Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Abstract Express Yourself!

It has been said that Modern Art = "I could have made that" + "Yeah, but you didn't!" Sometimes innovations and new ideas are so incredibly simple that it may feel like it's invalid or cheating to those who didn't think of it.

Jackson Pollock grew up in the Southwestern U.S. but as a young adult, he moved to New York, where he studied art under famous muralist, Thomas Hart Benton.  Pollock found work as a Work Projects Administration (WPA) artist through Roosevelt's New Deal. He later broke barriers when he invented "drip painting," which consisted of throwing, dripping, and flicking paint across large canvases on his studio floor. Time Magazine launched him into celebrity when they wrote about him, and gave him the nickname, "Jack the Dripper."

His career peaked in the late 40's and early 50's-the start of the Cold War.  Soviet Era propaganda was full of solid looking figures and idealized landscapes. Meanwhile, The U.S. was producing Abstract Expressionists and the Congress for Cultural Freedom was parading the work of Pollock across Europe. His paintings were weapons of ideas used in the hands of the CIA to show the world the incredible freedom that American citizens had. In the U.S., artists were free to make art as crazy or ugly as they wanted and no one could stop them!

Every drip painting since Pollock has felt like an imitation, but that doesn't mean we can't try it out in the kitchen or classroom.  My students experimented with various colors of paper and paint, various viscosities, and a few different motions to come up with the combination of marks to make their Pollock-style expressionist painting.  And in a very tiny way, they were fighting Fascism.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

New (School) Year's Resolutions

I'm a teacher, so each time I start another school year, I think through what I want my life to look like during the next 12 months. This is when I write and draw my goals. I do this with a mind map to ensure that my life is balanced. Each year's mind map look a lot like the previous year's because I find my categories have been working for me and I want to maintain the traction I've gained.  There's nothing wrong with wanting to continue regular exercise and scripture study. It takes some effort to keep up good habits and I write some of these things down to remind myself that they are important to me. Some goals I want to make sure I get worked into the year, for example, I do a mile swim every summer to be sure that I can still do it. If it weren't for it being written down, it would be too easy to get out of doing it.

Other things, I still haven't gotten around to accomplishing, but I have to keep believing that this is the year that I am really going to make a will, lose ten pounds, and make that trip to Italy. I thought that this is the summer we'd be making a big road trip to the west, until the location for our family reunion was moved to the east coast.  Rather than trying to paint white over that big part of my mind map, I just use it as a reminder to be flexible. Because I check off the things that I do accomplish,  I can see that not getting around to everything isn't the end of the world. It's like they say: if you reach for the moon and miss, you're still among the stars.  Okay, I know the stars are much, much further than the moon, but you get the idea. Dream BIG, do your best, and don't beat yourself up.
It feels great to look back and see how far you've come.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Myth of the Three Month Summer

My young summer camp students illustrate a song
As a kid, summer vacation lasted from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Since my parents were teachers, we could take a month to drive from Pennsylvania to grandparents in California every 4 years and still have a couple months to make thousands of mud pies and hone our tree climbing techniques. Now that I'm a teacher, with children of my own, however, I can barely find the summer hours for a single mud pie. Here's why.

My students graduate at the end of May and school usually starts about August 1st, which makes it sound like two solid months off, until you realize that the first week of June is post planning and the last week of July is pre-planning.  That gives us a month and a half, unless you teach the week-long summer program at the school, which I always do.

 High School Wesleyan fine arts campers on a gallery walk
And this summer I started working Wesleyan College's summer Fine Arts program which is also a week long.

Then there's the Masters of Education program and I love to help teach the Creativity in the Classroom class every summer.

My graduate students learn how to teach math through art
Toss in my friend's grandma-camp art lesson for two of her cuties and I find myself teaching most of the summer.

I hope I can keep coming back to teach these two each summer
I'm not complaining, there's not a single summer teaching gig that I want to give up. If anything I'd give up the 20 plus appointments to doctors, dentists, orthodontists and orthopedics, but then again, I'd rather concentrate all the family check-ups and minor procedures than have to take off work once the school year starts. And I don't want to give up the home-improvement and scrapbooking projects. I need to make sure my daughter gets to her camps, and my boys get enough hours in for their summer jobs, but everyone needs a break to keep from going crazy.

My family in Pennsylvania Dutch Country last week

That's why I strongly believe in getting out of town and away from endless to-do lists at some point during the summer. My week in Pennsylvania this summer did the trick with lots of chances to visit with my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. I tried to balance rest (conversations, board games, naps, reading) with day trips to National parks, historic sites and museums.  All of the activities either help me recharge for the school year or they will feed into my curriculum at some point.

Teaching isn't like a job that I can clock out for the day or the summer because for those of us, who have heard the calling to become teachers, it is not only about what we do...it is who we are.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Kid Weaving Project 101

You know you're on the right track when the school's occupational therapist walks into your classroom and says, "I love this project!" The little fingers of my elementary students are not used to performing the small motor skills needed to weave, so it was a struggle to get them started. But after about 45 minutes of struggling, some were able to figure it out and work independently. It takes practice and practice takes time, but that's about all it took since we already had the materials handy.

 A paper or styrofoam plate with an odd number of half inch slits around the edge is how we got started. I made 13 slits. I had to do the prep work for most of my students by wrapping yarn across the plate and up the next slit to go across the front again. Because we needed an odd number of slits, I poked a hole in the center of the plate and pushed the yarn through the hole after the final slit, before tying the ends together.  Then we threaded yarn in a big plastic needle, although the fat yarn didn't need a needle, and started in the center and tying the two ends together on the back. "Under, over, under over" little voices said quietly as they tried to push the yarn under a cross thread and pull it out the other side.

Students with multiple complex needs obviously weren't ready for weaving, but they could manage to wrap the yarn around the plates and with some help, pull them into the slits. It's important to differentiate by ability levels so that children don't become overwhelmed, while maintaining high standards and expecting them to keep trying.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Cindy Sherman Project and Stereotypes in Photography

It's not my job, as a teacher, to tell students what to think. It is my job to show my students HOW to think, and then let, or require rather, them to think for themselves.  The thing about good art is that it opens the door to higher order thinking skills through engaging conversation.  In enters, Cindy Sherman.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1973
Cindy Sherman is a photographer, who is known for her self portraits. In the 70's she'd dress up in costumes and pose as though she were a character in a movie. Each black and white piece had titles such as Film Still # 21 or Film Still #15.  There was no film, of course, but it made the viewer wonder what had happened before and what would happen after the moment portrayed.  She doesn't beat you over the head with a message, but some of her work is considered to be feminist because her pieces show women in stereotypical roles, as reactionary, rather than the source of action. Others see it as empowering, since she was able to reinvent herself many times.

When I talked to my students about common stereotypes today, I got some interesting responses, especially when asking about the stereotypes people have of them.  "People think teenagers are troublemakers. That we drink and do drugs and are violent."  "People think that rednecks are racists. That's no true. I'm a redneck and look at who my best friends are." "People think that Blind people can't do anything." I was surprised how often students complained about people confusing their disability with deafness. I know some teachers at the Academy for the Blind have people, when they find out where they work, say, "So you must know sign language." And one of my students had someone ask him if he could teach him American Sign Language.  "I don't know it. I have a visual impairment, but I'm not Deaf."

One student in a wheelchair said people who don't know him, won't approach him, but instead talk to the teacher or parent who is with him. "What would he like the drink?" restaurant servers will ask. "I don't know," the companion will say. "Why don't you ask him."  For his stunning, and somewhat disturbing portrait, he chose to have his eyes and mouth covered because that's how he feels some people see him.

Similarly, another student said, "People think that introverts don't talk.  I talk. I just don't like to be around a lot of people." He taped his mouth for his portrait, showing the viewer how silly people are for imposing a stereotype on him.

Other students took a completely different approach, one posing with a a spatula and frying pan, to prove that just because she is blind doesn't mean she can't cook. Another used a cap and diploma to show all those, who didn't think it was possible, that she can graduate from high school. In fact, she will this month!

I was surprised at how many of my students who are mildly intellectually disabled (MID), seemed immune to negative stereotypes.  "If someone who had never met you, saw you on the street and all they knew about you was that you were a black teenager, what might they assume about you?" I asked one student.

He answered, "That I'm smart and that I'm cute." And when I ran down a list of superficial characteristics, for them to respond with first thoughts, they were pleasantly nonjudgemental. Each student could, however find a time when they  misjudged someone and they vowed to be more careful in the future.

All of us unfairly judge others from time to time. Sadly, even many bright adults make the mistake of believing every thought that comes into their mind. If racial/,cultural, and ideological diversity or, at the very least, critical thinking skills were taught at an earlier age, we might all be more comfortable with people who are different than ourselves.

My goal in introducing my students to the art of Cindy Sherman, and having them do this project, is to help them be more careful in their thinking and to be able to more effectively self advocate.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Japanese Relief Prints and Haiku Lesson

Printmaking and Japan are both very dear to my heart, which is why I was surprised when I realized that I hadn't taught this lesson on Hiroshige wood cuts for five years. I read my favorite Japanese counting book, "One Leaf Rides the Wind" as a way to introduce my students to haikus and Japanese culture. I lead a slide discussion and offered students artifacts from Japan to handle before letting them dress up in a kimono and posing in front of a backdrop of a rock garden, Mount Fuji, and cherry blossoms. Then we looked at the 180 year old ukiyo-e (floating world pictures) .  Edo (now Tokyo) was becoming a growing city as merchants were moving up in class and had money to spend on night life. Hiroshige documented women in kimonos, koi fish wind socks, and fireworks in his well composed wood cuts.

I used hot glue to make the reproductions tactile.  One student thought a geisha was wearing roller skates instead of okobo shoes.

I passed around large block of carved wood, brayer, and ink before doing a demonstration of a relief print.  We drew into foam for our prints, but the idea is the same: ink sticks to the top part and the printed image is a mirror of the original. After students wrote (and Brailled) haikus, created and printed several of their own images, these were mounted and shared.  One student, who is about to graduate, is missing a friend who would have been in this graduating class had she survived cancer as a middle school student. She reflected on that friend for her project.  This poem and print will be framed and placed on an empty chair at graduation in a couple weeks to remember LaStacia. Her mother will then take it home and hopefully understand that we remember their family at this time. This is the power of fine arts: they make it possible to teach so many subjects (ie. social studies and language arts) while also allowing for personal expression and a means to touch the hearts of others. 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Smile and Nod!

I usually enjoy public speaking but a couple weeks ago I had the terrifying experience of giving a speech in front of a small group of thirty-odd strangers, half of whom were either judging me (literally with judging sheets and a stopwatch) or competing with me for Georgia Teacher of the Year. The thing that frightened me more than anything was the three-minute time limit. It is nearly impossible for me to fit a biography, teaching philosophy, moving story, and a bunch of statistics into less than five minutes, without feeling rushed and anxious.  As soon as I started talking, however, I saw a small woman sitting behind a name tag that said, "Ann."  She looked at me, smiled broadly, and nodded constantly, as I spoke, as if to say, "Yes! Yes, children learn best with hands on projects! I agree; creativity belongs in school!" Nothing is more calming than a friendly reassuring presence in the audience. And it wasn't just for me; she smiled and nodded for every speaker, including the Georgia Power executive who welcomed everyone to the luncheon.

The moment I sat down, I decided to be like Ann for the speakers that followed me, so I made a conscious effort to use my body language to cheer each competitor and help them feel at ease. When the speeches were finished I tapped Ann on the shoulder to thank her, but before I could say a word, she turned to give me, a stranger, a big hug and tell me what a great job I'd done.

In a world where hyper-criticism is hyper-present, we need more Anns:  accepting, reassuring, radiating beams of positive energy in human forms. We can be that light for those in our lives, even those in our lives for a brief moment on a stressful afternoon.