I was thinking this weekend about a conversation I had on Friday with Matt, a former student, now a senior I.B. student. We talked for two hours (he’s a brilliant kid and has fascinating thoughts about the world, comics and school). He was interviewing me for a class about art, including how and why I teach. We discussed challenges to the arts in schools and the need for the arts in public education.
It was during this conversation that it hit me. Everyone knows the public debate about standardized testing, student performance and so on, even if they don’t understand exactly why these tests are poor indicators of student success. They do not however understand what these tests have done to our teacher culture. As with all things the law of unexpected consequences is always lurking.
For years I have been thinking about teaching art. It dawned on me a couple of years ago that I do not teach art. I teach people. Art can’t learn. Neither can math, science, or any other subject. Teachers are in the business of teaching HUMANS. And in reality we teach people ONE thing, PROBLEM SOLVING!
I recently watched a video with a musicologist who quoted this old southern woman. He said she had an amazing amount of wisdom. She told him “Honey, if the mountains were smooth, you couldn’t climb them.” This really moved me. It is the struggle that defines us and that allows us to achieve greater heights in our lives. As such, teachers are teaching humans how to solve problems. Some use words, some numbers, and I use images and objects. The harsh reality is that life is struggle! We struggle to be born, to grow, to survive, to love, to raise kids, to work jobs, to keep our health and in the end we struggle in death. It is the nature of being alive. We are teaching kids how to persist when things are difficult. We are teaching them how to think, how to grow, how to be – HUMAN.
In the world of high stakes testing, we place value on some things and not on others. Art is not as valued as math, English is more important than social studies. This creates an environment where sometimes, teachers become insular or cliquish. They do not see that we are all teaching the same things in different ways. Like people carving a raw diamond where we all cut out own individual facet. This division at best causes a lack of understanding among staff and at worst a downright disrespect in the imposed hierarchy of the school.
I view teaching a little different then some. Paolo Friere wrote a book called “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. In it he talks about teaching poor, uneducated farmers how to read and write. He proposed a pedagogy of teachers who empower their students to have a role in their political process. By being literate it gives you power to understand what your leaders are doing to you.
This is what I believe about the arts. They are an empowering force to create revolution in the minds of my students. I want free thinkers who understand the visual language of the culture they live in. These kids are living in the most visual culture in human history but for the most part, they are visually illiterate. My job is to give them the skills to understand what they see. it is a 21st venture skill with it’s roots in our ancient past. If we only teach kids to think in 20th century ways we place them at a great disadvantage in the 21st century that they actually live in.
What I am advocating for is not just about art being more important in schools, although I DO think we need to do this. I am advocating for all subjects to be given the same importance. Each layer is folding curves and wrinkles in the child’s brain. When we talk about knowledge, the wrinklier the better. Each teacher is a revolutionary. Every one trying to raise up an army to overthrow the forces of ignorance, poverty, inequality and injustice.
These forces defeat us every time we bicker among ourselves about testing or whose subject is most important. So, teacher, yes you, the one reading this. it’s time. No longer can you sit idly by slumbering in your comfortable kingdom of content. It is time to see education as a whole, strong, unified force for good in the lives of your students. You are a part of that fight and so are your coworkers. Respect them, tested or not, funded or not. Because in the end, we are all teaching the same thing: students.
VIVA LA REVOLUTION!
I have been teaching now for 13 years. Holy cow! When did that happen. I think I have always been a teacher but this was my chosen field. For the first few years I think I taught but was thinking I would do this until I "made it" as an artist.
Little did I know, that in spite of the challenges (budgets, petty infighting, difficult students, and so on) I would fall in love with it. I recently had to tell a short narrative about my teaching experience and philosophy for a friend and mentor who was nominating me for an award. In doing so. I remembered so many of the experiences I have had. Kids are challenging for sure. But the thing I love so much is the kids. The sheer brilliance of them when you give them a chance to shine.
I have been so focused lately on the work of making art that I have neglected my work of teaching. It has been like an eclipse where the making had blocked my view of the classroom. I love teaching kids but I also love mentoring young or new teachers. I am going to focus this blog on that. Giving my thoughts and sharing my research about teaching and making art. I hope you will enjoy it and share it on social media to those who love or teach art. If you are a teacher in the visual or performing arts I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to share stories and experiences as well as your wisdom.
In the end, I believe that making and teaching art are two sides of the same coin. I hope that the work I post here will encourage you to make more and share more of your wisdom and insight with others. Please leave comments. That means a lot. It helps me to know what is working. My new goal is to post once a week. Perhaps on Thursday or Friday. I will keep you posted.
Well, It's a 4-day weekend. Glad. Looking forward to relaxing with the family, playing Mario Kart and making comics. This week was the first (mostly) full week working in a TAB classroom. It was eye opening. As my good friend Dr. Steven Willis told me, "When you empower kids, it is amazing what they will do." At first, I have to be very honest. It was hard not to control the way they worked. I have some colleagues that this would just give them a stroke. I have always thought of my room as a very free room where kids got to make their own art. What it was was a room where they got to make their own versions of my art or my ideas. So letting go was a little stressful.
I have a student teacher who has been running much of the week so I was able to see how the kids reacted and worked as I sat with them at their tables while making the Eat Paste Journal pages. The kids were sometimes off task but for the most part really worked hard to make and explore their own ideas. One of the most shocking things to happen was to see 4 non-english speaking students making drawings of incredible beauty and detail. Language was not the barrier it was in other classes (although they can't understand the theory stuff). They were successful at making ART.
I also got to spend time with a troubled student who is usually really defiant, make an incredibly detailed drawing of a semi tractor trailer. We got to talking and he became laser-like focused on his work. He was disappointed in his next drawing but we were able to discuss what he needed to work on. I really felt like I was doing some good for these students. It has not only empowered the students as artists but me as a teacher. I am looking forward to seeing what they do as we open the future centers.
In recent years I have discovered that I have a revolutionary in me. Not one concerned with politics but one who sees the arts as an act of revolt against the tedium and the abuse of day to day life. I love that this approach to teaching is facilitating this revolution for my kids. For now, I have a snow day to make stuff so that I can model this behavior to my kiddos. I am fighting the same fight that they are. I want to make my own life more beautiful, more meaningful by creating my own work.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to fulfill a wish of mine I have had for several years. I got to be a bell ringer for the salvation army. It was amazing! The temperature was dropping to single digit wind chills, The first snowflakes of the year fell and I got to see people's generosity and kindness up close and personal.
The day raised money for the Salvation Army's benevolent services but it also brought out a few unexpected observations. It all began with a phone call I had with an old and dear friend. He sardonically quipped "Prepare to be disappointed in humanity" at my revealing of my new adventure. It made me sad, because not only was I NOT disappointed (people were awesome, generous and funny) but his reaction to volunteering was to assume the worst. To be fair, he has had some tough times as of late. Those times can challenge even the brightest of spirits not to give in to cynicism. The second reaction came from a man I do not know on Facebook. He commented on my post about how fun it was to be able to do this, that the Salvation Army was homophobic and I was supporting hate. Seriously, hate by raising money for the poor? I asked him to find me a perfect company that offended noone so that I could volunter for them. No reply as of yet but I'm sure he is working hard to find one for me. (wink)
As I was standing and ringing the bell, I had two hours to think. Being a teacher, husband, father and artist doesn't always give me lots of time to do this so I was loving it. I was looking at the Salvation Army motto "Doing the Most Good" and it got me thinking about the work we do in the classroom. Some of my ancestors were in the Knights Templar, protecting pilgrims from harm on their travels to the Holy Land. I have always looked at the roll of teaching in a similar light. I am trying to inspire kids to fight for their own futures. To have a chance to succeed and perhaps to rise above their childhood circumstances. We were told when I was first hired, 12 years ago, that you can't save them all. True. But unfortunately many people have become like my real and Facebook friend, cynical or overly critical of the problems in education.
It's true, there are lots of problems. A lack of funding, a lack of respect or understanding of what art teachers do, poverty and entitlement mindset in out kiddos, all making the job even harder. But NONE of that matters. In the end, I think the Salvation Army has it right. DO THE MOST GOOD! This is what we can do. It is what motivates us to smile at that disrespectful student who yelled at you the day before. It is this goal that makes us not give up when fellow teachers or administrators seem to have no concern or support for our programs. The arts have the potential to open minds and change a kid's life. Not just the artistic student but every student has the opportunity to understand that their ideas matter. What they love, are interested in, and care about is IMPORTANT! That is a powerful message for any child. But think about it in the minds of our underpriveledged or oppressed kids.
This is why, after 12 years of teaching I decided to switch to the TAB based classroom. It allows me to do more good by empowering KIDS to see the wonder in themselves. It lets them have truly meaningful and authentic art experiences in the classroom. It teaches tham that they can accomplish anything if they put in the effort, even something difficult like making art. It validates the meaning in their ideas and in their own culture (whether ethnic or pop in nature). They are amazing, with brilliant ideas and strong opinions but they need guidance. That is what we do. We help them to channel that energy in meaningful ways to produce awesome works of art. If we are lucky, they may even learn a thing or two about themselves and their place in the world.
You may not be able to save them all. But don't for a minute allow yourself to slip into cynicism or criticalness because of it. You the art teacher (heck, any teacher for that matter) have the opportunity to save a life. That is pretty cool in my book. Just keep your eyes on the big picture and realize that doing the most good is way better than doing no good at all.
Ever since I was a little kid I have been surrounded by mysteries. We lived in a small ranch house that was owned by a man whose wifeswapped in the 60s.She had committed suicide in our basement and he was moving to Florida. He gave us the house if we took over the payments and he left a lot of old things in the basement. Old photos, 1930s pinball games, a microscope, super 8 films, old electronics and more. Oh, yeah, and a terrible vibe that things were not right down there. I was told not to mess with his stuff because my dad was afraid that he would come back some day to reclaim his treasures. He never did. I spent countless hours exploring these items and wondering in secret what they were and what they were used for.. It was a secret world that only I and my friends knew about.
Teaching has been a lot like that basement. I got hired on a provisional certificate. This means, I did not have my teaching license but had significant life experience in my field. As such, I started teaching without TRULY knowing what I was doing. I was in someone else's used art room filled with years of accumulated junk. I was in heaven, but this did cause me certain issues as one might imagine. I didn't know the tricks of the trade for classroom and project management but I loved kids, art and I worked hard at making connections and sharing my love of the arts with my students. Love and passion trumps books smarts most of the time.
This became a real asset however once I had a few years under my belt as I was not tied down to many of the conventions that I see teachers struggle with. I was not a slave to schools of thought about teaching nor was I afraid to try out new or experimental projects and approaches. Instead, I developed my philosophy of teaching by trial and error and what I felt I needed to become the artist I had become. In those early years, I had been paralyzed with fear in my art making due to long standing insecurities developed in childhood and further ingrained in grad school. The fearlessness I felt in teaching would eventually close into a feedback loop and help my art making. A truly symiotic relationship. Now, 12 years into my carreer, I am continuing my exploration of the mysteries of classrooms and life as I spend time developing a TAB (Teaching for artistic behavior) classroom.
The "EAT PASTE" page on this site is dedicated to my research on this topic, and on teaching in general. I am wrestling with these issues as I have always done, through images. I want to record for myself the ups and downs that I face as I teach and see how artmaking can now feed my teaching by giving me a refective mirror to think about the things that take place, or that need to change. I will be posting weekly a variety of pages from my EAT PASTE JOURNAL. I hope it helps me answer some questions but I suspect it will produce more questions.
Ok, so I have been AWOL posting new strips lately. There is however a good reason for this. I am working on a BIG project right now. I will be giving more information as it develops. This summer, I hope to be working in earnest on it and be able to share process work here on the blog. Please check back soon and I will have more work to check out. Thanks for stopping by.