As an art teacher, it is important to me to meet each student where she or he is in their critical thinking, problem solving, hand-eye-coordination, ideation, and personal vision of style and voice. I don’t think it is helpful to start each student at point “x,” just because that seems to be the first step to many instructors.
It’s boring to be listening to someone talk about something you know nothing about and about which you presume you have no interest in. It’s boring if the speaker is talking way over your head, or if the subject is dumbed-down too much. We each want to be thinking about what WE want to be thinking about.
I remember my sister took great lengths to find a piano teacher who could teach her son piano from the point at which he wanted to start. He didn’t know scales or how to read music, and he was a little lad, but he wanted to start with the theme songs from James Bond movies. Most piano teachers found this idea preposterous. (That’s just not how it’s done!) But she found a gifted insightful teacher who worked with him and now he is a world-renown jazz musician. He wanted to start with what interested him.
Really, isn’t this when learning is the most fun? And the learner is often the most compelled to almost obsessively drive herself to dig deeper, to learn more? Think of kids and their fascination with dinosaurs. Or little tykes and their fixation on trucks and racecars. Or some kids with knowing every tiny detail of a Disney animated movie. We aren’t “forcing” kids to be interested in these things. They love them because they are cool, and maybe because they are massive and powerful, or visually and musically engaging. But it is the child’s own interest (generally) that pushes them to digest every single teeny detail.
And, as a teacher—ask any teacher—and some of the fun and the reward is learning from your students. So if you doggedly start at the proverbial “page 1,” and drag through until “The End” it may not be much fun for your students, and in addition, what have you learned?
I ask students many questions. What are you seeing? What color is that? What shape is that? How is that shape different from this one? Did you look at the veins in the leaf? How would you describe them? What does the color of the sky tell you about time of day? What did you learn from today’s lesson?
By asking students to tell me what they are seeing, I can assess where they are. I can help enhance their powers of observation and inch them forward. Plus every time they explain what they are seeing, they challenge themselves to truly look, to find the words to describe what they are seeing, and (since they know I will ask) they compare it to something similar or very different—another tree, another shrub, a lighter color bloom, etc.
Today in the herb garden at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, I said, “This herb reminds me of Thanksgiving. Do you know what it is?” I pulled off a leaf and we each smelled it.
One student said, “This doesn’t smell like turkey.” And she was right. I said, “It’s sage. I love it and I use it for a lot of things, but it always reminds me of Thanksgiving.” She said, “Oh, it reminds me of quiche.” I was so tickled. Of course. We use it on quiche, too. To me that exchange added so much value in our stroll through a section of a garden. Instead of only announcing, “these are herbs,” and moving on, by stopping, pulling a leaf and smelling it, we each could correlate it to something in our memories, our own experiences.
Even the soft velvety feel of the leaf now will be linked for these students to those few moments we spent on a steamy summer day in July thinking about Thanksgiving turkey, sage, and quiche.
This really is about being in the moment. Teaching is a rich opportunity to be in the moment as you watch someone else absorb new concepts, new connections between ideas, new techniques, and a potentially different way of looking at things.
Life is about treasuring those moments. The now. Life is about stopping to smell the roses—and the sage!
So I was delighted when I snapped this photo of a few of my students from my summer art class for kids 9-14 years old. Each of their paintings is so different. Each of their paintings is a reflection of their own personality and energy. The differences in the paintings suggest their own styles, their selection of subject matter (although all “trees,” per the assignment).
Plus the energy, and “key” (lightness or darkness of the painting) were so perfectly aligned with each of their personalities. For example, subtly each painting actually matches the color harmony in the clothing that each child was wearing. To me this is a triumphant affirmation that I was allowing each student to speak with her or his own distinctive voice while completing the assignment—and expressing the artist inside themselves. This photo makes me very happy.
Tales from a watercolor painter and teacher while I am watching paint dry.
Jane M. Mason