s a New Year with lots of fabulous new stories for ALT/space! Generally, in this space we share multiple smaller stories of individual practice that, over time, create a multi-dimensional picture of the contributor’s teaching personality and approach. But what if we did the same thing with an individual organization? This is the first in a four-part series illustrating the work happening at KID smArt in New Orleans, LA featuring both teaching artist and administrative voices every Monday this month. Don’t forget to put ALT/space in your feed reader so you won’t miss a thing! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

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I have unique task for a teaching artist: I am supposed to work with a group of fourth graders who have particularly intense behavior struggles to improve their overall classroom behavior. While arts integration is generally used to help students access core academic content like math, science, and reading, our class employs visual arts integration to target social emotional objectives – like being able to express oneself, and working safely and successfully as a group. Particularly, I work with students have characteristics of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and we use advanced visual art techniques to tap into coping mechanisms and self-acceptance.

For our first class together, I asked the kids to compose self-portraits. They were supposed to use elements of collage and pay special attention to the shapes on their faces — triangular noses, circular pupils, and lips shaped like bows. This was an introductory activity to get us acquainted with supplies and artistic concepts, building up to some larger, full-scale art pieces that would incorporate a variety of media and techniques.

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For the most part, this was a calming and engaging project. Fourth graders in New Orleans have to take high-stakes standardized tests, which makes fourth grade a year that everyone cares about, and simultaneously dreads. As a result, fourth grade teachers necessarily give their students lots of test prep; filling lessons with bubble-in answer documents and daunting packets of worksheets. The students making self-portraits that day seemed generally grateful for the momentary respite from right answers and ScanTron pages. I say “generally” because there was one noticeable exception. I’ll call him Justin.

Justin — a short nine-year-old with big, square-shaped glasses, tightly-cropped hair, and endlessly skeptical facial expressions — started his self-portrait several times, but he never got very far. He cut out a large, brown oval out of construction paper for his head. He ripped up the large, brown oval immediately after cutting it out. “It looked like a potato,” he said. “My real head is no potato.”

In all, Justin cut out 12 brown ovals, 14 golden triangles (for his nose), and 33 black circles (for his eyes). All of these shapes, without exception, he promptly ripped up; adding them to an increasingly massive pile of shredded construction paper. By the time class had ended, Justin had nothing on his desk at all, just as when he’d started.

There are lots of kids like Justin, and they become more and more prevalent as classes get older. These are kids who want their art to look a very particular way, the first time they make it. If they can’t achieve perfection, they shut down and give up. These kids, of course, blossom into the kinds of adults who say to their colleagues, “Oh, I can’t draw. I’m a terrible artist.” Unfortunately, that’s a statement we have all heard far too often among our grown-up friends. At some point, art stops becoming something everyone can create and be successful at, no matter who they are; and turns into something that a person can get “right” or “wrong.”

This mentality is a fabrication, of course. Creativity is all about mistakes, and the only thing that makes art “good” is the honesty and dedication of the person who created it. This is why, in my opinion, very young children are the best artists. Young children use pictures to translate the world in a way that makes sense to them. Justin, for one reason or another, got a grown-up mindset about art a little earlier than his peers. This, unfortunately, was to his detriment.

For our next session, I had students create large body shapes to which they would attach their head self-portraits. This time, I sat with Justin the whole time. Every time he told me he couldn’t do something (like draw hands, or feet), I guided him through the process. Much of the time, I did the drawing for Justin. I know this is a huge no-no in teaching art, but I thought of it the way I think about reading out loud to a child who is learning to read: You don’t want them to depend on you forever, but you do it at first so they don’t give up on themselves.

For a few weeks, I sat with Justin, helping him through the tough steps. Slowly, he asked me for less and less help. He started drawing eyes on his own after a particularly in-depth lesson on the shapes that make up eyes. There were still classes where he’d tear his work up. He never said he was proud of it. But nevertheless, the training wheels started to come off.

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Then one day, we were doing a particularly difficult project. It was a 3-D mask built out of scraps of corrugated cardboard. The cardboard was hard to cut, and lots of kids were feeling frustrated so I was spread pretty thin in the classroom, helping students with tougher shapes and making sure their pieces were attached the way they wanted. For the most part, kids created masks that looked a lot like my model: a prism-shaped nose, a rectangular mouth, and a jutting jaw line. I didn’t have enough time to help Justin. I didn’t even think about it.

But then, as class was ending, I noticed him. He had been working so quietly and with such focus that I had almost missed him. His mask was almost done — and he’d done it all on his own. It was amazing: huge, blocky eyebrows; jutting, conical eyes; a big, screaming mouth. Honestly, my heart skipped a beat when I saw it. It was just the kind of weird, amazing, unique work of art that every teacher dreams of seeing their student create.

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I practically ran over to Justin once I noticed his work. “Did you do this yourself?” I asked him. “Yeah.” He said. And then, really quietly, almost too quietly to hear, he said, “It looks cool, huh?”

In teaching art, I find that I am not only teaching children the skills and techniques necessary to craft an expert practice. I am also — if not mostly — teaching children how to be self-confident enough to eventually make art without prompting or help. I want them to love art, and to feel like they have the capacity to create it. I want them to silence their own internal voices that tell them they can’t.

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