I will always credit my high school art teacher with helping me connect my desire to teach with my love for art. I never really thought I was good enough to teach it (what if my students were more talented than me?), but I loved it so much I decided to just stick with it and devote my life to becoming an artist. I gave up the thought of playing sports in college and traded it in for long nights in the painting studio... but I wouldn't change it for a thing. My high school artwork was total garbage. How I ever thought any school would accept me into their art program is beyond me, but thank goodness it all worked out because now I can use my story to develop young artists into confident creators! My long hours in the studio and serious attention to critique gave me the tools and diligence I needed to become a genuine artist. In my four years of undergrad, my artistic skills improved beyond compare. It was honestly hard to believe I was the artist behind my work at times. I'm so glad I made the switch from sports to art, because I would have never reached my full artistic potential.
My high school art teacher always preached to us that art is a learnable task, a skill that can be acquired. It is something that can be taught and learned, just like any other school subject. I always believed him, but now I know he's for real. If you put in the time and effort that is required to improve and LISTEN to the feedback, it can be mastered!
Now I know some kids just aren't into art, and that's okay. I know that my own story of hard work and dedication to this discipline will not motivate all of them. BUT what I do know is that in my short time with my students, I can try to help them create things they never thought possible. I can show them what they're made of! I know it sounds cheesy but wait until you see this!!!
Today things seemed to come full circle for me as an art educator when I was able to prove to my students that my mantra is totally LEGIT: "Art can be learned." I really try to ingrain this into my students' brains, but I'm pretty sure they don't buy it.
A couple weeks ago I stayed home sick the day I was supposed to start the portraiture unit with my Freshmen artists. I decided to make them try a self-portrait with no guidance, which I knew they wouldn't like. When I saw them the next day, they were literally scared to show me their drawings because they were not pleased. I tried to give them as many compliments as possible to keep their spirits up, and then quickly collected them to examine them further. As much as they hated the assignment, I LOVED looking at their portraits and seeing all the silly proportions of their heads and crazy stringy spaghetti hair! It always fascinates me to see how they work without my instruction and with no guidance. We proceeded to start totally new self-portraits from scratch together so that I could now explain to them all the proper proportions of the face and how to map it out on their papers.
After about a week of drawing, their new portraits are almost done! Today, I handed back the original portraits and LOOK AT THE DIFFERENCE:
(Original portraits with no instruction on the left, new portraits after a discussion about facial proportions on the right).
This is what just a little bit of time, effort, and patience can do to your art skills! #proudteachermoment
On the first day of my Drawing & Painting class last week, knowing that these kids have willingly signed up for a full-year, upper-level art course, I figured we would jump right in to some art making! I distributed very oddly shaped pieces of paper to all of the kids and gave them a set of two instructions:
1. Think of ONE word that describes YOU as an artist and write that word on your paper.
2. Design and decorate your shape to your liking in a way that helps expresses that word.
Number 1 gives them anxiety, and Number 2 makes them excited (art is always an emotional rollercoaster, whether you feel you are "good" at it or not).
Brainstorming a word is so hard for them, or at least they say it is (I don't totally believe this). There is such a great fear in most of them that they will be judged by the other students based on their chosen word, so instead of coming up with their own adjective, they openly state to their peers that they "don't know what they are" and ask their friends to describe them instead. Once that anxiety is over with, they suddenly get really excited about decorating their shape because they have the freedom to choose their materials and create whatever they want!
Why would I create such an activity if I know they don't enjoy part of it, and if even I get frustrated by their inability to freely express themselves to the group?! There is an important lesson here:
Once the shapes have all been beautifully decorated (and I've told each and every one of them a bunch of times that their work is SO GOOD), I tell them that they each hold the piece to a puzzle. This is usually when it clicks that their drawing paper is shaped so strangely, and by now some of them have even noticed that their pieces fit together. The students all work together to connect their pieces (and I don't make this easy so that it takes some serious grit and teamwork to complete the task).
When all the pieces fit together and the puzzle is completed, I asked them very excitedly, "What is it?!" Looking at me as if I were insane, they referred to the finished product as a "big blob," and very openly expressed to me that they were disappointed with the result. I laughed at them as I walked into the closet and pulled out my handmade backdrop:
That big ugly blob is an illustration of their hard work and valuable time spent making their art. That big ugly blob is their collective (and metaphorical) paint palette! Individually, their puzzle pieces were hard to create, "weirdly shaped," and lonely. All together, their puzzle is a beautiful work of art, symbolizing the determination, collaboration, and creativity it takes to become a serious artist and create successful work.
I get my students to buy into the fact that art is a learnable skill. We may not be "good" at it now, but with lots of practice and dedication, we can improve all of our skills; and there is no better way to do this than to collaborate with each other. Sometimes I can say something that I feel is helpful eight times, and no one really catches on or puts forth the effort to try it out, but when one of the kids has a tip or a trick that can make their artwork better, THEY ALWAYS LISTEN. I teach them lots of skills and give them tons of tips, but I can only do so much as one person in the classroom. Together, all of their knowledge is like a dirty paint pallet, full of problem-solving and creative thinking that they can pass on to each other.
This collaborative artwork will hang in our art room for the remainder of the school year to serve as a reminder that making art together is way more powerful than making it alone. We can learn SO much more when we view the work of others and ask questions. It gives us new ideas and different perspectives. So we can make art independently all we want, but until we learn to respect the ideas of others and appreciate their work (no matter their artistic abilities), we will never improve and our artistic talents will never grow. COLLABORATION is the key to success!
Earlier this week I was pleasantly surprised to have been recognized by my school's administration for Exemplary Practices in the Classroom. At first I just thought to myself, "Oh, what a nice gesture to recognize the hard work of all of us teachers at the end of the school year!" I later discovered I had been only one of five teachers to achieve this award (even though our school is FULL of outstanding teachers)! As a second year educator I was shocked that this was something I could accomplish. I still feel like a total rookie! I literally looked to my Drawing & Painting class (filled with upperclassmen, but kids who are 8 years my junior) for guidance throughout the school year as I often had questions about the day-to-day operations within the school. This is also why I really enjoyed teaching so many freshman classes this year as we got to experience a new place together for the first time! This Exemplary Practices in the Classroom recognition by my school caused me to enter a state of self-reflection that I can't seem to come out of just yet!
As I enjoyed my last few days with my young artists this week, they constantly reminded me of how much fun we had this year (maybe too much fun sometimes?) and how much they're going to miss their art classes. Many of them told me I'm their favorite teacher and that they are going to come back and visit me all the time next year (while I just giggled to myself thinking, "they're just being polite so I will go easy on them when I grade their finals)!"
On Thursday night I sat down to review the course evaluations I had distributed to my students. It is very exciting to get a chance to hear from them! They love to critique ME because I spend most of my time critiquing THEIR work! Of course it still is a little bit nerve-racking when the kids finally have a chance to tell you what they really got out of your class when they can be anonymous. Eek!
As I curled up on the couch to read through six classes worth of reviews, this is what I found:
Some of their responses made me laugh, some made me cry, but mostly they just really made me think, "have I seriously created this kind of environment for these kids?! How did I manage that? Why do they enjoy my class so much? What makes them so comfortable around me?!"
This made me think back to all the incredible educators I had in my life (and I had numerous role models at all academic levels) from way back in elementary school right through grad school - they are probably the reasons I became a teacher myself. Why did I like these people so much? Why do I STILL think about them almost daily? How am I possibly becoming one of those people for my own students?!
I still don't know the answers to these questions, but I think I'm starting to figure it out! The kids are unknowingly defining these "exemplary classroom practices" for me. I don't know if I can choose a favorite from these responses, but I can say that creating a "safe space" for art making (and honestly just for living) is most important to me as an educator. You can tell from these snippets that these teenagers need a "break" in their everyday lives - and even during the school day. I am excited that I get to be that break! I know that there are people out there who do not appreciate the arts and that's okay. I know that there are people out there who do not feel that art is something we should "waste time" doing, especially during the short school day. I know that there are people out there who can't fit art into their lives, and I know that there are people who think art is only for people that are talented.
The first thing I do in my art classes is I get my students to by into the fact that art is a learnable skill. I honestly believe that if you cannot buy into that, then you cannot be successful (not just in art, but in anything really). If you practice, you will get better. If you open your mind to new things, you will be pleasantly surprised by the things you find. If you dare to be a risk-taker, you will be rewarded. If you listen to the ideas of others, they will listen to you too! If something gets tough, take a break and come back to it - then you'll be able to approach it differently and you will be more successful in your endeavors (if that's what I get to be for my students then I plan to embrace it and make it the best break they can possibly take).
How many of these things only apply to art? NONE OF THEM! These are ideas and thoughts that we can apply to all aspects of our lives (and by we I mean all humans, not just Miss Bingham's art students). They go way beyond the art room. Of course it is up to my students to decide if they want to apply these skills to their own lives, but if I can make them habits within our art classroom, hopefully the chances are greater!
MISS BINGHAM'S TIPS FOR A POSITIVE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT:
These habits I have created for myself may seem so basic, but clearly they mean something to my teenagers. The best part of all this is that half of them come into this class really having no interest in art... but look at how they feel now! So even if my class is just a break in the school day, maybe it is making their quality of life better - and that's a pretty big feat!
Although my career as an art educator has been short, I have always very much felt the self-portrait woes. Even as a graduate student it seemed that every lesson created by a colleague was somehow related to a self-portrait. For a while I found it somewhat annoying because kids don't want to draw them! Their mostly negative attitudes toward self-portraits accompanied by their feelings of discomfort while examining themselves in the mirror are simply just sad. These projects force them to be reminded of their insecurities while they put them on paper for all their peers to see. I know as a student myself I never liked creating self-portraits, mostly because my drawing never actually looked like me. It is so frustrating to have to draw yourself when you know you don't have the artistic ability to render yourself perfectly.
All of these thoughts sort of motivated the mask project we completed in my Intro. to Visual Arts classes. Yes, they learned about drawing portraits and had to create a series of them, but their final product was not an exact replica of themselves - in fact they turned out to be "masks" that these kids sometimes where when they are feeling a certain way, or they became completely different people. The fact that they were able to play with color and not have to represent themselves realistically seriously took the pressure off, especially for those kids who are insecure about their artistic abilities.
As an artist and a teacher I understand the importance of self-portraits in all their forms. They are a chance for students to self-reflect and gain some appreciation for themselves while they consider their personal identities. But how can we avoid the redundancy of this project for the kids who want to take art every year? How can we make it more interesting and exciting for the students? This was my solution for my Drawing and Painting students:
Yes, it is important for students to understand the proportions of the human face and our bodies, but do we need to make them draw full body portraits or serious portraits of their faces over and over again?! In order to make this experience new and exciting, we started with some gesture drawings. I love this exercise for many reasons, but mostly because it forces them to work quickly and NOT use an eraser! After a discussion about the human body and its proportions we jumped right in and the results were fantastic!
Students modeled on top of the tables for their peers while they drew the figures in one, three, and five minute poses. With no pressure to render their figures super realistically based on the short time frames, students were pleasantly surprised with their success! This exercise appeared to be a real confidence booster, and so instead of dragging it into a full-body self-portrait, we moved on to facial features.
Their paintings again proved to be outstanding works of art as their was less pressure to make them look like themselves and instead they could focus on one small area of their bodies. This was the perfect opportunity for students to learn to mix flesh tones, which is certainly a difficult skill. Working about 25 times larger than life, students were also able to be more free and expressive with their paint handling.
These paintings may not be traditional self-portraits, but they are self-portraits indeed. The art-making process was much more enjoyable for all of us as their insecurities about their bodies disappeared. In the end, they had really nice paintings that they could proudly hang on the wall without immediately exposing their identities to their viewers. This clearly took away some of the anxiety that typically presents itself with portraits, and instead produced beautiful paintings that even create a sort of collaborative artwork when hung as a group.
This project has been my students' favorite both semesters this year! It is a fun way to teach them how to draw portraits AND mix paint. They are so intimidated by the self-portraits at first, but after I made them draw themselves three different times, they became more comfortable and they could easily see their improvement from one drawing to the next.
We began this project by discussing the proportions of the human face and drawing a self-portrait step-by-step. Teaching them all the tricks is my favorite part! At first they don't believe me, but when I say to them, "Did you know your eyes are in the center of your head? Yes, they are half way down your face, not higher! And did you know that the distance between your eyes is the same width as one of your eyeballs, no matter how big or small your eyes are?! And did you know the corners of your mouth sit directly below your pupils? Yes, our mouths are that wide!" I love it when they realize that even though we all appear so different, we're really all the same no matter what we look like.
Once students chose their favorite of the portraits they drew, we discussed the significance of human emotion and how we can use not only a facial expression but also color to express these emotions. Students created color wheels and learned lots of art vocabulary until they became color mixing experts! They chose colors that expressed the emotions in their portraits and created the masks on brown paper bags.
Their final task is to photograph themselves with their masks on to tell a story about this person and why they are feeling the way that they do. Stay tuned for those fun photos!