Altered books give students an altered view of learning

Last week, I had the tremendous privilege of working alongside an amazing teacher inside her grade six arts education class. We had met previously to generate ideas for an art project that would connect to her visual art outcomes and we decided to tackle Altered Books with her students. It was an exciting idea because not only did it invite exploration of the three goal areas in arts education (Creative/ Productive, Critical/ Responsive, Cultural/ Historical) but it also became a cross-curricular plan, integrating English Language Arts as well (Viewing and Representing).

On the first day with the students, we began by looking at a number of art images created from found materials. We asked the Essential Question: How much can I use found material in my art work and still call it my own? Through images of multi-media art works, assemblages and altered books, we explored this question deeply. We even asked whether it is the idea that makes someone creative or the executiion of the idea. We began to come to the conclusion that creativity exists in many forms.

We then began to work on the learning strategy of Generating Ideas by asking How do artists get ideas for their art? We practiced three strategies for generating ideas: Looking at the art of others; Looking at the materials available to us; Talking with others. We handed the students the books they would be altering and they immediately began to flip through them, examining the contents and thinking about opportunities for altering the pages. We invited them to record their ideas for future use. We also re-examined the artwork we had looked at and invited them to jot down ideas the artists had used that they thought they might like to try to make into their own. Lastly, we paired the students up and asked them to share their ideas with each other and continue to record ideas that sprung from the ideas of others. We had already decided this was a legitmate way of being creative, so there were no choruses of “She stole my idea!”, which often happens during paired sharing.

Once we generated a list of ideas, we asked the students to choose one page and one idea they wanted to develop. We talked about the message they would be creating and gave them permission to either decide their message before beginning or have it emerge through their exploration. We knew they would want to experiment and we wanted to encourage them to explore the idea of an altered book in its rawest sense with their first page. We knew we would develop the messages over time and so risk-taking was the most important aspect of this first attempt.

My favourite moment was just before they began, when the hands flew up as students tried to clarify the criteria and parameters for the task. “Can we use paint?” Yes. “Can we leave half the page like it is in the book and alter the other half?” Yes. “Can we cut out parts of the page?” Yes. I stopped them and asked if they noticed a pattern in my reponses to their questions. They confirmed that I had said yes every time. I explained that they could take risks and explore in ways that were meaningful to them. The only limitations were the supplies we had and even that was a challenge the teacher helped them overcome the next day, when she brought in additional materials like yarn and tissue paper. The excitement was incredible. It was like they had been given a very important gift – freedom!

I left with only a small start on their books under their belts. Their teacher is continuing the work with them over the next couple of weeks and I return in the middle of next month to see the results. I can hardly wait to look at their work and discuss it with them!

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