Art School?

I’ve now “taught” art to the kids for a whole month. Yesterday was our worst class so far, but I think that’s due to two things. First, they had a BIG change in their lives over the weekend. They went to Denver (and back). They liked it. Second, their parents are very involved in a project right now — they repair cars in their garage at home — and they have a classic (1978, sigh) Oldsmobile to work on. They are nearing their deadline. I don’t think kids thrive on variety and change. I think it messes them up.

They were desperate for undivided attention from an adult. They were less interested in doing an art project than telling me their stuff. I probably should have given up and just listened to them, but a little voice inside says to me, “You’re here for this purpose and it’s a good idea to pursue that. It’s teaching, too.” I’m serious about teaching. Never in my whole career did I doubt its importance, and I don’t now. At one point I said, “C’mon you guys. We hang out all the time. This is art time, OK?”


Our little task yesterday had a couple of lessons. One was symmetry. The other was that water doesn’t move wax. I got the lesson plan from a website about teaching art to 3rd graders. It seemed like a good idea because it fit with my goal which is helping the little girl get a little more small muscle control in her hands.

In anticipation for the class, I cut up a sheet of water color paper into fourths, and drew the outlines of butterflies on two of them. I outlined butterflies on the paper in yellow so the color would disappear when the kids worked on their projects.

First, I taught them about symmetry by showing them how it exists on their own bodies. They loved that. Then I showed them how butter floats on water. That blew them away. They really expected it to dissolve. I had them feel their crayons and they did get that they felt kind of greasy. “So what’s going to happen when we put water on them?”

I suddenly felt the terrible overwhelming burden of knowledge and how fucking much of it is there is and how intricate and complicated it is. I felt a rush of gratitude to my own parents and my childhood. My mom might not have liked me, but she was a good teacher. And I followed my dad everywhere just because he taught me things. The little boy would follow me everywhere for the same reason.

So they outlined their butterflies in black and then they were supposed to draw the same pattern on each wing so the butterflies were symmetrical. I drew with them. In my mind, of course, were the thousands of butterflies I’ve seen in my life and all I know about them. That was NOT in the kids’ minds. I don’t think they’ve ever looked closely at a butterfly. I’d predicated this whole exercise on their love of butterflies and an erroneous assumption that they’d actually ever SEEN one. The little boy looked at the pictures I’d brought and attempted to make symmetrical wings, and the little girl started out good, but ultimately lost track. That’s all fine. Learning is not the same as mastery and, between us, learning is more interesting.

Then we painted over the crayon. I had brought my paints and though they have their own paints, they used mine which made me happy, actually. Since I started this, I’ve begun to believe that, except for drawing, kids should have the best materials there are to learn with. Good paint is much less frustrating than cheap paint.

I headed back down the alley afterward thinking that it’s just like university. If ONE thing penetrates it’s a good day.

I then thought about the purpose of school. One purpose — I’ve come to realize — is to give kids a place to go away from their home as a demarcation of “this is our learning place” and “this is our family place.” As it was for me, school is also a place where kids can get away from their parents’ preoccupations. I think kids should go to school. Maybe not this year, but in normal times. Yeah, there are a lot of problems with our current educational system, but I believe that anyone who wants to learn will.

Ahead are the holidays which means crafts. I don’t enjoy that at all, but a good teacher meets his/her students where they are and next week we’ll make spiders with pipe cleaners and construction paper. What I LOVE is the kids’ parents are so in love with what we’re doing. It’s amazing.

19 thoughts on “Art School?

  1. One would think the kids would have seen a real butterfly at some point, but wow. That is an assumption I would have made as well. It sounds like the lesson ended on a positive note though, learning being more interesting than mastery – as you say. It sounds like it was a bit of a science lesson too – with floating butter. 🙂

    • They have seen real butterflies but I guess they didn’t pay attention to what it looked like. The lady across the street from them has caterpillars in her fridge that she raises to butterflies and they’ve seen this, but… I came away from the experience with the sense that adults need to draw kids’ attention to things that are worth looking at. 🙂

  2. The one thing I have come to understand as a teacher is we can’t make assumptions about what kids know. Just last week there was a grade 2 student who couldn’t predict what would happen next in a story. One of the main characters was a skunk. She didn’t even know what a skunk was! Life experiences are so limited for some. I agree with you, it is up to us to provide some of that background and the skills in being close observers!

    • My mom used to slap me if I wasn’t paying close attention. Definitely learned that! But I’m grateful! I am so unfit for this little task, but…

      • I think you are doing an amazing job! When these kids look back on their life, it won’t be what you taught them so much as how you made them feel! That is most important!!

        • I hope so. I just worry about all they miss out on being in the situation they’re in — but if they don’t feel they’re missing anything then what I worry about is irrelevant.

  3. That’s a post packed full of things! Let me see-

    1978: When I first heard Queen’s “We will rock you”, Steely Dan’s “Aja”, and Paul Simon’s “Slip-sliding away”. Still favourites, also the year of SNF and “Stayin’ Alive”, snd, if I’m not mistaken, Abba’s “Take a chance on me”. Half your life slips away before you know it.

    Looking: you don’t really do it until you compose a picture or a photo.People can’t even describe a tree in front of them well enough to explain to others which one they are looking at (you find a lot of this when you are with bird watchers).

    Compartmentalization of places by activity: lost in the pandemic. Children at school at home. Adults at work at home. Doesn’t work as well as in our dreams.

    Immiscible things: cheese over French onion soup. I miss it.

    Teaching: so much to learn about how to do it well.

    The world: never enough of it, never enough knowledge about it. Despair. Joy.

Comments are closed.