The 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.)
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.
As 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?