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!

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