Teaching Artist Development Studio Part 1: Fall 2011 | Suzanne Makol

Editor’s Note: This is the first of three posts by Suzanne Makol detailing her experience in the Teaching Artist Development Studio. TAD Studio is funded by the Fry Foundation, supported by a wide range of arts education organizations in Chicago, and run under the auspices of CCAP at Columbia College Chicago.

In 2011, I made the transition from teaching assistant to teaching artist. From 2007-2011 I was an assistant teacher at Marwen, an organization which provides free art classes for middle and high school students in the Chicago area.  It was there that I began to realize how much I enjoyed helping people as a teacher, whether formally in the classroom or informally helping peers in my college classes. After assisting over twenty classes and working with many great teaching artists, I started to develop ideas of how I would run my own classes and, this past summer, I felt ready to take the next step to become a full-fledged teaching artist.

I was excited when a friend told me about TAD Studio which started this past November.  There are two cohorts, the first for teaching artists with zero to five years of experience, and the second for those with five or more years of experience. In Cohort 1, the course is centered on designing curriculum to teach in a real classroom.  In December we finished Part One of TAD Studio, which was to design and teach a lesson to our peers.

We started off with two sessions to define what a teaching artist is. In the first session we had discussions that got specific about our practice: our process of actually making artwork, our skills, our interests directly related to our art, and even outside interests. We brainstormed about how our own practice can relate to our teaching practice.

I found it useful to reflect on the way I work, because it reminded me that students approach work as artists too, so it makes sense to incorporate my personal way of working to the way my students work. A big part of my process as an artist is making time to play with the medium of photography. So, in my classrooms, after students learn basic technical aspects of using a camera, I give them that freedom as well.

In the second session, we continued some of the same discussions as we observed real-life examples of teaching artist work. One teaching artist taught us a short photography lesson so that we could experience firsthand how she teaches, and we also had a panel discussion with a few other experienced teaching artists.

It was during these discussions that I began to see some common threads, as well as some contrasting ways of approaching TA work.  I also realized that my time at Marwen, both as a teaching assistant and as a student there myself while in high school, has strongly shaped my image of what teaching artists do. Something I saw in common between the TAs on the panel was the way they differed from schoolteachers; that they tended to treat their students as equal artists and critique their work more rigorously.

I also began to see that not all teaching artists have that philosophy. I heard some people in my cohort say that most students will not grow up to be artists, so why treat them as such? They argued that what a TA should really do is teach practical life skills and make students feel like they can express their individuality in a world that may overlook them in other aspects of their life.

While I do agree that there are many extraneous benefits to arts education, such as helping visual learners better understand topics such as math and social studies, improving communication skills, and improving critical and creative thinking, I don’t think that the art-making itself should be sacrificed in the process. Some of what was being discussed sounded like art therapy to me. Art therapy is a valid profession, but its goals and approach are somewhat different. In my opinion, it can also be presumptuous to assume that a student will not be an artist, or that learning a new skill is not reason enough to be in an art class. I think that although these other goals are useful, if they are taken too far, students will not fully experience the freedom to make art.

After two weeks of useful reflection and discussion, we got to the meat of part one and began planning a lesson to teach. To make things more interesting, we were paired up with a fellow teaching artist to co-teach a group of about eight of our TAD Studio peers. To be honest, I was a little nervous because my peers work in different mediums (visual art, dance, theater, and literary art), so I didn’t know how I would combine what I wanted to teach about photography with what another person wanted to teach. To put me even more out of my comfort zone, I was paired with an artist working in theater. I was baffled with how we would combine our individual expertise to teach a fifty-minute session aimed at 11th graders.

In my own artist and teaching practice, I am interested in the process of photography. I enjoy seeing how it works in an up-close way. I enjoy making pinhole cameras and printing in a black and white darkroom. Initially I wanted my teaching session to involve experiencing a camera obscura. The camera obscura led to the development of the camera. It is typically a room in which you block out all light, except for a small hole at one end. Because of the way light works, whatever is outside that hole will be visible (although upside-down and backwards) on the opposite wall. It is this kind of experience that shows the magic of photography, and helps you understand how a camera actually works.

Because it would have been difficult to replicate a camera obscura with the space and time given, I decided to go a different route; I learned that what was important to me was to teach something about how photography works, and to encourage play and experimentation with the medium. I decided I could do that by teaching light painting using a digital camera.

Light painting refers to taking long exposure photographs (from a few seconds up to minutes or more), and manipulating light during that time to capture it in the picture. It is a fun way to get a better grasp of how the camera captures light in the amount of time that the film (or digital sensor) is exposed.

As a theater artist, my co-teacher was interested in exploring a fundamental theater concept: the tableau. Although I initially wasn’t familiar with a tableau, I quickly saw how easily it could be related to photography. A tableau is a group of actors posed in a still image. One might imagine it as a still frame of a movie. We decided we could easily combine light painting and tableau into an engaging lesson.

My co-teacher started the lesson by teaching about tableau. The students, a small group of other TAD Studio TAs, performed examples, and discussed how the poses worked together to tell a possible story. Then they chose one of the tableaus they performed to use as the basis for the light painting. I showed them a few examples of what happens when you move flashlights in different ways during the picture.

It was enlightening to combine two art forms to make artwork. The tableau involved two characters: one on the left in the position of giving something, and another on the right receiving but with their eyes rolled. Our students used light painting to “draw” props and add abstract streaks of light to add to the mood of the characters. At the end of the session we discussed how the light painting altered the meaning of the tableau.

Although it was a short session, we sparked some interest in both photography and theater. The students picked up on how even in this simple form, theater is used to tell a story. With the light painting, students were intrigued by the effects they could achieve with light painting, and how given more time they could explore it even further. Some students had seen light painting used before in advertising, for example, and never realized that it was not a digital effect, but rather done with lights while taking the picture.

One of the most useful things I have gained so far from TAD Studio is a better understanding of my strengths and interests in the medium of photography, and that what I am interested in can also be interesting to a younger student when I treat them as a fellow artist.  For me, the perfect balance is valuable critique and time to play with the medium.

Part Two of TAD Studio, starting in January, is the design cycle, where we design and teach a two-session lesson in a school classroom. The third and final part of TAD Studio will be to present and critique our work.  I look forward to using what I learned during the practice run to teach in a school!

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