Passing the time playing pass the drawing


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.

3 Things We Can Learn From The Fine Brothers

Cora has heard The Beatles many times. When she was a baby, “Blackbird” was in her lullaby rotation. There is a folder on the MP3 player she inherited from her sister filled with their tunes. I often suggest she listen to those tracks instead of her kids’ music, but l know I shouldn’t push it. Like a neighbor and local music reviewer suggests, I realize the possibility that the more I push the more she’ll rebel. But, this past weekend she had two new encounters that seemed to convince her, once and for all, that The Beatles are worth her time.

First, she played Beatles Rock Band with Rosa and Dan. Thanks to Music Together, Cora loves to spend time with family singing and never misses a chance to bang on a drum. Add the chance to play big kid video games and she was hooked. Like so many other kids who have learned The Beatles’s music while pretending to be John, Paul, Ringo, and George, she asked to listen to their music later that day. So, we watched old concert clips at dinner. She was mesmerized and so was I.

Sometimes, I still can’t get over how much content we have at our fingertips. Like this version of “Paperback Writer” or this one of “Hello Goodbye.” Both have great sound and (relatively) sharp video. It’s rare that I sit around watching videos on YouTube, but Cora’s interest kept me clicking on recommended links for awhile. At some point we came across “Kids React to The Beatles.” Cora only tolerated a minute or two before she demanded more music, but I bookmarked it to watch after she went to bed.

Awesome, right?! Once again, I stumbled upon a cultural phenomenon that took hold over the past three years while I was submerged in work and family life. Parents and educators know how illuminating it can be to listen to kids’ reactions to things – books, music, works of art, historical events. They give us new insights and help us understand how they perceive the world around them. The Fine Brothers catch all that in their Kids React videos, and so much more that I still need to process. Their work seems like one part cultural anthropology and one part social justice as they empower kids to share their viewpoints. Their most recent post about gay marriage is not to be missed.

Watching Kids React is interesting, but it’s even better to watch your kid (or your students) react. Here are three things we learn from the Fine Brothers about sharing cultural content with our kids:

1. Consume media together. I’ve certainly been guilty of encouraging my older kids to watch videos and play games as far away from me as possible. I find so much of what they want to watch and listen to a waste of time. But, there’s a lot to be gained from watching what our kids are watching, hearing them talk about it, and asking questions.

2. Allow your kids to have their own opinions and come to their own conclusions about what they see and hear. Too often we want our kids to like what we like. As much as we might hate it at times, our kids will develop their own preferences, and oftentimes those will conflict with our own. If you have the means, record their thoughts so you can all come back to them later.

3. Ask questions that challenge kids to question their initial reactions and consider others’ perspectives. While it is important to let them have their own opinions, it is also important to push kids to explore and articulate the values and experiences of their beliefs.


Making Music Together, Apart

Well, we are back in music class after the summer recess. And Cora is back to running circles around the group as most of the other kids sing and dance with their parents and our teacher Leigh. As long-time readers already know, and you can too if you read this post from last year, I think the world of Leigh and have learned so much from being a student in, and of, her work in with young children. You’ll also know that Leigh has encouraged me to embrace Cora’s ways of working through the music, even when those contrast with what the rest of the class is doing. And, as I’ve written before, that isn’t always easy for me to do.

Today I reached the end of my rope. Cora was joyfully running around, between, and through the group as we sang and danced. I was singing and following Leigh’s direction, trying not to let Cora’s behavior stop me from participating, but simultaneously feeling like she was disrupting others and that we were in no way making music together. What was the point. For the first time since our first class a year ago, I actively tried to control her body by reaching my arms out to draw her in as she zoomed past me and begging her to sing with me.

Then, this afternoon while we were on the swings, something amazing happened, as it seems to do just when I need it to. I started singing a song Cora likes from the new collection, “There’s a Little Wheel Turning in my Heart” (here’s another version) and Cora asked me to stop singing that song and asked me to sing something else. As I started the new song, she sang about the little wheel. She was not distracted by the words or melody I was signing. I went through three very different songs, but the she just kept turning that little wheel…

I’m not exactly sure what that demonstrates. Maybe Leigh can help me figure that out. But I do know we’ll be back in class next week. And I’ll try to remember that even when it seems otherwise, my child is learning. Often much more than I can imagine.

Toddler Time @ CMA: Explorations in Programming for Play

Through the looking glass at the Columbus Museum of Art's Center for Creativity's Wonder Room

Through the looking glass at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity’s Wonder Room

So, I’m really excited about a project I’m going to be embarking on during my next stay-at-home sabbatical from teaching.  It has a bit of a backstory, so bear with me.

Last spring I worked with a student on an action research project in her arts-based preschool classroom.  The more I heard stories about what she was doing, saw pictures and heard the voices of her students, the more I wanted to experience what it was like making art with groups of very young people.  I couldn’t help wondering why I was sitting in front of a computer grading papers and wagging my red pen at the format of students’ APA citations when I could be finger painting or playing around with blocks and play doh.  In a way, my wish was fulfilled once Cora became old enough to explore these things with me in our home studio (a.k.a. the kitchen floor, the back porch, the bathtub, etc.).

In another way, I have been exploring making art with young children during Music Together.  As I wrote about here before, these classes have pushed me to reconsider the role of parameters in creative problem-solving and expression.  That program is fairly structured compared with ideas for working with visual art and young children that I’m most familiar with.  I have been amazed at what Cora has learned from the classes and from listening to the music over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.  I’m still not sure what the visual equivalent might be.

I’m about to get a chance to try some ideas out when I help host a four-session toddler art playgroup at the Columbus Museum of Art in April.  I feel so grateful to Cindy Foley and her staff for allowing my friends and me to use the studio in the Center for Creativity as a gathering place.  I’ve already had thought-provoking conversations about working with 2 & 3 year olds and their parents with her and a few of the education coordinators who work with her.  Amanda Kepner and Susie Underwood have lots of experience working with visitors of all ages in the galleries and museum classrooms, and I’m excited to have an opportunity to observe their work and have them support me in my project.

The playgroup will be pretty loose, beginning with time for parents and kids to warm up and explore a few stations – beading, lightbox, large-scale coloring… – followed by a picturebook or time in the Big Idea Gallery, and then the activity of the day.  After we clean-up folks will be free to hang out at the museum to socialize while the kids play in the Wonder Room.  If folks are interested, we can also explore some of the galleries together.  If I were invited to this playgroup, I’d be psyched.

A few of the things I hope to address in later posts about these endeavors include:
Who’s art is it anyway?: The role of parents in young children’s creative development
Ready, Set, Play: Encouraging creativity on demand
Toddlers in the galleries: Big boats, buildings, and boobies

Of course my interests in this area are linked to my observations of Crafty Cora as she develops.  She’s had such an incredible explosion of interest drawing, painting, storytelling, beading, cutting, building, and sorting over the past few months. (The topic of another soon to-be-written post.)  Until now, these have been mostly solitary activities for her.  It’s often one of the few things that will get her to sit still for more than a minute.  A month ago, she sat for an hour with a pair of scissors and sheet of paper cutting a tassle-fringe around the perimeter.  Cora and her pal Maya have long played side-by-side with play-doh and did some finger painting together recently.  But I’m excited to see what happens when she’s in a group of 10 kids, making marks together with their parents.

WARNING: This could get very messy.

Copy Cat


As I was helping Rosa with her monthly book report project the other night, I was reminded of debates surfacing in my Art Education in Alternative Sites course this spring.

In the first lesson, students explore the landscape of art education outside of schools.  They map organizations in their own communities, they tour programs throughout the world online (like The Laundromat Project, ArtWorks, and InnerCity Arts), and they read scholarly articles on a range of issues related to art education-at-large.  Hot button ideas emerge on the discussion boards, varying from term-to-term based on the interests and perspectives of the students.  It’s my job to draw out those common interests, and points of dispute, for further examination.

This time around,  we have been circling the related issues of franchised art education programs (like Abrakadoodle) and the value of follow-along activities.  While I’m intellectually put off by the idea of any art program that has students do the same thing as the person sitting next to them, I can’t deny the success Bob Ross had in getting people painting.  As my students noted, the teacher can make or break this type of program.  Bob was charismatic.  He drew people in.  As I previously wrote, Cora and I have been similarly impressed with our Music Together teacher.  Could I possibly have a similarly engaging experience at the local Kidzart?  I’m trying to approach this idea with an open-mind for a moment, even while I am picturing Andy Singer‘s cartoon “BIRTH to DEATH in a Box” and hearing Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes” in my mind..

(No Exit) Birth to Death in a Box

Used by permission of the artist.

The issue of “do-what-I-do” instruction is another aspect of ongoing debate, and here again my views have been changing based on recent life lessons.  In most scholarly circles of visual art education, copying from a master has long been dismissed as denying students opportunities to express their own ideas and emotions through their artmaking.*  I have personally winced walking down school hallways plastered with vases of sunflowers painted like Vincent Van Gogh.  But, as Duncum (1988) noted, there are a variety of positions on copying in art education, and I’ve come to recognize that I’m not quite as far to the anti-copying side of the spectrum as I thought I would be.  I recall, as a child I once followed step-by-step instructions from a book to make a charcoal drawing of a farm covered in snow. I was so pleased to be utilizing drawing techniques like smudging and erasing out highlights to make the scene look realistic.  And, as recently as last month, I dutifully followed sewing tutorials I found online to create holiday gifts.  So what if I was just copying?  I had enjoyed the process of creating things and sharing them with others.

Which all brings me back to Tuesday night, with about 14.75 hours until the book report was due.  These projects have been a nice way for Rosa and I to bond.  Each time they had some visual component that has given us a chance to work together to talk through ideas and imagery, to uncover ways to execute or revise ideas, and to get out the craft supplies -something we used to do together a lot when she was younger but have done less and less as her free time gets swallowed up by electronics and mine by her little sister.

So, there we were preparing to make a box adorned with clues about Scat by Carl Hiassen, the mystery Rosa selected to read.  On the lid, she had to show a scene from the book.  I selfishly suggested that if I were the teacher, I’d rather see her draw her own version of the scene than seeing an image from the computer she had cut and paste.  She conceded and started sketching.  But, she grew frustrated when the cougars she was drawing all looked like housecats.

We pulled up an image of a cougar on my computer and I directed her to look carefully at the shape of the animal’s head, muzzle, and ears to get started.  She gave it a shot but seemed frustrated so I started drawing beside her, telling her what I saw and what I was drawing as I went along.  I was impressed by her drawing, until she told me she made it by copying my drawing, not by looking at the photo on the screen and translating that into her own lines.  I felt like my lesson had gone over her head, like she’d taken the easy way out.  But, I quickly realized that none of that mattered at that moment, because we both agreed that her last drawings were so much improved from her first.  She was proud of what she’d accomplished, and I was too.

* (One exception that comes to mind was Blandy and Congdon’s presentation on their experiences in a Ross-style painting class at NAEA years ago.)

Duncum, P (1988).  To Copy or Not the Copy.  Studies in Art Education, 29(4) p. 203-210.

Is it my imagination, or is everyone glaring at me?

One of the first things I remember our music teacher telling the class was, “It’s okay for your child to run around in here, as long as she’s not endangering herself or anyone else.  That’s the way she learns.”   I knew she was speaking to me in particular as well as to the group in general because, at that moment I was trying to figure out how I would corral Cora within the not-so-wide-open but big-enough-to-run-around-in room where we meet, and I’m sure it was written all over my body.

Cora settled into the class for awhile but for the past few weeks, she’s been treating much of our time there like a track meet.  She has a routine she’s been working through.  During “The Hello Song” she runs back and forth across the room, through the center of the circle formed by all the singing mothers and children.  She spends the next song running around the circumference of the circle.  Then she does sprints from the middle of the circle to the one sunlit corner of the room.  Last week, another boy joined her in the corner during one of her rest breaks.  They stood with their backs against the wall, surveyed the group, and then started giggling and running around together.  I sensed his mother felt he had fallen under Cora’s bad influence, until he started hugging and kissing her.  That evened the field out a bit.  We were united as the parents of the deviant kids.

This past week was the same story.  Only this time, Cora added a high-pitched screech to the mix.  I tried to reach out and pull her into the circle a few times as she whizzed by me.  She couldn’t decide if I was playing around with her or trying to get her to stop running, but either way, my efforts only made her scream louder.  This hardly seemed better.  I thought about taking her out of the room and talking to her, but she’s still a bit young for reasoning.  So I went back in my mind, for the umpteenth time, to Leigh’s comments on the first day of class: That’s the way she learns. That’s the way she learns. That’s the way she learns.

Cora knows the words to all the songs we are singing in class.  She sings them day and night.  The only time she doesn’t seem to sing them is in class.  I’m not really sure what that’s about.  I wish she would sing and dance for the other mothers and their children.  I wish they could hear how well she can mimic the flow of the music, holding the longer notes and clapping her hands to the beat.  Instead, I feel like they are glaring at me and wondering why I bother to bring my kid to the classes just to run around.

5 Things I’ve Learned from Music Together (So Far)

This Fall I signed Cora up for classes with Music Together.  Of course I’m learning a lot too.  And, as usual, I’m wondering how I can translate all that I am seeing, hearing, and doing in these classes into lessons for myself and my students in the field of visual art education.  Here are 5 things I’ve learned, or been reminded of, so far.

1. For-profit art education franchises need not be evil.
Based on my familiarity* with for-profit visual art education franchises, I was skeptical of Music Together.  Even though it came highly recommended by friends I respect on educational issues, I was concerned the class would feel superficial and contrived.  From the first session, however, I was convinced that this program was well-researched and delivered in an authentic manner.

All of which I will explicate further in my next few points. . .

2. Teacher enthusiasm for the subject she is teaching is a key ingredient to successful instruction.
As I wrote about the music teacher at my step-daughter’s school last week, being in the classroom with a teacher who demonstrates genuine, personal enthusiasm for what they are teaching permeates the learning space with an energy that is palpable and models a love for the discipline to students.  In our classes, Leigh plays her guitar and sings with passion.  She is 100% present throughout the entire 45 minutes of the class.  She dances during the free dance song with gratitude for those few minutes to move her body to the music with us.

Reggio Emilia credits a trifecta of teachers with student learning – parents, teachers, and classroom environments.  What the concrete block classroom where we meet in lacks in style, Leigh more than makes up for with her personality.

But a winning personality isn’t all it takes to make a great teacher. . .

3. Arts education advocacy demands parent education and involvement.
Leigh is not just a music educator, she is an advocate for music education.  She infuses each class with parent-directed commentary about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how to extend the activities at home.  This is generally done at the beginning and end of class, as she strums her guitar, and at other relevant moments during the lesson.

I never feel I am being pandered to or spoonfed factoids.  So often Leigh’s advice comes at exactly the right moment, as if she is reading my mind.  Like the week she encouraged us to indulge the kids when they ask to hear the same song over and over and over and over again.  (More on this later).  Suddenly I felt like a Super Mom for listening to “Ram Sam Sam” 13 times in one car ride. And this teaching helped me practice patience the next time I found myself in the same situation.

Unlike the storytimes at the library Cora and I attend, there are no side conversations between parents at Music Together.  We all sing.  We all play instruments.  We all move to the music.  Like today when we were in groups each making the sounds and enacting the play of different instruments – drums, trumpets, voices, and fiddles – as Leigh conducted us like an orchestra.  Our active involvement might be attributed in part to the fact that we are paying for the program, unlike at the library.  But I’m pretty confident that it is mostly because Leigh, and the literature from Music Together**, have convinced us that our participation is important to our children’s development.

Of course its easier to get involved when the content is engaging. . .

4. Introduce artistic exemplars that speak to learner on various levels.
I admit I was a bit nervous that the music in these classes would be lame and I would feel bored and irritated by it.  It seems so many programs with music for young children rely on the old standards – The Itsy Bitsy Spider, The Wheels on the Bus.  Thankfully, Music Together’s song collections come across as “research-based and artistically conceived and produced.”

Music Together employs nine song collections which they rotate, nationally, through 10-week class cycles.  In other words, this fall, all children enrolled in Music Together classes across the country are working with the Fiddle collection. Fiddle includes is a wide variety of musical genres – American folks soungs and international rhythms, most with lyrics but some without, most with instruments others acapella.  It is not hard to imagine how songs could be reused, following a spiral curriculum concept, to introduce basic concepts to younger children and more advanced concepts to older students.  I know I’m picking up different things from the music than Cora.

Which brings me back to listening to the collection over and over and over and over again for ten weeks.

5. Repetition can open doors to deeper understandings.
To be fair, Leigh warned us on day one that we would grow tired of the songs in the song collection before the class was over.  However, she also taught us that as we were growing weary, our kids’ would just be starting to master the lyrics and rhythms.  “Your children will learn through repetition, repetition, repetition, and, repetition, and then more repetition, repetition, and repetition,” she advised.  She distributed a growth chart with benchmarks for our children’s musical development and has encouraged us to look at them periodically to see how our children are growing.

This all got me thinking about the conversations I have had with people over the years about notable differences between music and visual arts education.  Unlike in music education where repetition and practice are guiding principles, we tend not to repeat ourselves that much in the visual arts.  We complete a project and move onto something new.  Of course most visual artists don’t work this way, they work in series.  They work with a theme.  Is there some place for repetition in the visual arts afterall?

I don’t mean for this to read as an advertisement for Music Together, although I am satisfied with the program and plan to reenroll for another term.  I realize that different instructors enact curricula differently and we may have just gotten really lucky with Leigh.  Regardless of the larger picture, in this particular setting, with this particular teacher, Cora and I are both learning a lot.

[*Admittedly, my familiarity with for-profit visual art franchises is limited to what I have read on their websites. Perhaps I ought to try out a class and write about that.  Would you be interested in reading about it me and Cora’s experiences in such a program?  Might enroll for research’s sake.  Who knows, I might actually find something about it I like.]
[**Wonder how many folks read the Music Together literature.  Wonder if they ever tried to find out.]