Huh? Wow! Exploring Time-Based Media in Elementary Art | Meghan Zanskas

Much like my 21st century students, I’m drawn to artwork that uses video, animation, and sound. Not only do these works pull us in with movement, they engage our curiosity. With my own growing interest in video art I have come across some very interesting work done by contemporary artists. What I found encouraged me to make my own video art which was both meaningful and empowering for me as an artist and an educator.

My elementary art students love playing photographer to document and interview each other during class. We use the digital and video cameras as tools for documenting the things that go on in class in order to post pictures on our class blog and on the hallway bulletin boards. No matter what art project they’re engaged in, they will beg for a turn to stop painting, sculpting, drawing, etc. and take pictures and videos. In short, my students’ energy around digital video and photography surpasses their interest in all other media.

Art educator Olivia Gude recently called for New School Art Styles that engage students with contemporary art practices (Gude, 2013). After reading her article, I started wondering if there was a way to harness their excitement for the cameras in a new way. Her message in this article rang true with me, an art educator who is constantly trying to push my teaching forward as an important and relevant part of each student’s education. As a contemporary practice, making video art is both liberating and limiting for the art maker, an interesting dynamic that would be valuable for my students to experience.

Video art has a significant place in galleries and museums, but not in art classrooms. At the same time, video is ever-present in the context of my students’ lives. I decided to experiment with teaching a lesson where the camera was the tool and video was the medium. Video art is conceptual in nature, so I presented the project to my students so that they would view it as thought provoking rather than simply entertaining. As a relatively untouched media in elementary settings, I was excited at the thought that my fourth grade students might be able to engage with and produce their own video art.

To start, I wanted my students to see a wide range of uses for video, hoping they would connect to the work in their own ways. Ed Ruscha is quoted as saying “Good art should elicit a response of ‘Huh? Wow!’ as opposed to ‘Wow! Huh?’ This class full of young artists added to this, responding in a chorus of ‘What? Why? I don’t get it! What are they doing?’ and ‘Oh! Cool! Weird! I get it!’ and ‘I still don’t get it!’ as we viewed a smorgasbord of video work from a selection of artists. I picked up on and encouraged discussion when hearing students’ reactions.

We viewed work by Alberto Aguilar, Jorge Lucero, Janine Antoni, Bill Viola, Jeroen Eisinga, and a video of a performance by Marina Abramovic and Ulay. To show that this was something we could do in our classroom,  I pulled out my phone and showed them a video I had made while preparing to teach this project. In my video, you see a close-up view of my thumb and forefinger squeezing a small spring slowly and repeatedly until it unexpectedly flies out of view. My students talked about how something so simple could create such a sense of suspense in them as viewers. They liked that I had used a regular classroom object to create an image that surprised them.

We talked about the advantages to working with time-based media and the also the challenges it presented. They wouldn’t be able to add special effects or spatial illusions like in a drawing or painting, but they would get to create an image that changed over time. They would have to make decisions about the length of their piece, whether it would have sound, where they would film it, and whether the camera would be still or moving. I reminded them of their emotional and physical reactions to the videos we had just seen. What sense or feeling did they want to evoke in the eventual viewer of their work? They were full of ideas, enthusiastic, and ready to work.

The next two class periods were a flurry of collaborative planning, rehearsing, revising, and filming. I had set up five cameras, on loan from the media center, each with a sign-out sheet. With the option of working independently or in groups, we were lucky that demand for the cameras matched the availability and the sharing went smoothly. They worked through this process at varied paces, some finishing quickly. For those done early, I asked them to create drawings about their videos, envision different venues for their videos to be presented, and to imagine the way viewers might respond to their work.

After everyone had created their pieces, we viewed the work as a class, prompting questions, praise and observations from their peers. During a typical studio project, this final sharing and critique would signal the closing of the lesson; students would be ready to move on to something new. I assumed this discussion would perform its usual role, and was planning on introducing a preview of the next project at the end of class. However, this time the video critique was very different!

This time, they weren’t satisfied after the viewing session and they insisted that they needed more time to rework their ideas. Students gathered in groups, having excited, hushed conversations on what they noticed that they wanted to improve and on how they would go about revising it. The studio was alive with energy as they raised the bar and envisioned new possibilities for their work. These young artists were were getting out their journals, drawing and writing their ideas in an impromptu self-assessment.  They wanted to revise, rehearse, and recreate. The exciting part was that none of this was done to meet any set qualifications being required by me, or to receive a particular grade.

The video pieces created by my fourth grade students included abstract, narrative, silly, serious and playful messages. Their work challenged the idea that children need to be told what to make and how long to work in order for it to be deemed a valuable learning experience, or that they needed a formula to follow in order to create anything worthwhile. They took full ownership of their learning, opening the door to a new way of empowered working.

And, although many might hesitate with a paintbrush or ball of clay, I noticed that the camera was one tool that none of my students shied away from. Experimenting, taking risks, sharing their creative work, and teaching each other all came easily through this project.

I’m finding that art class can become a studio of authentic, meaningful learning for young people when they’re given the tools, trust, opportunities and time to explore and create. As I move further away from a traditional arts education curriculum, I hope to shed the notion that art is about creating a perfect picture. Instead, my goal is to instill in students the belief that art is about ideas and that each of them has the capacity to conceive of and engage with processes of meaningful art-making.

To view more student videos, please visit the 4th Grade Video Album!


Gude, O. (2013).  New School Art Styles: The Project of Art Education. Art Education. 66(1), 6-15.

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