Art Educator as Ally

Like many of you, I’ve been feeling really blue since November 8th. I’ve been feeling like there’s very little I can do to protect the rights of many Americans I know and even more I don’t know who are concerned that their voices will not be heard and their very presence challenged under a Trump/Pence-led government. Chief among these are my LGBTQ family and friends.

In June, I bought Cora a rainbow flag at the Columbus Pride parade. At the time I felt silly, like I was just supporting the vendors trying to make a buck off the event. But she’s carried that flag to each rally we’ve been to in the past few weeks. Currently, it’s draping the dashboard of my car. Carrying the flag beyond the pride parade I feel like we are making a statement, showing we are allies who support the insanely simple idea that
LOVE IS LOVE.

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Today I had an encounter with a student that confirmed I am making a difference beyond adding rainbows to the visual political landscape.  A gay man living in Texas, this student works as a public school teacher and volunteers with various organizations in his community. Early in our studies together he expressed interest in making art with LGBTQ youth in his area. Today we talked about concrete steps he plans to take to make that happen.

At the end of our conversation he thanked me for supporting his vision and for encouraging him in his pursuits. I am so proud of him and can’t wait to see where this leads. I’m excited for the kids whose lives he’ll impact, whom he’ll help to see that it gets better. With his permission, perhaps I’ll share it all with you someday.

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Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 3, No. 6

It’s been a long while since I wrote one of these columns. It isn’t that we aren’t reading! We read like crazy this winter, but I was TOTALLY insane at work and didn’t have time to blog about any of it. That said, I dedicate this post to my department chair, Craig Roland, who recommended Home, by Carson Willis during one of the million and one meetings we had with students last month.


One of the greatest parts of my job is the opportunity to learn alongside my students. Sometimes they teach me things, sometimes I learn from my colleagues as they are teaching. Craig draws on a wide range of resources when speaking with students which I  appreciate. Home is a perfect example.

I don’t remember the exact context of Craig’s suggestion and it doesn’t much matter. The book is a good illustration of a work of art that explores a big idea. Big, or enduring ideas “comprise concepts that have drawn the attention of humans through the ages” (Stewart and Walker, 2005, p. 17).  We encourage students to build art education curriculum around big ideas throughout the Art Education program at the University of Florida and I plan to use this book in the future to help students better grasp the concept and consider ways to utilize it with students. Parents of young children and other educators might also find it inspiring.

Big ideas are often approached through the discussion of questions like:
What is a home?
How would it feel to live in that home?
What makes your home different from other homes?

The cover of Home alone could launch many questions, leading teachers and students in various directions as they connect the theme with their own experiences, books they’ve read, and cultures they are studying.

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This is one of those picturebooks that could be given to an adult to read and reflect on just as easily as a child. The illustrations are engaging – visually and conceptually. Cora and I spent a long time looking at each one, talking about the content and the style. The one about The Little Old Lady who lived in a shoe was one of her favorites. This is just an excerpt….

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We did take exception to this page:

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The so-called clean home didn’t look clean to us so much as it looked boring or unoccupied. Everything seems to have a purpose and a place in the messy house, even the jump rope in the front yard, the bathtub in the garden, and the cinderblock holding up the front porch. But overall, the artist captured a wide range of homes (including her own studio filled with references to the book itself) and had us looking and imagining who lived in them and what it would like to join them.

After we finished reading, I interviewed Cora about our home and wrote her responses in a notebook we’ve been keeping this year to document her thinking and learning. Here’s excerpts from the interview:

Me: Cora, where is your home?
Cora: (thinking)
Me: Is it on the moon?
Cora: No. On Earth, you sil’. [Sil’ is her shorthand for saying silly.]
Me: Is your house in the city or the country?
Cora: The city. I think. Do you think that’s the truth?
Me: Yes. But what makes you think so?
Cora: Because it’s noisy. And there are lots of cars on High Street.
Me: What kind of house do we live in?
Cora: We live in a regular house. A house.
Me: What’s a regular house?
Cora: Just a regular house.
Me: So not a castle or something like that?
Cora: Yeah.
Me: What’s different about your house and Maya’s house?
Cora: We have a dog and she has cats. My house is darker because it has more curtains.
Me: What else makes our house darker? Look outside? What do you see? What would you see if you were at Maya’s?
Cora: Other houses closer together… Street lights.
Me: What else do you want to tell me about our house? What makes it special?
Cora: My house is very old because it used to be grandma’s. That what I like about it. She lives next door now and I like that too.

Next step, mapping our house and making some drawings of it.

Stewart, M. G. & Walker, S.R. (2005). Rethinking curriculum in art. Worcester, MA: Davis.

 

Rethinking the Valentine

Okay. I admit it. Valentine’s Day has never meant all that much to me.

It’s not that I’m not romantic or anything like that. But, I have historically thought of it as a market-driven holiday; our love for one another measured by the store-bought cards kids pass around at school and candy conversation hearts which never appealed to me on any level.

Likewise, as an art educator, I put holiday crafts in a category of work not worth the time of serious contemporary art educators. As at this time last year, I just finished a unit on the history of holiday crafts in art education (see Paper Heart and the History of Art Education). My students shared their perspectives on the issue, most suggesting that there isn’t much time for holiday crafting in their artrooms even if they wanted to bring it in. They questioned which holidays would be addressed, could be addressed, in a multicultural classroom. And that they feel misunderstood when administrators expect them to celebrate and decorate for holidays like this. I share their views.

But this year, as Crafty Cora and I got to work on tokens of affection for her classmates, we got to talking about what Valentine’s Day is all about. I found our basic research personally edifying as I grew up with some vague idea that (Saint) Valentine’s day isn’t for Jewish people. It also gave me ideas about how it might be meaningfully addressed in a comprehensive art program – not that I’m arguing it ought to be…

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that, as with Christmas, Valentine’s Day predates the saint for which it is named. According to the History Channel, it started as a fertility holiday known as Lupercalia and, paralleling the social history of romantic relations, morphed into a holiday about romantic love.

Our search uncovered an interview with Valentine collector Nancy Rosin which positions the Valentine as an interesting bit of visual culture. Rosin suggests they are “important as a social chronicle. Personal communication between people…fascinating stories.” Watching her video, I could imagine using Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to talk with students about the history of romance, the practice of arranged marriage past and present, and the industry of greeting cards (love it or hate it, it’s out there and it’s huge, and a professional venue for artists and illustrators). Rosin shares her knowledge and perspective as a curator about the history of Valentine productions – mass-produced and handmade. I love her notion that the handmade cards bear “the fingerprints of love.”

I had all this in mind as Cora and I got out a big box of papers and started cutting out hearts. She practiced some of the same skills she worked on last year – tracing, cutting, composing, pasting, sewing – and we listened to Motown love songs. A light snow fell outside. It was the perfect weather for crafting.

As we worked, I questioned the benefits of the activity. After a bit of cutting, she passed  that job on to me. After a little gluing she outsourced that as well. Eventually she declared herself in charge of the sewing machine and told me, “How about you do your stuff at that table and I do mine at this table.” And just like, she chose the job she liked best and declared herself the director of our little Valentine factory. She even kept track of how many we’d made on the calculator.

If there is any value left in the notion of holiday arts as motivator for students, I think there could be the start a lesson plan here around the essential question, “Can art be mass produced?”

Mass-production.

Factories.

The Factory.

Andy Warhol.

???

Wintertime Nature Study

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It’s hard to be indoors this time of year. We spend so much time in the yard and garden from early spring to late fall I really feel trapped by the cold. This year I’ve made a commitment to getting out for a bit with Cora each day regardless of the weather. I’m meeting mixed results. The chickens help as she misses them as much as the swings. But overall we’re pretty disconnected from the natural world at this time of year.

We are growing all we can on the windowsills. The chia Gnome is sprouting his beard and potatoes are growing roots in glasses of water. For Christmas, we potted paperwhites for Cora to pass around as gifts. It’s been fun to these people’s homes and see the flowers growing taller and budding.

Cora has been eagerly waiting for our flowers. The other day I bumped into the tallest of the bunch and knocked off the largest bud. I was so pissed at myself but quickly realized the teachable moment this would give us to look inside the bud – if you’ve ever grown paperwhites you know the buds push out of their leaf cocoons to such a great extent that you can see the shape of them bulging. It was fun to cut that pod open and take out the guts. Cora chopped the stem, stuck it with a toothpick, and opened the flowers by hand.

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I’m teaching a course on the history of art education this term. We always start with Frederich Froebel’s vision of kindergarten. I think he would have approved of this hands- and minds-on discovery time. What are you doing to stay connected to the natural world this winter?

Mindfully Foraging Family Time and Holiday Decorations

It’s no secret to those who know me well that I’ve been struggling to connect with the teenagers in my life as of late. I’m about one month into some new experiments, guided in part by The Happiness Project, by which I’m making more fervent attempts to engage them. You might read this as “force them to spend time with me.” That’s basically what it is, but I’m trying my best to prevent them from seeing it that way. (I guess it’s good neither of them actively follow this blog…)

Two weeks ago, they each got to cook dinner with me one night. They decided what we would make and I tried to get be a guide on the side, rather than the master chef. It was good time together, something Rosa and I have done a lot of (see My Step Monster’s Kitchen), just not lately. For George, it seems like a lot of our interactions come down to, “in two years this is all going to be your responsibility,” so you might call this college (or life) prep in the kitchen.

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Thanksgiving day I went out in the garden to gather some herbs. I came in with a fistful of sage, rosemary, time, and parsley. I went around the house with it inviting everyone to take a few deep cleansing breaths. Cora wanted to go out and find more and I suggested we gather some greens and things to decorate the table. Then I thought, we should all go. It was unseasonably warm – thankfully – so it didn’t take too much convincing when I gave Dan and the big kids thirty minutes to get ready for a family walk.

We wandered around the neighborhood for nearly an hour chatting, playing, singing, and foraging. We gathered dried blossoms and branches, berries, and evergreen boughs, pine cones and nuts and came home with an overflowing basket of materials to work with.

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I decided not to do anything with them right away. Instead, we waited for Dan’s mom to arrive. She is a florist so I solicited her to work on arrangements. Rosa helped and it was lovely to see this activity turn intergenerational.

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The finished product was beautiful from every seat at the table, complete with the kitcschy Pilgrims and Native Americans my mother-in-law used to use at her house. We also included a beeswax candle Rosa and I made last year at Christmas-time. (That was part of another one of my concerted efforts to spend time with the teens which I documented in “Holiday Crafting with Teens.”)

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Just after Thanksgiving the latest edition of Rodale’s Organic Life came to the house complete with an article on foraged holiday crafts and decorations. And just like that, I had ideas for next time.

 

RE:Thinking Drawings

Quick follow-up to last week’s post about the thinking drawings of young children.

Cora and I flew home from visiting family this morning. It was raining as we took off and climbed through the clouds and we talked about what that might look like – a plane flying over a cloud filled sky with rain falling down below. I told her I thought it would be a great thing to draw. Her response, “But mommy, I don’t know how to draw a plane.”

I reached into the seat back in front of us and pulled out the safety card. Together, we looked at the photo of a plane on the cover and the diagrams inside. The conversation dissolved into a discussion of the pictographs used to tell passengers what to do in an emergency. I love to deconstruct international symbol systems so I as happy to follow the tangent.

After a few hours of screen time – I graded papers while she played with nearly every app loaded on our iPad – it was landing time. She asked for some paper and markers and started scribbling. After a quick self-portrait, she asked for help drawing a plane. I suggested she start with a large oval – like a hot dog and she was off.

She drew one end rounded and other ended up pointed to which she said, “Oops,” and looked up at me. I told her I thought it looked great that way since the nose of a plane is usually rounded and the tail pointed. Satisfied, she added a few tail fins, then wings, windows, and finally a logo on the wing. And just like that, she made one of her greatest thinking drawing yet. Right in front of me. I was mesmerized.

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At one point she pulled the safety card out again to check some details, but quickly put it back down and drew the parts as she imagined them in her mind’s eye: from her time looking out airport windows in the past, from her Playmobil toy plane, and from our earlier discussion and study of the illustrations.

If you’re as amazed by this process as I am, and you are interested in helping children improve their observational drawing skills by talking about the world they see around them, I recommend Observation Drawing with Children by Nancy Smith and the Drawing Study Group (1997, Teachers College Press). I think I’ve mentioned it before. I’m sure I’ll mention it again.