Before class one day, I watch my student Jessica fill in what appears to be an abstract shape on mylar with black sharpie, and I can’t help but wonder what she’s drawing. I can’t quite see it yet, but she shades with concentration, ignoring her classmates who chat across the tables. Class begins with general announcements and collection of work, etc., and Jessica continues to draw through it all, barely looking up to notice the papers being passed around her. She finally seems satisfied, holds the drawing up to appraise it, and then quietly gets up and hands me her work. I hold the drawing at arm’s length and recognize the shape as a girl laying on the ground, eyes closed, her hair spread out around her. It’s a powerful image and all I can say to her is, “Wow…” before she simply smiles without saying anything and returns to her seat.
Figure 1: Jessica’s place of freedom, marker on mylar
Jessica, a high school senior enrolled in an early pre-service teacher preparation program, is not someone who speaks very much in class. She prefers to listen, take it all in, and contribute only when she’s ready, only when she feels rehearsed and able to make what she calls “a meaningful contribution.” So when Jessica faced the first assignment of our collaboration with teaching artists from the Fabric Workshop & Museum (FWM), she initially stumbled, and later reflected, “I wanted to turn in a blank sheet of paper…” The assignment? Imagine and sketch a place, space, or idea that brings you a sense of freedom and peace; and how might this place of freedom manifest itself in your future teaching practice?
In order to think about this arguably daunting assignment, we initially had students read and respond to writer, poet, and artist Faith Ringgold (b. 1930, Harlem), who is known for her vibrant storied quilts dealing with issues of race and equity. During her 1990 FWM Artist Residency, Ringgold created one such quilt, Tar Beach, which later became a children’s book of the same title. Tar Beach is a story about a young African American girl who discovers that all she needs is her imagination to be free. The young protagonist uses her newfound power to imagine she can fly; she soars high above her Harlem home to escape the hardships of everyday life. After reading and responding to Tar Beach and exploring images from the original quilt, we asked students to imagine their own place of freedom, and begin brainstorming ideas in their sketchbooks. We asked them also to consider a few questions as they sketched: How does your place of freedom connect to your emerging teaching philosophy? How can we use our spaces of imagination in the classroom for peace, contemplation, and growth?
Figure 2a: FWM Teaching Artist Ryan Parker gives a silk-screen printing demonstration to students. Figure 2b: Jessica’s final silk-screen prints on fabric.
Jessica wasn’t the only student who sat stumped that first day, but over the course of a week, with time to think and consider the assignment, students came up with a variety of images that revealed personal stories as well as the ways they were thinking about teaching and learning. Students first drew these images in their sketchbooks, then redrew them on mylar, and later silk-screen printed their final works. Jessica’s powerful image of the girl represents a memory of a big snowstorm, walking down a quiet highway with her dad, where “it was just white everywhere…and just completely silent and it’s just kind of a surreal feeling that I have kept with me. I like the quietness and the way [snow] muffles everything. I really like laying down in the [snow] and listening and feeling with my eyes closed.” Jessica further explained this snow angel image as representing “a lack of constraints…it doesn’t matter what I look like, it doesn’t matter.” So how might Jessica’s desire for a “lack of constraints” affect the way she eventually teaches? This is a question Jessica surfaced through this assignment, and she continued to think about it throughout the year. What surprised me the most in this whole process was that by simply asking students to imagine and sketch their places of freedom, I learned so much about them, their lives, and what might be important to them as teachers. Embedded in their images are lifetimes of experiences. Here are just a sampling of a few: Alisha’s fond memory of hanging out with cousins on the lake dock during summer vacations (Figure 3); Sam’s habit of driving her truck into a quiet field, where she plays her guitar under the stars when things get rough (Figure 4); Hannah’s comfort with the anonymity a city can provide (Figure 5); Evelyn’s need for the calming effect of music (Figure 6); and Kaylin’s need for the order of the softball field (Figure 7).
One of the questions I posed in my first ALT/space post related to thinking about art’s role in teacher education, and how engaging in the arts might lead teachers to develop a more intentional teaching practice. My students began to touch on this question through this assignment, but rather than coming to any clear conclusions, our inquiry led us to a series of new and important questions that guided our ongoing work throughout the year: How do our deeply embedded assumptions and life histories manifest themselves in our classroom practice? How does who we are, where we come from, and what we believe, inform our theories of practice, our interactions with students and the relationships we are able to build with them?
These questions are not novel per se—many classroom teachers, teaching artists, and educational researchers have been asking these sorts of questions for decades. But at a time when teachers and students are inundated with demands to meet increasingly narrow standards of achievement, these questions deserve resurfacing and serve to remind us that teaching is a human endeavor, one that does not easily fit into a rubric—it is instead fluid, complicated, and if nothing else, messy.