THE BASIC APPROACH
"Nobody can ever tell you that you are doing something wrong in art." -Josh Correa, age ten
My philosophy of teaching art can be stated simply. I think primarily in terms of art materials. I teach long-term familiarity with these materials so that the children can master them and use them to express their own life experiences. My goal is to have the children feel so comfortable and confident with these materials that they are willing to use them to speak about their innermost thoughts and feelings. I see the materials being as much the teacher as I am.
I work with children from ages five to ten. My art room is on an upper floor of the school building. It features a number of tables and shelves, a drying rack, a sink, and several bulletin boards. I work in a private school setting with about a dozen children at a time. I know this is not like a public school, but certain aspects of my experience are readily transferable to larger groups and to children who do art at home with their parents.
In the art room, I strive to create a working environment, an accepting atmosphere in which the children can feel safe, comfortable, and emotionally secure. I want their art experience to be exploratory, to be unthreatening and fun. Some of the kids are only four years old when they arrive. They have to walk up several flights to reach the art room. It's a whole new space for them. They have to learn to trust it.
I try to set the stage for such trust on the first day. I welcome the children warmly and introduce the room to them. In a sense, I begin by "teaching" the room. I tell them, "Everything in this room belongs to the children in this school." I say, "You can get your glue there." "That's called a sink room, where you can get your water." "Your teacher will come back to get you." The basic idea is to make them feel comfortable about moving about in the space. I want to make sure they are not overwhelmed by their experience, that they will find success and pleasure here. I have observed that, given the opportunity, most children will plunge into art with confidence and joy. I want them to retain that wonderful spontaneity.
My program covers six basic art areas: collage, painting, clay, drawing, printmaking, and construction. For each of these, I order materials that are satisfying to the eye and stimulating to the touch. I start with an open-ended exploration of the materials with all the age groups. I believe that this exploration in the beginning is much more important than seeking any specific results.
Some teachers may feel terribly burdened by thinking about how they want things to look and by trying to march the kids step-by-step toward that end. I try doing just the opposite. I'm more interested in the process itself and in having the child connect with it in a personal way. By the time the children are seven or eight, they are becoming skilled in handling the materials, and this helps them to express themselves powerfully.
For each age group, I touch base with all six art areas. In the beginning of the year, I introduce collage, paint, clay, and pencil drawing. Later, I add printing and construction. Often I will begin with two-dimensional work, such as collage and painting, since the walls of our school building are bare in the fall and this is also an opportunity for the art department to adorn those walls. But some years I work with clay in the beginning. I usually don't do the same thing with every class at the same time. (There are practical reasons for this. If you do clay with every class, there will not be enough room on the shelves for the clay to dry before being fired.)
Note: I'm concerned about protecting the children's clothing while they work. I tell the kids they cannot enter the art room unless they have their sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Although some teachers favor floppy old shirts as a form of protection, I think they get in the way. Instead I prefer the smocks made of plastic with Velcro fasteners. These are easy to put on and take off; the kids can do it themselves.
As a rule, I keep each art material separate, so that it can be clearly understood. I believe that a clarity of presentation frees the children to work creatively. Because the human figure is such an important part of the narrative of life, I give special attention to drawing, painting, and modeling the figure. (I also include a lot of social studies art that relates to the school curriculum.)
I see the children once a week. The school year covers ten months, or forty sessions. Dividing these sessions into the six basic areas for each class means, for example, that each class can do painting six or seven times during the year. I have a general sense of what materials I will offer and in what sequence I will offer them. It depends on my reading of the kids' responses. My antennae go out. When I feel the children have really had it with one material and are ready to move on, I head in a new direction. After four, five, or six weeks of painting or collage, they may be ready for something more three-dimensional. When the kids walk into the art room and see certain materials set out and say, "Oh, no. Not this again," it's a clear clue to me that we've got to move on. A certain flexibility in planning is always necessary. I keep a record of which child does what as a way of monitoring his or her growth. I also keep a record of the activities of each class, so that later in the year the children can be directed toward the materials they haven't yet used.
I try to extend each material as long as possible, however, to give the kids a chance to truly explore it in depth. Their investigations may require many weeks, months, and even years. This approach produces a rich, personal art, an expression of something the children have explored deeply and to which they have applied their newly acquired skills.
I encourage and respect each child's way of working and let each one work at his or her own pace. (Children are always comfortable at their own level.) I want to make sure that the things they do in art don't overwhelm them, that the children, with their differing abilities, can find success in whatever they do.
I intervene as little as possible, while setting clearly defined limits as to what use of materials is possible in a given class. I try to keep myself out of the work so that it can come totally from the heart and mind of the child who produces it.
I never feel that something a kid has done is really awful, although I might feet it's slapdash because he hasn't been paying enough attention to his work, but has been yakking to his neighbor about baseball for ten minutes instead. I would intervene then because I'd expect him to be more involved in what he's doing.
If a child is happy with his work, then I'm usually happy with it too. If a kid is discouraged, if his work isn't going very well, I will tell him, "This sometimes happens. You've worked hard on this. Put it over there and try another one." Children don't tend to get off track too often. But they sometimes do, and we can all learn something from our failures.
Observing the Work
How an adult responds to the child's artwork is extremely significant. It's important that a grown-up not project his or her own ideas onto the work. Asking a five- or six-year-old what his painting or drawing represents can be confusing. The painting or drawing may have one image along with many additional shapes and lines, added for the purposes of design. The teacher must strive to understand the child's aims and can accomplish this by paying close attention to what is happening. Many teachers ask the kids to explain what they're doing. I try not to do this because the work itself will tell me loud and clear if I look at it carefully. Active and close observation helps one get in touch with the child.
Copyright © 2001 Nancy Beal and Gloria Bley Miller