Paper Hearts and the History of Art Education

DSC_0142The course I’m teaching on the history of art education explored the history of holiday arts in school last week. Just in time for V-Day. Students had interesting discussions, based on our readings and their classroom experiences, about whether, to what extent, and how the holidays might to play a role in the art curriculum today. Not surprisingly, there was a mix of responses.

19th century schools operated seasonally and so the holidays were important benchmarks in the academic year. It made sense to bring them into the school as a way of marking time with students whose lives, and livelihoods, were also tied to the seasons. During the industrial revolution, holiday arts served as a respite from day-to-day routines, and as motivation for students trying to conform to a more and more systems-driven society. Holiday projects were also used as a way of acculturating immigrant children to traditions of the dominant culture (read European-descendant and Christian).

But, “contemporary recommendations for a balanced, multifaceted art education suggest that holidays and related arts and crafts should be neither an organizing principle nor a major focus of the art program, whether taught by a generalist or specialist” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 68). I agree with this statement and have worked most of my professional life in accordance with it. However, as I have written about extensively in the past, over the years, I have some to embrace holiday arts and crafts in my home life and art education of my own children. Today I had an experience that could relate to classroom practice as well.

I abide by the Charles Schultz philosophy of holiday gifting, handmade is best. And so over the years I have made lots of Valentine’s with the older kids, mostly Rosa. This year, for the first time, Cora was celebrating the holiday at school, so we got a project going. We used air dry clay to make heart shapes into which she pressed all kinds of materials to create patterns and texture – forks and spoons, a potato masher, seashells, old perfection pieces, a toothpick. She painted them, and added glitter before we glued magnets to the back. She got lots of compliments, and was the only kid with something homemade to share. (Yes, I’m bragging.)

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After watching Charlie Brown’s Valentine specials with her G-Ma last night, Cora woke up ready to cut some paper. So we did. She got great practice cutting along a line and had a chance to try using the scissors in her right hand as well as her left, which she typically favors. She glued the hearts together to make a few of these.

IMG_9354As she was cutting and gluing, I was sewing a pillow cover. When she was finished with her collages, she asked if she could use the machine. She made about 25 passes before we got distracted and moved on, but by the end of the session, she was independently lowering and raising the presser foot and needle and cutting her line so she could start again. Not bad for a four-year old.


So while I’m not prepared to advocate a return to our roots in which “every day [was] a festival” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 67), I am convinced that a symbol like the heart or a star, or product such as the valentine or ornament, could serve as a vehicle for material exploration and practice. I’m sure some of the T.A.B. adherents reading this will have experience in this department. Any advice for others interested in using holidays as meaningful motivators for student learning?


4 thoughts on “Paper Hearts and the History of Art Education

  1. Sweet projects JodiK. 🙂 I love how the excitement for the arts of the holiday spiraled into a Valentine and sewing festival. It seems like you all had some meaningful moments together. The young artists at Habitat for Humanity’s Youth Empowerment project were stoked to cut some hearts too… Art making? Expressions of love? Why not. 🙂 I’ll post a pic on your FB share.

  2. When I took the UF History of Art Education class a few semesters ago and had to address this topic of holiday projects in school arts programs, I was graciously enlightened to the benefits that can arise from such projects. Cultural history, art skills, and creative meaning making that can go into creating and presenting holiday art are healthy things for students to be taught. Another positive is that when I walked through the mall around Christmas time a few months ago, I was so much more aware of the “consumer consuming” aura created by the lights, colors, sounds, sparkles, and symbols of the christian season. No matter what the season or holiday might have been, the multi-sensory experience that I was now so much more aware of (and taking less for granted) was an entirely different kind of experience. Opening students’ eyes to heightened levels of awareness and cultural understandings are good life skills learning experiences for teachers to provide their students, and teaching holiday art projects can provide some of those opportunities.

  3. Dear All:
    I agree that good ideas can spring from a multitude of sources even holdiays. What we don’t want are those stereotyped lessons for Lincoln’s Birthday and Thanksgiving that can be seen on so many school windows. Years ago I did a Halloween project with the early grades I called “Wicked Witches Wearing Wigs,” a collage with wigs made of wool.

  4. Pingback: Rethinking the Valentine | Art Education Outside The lines

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