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?

Still Drawing Outside the Lines, But Getting Clearer

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“That’s daddy, me, and mommy” (from left)

I’ve been following Cora’s mark-making development for almost five years now, nearly three on this blog. Like any academic art educator parent, I muse over pretty much any mark she makes with some intention; from her first experiments with blackberry juice at her highchair and water drenched paintbrushes on the driveway to magic marker tatoos and family portraits. But despite my affection for alternative forms of artmaking, those that stray outside the lines, I’m still a sucker for representational drawing. (Read this post from last year from more this.) I’m not talking about realism, but drawings that demonstrate careful observation and reflection of objects and experiences in our world.

So it was with great amazement that I watched, and listened, to Cora complete this (5″ x 8″) drawing the other morning.

IMG_20150613_0001“This is what I want for a snack, Mommy,” she declared as she sat on the floor busily drawing. “A carrot!”

“Of course you can have a carrot,” I told her. “But first, can you tell me about the one you are drawing?”

Cora narrated her drawing for me in great detail. The horizontal line was the ground and the little oval under it towards the center of the page was the carrot. She was actively drawing its leaves and then moved on to the squiggly line to its right which is a shark trying to steal the carrot. I’m not sure about the other squiggles (maybe just the shark’s movement), but the dots are definitely raindrops.

I was happy to be there to capture the moment and document it here. I was happy to know that our work at Over the Fence Urban Farm has helped her learn that carrots come from the ground, not the grocery store. I wish more people could appreciate the process of drawing and not be so fixated on the product. This ought to be the case for folks drawing at any age or stage of life. Drawing is a way of thinking, not just a form of making.

This summer, I promised myself I would write a one-page information sheet this summer for the parents who volunteer in Cora’s cooperative pre-school about documentation and children’s learning, an idea that comes from the Reggio Emila approach to early childhood education. Sometimes I take for granted my professional knowledge of learning and development and assume other parents have this knowledge and training as well. But they don’t, and while I LOVE our school, I think it could do more to develop our parents as reflexive volunteers in the classroom, and teacher researchers in their own homes. This will be my contribution.Teaching parents about documentation, which the teacher’s assistant does a fair amount of, will help them better understand and appreciate Ms. N’s work, and enable them to help her when they are in the room.

Cora’s carrot drawing drawing was just the inspiration I needed to get off my duff and get started. Without my documentation of her narration, the drawing would just look like a series of squiggles and dots. It’s a perfect example of how we can all make learning, and creativity, visible with just a few lines of annotation.

Here’s one more from dinner last night. (Never go to a restaurant with kids and without paper and something to draw with, if only a ballpoint pen, which just happens to be one of my favorite media for drawing.)

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“This is a sting turtle. Their bodies are completely red because they are made of hot lava.”

Wow.

Drawing Lessons with Ed Emberley and Peter Brown

This week, Crafty Cora spent some time with two artists who support the idea that anyone who can make lines and shapes on a piece of paper can make a drawing. Neither lessons was planned, which may be what makes them seem so authentic. And while I thought about sharing them each here as they were happening, it wasn’t until I sat down to write that their overlapping messages became clear.

Monday afternoon Cora came up from the basement with a few books. She set them down on her desk and started going through them. She got out some pencils and markers and started drawing. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention since she was directing herself and didn’t need me but after awhile she asked me to check out what she was up to.

I was excited to see her working through some of Ed Emberley’s drawing directions. Not because I think that following step-by-step instructions for drawing objects in the world is the best way to learn to draw, I’d rather Cora just draw what she sees (a la Nancy Smith), and what she remembers about the things she’s seen, but she hasn’t been drawing much of anything lately so I am at the point where I’ll take what I can get.

And she wasn’t following the directions anyway, she was studying them. See how she circled each step on this page?

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She did that 5 or 6 times that afternoon. “First you do this, then you do this….” she said as she worked.

After a little coaxing, I convinced her to sit down and make some drawings with me, following Emberley’s directions. As we worked, I named the shapes and lines we were making. We took turns adding parts to the characters we made. She got excited and continued on after I left. Copying some of his animals and making up her own.

Jellyfish: After Emberley

Jellyfish: After Emberley

If you’re not familiar with Emberley, here’s an example of how he builds confidence in his followers: “If you can draw these six things, you can draw a spider.” The drawings aren’t realistic or very detailed, but they are enough to get the point across. I remember when I was a kid I’d ask my mother to draw things for me. She’d be the first to admit that drawing isn’t something she does a lot or likes to do. I think she, and parents like her, would find Emberley helpful when hanging out with young artists trying to support their efforts. Which brings us to Peter Brown…

In the fall, I hinted at the fact that if picturebook author/illustrator Peter Brown ever made an appearance at our local bookstore, I would be in the first row. Well, Thursday night he was and we were! (Thank you Cover to Cover Books for Young Readers!)

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We were prepared to hear him read a book and that was entertaining and interesting. After a brief introduction to the story and what inspired him to write My Teacher is a Monster (you can read a version here), he read the words, and the pictures. He talked through aspects of the illustrations that helped illuminate the story. This is the heart of what makes a picturebook a picturebook. It’s about a symbiotic combination of words and images. Without one or the other, the story wouldn’t be complete.

After the reading and a brief Q&A (appropriately but somewhat disappointingly) geared towards the kids in the crowd, Brown knelt on the floor and showed us how he drew Ms. Kirby, the monster teacher, using a series of basic lines and shapes. “You can draw circles, right? You can draw curved lines, right? Then you can draw Ms. Kirby!” he told the the kids gathered around him. Like Emberley, Brown was suggesting that anyone can draw something.

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Cora and I didn’t do any drawing today, but I’m looking forward to seeing where all this takes us over the weekend and in days to come. How will these messages resonate in her little brain? Will they manifest themselves in her artwork moving forward? You can be sure I’ll let you know.

Holiday Crafting with PreSchoolers (and Glitter!)

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It’s no fun crafting alone! On this occasion we were hanging with Cora’s aunties in Seattle via FaceTime.

(My last post was all about holiday crafting with the teenagers in my life. This one is dedicated to my littlest studio mate.)

Crafty Cora and I haven’t made anything together in awhile. So, in the process of gathering holiday crafting ideas to work through with the big kids, I pinned a few for her too. But, the one featured here is something I made up while I was volunteering in her classroom this week. At the easel, her teachers set up the usual cups of tempera but had some festive glitter mixed in. I made the stars out of cardboard I found in the class recycling bin. Challenging myself to make things out of what the kids discard has become a pretty regular activity for me. I was also inspired by an observation Cora made during our first, and very early snowfall a few weeks ago. She was genuinely stunned by the way the snow glittered in the sunlight. Her appreciation for those natural sparkles inspired me to take a new look at glitter, an art supply I, like so many other professional art educators, rarely make use of.

Glitter is despised by art teachers working to disprove the notion that art is the icing on the proverbial education cake rather than a key ingredient in the cake itself. How could something so glittery and seemingly frivolous, not to mention messy, ever be taken seriously? The Onion ran a story a few years back that seemed to prove the point – “Cases of Glitter Lung on the Rise Among Elementary-School Art Teachers” (2005). Students and faculty in my department at the University of Florida maintain a Pinterest board called “Heard Craig Loves Glitter” in honor of our chair’s feelings for he stuff. The board has 239 pins.

So, it was with a hint of irony that I picked up a bottle of glitter on my holiday craft supply buying mission a few weeks ago. It was one of those moments where you imagine cameras are focused on you and someone, somewhere is watching you and laughing, like in The Truman Show or some still to be created Nielson ratings-crushing reality show about art educators. I picked out a bottle with not one, but two types of silver glitter and looked forward to pulling them out and making everything sparkle.

Yesterday, while visiting with my sister and her wife on FaceTime, I invited Cora to paint the stars I made at school and dust them with glitter. To keep the glitter from covering every inch of the just cleaned kitchen counters and floor, I found an old, large, shallow box. After Cora painted each star, we put them in the box and she was free to shake away. We’ll reuse what didn’t stick to add some bling to our next project. At the end, we still found a bit of sparkle scattered around the house, but I’m trying to look on the bright side.

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Happy Holidays (Craig)!

Grandma Joyce’s Beautiful Stuff!

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My students know I am a huge fan of Topal & Gandini’s (1999) Beautiful Stuff!: Learning with Found Materials. It’s a title I evoke often in conversations about bringing meaning and extending the pedagogical purposes of using found materials in art education.

My husband is also intimately familiar with my love of beautiful stuff although, from time to time, he still questions the stashes of junk I keep around the house. When he does, I remind him of Shel Silverstein’s poem “Hector the Collector.”

Hector the Collector
Collected bits of string,
Collected dolls with broken heads
And rusty bells that would not ring.
Pieces out of picture puzzles,
Bent-up nails and ice-cream sticks,
Twists of wires, worn-out tires,
Paper bags and broken bricks.
Old chipped vases, half shoelaces,
Gatlin’ guns that wouldn’t shoot,
Leaky boats that wouldn’t float
And stopped-up horns that wouldn’t toot.
Butter knives that had no handles,
Copper keys that fit no locks,
Rings that were too small for fingers,
Dried-up leaves and patched-up socks.
Worn-out belts that had no buckles,
‘Lectric trains that had no tracks,
Airplane models, broken bottles,
Three-legged chairs and cups with cracks.
Hector the Collector
Loved these things with all his soul‹
Loved them more than shining diamonds,
Loved them more than glistenin’ gold.
Hector called to all the people,
“Come and share my treasure trunk!”
And all the silly sightless people
Came and looked…and called it junk.

Yesterday Cora had an authentic encounter with beautiful stuff when she spent time with her grandmother as she started some craft projects for holiday gifts with a friend. G-Ma and Ruth pulled out bags and bags of beads, baubles, doo-dads and thing-a-ma-bobs which they thoughtfully glued around the edges of decorative mirrors they found at the church sales they frequent. Cora bounced between their table and her toys, pulling things from their stash and integrating them into her play. It really was a beautiful thing.

I’m just sorry I didn’t take more photos.