A Most (In)Appropriate Place to Begin

I had planned to begin this blog with some posting about my 2 year-old daughter’s creative development.  Afterall, she inspired me to get going on this project.  And everything she does is super cute.  How better to cultivate a following of readers from the start?

To help me ground my observations of her work with formal and informal artmaking modes and materials, I turned to one of my longstanding favorite art educators, George Szekeley.  Like Piaget, Szekely based much of his research on observations of his own children.  I find descriptions of kids’ artmaking and related recommendations for motivating students in the art classroom are engaging and inspiring.  While reviewing The Art of Teaching Art (1996), I came across this comment:

“I have observed that moments of play become much fewer and more difficult to capture as children become older.  Play opportunities diminsh.  Play comes packaged in video games and other influences which override the individual’s own creative impulse.  Many children become wired to entertainment media and simply stop playing.”

This had me running to the basement to take another look at the paper gun collection my stepson (age 13) was working on over the summer.  I have to preface this all by saying, I’m not a big fan of guns or his fascination with them.  His knowledge has been fueled, in large part, by countless hours in front of the XBox playing Modern Warfare, in keeping with Szekely’s prediction for boys his age.  However, I admit that time has taught him some useful things like the history of world wars, and have inspired some of his most creative pursuits off screen.  Come to think of it, most of his creative projects over the past 2 or 3 years has focused around weapon imagery – Lego battlescenes, detailed drawings of the guns in his virtual arsenal, the paper guns.

When George first showed these to me, I have to admit that I was blinded by the amount of tape he used and the fact that he didn’t use recylced paper.  This morning, as I picked them up and examined them, I was impressed by George’s attention to detail and the quality of his constructions.  At first glance, I wasn’t able to see that the handgun above includes a removable magazine that slides smoothly in and out of the pistol’s handle.  His personal notations amused me.  He truly took ownership of this work.

This past week, George spent his allowance at the hardware store purchasing spray paint he used to give some of his Airsoft guns a makeover.  He experimented with how far to hold the canisters from his “target” and used tape and parsley from the garden to mask the surface to create patterns with the paint.  Again, while I wish these creative endeavors took some other form, I was impressed by his persistence with this project and the results.

I was in school earning my master’s degree in Art Education at the time of the Columbine shootings.  While I was teaching in the classroom, there was a zero tolerance policy for imagery of violence, and especially guns.  So, I’m left wondering, what place do George’s experiments have in the artroom?  If I were his teacher and I asked the students to bring in independent projects they were working on in their home studios, what would I say about George’s work?  Would I allow him to share it?  How far outside the lines does it lie?

Postscript: As it turns out, a quick Google search for “rolled paper guns” taught me that George isn’t an outlier, per se.  He’s part of a group of makers who are sharing their designs online on sites like WonderHowTo.com, which hosts more than 300 paper gun tutorials and twenty pages of spray paint lessons for gun owners.  And here I thought he was making this stuff up on his own.  But that’s a topic for another time…

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Odd Bedfellows Conjuring Spirits of Art Education Past, Present, & Future

Currently on my nightstand:

George Szekely (1996) The Art of Teaching Art
Diane Ravitch (2010) The Death and Life of The Great American School System

I have to admit I never intended to draw any connections between these two books, but I have.

As a graduate student at Pratt Institute in the late ’90s, I studied closely with Amy Brook Snider.  She was a marvelous mentor–an intellectual’s art educator, an artist’s art educator.  In my memory, she cared less about training us to write lesson plans than in educating us to channel our artistic observations, inspirations, and ideas into motivating experiences for our students.

“A successful art lesson is a work of art.  Teaching art is a creative act, no different from the act of creating in any other media,” (Szekeley, p. 43).

Amy didn’t teach from textbooks.  She relied on the art and design in museums and galleries throughout the city as well as its rich visual culture to inspire us.  She assigned readings from the philosophical writings of artists and educators from a wide range of disciplines.  I am so thankful for that introduction to art education and I long to return to it.  I long for the mental time and space I had at that point in my life to roam the streets of the city and to live amidst the writings of Henri Rousseau, John Dewey, Maxine Greene, and Nel Noddings.

Of course that was all before the onslaught of No Child Left Behind.

“We must take care that our teachers are well educated, not just well trained,” (Ravitch, p. 1).

The course I just finished teaching on curriculum in Art Education focused on backward design and the use of big ideas and essential questions to ensure lessons addressed specific learning outcomes.  I realize that art teachers today are working in an environment governed by accountability.  I realize that the ability to clearly state our goals for teaching and learning is essential to making the most of our time with students.  However, I can’t imagine any of this leaves you with a burning desire to go and make art with kids.

I’m not convinced we ought to tie our future to our ability to define our lessons in whatever language administrators are currently peddling.  Rather, I believe the future of art education lies in the classrooms where people who are passionate about art are sharing that passion with students.  I believe the future of art education lies in distinguishing art classrooms as places where something different is happening than in any other part of the school.

That something ought to be grounded in art historical references and concepts.  That something ought to integrate content from academic disciplines and students’ lives.  That something ought to be richly woven into and through authentic investigations and experiences with formal and informal art forms and materials.  That something ought to address published standards for teaching and learning in our states.  But most important, that something ought to look, and feel, and sound, smell vastly different than anything else in the school.