Amy Brook Snider, PhD: Teacher, Mentor, Friend

Amy Brook Snider was my friend. Our relationship started as one of student and teacher, but over the 20 years since we first met, we became professional collaborators and personal confidants. She was one of the few people who religiously read this blog. I could always count on her to answer emails, be it 11:30pm or 4:15am. Yet, she constantly reminded me that talking on the telephone is the best way to stay truly and intimately connected to loved ones far away.

Amy passed away earlier this month. I will miss her wit and wisdom. She loved to read and collect obituaries from the New York Times. I’m sorry that I can’t write a review of her life on par with what appears on those pages. She was working on a memoir I hope to read someday, and I hope others will be able to read. Her acceptance speech for the National Art Education Women’s Caucus June King McFee Award in 2002 offers some highlights from her life and work. And here are a few things I won’t forget about her.

Amy never met a person she couldn’t make a friend. She was always telling me about someone new she’d met on a line someplace and wound up having coffee with, making plans for a new project or exchanging family photos. It was the same with her students. So many of us approached her about “possible” studies at Pratt, and quickly found ourselves caught in her web.

While she, somewhat reluctantly, got a cell phone a few years ago, she still had a phone with a cord hanging in her kitchen. It was the longest cord I’ve ever seen, ever. When we would talk, I often imagined her pacing around her apartment with that cord trailing behind her…

Amy kept an annotated list of mystery novels she’d read, complete with a short summary and personal review. She took this to the library with her to help her make new selections and ensure she didn’t take home anything she’d read before.

A lifelong New Yorker, Amy had one of the greatest collection of house plants I’ve ever seen. She dedicated half her living room to it, no small thing in small scale, apartment living.

Amy was an true intellectual. Her interests were varied and she read deeply in many areas. I often described her as an “artist’s art educator” because her passion for ideas, images, and objects, surpassed her interest in academic rhetoric, which she had little patience for.

She was a progressive through and through. The last night I spent at her apartment, she dozed off early but called me into her room when Steve Colbert came on the television so we could watch him dress-down The Lump together.

In 2017 she participated in Handwriting the Constitution, a collaborative study of our nation’s founding document. Amy had distinctive handwriting, and always wrote extensive comments on students’ work. She couldn’t help herself. It was part of her feminist approach to teaching, and just being.

I miss you already. I hope you are somewhere wonderful, watching movies and eating chocolate.

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Drawing with the D’Aulaires

Cora is in second grade now. It’s hard to believe how fast she’s growing up. She’s reading and writing with greater confidence. And, much to my delight, she’s starting to draw more as well. As regular readers know, children’s independent drawings are one of my passions (see, for example, “Thinking Drawings”).

Sadly, even at her tiny alternative school, kids seem all too eager to judge. She has reported one girl repeatedly mocking her work, calling her drawings “weird.” I tell her to ignore this, that “weird” isn’t a very specific critique, that it’s probably just jealousy, but that only goes so far. Alternately, Cora can name the “best artist” in her class, and often compliments her style.

At the beginning of this school year, Cora was drawing a lot of anime-style eyes – a reflection of the graphic novels that are so popular in her crowd. One classmate taught her to draw eyes like those found in their beloved Amulet series and she learned another strategy by copying the work of a friend. With each of these technical infusions, we saw a proliferation of drawing at home.

The most recent addition to her repertoire came from a study of the D’Aulaires’s Book of Greek Myths. We used the D’Aulaires work last year as part of our homeschool studies of ancient history and were all captivated by the imagery as much as the stories. Recently Cora asked me to help her copy some of their portraits. We started with Cronos and moved on to Persephone.

As she worked we talked about the shapes and angles of the features. She quickly accepted that her drawings wouldn’t look exactly like the originals.

She said she wanted to copy the D’Aulaires entire gods and goddesses family tree, but I anticipated that idea would loose steam. I was happily surprised to see her quickly move on to making her own characters, drawing from a few basic graphic strategies she learned from the D’Aulaires’.

All this reminded me of Paul Duncum’s (1988) survey of ongoing debates about copying in art education. Duncum outlines at least five positions on the copying debate in art education, citing literature and drawing out intermediary positions between the traditional polarities of to copy or not to copy. He writes, “According to one position, copying is utterly undesirable under any circumstances. Indeed all forms of graphic influence are bad” (p. 204). Limiting all forms of graphic influence would be impossible, of course, unless a child is raised in a cave with no outside stimulus. Certainly, children growing up with picturebooks and cartoons and museum visits (or just in the 21st century culture of constant media bombardment) are exposed to various styles of representation, some of which will make it into their own doodles and more formal works of art.

Duncum cites others who advocate copying as a “necessary part of learning to draw because all drawing is based on previously acquired representational schemata” (p. 205). Brent and Marjorie Wilson (1982) and Olivia Gude (2004) have argued that some copying, referred to respectively as “borrowing” and “appropriating” which both sound a lot better and more thoughtful than copying, can build confidence and provide children with fodder for their own creative inventions. My husband concurred in a recent commentary on Cora’s work: “I freaking love the confidence in her lines. Go for it Cora Lena!”  

Homeschooling with Shakespeare

Well, it’s been another long stretch since I posted anything in this space. It’s not for lack of thoughts of desire. I just need to make time for it again. I did write a personal essay for a journal that was based, in part, on my work in this space. Maybe if the feedback on that is positive it will motivate me.

In the meantime…

Following up on my last post, I’m back to part-time homeschooling with my daughter, who was the initial inspiration for this blog six years ago. Cora just turned 8 and is a second grader at Red Oak Community School the days we aren’t together. This fall we’ve been spending time with William Shakespeare. This was largely inspired by her first trip experience with Shakespeare in the Park late this summer. The magic of sitting outside as the sun went down and actors ran around (on and off) the stage at an Actor’s Theater of Columbus presentation of Midsummer Night’s Dream captivated her immediately.

 

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Cora talked about the performance for days following. This coincided with my reviewing notes for second grade homeschooling in A Well-Trained Mind (AWTM), one of the tools I use to help determine what to focus on during our homeschool days. This year’s social studies (see Story of the World: Volume II) and literature curricula include Shakespeare, though not until the end of the year. Since I’m the teacher, striving to embrace a a student-driven learning pedagogy, I decided to follow Cora’s interest. I used the resource guide in AWTM to identify materials for kids about Shakespeare including the amazing series Shakespeare Can Be Fun by Lois Burdett. While I take issue with the series title – why imply Shakespeare isn’t fun?! – the content is amazing.

Burdett wrote the series while teaching elementary school in Canada. There is surprising little about her or this work online, though it is clear she gave it her heart and soul. The books are layered with content starting with Burdett’s abbreviated versions of The Bard’s plays written in language kids can understand more easily than the originals, but retains his poetic voice. I believe she used these with her students to stage performances which are documented in photographs at the front and back of the books. Cora and I have been working together to interpret the meaning behind some of the lines like this one from Hamlet, “You don’t know how I feel. My pain these mourning clothes conceal.”

In addition to Burdett’s versions of the stories, each page includes drawings by her students (ages 7-10) and their own writings in response to the story. These include cleverly composed diary entires and letters written in the voices of the characters. There is a list of recommendations for these and other extension activities in the back of each book. The homeschooler in me is a little jealous of how well the kids seem to write for their age. But, I also noticed the handwriting looks pretty similar across student authors and I’m wondering if that was something the publisher had a (heavy) hand in…? Or is this just the result of lots of practice?

 

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From Burdett’s Hamlet (2000).

The drawings demonstrate close study and understanding of period dress and settings. The art educator in me would like to know more about her process for guiding drawing assignments. I’m sure the kids were using reference images in some way, which I am not at all against. Though I curious how she introduced this strategy, how she fit it into her curriculum overall, and how she guided the kids through multiple drafts of their work. I think I’m going to send her an email and see if she can share more information on this and the project in general.

Cora has been making some of her own drawings while we read (see below). They aren’t nearly as detailed as Burdett’s students but represent her way of making sense of and representing the texts visually. We might try looking up some fashion history as inspiration.  If we do, I’ll try to report how it goes. 

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Puck, #1 Jokster with the magic flower within which eye drops of love are found.

Of course we started our deep dive into the works of William Shakespeare with Midsummer Night’s Dream. After that we moved onto Shakespeare Retold (Nesbit and Caparo, 2016) which offers short, narrative versions of 7 plays. We have a short stack of Burdett books we look forward to working through and Cora is starting to talk about whom among her friends might be good acting partners. It’s been a good start to the year.

NAEA 2018 Preview: A Return to Picturebooks through The Land of the North

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Next month, my friend Amy Brook Snider and I will be sharing the latest installment in a series of presentations we’ve given at the National Art Education Association Convention. The subject of our presentations has spanned a range of enduring topics of interest throughout our relationship and conversations on the telephone.

“Indivisible: A Consideration of the Picturebook, Past and Present” will include a slide show on some great moments in picturebook history. We’ll share criteria for identifying great picturebooks and some of our personal favorites. We hope our session will remind art educators of how the picturebook functions as works of art, one readily available to children and worthy of attention in the art room.

Preparing for this session has led me, quite happily, back to the picturebooks section of the library. As I shared in the fall my daughter (and co-captain in life the past seven years) Cora’s attention span for listening to stories is astounding and she will sit for hours being read to from chapter books. As her capacity to listen longer and her hunger for more complex and developed stories developed, we largely moved away from picturebooks. But as Amy and I reaffirmed through our conversations and investigations, great picturebooks are not just for children, and everyone in our house is happy to have them around again.

This fall, Amy reminded me of the D’Aulaires, a couple who emigrated from Europe to the U.S. in the early 20th century and went on to write and illustrate more than two dozen books. Their books were also included in a classical homeschooling curriculum we’re playing with this year. Cora and I started with their Book of Greek Myths (1962). (Note: We also LOVED Aliki’s Gods and Goddesses of Olympus (1994).)

The D’Aulaire’s storytelling is vivid and their detailed illustrations are captivating. They captured the most essential aspects of their plotlines through detailed drawings that could stand on their own as works of art. First depicted through 4-color lithography and later layered drawings on acetate echoing that process, these images are sure to stick in readers’ minds.

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We currently have at least half a dozen of their books out from the library including Norse Myths (2005) (initially published as Norse Gods and Giants (1967)). We started reading it on a snow day last week (which felt appropriately hygge) and have been devouring it. We are having fun using the glossary to pronounce the Norwegian names. And we’re findings lots of characteristics in the Aesir that mimic the Greeks and other literary characters we know.

While my days with Cora have been filled with Odin and the Aesir, my nights have been spent watching Game of Thrones. The parallels are astounding.

I was not the kind of kid who read fantasy growing up. I never collected crystals or played Dungeons and Dragons. As an adult, when friends first started talking about Game of Thrones I tuned them out. But as a parent, I’ve been given a second change to engage explorations of good and evil through more recent mythologies like Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings. 

Game of Thrones is intense. I didn’t have any idea what we were marching into when I suggested to Dan that we turn it on a few weeks ago. I was immediately drawn to the costumes, settings, and characters, at the same time that I was repelled by most of their behaviors. But reading Norse Myths, their intense embrace of all parts of life, death, war, sex, food, etc. makes more sense. The northerners in the story are clearly designed after the Norse, such as that depicted in this story of Odin’s heroes. After fighting to their deaths in Odin’s name, they were granted flown to the world of the gods by beautiful maidens to an afterlife full of all out feasting and fighting (and quiet time with women when their mood allowed).

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The D’Aulaires’ share stories that have formed the touchstone of many Western literary and artistic projects. I’m grateful to be reading them so closely now, wishing I hadn’t waited so long.

[Note: Apologies to loyal readers who have missed updates from me through this space these past months. I have thought of this project often, but been pulled in other directions. In case I fall off the map again, come look for me at overthefenceurban.com and http://www.redoakcommunityschool.org/rocs-blog/]

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?

 

 

Artful Readings: An Introduction

This post introduces a new column, “Artful Readings” which will replace “Picturebooks on the Potty” which I wrote from 2013-2016 in this space. (For a full list of “Picturebooks on the Potty” posts, search for Picturebooks above.)

My daughter Cora, who inspired me to start the column, doesn’t really need me to read to her on the potty anymore, but we are still reading a ton together. Cora goes to school only part time and is unschooled the other parts. Much of that other time we spend reading books and talking about them, researching and writing about things related to what we are reading, and making art and playing games based on the characters from the stories. In upcoming posts I plan to document and share our further adventures in literature, and reflect on them from an art educator’s perspective. I hope you’ll join us.

 

 

 

 

Drawing Lesson: Home

My last post was about the picturebook Home by Carson Ellis.  At the end I set a plan to engage Cora further with the theme of home through art making. On a sunny day last week I got her to go outside with me for an observation drawing session.

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I have long been a fan of a little book called Observation Drawing with Children. I’m sure I’ve written about it here before. The authors describe observation drawing as a responsive process by which “the viewer become[s] aware of the elusive as well as the obvious qualities of subjects,” (Smith, et al, 1998, p. 6). As such it is easy to understand learning to draw as part of learning to look more closely at and see the world around us. When I had a daily practice of drawing from observation I felt more connected to things around me, more mindful of my surroundings.

Cora hasn’t even shown much interest in making original drawings (realistic or imagined). You can imagine how sad this makes me as an art educator… She has made some incredible drawings over the years but it’s not really her thing. “You like to draw. I like to sing,” she tells me. Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she was a somewhat reluctant participant in my plans.

We started by looking at the cover of Home and picking the house that most resembled ours (a log cabin).  Then we talked about the shapes and lines that make up our house. Smith, etal write extensively and provide examples of dialogues with children to help readers plan for their own observation drawing sessions with kids. There is something about the back and forth between looking, naming, and drawing that helps make everything more concrete.

Cora had no trouble talking about our house. We named the major shapes we saw. We talked about what rooms are behind each window. But when it came to putting these ideas down on paper, she stalled. She’s afraid of “doing it wrong” and, I think, disappointing me now matter how many times I tell her I’m going to love whatever she does and remind her of the great drawings she has made in the past. I have to remind myself not to push her if she’s not ready for this.

In the end, We worked together on the drawing. I made lots of the big shapes (the fame of the house and windows, for example) and she drew the details (panes of glass and siding).

We’ll try this again soon. Like anything, I believe practice breeds confidence. My hope is that at some point she’ll take off on her own and find a love for drawing all that she sees – at home and abroad.

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Our yellow door is a defining feature of our home.

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Testing greens to find the best match.