Saturday, April 13, 2013

Guest Blogger: Drawing Attention

Please welcome guest blogger Lee Reed.

Last week I was told there was an opening to fill in for an art teacher. Of course, I accepted the assignment and walked down to the art department to talk to Mary, the art teacher. What I saw and experienced there brought back old memories. There wasn't a surface anywhere that didn't have a paint or marker stain on it. Not only that, it smelled like an art department with the faint smell of turpentine permeating the air. Mary is an attractive woman in her fifties whose hair is completely gray and always a bit disheveled. She told me that she normally left a video for the kids to watch. For some subs, this might seem like a dream assignment, but I don't care for it. I would much rather teach something. Studies have shown that the average student spends an entire year under the tutelage of a substitute between kindergarten and high school graduation. We simply can't afford to waste that time.

I explained to her that I had some background in the arts and would like to try to teach something. She liked the idea, knowing her students really didn't like videos any more than I did. She told me she would leave the decision up to me and suggested I email her with my ideas.

Over the weekend I thought a lot about what I would do. My thinking took me back to my early days in the art world. I took a course in photography my first year in college and fell in love. I wanted to make it my major but was intimidated by the amount of art courses I would have to take: drawing, painting, sculpting, and more. With little experience in those areas, I worried I couldn't hack it but was willing to give it a try. What I learned and what I hoped to pass on to the kids in class, was that there were things that could be said through art that are nearly impossible to say with words. I was hooked, and I hoped I could hook a few of the kids in class.

The question that plagued me was this: how was I going to help these students see that in the space of one 50 minute hour? I remembered a lesson plan I had seen created by Ray Appel. Ray is a math teacher at the Rochester Elementary School. When he isn't busy teaching math and creating products to help other math teachers, he loves to cartoon and has put together a series of lessons on cartooning that he offers for free on his website.

I ran the idea past my wife, who loved it. (She's a university professor with a doctorate in education, so I value her opinion highly.) I also ran the idea by Mary, who was also in favor of the strategy. In my opinion, it was a strategy I could teach in a short period of time that might just spark an interest in the arts at a new level. Cartoons are relatively simple to draw even if you have limited artistic skills, and they can easily be manipulated to express a great many emotions. It looked like a good strategy for getting some kids involved in the arts that might normally feel welcome there.

The day of the sub assignment came and I told my story. Mary had written my name on the board up front under the heading “Guest Artist.” I explained why I thought cartooning was something they might really enjoy. I showed them how simple it was to make a face and how to manipulate the features. Then I gave them the rest of the hour to draw six faces representing six different emotions. Then I walked around the room to see what they were doing and offer encouragement.

I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw. Most were taking the assignment seriously. Some students clearly had some skill and were doing some amazing things. Others were doing the bare minimum to meet the requirements so they could go back to socializing with their friends. What pleased me most, however, was the few that did not have a lot of talent but saw this as a kind of back door to the art world. They had paid attention to my instructions and were working hard to make images they could be proud of. These were exactly the students I had hoped would benefit most. As far as I was concerned, the lesson was a success regardless of the results. However, if I was happy at the beginning, I was happier still when I saw what the class created. Some of the work was truly outstanding. Enough so that I was happy I had taken the risk.

My experience is that there are a lot of remarkable resources available on the Internet these days. I do my best to seek out the good sources, particularly the good free sources of information for teachers. Ray Appel is but one example of what is available. I can't promise that everything will work as well, but I think you'll be impressed with what is out there if you know where to look.

Lee Reed is a father, grandfather, and substitute teacher working on his credentials to become a full time teacher. Mostly though, he is a patient observer of life's ironies and loves to write about his experiences, especially those that have taught him important lessons. You can see more of his writing at Teaching a Day at a Time or check out his new book, The Substitute Teachers Toolkit.

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