Friday, June 26, 2009

Philosophy of Art: A Metamorphisis (of sorts)

<---Two of my kindergarten students enjoying a bit of marble painting. Both are grown now. Amy is in college and Joel is married and raising a family.

Teaching has been a great journey for me. It's been a journey of learning, challenges, frustrations, celebrations, and much joy. My journey began in 1989 in an elementary school in a small town in Washington State. (BTW, I'm still there today) I was hired to teach kindergarten in a school of about 500 students. I was to develop a "play centered" kindergarten and as there was no official district adopted curriculum, I had to develop most everything from scratch. I think I'm good at finding activities that are both meaningful and fun. Nearly everything I did was centered around play. The philosophy underlying each activity was rooted in the development of the whole child. Remember the terms Developmentally Appropriate Activities? Yeah, that was our battle cry.

A variety of centers could be found in my kindergarten room: The writing center; four-sided painting easel; water/sand table, block play, drama; reading center; listening center; etc. You name it, I probably had it in my classroom. I suppose you could say that my philosophy of art began to really develop while teaching kindergarten. As a kindergarten teacher, I sought to provide a variety of experiences that were inviting and fun. Tucked inside the various activities were planned learning experience designed to introduce or reinforce skills necessary for more advanced learning. Learning through play was a huge theme of mine. And when I became the art teacher, that philosophy carried over into my new position.

As I said in my previous post, I don't have any formal art training. What I know about art, aside from my undergrad degree and the classes I've taken in the past ten years, has been self-taught. I've read many books, and have learned and practiced many art skills and techniques over the past ten years. I'm in constant learning mode and I love it. This love of learning has served me well. I love trying new things and then teaching them to my students. Yet my focus was not so much on a set of skills, but was on meaningful art experiences. I believed then, as I do now, that you can't avoid learning something meaningful when doing art. My approach was a bit backward from the way the administration wanted me to do it. But it's the way my brain processed things at that time and it made the most sense to me: Find good projects that would be engaging and the learning would follow.

Teaching on a cart was a bit limiting. Several rooms were in portables and had no water. Consequently, I had to find activities that I could haul around on a cart, and be able to get from class to class with just minutes in between. I tried just about everything, including painting. I hauled buckets of water to the portables, and set up my own sinks. The easiest activities were those that didn't require water for the activity or cleanup.

Drawing materials are among the easiest things to haul around in my opinion. In the beginning years, we did a lot of drawing. I developed a sequential drawing program based on Ed Emberly's drawing alphabet - Squiggles Dots and Lines (for K-1); Monart's Drawing With Children (for 2-3) and Mark Kistler's excellent Draw Squad (for 4-5). In the beginning we did a lot with drawing.

I also did a lot with music (singing folk songs) and storytelling. I play the guitar and would have periods throughout the year where I would tell folk tales and teach songs to the different grade levels. For the upper grades, we'd learn about performance skills and students would pick short tales to learn and tell to the class. Middle grades would write stories and then illustrate them (based on the procedures found in Lynn Rubright's Beyond the Beanstalk - Interdisciplinary Learning Through Storytelling). In the younger grades the focus was on introducing and learning of songs and stories. I'll share more on storytelling in subsequent blogs.

There is much more I could share about those five years on a cart, but I'll leave it at this for now. Our school underwent a remodel and for the past five years, I've had a room of my own (with a kiln room attached). It's smaller than a regular classroom but it's a room!

As the State of Washington began to focus more on outcomes, that focus eventually moved its way into the arts. I began hearing the question, "What's your target?" Even teachers were asking what my learning goals were for different projects. But I was still operating from the "meaningful art projects first, skills will follow" way of thinking. I wonder if I'm alone in thinking this way? At any rate, the pressure to conform continued and for a few years. I resisted the change manly because it isn't the way I thought about art at that time.

Then one day a light came on in my head. My principal has been very generous, allowing me to make small steps as an art educator. And one day while she and I were having a conversation, something she said to me "lit the light." I wish I could remember what she said exactly. We were discussing a project I was doing with the students and she was offering thoughts on what was being learned. Something she said struck a chord and almost immediately I began looking at art ideas in a different way. Even though it went against the way I had thought in the past, I began to see the possibilities of what could be specifically taught in any give art project/activity. One of the buzz words at that time (and probably still today) is "intentional teaching." I suppose this was the beginning of my intentional teaching approach to art.

When I see an art idea, I still first judge it as to whether I like it or not, think it will be engaging and meaningful, and then ideas begin to pop in my head on what skills/concepts can be addressed through this art activity. This is a different way of thinking for me. If I'm attracted to an art idea, I begin to look at the various ways it can be used to address the skills outlined in the Washington State grade level expectations (GLE's). The difference for me now is simply this: I choose art activities that will address certain skills or concepts in an organized way. But the art activities (for the most part) must first pass the first filter: Does this activity look like something I'd like to do? If yes, I'll find a place for it. In the past, I'd do that activity and let the chips (skills/concepts) fall where they may.

I hope this makes sense to anyone reading it. Part of the reason for this blog is for me to process my thoughts and sometimes I have a lot to say. Thanks for reading. ;) You're comments would be most welcome!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Journey Into Art

I'm an art teacher. Some days I have to pinch myself to be sure it's not all a dream. Once you read my story you'll see what I mean. I was 34, married and had two children when I lost my job with AT&T due to massive layoffs. I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and become a teacher. I chose to major in math. Why I chose math I don't really know because math and I didn't add up. ;) So I changed my major and decided to get my degree in elementary education. I was told to get my kindergarten endorsement too as it would help get me interviews.

Kindergarten? You've got to be kidding! That idea was the furthest thing from my mind. But my first job as a teacher was teaching kindergarten. I taught that grade level for 8 years. After that I taught a multi-age class for 2 years and was scheduled to teach a 1st grade class the following year. Then came the opportunity that changed my professional life.

I'm being honest when I say that teaching art was even further from my mind than was teaching kindergarten. But our district had grown and all three elementary schools had to add specialist to cover the increasing need for teacher planning time. Our school staff had a meeting and ideas for the fourth building specialists were discussed. In the end, my building decided on a fine arts program (over math or science enrichment) and my name was suggested to develop it.

Oddly enough, I had to think about a week before accepting the job offer. I would no longer have a classroom of my own as I would be teaching off a cart. That idea didn't appeal to me. But after encouragement from others, I accepted.

In the beginning, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. My program was known as Fine Arts and under that rubric I included many activities such as drawing, painting, poetry, creative story writing, story telling, puppetry, and music (sing*a*long songs).

After 5 years on the cart our building underwent a major rebuild (1/2 the building was torn down and completely rebuilt while the other half gutted and remodeled. As a result, I got a classroom of my very own!

Within the first two years of having my own classroom, the pressure of Washington State Standards began to show its face. I'll talk more about my journey with the Standards later. Slowly at first, I began teaching more and more just in the visual arts discipline.

When I first began teaching art at the elementary level, I began with just my basic education degree (I also have a Master's Degree). I have no formal art training and do not hold a special endorsement in art. As I said earlier, I never intended to teach art. However, in the past ten years I have taken many art related courses and have immersed myself in learning about art. The more I learn, the more I fall in love with teaching art. I just finished a course based on Eric Jensen's excellent book Arts With The Brain In Mind. I'll share more about this class in upcoming posts.

This year marked my tenth year as an art teacher. There is nothing like it. I am confident you will enjoy seeing the art my students have produced and I hope you will appreciate my approach to teaching art. I have much to share and hope you will find some of the lesson plans useful in your classrooms.

I'm a very lucky man. I have a family I love, two adorable granddaughters, and a job that I love to go to each and every day. I love to paint, draw, and do all sorts of crazy art projects. I am fortunate that I have a kiln in my room and lots of materials for clay projects. Each day is an adventure and I am always amazed at the beautiful creations my students produce. I hope you'll stay tuned as I share my experiences with all of you.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Art Makes Kids Smart

I chose the title of this blog after reading the book Arts With The Brain In Mind by Eric Jensen. Jensen's thesis is that The Arts should be part of the core curriculum of public education. Jensen bases his thesis on what we know from brain research and learning theory. It's an excellent book and well worth reading. This summer I'm reading another of Jensen's books, Teaching With The Brain In Mind and Top Tunes for Teaching: 977 Song Titles & Practical Tools for Choosing the Right Music Every Time. I'll share more on the ideas in these books in the coming months.

The main purpose of this blog is to share my ideas with other art teachers and in turn, develop a network where ideas can be shared and questions addressed. I also want to communicate to parents and other interested visitors to this blog the enormous importance the arts play on the development of the child.

I teach in Washington State and part of the big change I am facing as an art educator includes identifying the specific learning goals my art lessons are designed to address. Wow, that sounds so rigid. I thought art was all about individual expression and exploration and fun! What's all this about learning goals?

The introduction of the Washington State "EALRS" (Essential Acedemic Learning Requirements) has been a real challenge for me. It's been very frustrating and for a while it made me very angry. I grew tired of the question: "What's the learning target for this lesson?" I wanted to pour paint on the person's head just for asking the question. I still hate the question. I want the art work admired and enjoyed for what it is: a beautiful creation by a child expressing outward somthing from within. (If an art teacher asks that same question, I am delighted to answer as I know they will have ideas to share too! It's only when that is asked by people hung up on the skills components that I am truly bothered.)

This is enough for now. Please give me feedback as I'd really like to hear from you. I have a lot to share if all goes they way I am planning. This blog is my summertime project (along with a huge list of honey do's) ;)