Entering the Dance: A Perspective on Elementary Arts Education

As a retired person, I see more and more the outrageously crazy and demanding life of educators out there.  Masters of all things, teachers are responsible for the constant changing world of demands placed down before them.  I have such admiration for them.

When I have opportunity to work with children, in my specialized world of visual arts, I am blown out of the water by their desire to learn how to see their visual world, learn to draw and master a variety of media.  Yesterday this was no more evident.  I was thinking about the fact that more and more reflection and drawing are being sacrificed in lieu of a more packaged and close ended result for the purpose of display, such as the results provided by a ‘Pinterest idea’.  In fact, I post my lessons on to the Pinterest site, in the hopes that the lessons will minimize fear about the process of teaching drawing.  I don’t know if I can impact any of this anymore, but I treasure the opportunities that teachers give me to further my research and practice.  I am still learning.

Each year, the child is immersed in a different set of schema and does not necessarily reflect our adult ideas of ‘what art should be’ or what is ‘pretty art’.  Children’s art needs to reflect where they are at their particular age and with their particular way of seeing, as well as their fine motor skill development.  Here, I provide a little bit of read on the topic.

If teachers pressure either themselves or their students to create a ‘pretty’ end result, the child is trained to ask that forever-question in the art room…”Is this good?” instead of entering the dance of creation.  I think that focusing on an open-ended result and curbing adult expectations of ‘what makes good art’ is warranted, although it may be a practice that is unfamiliar.

While the step-by-step process teaches a whole other skill set, it is not necessarily the way to go about nurturing the artist soul.  The very pieces of art strung up down those hallways that achieve the giggles from the viewer, are likely the pieces that represent the children who are filled with artistic magic.  Embrace that with everything that is in you.

Yesterday, I watched a grade three Hibernating Animals lesson unfold…absolutely a magical experience!  For now, I’m just going to post very few pieces that represent the process of evolution that takes place when art lessons are child-centered and not adult-centered.  The ‘before’ depictions gauged where the students were in their imaginations, with absolutely no instruction…just a brainstorm list of animals that hibernate.

Observe…the animals have smiles on their faces.  The eyes are dominant.  The little legs are outstretched, in this case, two legs consistently on each animal. The body form is coloured in. The nest or den is a circle.

Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 029

Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 016

I then had the students pretend to be a hibernating mice on the classroom floor.

Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 011

They automatically bundled up in a closed circle.  I asked them to notice where their legs were…their tucked in heads…where their arms were, wrapping around their legs.  I had them rest like that for a while, with the lights dimmed.  They automatically stretched when I asked them to stand and return to their desks.

When they returned to their seats, I showed them a National Geographic film on what animals do in the winter.

When the movie was finished, I went to the board and told the students that we would be focusing on hibernating FURRY animals just for today, so we wouldn’t be drawing bats or snakes or insects hibernating.  I told them we wouldn’t think about scorpions today, either, because we would be thinking about animals that hibernate near us, in Calgary.  We listed those on our white board.  Ground squirrels, chipmunks, mice, rabbits, beaver, skunks…

I drew an exemplar on the board of the kinds of things that an animal might add to their nest.  We looked at the kinds of lines that make a cozy home for the winter.

We then discussed if we could see the animals bundled up, what would we see?  Closed eyes…curled up tail…ears that were back on the head…maybe one leg or just a paw.  The animal would want a curled up little bundle and not a great big space.  I had the students join me in the reading corner and read them a picture book about hibernation where we saw some beautiful photographs of animals in their nests and dens.

Their After drawing…look at the leap in their understanding of the visual world….after a body gym exercise, a movie and a discussion about how to draw grass and straw, how to draw fur and what would we see.  This is where you will see more distinction between the individual student’s schema.  Don’t be alarmed if some still see their world in a more flat or symbolic way.  This is where you let the students be individuals.  You can guide with leading questions, but really aim to NOT frustrate the students.  They are NOT right or wrong.

Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 044Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 038

Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 046Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 041

For expressive relief, after such concentration and after a recess break, the students decorated a picture frame for their piece with snowflakes…absolutely any way they wished.  We used chalk.  Given time, I would do this entire project in paint, but I was exploring an idea and this media made for an opportunity for me to see how I would revise the lesson.  Classroom teachers could use this idea of the picture frame on any project or piece of writing.  Colour of frame and motif can vary.

Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 061Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 060

Then the students found their nest.

Using chalk as the media for drawing, the students worked from their visual journal After sketches, to create their hibernating animals.  Once again, scale was an issue.  I discovered that their animals became smaller and skinnier as they placed them in these large nests.  This makes me smile…a result I didn’t anticipate and would likely spend some time talking to them about body mass if I explored this again.

Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 088Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 087Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 086Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 085Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 084Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 083Kath's Canon, January 6, 2016 Salmon gift, Franks, Hibernate 3 082

The results in this particular activity could not possibly be anticipated.  However, the process was invaluable and I enjoyed every minute of interaction with the students.  It isn’t easy ‘letting go’, but it’s imperative.  After this experience, I will be able to revise my lesson and further develop its outcomes.

I still have reservations about adult paint nights and classes that hinge on having students create images after an exemplar.  I think it’s just important to enjoy those experiences for what they are, a way to master techniques, materials or to train motor skills.  They are not experiences that lean toward the development of creative thought.  Closed-ended formulas are never as valuable as open-ended formulas.  For the record, my thoughts only!

Thanks for your class, Jenn!  They were awesome!

7 thoughts on “Entering the Dance: A Perspective on Elementary Arts Education

  1. Amen to this post. Thank you. I try to always allow the art be a process, a creation, not a pretty product. As a result my class is often in disarray with supplies and ‘process’ everywhere. My bulletin board a mish mash of various individual art instead of 25 of the same thing

    So happy for your blog to say this

  2. What a change once the children had time to enter into and better understand the idea of hibernation. It’s wonderful that you let the children express what their vision is rather than someone else’s idea of what they should express.

    • Oh my…one of my two readers! I get so danged excited when I get up one morning and see that someone was engaged in something I wrote! If you were here, I’d kiss you! :0) Happy New Year, inspiring lady!

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