Quit or continue? Teachable moments in art class

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Last night, we continued work on our textured canvases. Some students finished and others did not but it was a class filled with “teachable moments.” The more I think about learning, the more I conclude that hoping for authentic, student-driven, deep challenges while learning is the best way for learning to happen. If every thing a child tackles goes well and comes easily, I am not sure how much actual learning is happening. I suspect those moments are more about doing something they are already skilled at. It is nice to have those moments, too, but without challenge, growth really slows down.

“Mistakes are great!” I shouted. M did not look convinced. She had just declared that she was done her piece because she had totally “messed it up.” This is the pivotal moment, and it is not without anxiety as a teacher. It could go either way. But one of my biggest goals in teaching art is to encourage risk-taking, so instead of giving M permission to quit when the going got tough, I asked her why she felt she had messed up. She explained that she had added strokes of yellow and it just took over her piece. I explained that she maybe felt this way because she had chosen to add yellow brush strokes on top of purple and the combination of complementary colours might be too much for the eye and brain to handle. I pointed out that sometimes artists want to create this tension but it seemed to be bothering her, so she might consider what colours to work with to create more balance. We also got the opportunity to talk about the properties of acrylic and I explained that she could cover previous paint with new colours if she wanted.

The interesting thing about this conversation when I reflect on it, is that I sometimes worry that my open-ended approach to teaching art is not structured enough. I have moved almost completely away from “lessons.” I only “teach” when students ask for assistance in solving some of their art “problems.” I have fretted about this off and on, but on days like yesterday, I realize that we will get to the specific learning eventually but it has to be when each student is ready to receive a little help. I can totally empathize with teachers when they have the same hesitations with emergent curriculum and inquiry approaches. How can we guarantee kids will “get the required information?” I guess what I am discovering is that it will happen and, as teachers, we just have to be alert to possibilities each class. It is about watching and listening so we can discover when the time might be ripe for some conversation about what is going on in the learning process.

When M was done her piece (she spend 40 more minutes on it after declaring she was done), I could tell that she was pleased. I explained how excited I was that she had attempted something so new. She is very skilled at controlled representation and this was a departure for her. It was really exciting!

J also did an exciting piece but the focus of our work together was more about balance and colour usage. She is a little younger and I find that the younger the kids are, the fewer inhibitions they have built up. J was also in my studio last year, so she has become quite comfortable with experimenting. The challenge with her is to invite her to reflect on her pieces a little more. I still have work to do here because I haven’t quite figured out how to encourage this with her. She is always so excited about the next thing that she doesn’t want to reflect on what she has done.

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