About jodiK

I am a lot of things, but for the purposes of this blog, I am Jodi Kushins, PhD: an out-of-practice Art Education researcher, trying to get my mind and my voice back in shape.

A Report from Tinkergarten

This is my 8th year teaching for the University of Florida Online Master of Arts in Art Education program. Through the years, I have had the opportunity to work with art educators across the country doing amazing things. I showcased a few in this space with posts dedicated to their capstone projects (See “Time to Brag” and “Creamery Hill Racers,” for example). I intended to make that a regular column, but time got the better of me. Maybe this winter…

As any educator knows, one of the greatest gifts our students can give us is coming back with reports of how a course one taught, a reading one assigned, or a comment one made changed the way they think or behave. And so it was with great pleasure that I found this post on our program’s Facebook page one day this summer.

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Another item on my perennial list of the “things I’ve wanted to do in this space” was to invite students and alumni to share their ideas and experiences. With that in mind I asked Natalie to write something about Tinkergarten. According to their website, “Tinkergarten provides high-quality early childhood learning in the healthiest classroom of all—the outdoors. Families connect with trained leaders in their local community for play-based kids classes that help develop core life skills, all while having fun!” The following are Natalie’s thoughts on the program, drawing on her knowledge and experience as an art educator.

“Natural Education” by Natalie Davis
Sydney darted across the park with her backpack yelling “Miss Betsy! Miss Betsy!”  She was so excited to show her teacher her red galoshes.  It was mud day and my three-year-old little girl was extremely excited to get dirty and start her play-based outdoor classroom, Tinkergarten.

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What is Tinkergarten?
It is not your typical classroom.  In fact, it is the complete opposite of a brick and mortar school.  There are no walls and there are no desks. Children are not required to walk in single file lines.  Use of digital technology is prohibited.  Rather, a Tinkergarten class takes place in a park or other green space in the local community.  The concept is simple: playing in nature and learning go hand-in-hand.  Sticks become drawing tools, mud becomes paint and flowers become collage items. The outdoor play-based activities are not only fun but also cognitively stimulating because they encourage children to explore. The learning environment is as authentic as the surroundings.

Why Tinkergarten?
As an art educator and mamma, I was drawn to Tinkergarten’s philosophy of play-based learning.  I welcomed the opportunity for Sydney to learn through innovative approaches to curriculum I was familiar with from art education like Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, Forest Kindergarten, and Montessori (Tinkergarten, 2017). Like Dewey (1925), Froebel (1887), Lowenfeld (1949) I know it’s important for young children to be in and explore the natural world, and use their biological desire of playing to inspire and enrich their thinking. As an art educator, I followed this philosophy in my own teaching career and witnessed success first hand. I wanted that kind of learning for my daughter.

How does play turn into learning?
The word play sometimes can be misconstrued as useless recreation.  This is definitely not the case during a Tinkergarten class.  The class has a trained facilitator referred to as the Leader. The leader sets up playful invitations and activities designed to enable the children to take an active role in learning.  The children’s natural curiosity guides the learning experience. I strongly agree that these types of activities are “the best way to help nurture kids’ development and ready them for academic success later in life” (Tinkergarten, 2017, para 4).

The Leader’s role is not to ensure completion of the activity as might be assumed.  Instead they are there to help guide children into deeper understanding by capitalizing on situations that excite interest in each individual child.  They use these opportunities for educational enrichment.

For example, my daughter came across a worm and a bug while digging in the mud.  Her discovery led to conversation.  The leader prompted my daughter and the class to talk about the worm and bug.  They discussed their purpose, textures, and colors.  Digging in the mud was turned into making a “worm hotel habitat” out of a mason jar.  In another area of the park, a child found a rock while digging in the mud.  The little boy held up the rock and announced his discovery to the class.  As more children gathered around to see his treasure, he dropped the rock into a large bucket of water.  The Leader seized the opportunity for enrichment and suggested to the group to make a special “soup”.   The Leader’s suggestion led to an outpouring of imaginative responses from the children.  They began discussing the “special soup ingredients” and ran off helping one another to gather them.  They collected  foliage, rocks, and flowers to name a few.  In this moment, the children were working on social skills, motor skills, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving.

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Final Thoughts
A few years ago, in a course in graduate school, I read an article that intrigued me on the subject of technology in the classroom.  The article described a trend among Silicon Valley CEO’s who enroll their own children in nature-inspired Waldorf Schools (Richtel, 2011).  I was fascinated to learn that technology leaders saw value in using nature and limiting technology in their children’s education. I added it to the list of reasons I might pursue such experiences for my daughter.

References

Tinkergarten, 2017, Retrieved from https://www.tinkergarten.com/leaders/betsy.modrzejewski

Dewey, J. (1925). Experience and Nature. Chicago & London: Open Court.

Froebel, F. (1887). The Education of Man. (Translated by Hailmann, W.N.) New York, London, D. Appleton Century.

Lowenfeld, V., & Brittain, W. L. (1970). Creative and mental growth (5th ed.). [New York]: Macmillan.

Richtel, M. (2011, Oct. 22). A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute. [Essay on New York Times]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html

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Review: Scholastic ART

Time has not been my friend lately and I’ve been neglecting this blog. I was brought back today by an invitation I received at the end of June from Katie Brickner, Editor of Scholastic ART magazine and online content.

Katie asked for an “honest review,” and I accepted. She sent me a complimentary set of the magazine from 2016-2017 and access to the online resources available to paid subscribers and their students. She’s also promised a 2017-2018 class set which I plan to give away to one of my former students.

I hadn’t seen this publication in awhile. I remember finding a few back issues in the supplies I inherited when I taught high school art classes nearly 20 years ago. At the time, discipline-based art education (DBAE) was still the most celebrated form of comprehensive art education I knew, and the magazine was a nice supplement. It provided readings and artistic exemplars I could use in conjunction with Ragan’s ArtTalk, the text the school owned and I was expected to teach from.
I started this review with a tour through the magazines, posters, and lesson plans I received. While I teach and do much of my research online these days, I am still a sucker for magazines. I like to hold them, turn the pages and see what’s next, cut them up, and send articles in the mail to friends and family. Call me old-fashioned but I’d like to think I’m not alone.
I was impressed to see some issues of the magazine were based on themes like Beyond the Selfie: Self-Portraits through History and Painting Right Now. Others were built around artists like Edward Munch and Ansel Adams – as I remembered them – with emphasis on how that artist’s work demonstrates various traditional art practices alongside the elements and principles of art.
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The most innovative aspects of the magazine are the other columns including “Art News and Notes,” “Student of the Month,” and “Debate.” In these sections, the editors introduce contemporary examples of artwork that reflected the main subject of the issue and develop real-world connections between art and life, including “Great Art Jobs.”
I spent the majority of my in-depth critical time with the issue on contemporary painting, Painting Right Now (May/June 2017). The following are some observations I made while reviewing magazine and related online resources.
I was impressed by the collection of contemporary painters the editors presented in this issue and felt certain that most educators and their students would find new ideas and information in its pages. In the “Spotlight” section, I was introduced to contemporary artist Nijideka Akunjyili Crosby. Reading about Crosby’s work, and watching to the interview Scholastic recorded with her (available online), I was drawn to her ideas about layering as a way of building and representing one’s identity. It reminded me of Gude’s  (2004) recommendations for 21st century principles of art and design. However, looking at the related “Hands-on Project,” pulled me back to the 20th. I wondered what Crosby would say about it and whether the editors consulted her at all.

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The project and accompanying online video, “Paint an Identity Portrait,” were disappointing.  While it started with a reference to Crosby, the project guide focused on formal aspects of making a portrait – choose a subject, develop a color palette, use a range of brushstrokes, work carefully, etc. It didn’t emphasize anything that reflected Crosby’s specific approach to portraiture which incoroprates “layers images, textures, and symbols from many sources [to] visually present her varied cultural experiences” and would require an artist to know or interview her subject and gather materials to weave into the work that would reflect the identity of the subject.

During a quick survey of students and alumni from the University of Florida Art Education program I heard from both teachers who subscribed to the magazine and those who just made use of the samples they received from Scholastic. They reported that they got some good ideas from the magazine. However, most felt it was just a start which they usually had to follow-up with additional research of their own. For example, “They chunk information in a way that is clear yet informative, however, I have found for more meaningful explorations, this is only a starting off point.

My students reported using Scholastic ART projects as makeup work and as substitute plans. They suggested that it “made life easy” to have something written out in advance that they could leave and someone else could follow. For example, “If it happens to be one of the “artsy” subs of the county they will add some of their own directives. But if it is just a “regular” sub the lessons tend to be more cookie cutterish.” This speaks to my own criticisms of the plans, they are fairly rudimentary and don’t speak to the intellectual or social dynamics of artmaking.

While I wasn’t impressed with the project recommendations, I appreciated the “Debate” column which addresses the oft ignored aesthetic component of DBAE-inspired art education. Each magazine presents an issue for students to consider and debate with their classmates. In the Painting Right Now issue, for example, students read about a pair of European artists who have been painting pigeons bright colors to see if they attract more attention than usual (see below, left). The essential question posed was, “Is it right for artists to capture and paint live animals in the name of art?” Online, students can leave comments, read from others, participate in a similar conversation in a larger public forum with student readers from other schools (see below, right).

 

In the end, Scholastic ART is a resource, like any other. It can aid teachers in their work, but it can’t replace us. It is a tool, but must be used in conjunction with other materials to successfully build something. One new direction I can imagine for Scholastic ART would be a hosting a forum (on their website or Facebook) for teachers who subscribe and use the magazine to share ideas for how they use and extend the materials presented there. This would help push the teachers, as well as the editors in their future work.

I’m curious to learn more about how teachers are using the magazine. Do you subscribe?  If so, how do you use it in your classroom? Do you ask parents to cover the cost using Scholastic’s “Parent Funding Request Letter?” What recommendations would you make to the editors to help them improve and extend their offerings?

 

 

Process Art’s Pesky Problem

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Mousetrap paper holder. Or, as I see it, surreal assemblage.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot in this space about the value of process art (see for example Doing Food Coloring and Permission to Play: Toddler Paint Bomber). My interest started when I was an undergraduate and developed an intense appreciation for the Abstract Expressionists. Learning about their work and the questions they engaged with in their studios – exploring the inherent nature of the materials they worked with – became an obsession. I developed my own color field experiments and filled huge sheets of paper with marks based on systems I devised. It was visually engaging in an allover sort of way, but I knew it wasn’t nearly as interesting for others to look at as it was for me, with my embodied knowledge of the actions I took to make it.

In the years since, I have continued to develop my relationship with questions like: What is art for? and Why art? I have carried these into explorations of art criticism, visual culture, environmental and installation art, relational aesthetics, and creative placemaking.

This interest also manifests in my advocacy for process art in the playful learning of young children. Really, I believe children of all ages looking for new ways to connect with creative activity ought to focus on process (see for example, Permission to Play: Birthday Parties and Grandma Joyce’s Beautiful Stuff!).

And so it was with a heavy heart that I set about cleaning Cora’s desk yesterday. Stacked on top were the traces of two weeks of summer camps and a few final school projects.

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(Note: I took this photo AFTER I had cleaned the desk and decided to blog about it. I stacked the artwork back up in an approximation of how it had been. But absent are the dolls, rocks and sticks, books, and other random crap that had been there too.)

As Dan has observed, all horizontal surfaces in our house quickly become repositories for junk and this desk is no different. In the three years since it has been in this location, I can count on one hand the times that it has been clear and Cora has sat at it to do anything. I have a plan for it in my head related to a pen pal project we’ve been working on (fodder for a future post), so I told her it was time to clean up.

Of course Cora wanted to save EVERYTHING.

The art camp she attended last week at a neighborhood studio (Paper Moon Art Studio – Columbus, OH) was a great process art experience for Cora. She got to work with a range of media from paper mache to assemblage (complete with hot glue, see the top image on this post), and sand painting to watercolor. She was only there three mornings, but she made a ton of stuff. We had trouble carrying it all home! I was so happy to see this evidence of experimentation but what to do with all that stuff? I live in constant battle against clutter – mostly this involves shoving piles into drawers and cabinets when guests are due – but point being, I don’t like to have a lot of stuff sitting around on horizontal surfaces.

I also struggle, personally, with the hidden curriculum we are teaching kids when we give them access to unlimited supplies and let them make things that will ultimately, at least in my house, wind up in the trash. I has this same feeling while attending TASK parties run by Oliver Herring (see A Task, But Not a Chore). I love the energy that Herring creates and the collaborative experimentation I see at these events, But at the end of the day, there are piles and piles of materials left in a jumble on the floor. A few ideas for combating this issue come immediately to my mind.

Art educators will see the immediate irony in this. Many of us have felt the pain of watching students put their artwork in the trash bin on their way out the door at the end of a term. All that time and effort? Don’t they care at all about what they made here? And, by extension, don’t they value me and our time together? Some educators even use this as a litmus test for a successful lesson — Do the kids express desire to hold onto what they made? to share pictures of it in Instagram? to hang it up at home, or give it to someone as a gift?

So now I’m left holding this evidence of creative activity, all of which Cora insists on calling Art (capital A intended) in an effort to use what I value against me. And I’m wondering,

How can we simultaneously teach people that some things they make are precious and others are not? That some creative experiences are about the process of making, and some about the product that results?

 

 

 

 

 

Picturebooks on the Potty: The Next Generation

A few months back I said I wasn’t going to write about picturebooks anymore. I planned to post about the chapter books Cora and I have been reading together but then life got in the way and I haven’t taken the time to write about Harry Potter, My Side of the Mountain, or Bone. In the meantime, my friend Amy and I submit a proposal about picturebooks for the 2018 National Art Education Association convention, our local children’s bookstore – Cover to Cover (Columbus, OH) – announced they are changing owners and moving out of the neighborhood, and Cora started reading on her own. All this brings me back, happily, to share my thoughts on the stack of Mo Willems books currently perched on our potty.

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When I first read Willems Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus I couldn’t understand what so many people, including those who award the Caldecott Medal, saw in it. It seemed to me, frankly, a stupid story with lackluster illustrations.

Then came Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books, first introduced to me during a read aloud in Cora’s preschool classroom. Her teacher had purchased a copy of the then newly released Thank You Book which was to be the final of 25 books about Gerald and Piggie. I couldn’t understand the appeal. Again the story seemed weak and the illustrations overly simplistic and uninspiring.

Then came kindergarten. Cora’s teacher used Elephant and Piggie throughout the year: They listened to the stories during read aloud. The kids drew copies of the book covers and arranged them in a timeline based on when they were published. And they read from them in a readers’ theater at the end of school celebration, demonstrating work they’d done on their reading, intonation, and collaborative storytelling skills.

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My heart melted as Cora and her classmate read the book they’d chosen to a group of kids and parents. She was reading! Out loud in front of a crowd!

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All of a sudden Piggie and Gerald didn’t seem so bad. The next time we went to the library we sought them out. We brought a few home and Cora asked me to read them with her, taking turns reading different parts. It was fun and it was her choice. She wanted to read unlike so many other times I had tried to coax her to practice with me in the past.

Parents of young readers know it’s hard to find books on the level that your child is reading. Each publisher seems to have a different labeling system and none seem quite accurate. But Piggie and Gerald really are great first readers. They have simple sentences made up of words that are easy to sound out. They have repetition. They are silly in all the ways kids recognize as silly.

But I’m still not enthralled with Piggie and Gerald as art objects. They seem to be some other thing, something overly instrumental in comparison with the books I’ve written about before in this space. While some of those had instrumental value, they also took aesthetics into primary consideration. I don’t see that in Elephant and Piggie.

But then Willems is addressing another set of demands. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Willems reported:

The challenge for me is that my goal is to be funny, but within the constraint of using only about forty to fifty words…That’s why I say that early readers are hard writers—writing them isn’t easy….I sometimes joke that I write for functional illiterates…Because these stories aren’t meant to be read once—they’re meant to be read a thousand times. In that way, they’re more like a song than like the score for a film. You don’t listen to ‘A Boy Named Sue’ for the ending.

I’m still want to know more about Willems relation to Piggie and Gerald. Were they just money makers in the end or did he dream of lives for these characters outside the pages of their books? What has he said about his illustrational style in these books? Whom and what did he look to for inspiration for these books? I’m interested to learn more and welcome links in the comments to interviews with or discussions of Elephant and Piggie you may have read.

In the meantime, Thank you Mr. Willems. Thank you Miss Maureen. Together you got Cora reading to herself (on and off the potty). I’m so proud!

 

Passing the time playing pass the drawing

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When Cora first started music classes, her wise teacher who was always able to teach to the parents while simultaneously teaching our kids, recommended we “sing through our days.” I came to know the value of this, especially after 3 years and 9 collections of music. We had learned nearly 200 songs, and it was easy to find one for just about any occasion. I quickly learned that singing was an antidote to many childhood woes – boredom, stubbornness, sleepy, hungry, sad, mad. A good living example of “fake it ’til you make it.”

This past weekend I stumbled on an example of drawing through the day, an idea I’d like to develop in future posts. Sitting through her third band concert in three weeks, Cora was having trouble sitting still for all four Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra groups. I pulled out some paper and suggested we play “pass the drawing,” our family’s version of exquisite corpse.

In case this is an unfamiliar concept, in this simple drawing game someone draws something then passes it to the next person to add something and so on. You can set rules like, only lines and shapes and no recognizable objects or not and let folks determine what adding something means for themselves.

Dan and I have played this with the kids for over ten years together–waiting for food at a restaurant, on a long car ride, at a party. We hadn’t played with Cora in awhile and it was great to see her thinking and expressing her ideas in pictures. I haven’t written much about her representational development lately, but it seems time (follow-up to come).

We made three drawing in total, I don’t know where the final one is hiding. She assigned us each one to keep and hers must be hiding someplace secret. I’ll ask her if she can find it tomorrow.

Artists as Public Intellectuals: The Drumpf Edition

This winter I was invited to revisit a piece I wrote in graduate school for the journal CultureWork on the role of artists as public intellectuals (“Recognizing Artists As Public Intellectuals,” 2006). It was just published and the timing couldn’t be better, following on the heel’s of this weekend’s reports on the 2017 White House Correspondence Dinner – those in attendance and those who abstained. My original essay uses Stephen Colbert’s address at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (2006) as one example of artists’ contributions to culture as political and social commentators. That’s worth a re-view too, if you have 16 minutes and 53 seconds to spare.

It’s not easy to say something in 500 words or less but I gave it a shot. If you can’t imagine the “first 100 days” without Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and Seth Meyers, you might like this quick read.

Leave a comment and let me know.

Field Trip: Hartman Rock Garden

The summer after I graduated from college I drove across the country with an old friend. We were moving to California, following some beatnik dream. We pulled off the highway somewhere in Kansas and passed a series of whirligigs with political messages hard to ignore. We stopped for gas, asked about what we’d seen, and learned they were the work of an older eccentric down the road. He might be up for a visit–though he had an ornery reputation–if we wanted to stop by.

We drove to M.T. Liggett’s barn and hung out with him for a few memorable hours, not realizing he was a veteran of the American folk art world. Just weeks after graduating magna cum laude with a dual degree in studio art and art history, I learned of a major gap in my education. I had little to no knowledge of outsiders like Liggett whose art showed no concern for the latest trends in SoHo or L.A., just the the “human urge to create” (Kakas, 2001). Stumbling upon Liggett and his work was something I will never forget, and something that seems nearly impossible in 2017 where so much has been marked on Google’s Earth.

Yesterday Cora and I went on a field trip Hartman Rock Garden in Springfield, OH with some friends. Standing in this suburban backyard folk art environment I was reminded of the wonder such spaces hold. I first learned about the garden last fall in an essay by Karen M. Kakas published in Histories of Community-Based Art Education (Congdon, Blandy, Bolin, 2001). I had been living in Ohio for over ten years and had the book on my shelf at least that long but that chapter hadn’t caught my attention before. The images were hard to ignore and I put a field trip to Hartman’s at the top of the Ohio list of things to do.

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As we pulled up to Hartman’s former home, a tour bus pulled away and we had the space to ourselves. It was amazing, not least because the project has been standing out in the elements for more than 85 years. Ben Hartman worked on the stone and cement structures between 1932 and 1939 after a Depression era lay off from his work at a local tool manufacturer. He referred to the project as his “personal WPA project,” an antidote to the boredom brought on by unemployment. After his death in 1944, his wife Mary took care of the property until her own passing in 1997. After ten years of neglect, the Kohler Foundation purchased and restored the site. Today it is maintained by a local non-profit, Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden.

The farther I get away from my interests in gallery-sanctioned artworks, the more projects like Hartman’s appeal to me. The authentic passion and creative compulsion to create it displays, the attention to details, the use of materials at hand. It all fits my definition of what art is and what sorts of efforts and examples we ought to build art education around. In her essay, Kakas asks, “Besides [aesthetic] enjoyment, what does the novice art viewer learn about art upon encountering these objects in someone’s backyard?” This is a question I hope to consider further and explore in projects at Over the Fence Urban Farm this summer.

Kakas suggests art educators “need to make our students aware that most [environmental artworks] are like an endangered species.” After visiting Hartman’s I visited its Facebook page and plan to attend a volunteer day this spring to help with maintenance work on the site. It’s less than an hour from our house and I can’t think of many comparable opportunities I can give Cora to be part of art history and preservation.

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This final image is a one Cora took of her favorite piece in the garden. She thought it was funny to imagine a bird sitting on a cactus. I think Hartman, a religious and patriotic man, had a more profound message in mind but I think he’d be satisfied with her finding humor in the piece.

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Summer vacation is just around the corner. I’m hoping we can find other folk art environments to visit. Where have you been and what have you seen? What impact such spaces made on you? What have they inspired you to create?