The Risk of Collaboration | Andrea Jandernoa

I am fascinated by the idea of collaborative art making and find myself building it into the classroom whenever possible. But, this is not without risk. Sometimes collaboration is met with the threat of egos and conflicts of authorship. I’ve watched students alienate each other with offhanded comments like “I don’t want to work with her” or have seen perfectly cooperative pairs disintegrate when they realize that one canvas can’t be taken home by two students.

Giving a group of students the power to create, lead, cooperate, and govern the process of art making themselves is risky, but when it works it’s worth it. While students collaborate they learn to express their ideas verbally, critique their work productively, and to understand a different kind of authorship. These concepts are difficult, and taking the risk to let them wrestle with this process means that sometimes learning how to collaborate stalls the process of art making or reverts work to a lesser quality. I’ve assigned many collaborative projects in the past few years. Here are a few examples of why I believe the risk of collaboration is one worth taking.

School 109

Location: IPS school 109
Grades: 4-6, groups of 2-4
Prompt:
Create a painting that communicates an important message to your community.
Outcome:
Students made deep connections about important subjects through discussion and collaboration.

During this project students were first asked to create a message directed at members of their community. Hoping to encourage organic cooperation I allowed students to self-determine groups of 2, 3, or 4 students. Once grouped, they had to discuss and agree upon one cohesive message. Because I did not offer examples or influence this process of determining a subject for their work, the students initiated their own ideas, brought up topics that were relevant to their own lives, and explained why these messages were important.

One group of students decided to further explore the subject of “Drug Free,” a topic they had been discussing in school. They shared with me reasons to be drug free and why it was important to their community. Explaining that without drugs, people are more inclined to peace, health, and happiness they worked together to illustrate a world without drugs.

Another group of students decided that they wanted everyone to have a house and food. As they developed their painting, they realized that if everyone in the world had a house and food there would be world peace. Without giving students the opportunity to collaborate and explore their own interests this unique connection between world peace and the need for housing and food would never have been made.

Location: Concord Neighborhood Center
Grades: 4th-6th, whole class
Prompt: Determine Setting, Subjects, and Tone then create a class design inspired by Magical Realism.
Outcome: Students took ownership of the quality and creativity expressed while learning how to co-author artistic content.

In another collaborative project, I orchestrated an entire class-authored design to be used in a multi-paneled class painting. Using one whole class period to generate ideas, agree on a vision, create an image, critique the first draft, and make final changes, I gave students the power to make decisions and infuse their own ideas into one unified artwork.

Watching this class of 4th-6th graders, I noticed students problem solving, offering productive critiques, and building on individual ideas. Using the concept of Magical Realism, which I presented as an inspiration for the project, students developed an island eco-system complete with a rain-producing, sky-baby whose tears nourished the ground below. Once their image was complete, I asked students to point out areas for improvement. Students noticed that the subjects of the painting blended into the background too much. On their own they decided this must mean these subjects needed stronger outlines and needed to be enlarged so they would stand out. Taking ownership of these flaws, they erased and redrew, creating a final improved image.

Visions Academy

Location: Visions Academy
Grades: K-6th
Prompt: Determine Setting, Subjects, and Tone then create a class design inspired by Magical Realism.
Outcome: Students created a unique solution to allow for individual expression.

With a group of younger students I was very impressed by their problem solving skills and their desire to incorporate every students’ individuality. After discussing possible subjects, settings, and tones, the students realized they had very diverse interests and ideas. With another group, this might have stalled collaboration since students did not want to compromise their individual visions. Instead these students decided to create their drawing in outer space so that each student could draw their own ideas on their own planet. With the freedom to draw their own unique ideas within a planet, the students ended up creating a beautiful solar system that allowed for individual expression.

Throughout these three projects I was continually impressed by the breadth of ideas and concepts that resulted from allowing students to lead their own collaborative art making. When given the space to experiment, socialize, negotiate, and problem solve in groups, students are capable of initiating relevant learning that is not confined to the imagination and knowledge of the instructor. This produces an exciting environment, well worth any risk, for both the students and instructor.

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