Teaching to Support Children's Artistic Independence
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Teaching to Support Children's Artistic Independence

How Children's Creativity Can Inform Art Education

George Szekely

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eBook - ePub

Teaching to Support Children's Artistic Independence

How Children's Creativity Can Inform Art Education

George Szekely

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About This Book

This engagingly written, research- and practice-based book defines how art teachers can build on students' creative initiatives without depending on adult-imposed lesson plans and school requirements. In doing so, art educator and author George Szekely explores the role of the arts in developing children's creativity and sense of purpose, and reminds readers that students in the art classroom are unique artists, designers, and innovators. Against the backdrop of a school culture that over-emphasizes compliance and standardization, Szekely recognizes the importance of the role of the art teacher in supporting the artistic independence and creative flare that occurs naturally in students of all ages in the classroom.

Providing real-life examples of classrooms and schools that work towards championing child artists, this text arms teachers with the skills necessary to listen to their students and support them in presenting their ideas in class. Ultimately, Szekely challenges readers to focus the practice of art teaching on the student's creative process, rather than the teacher's presentation of art.

Written for pre-service and in-service art educators, teacher educators, and researchers, Teaching to Support Children's Creativity and Artistic Independence demonstrates that an openness to youthful and inquisitive visual expression inspires a more rewarding learning experience for both teacher and child artists that can support a life-long love of art.

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Reimagining Art Teaching

DOI: 10.4324/9781003007340-2
This section introduces a reorientation in how art classes should be thought about. Instead of teaching set lessons that focus on what’s been discovered, instead the focus changes to students. Classes that constrict and stifle students’ creative abilities teach young artists to conform and waste their creative talents, talents that could change the art world. The ultimate goal is coaxing the artistic voice out of every student so that they become independent artists. To do this, art teachers must change their emphasis from prior artworks and important adult artists to instead see what kind of art their students are passionate about. Learning from students is the best way to learn what it means to be an art teacher who teaches for creativity and artistic independence. This section also details what it means to be an independent artist and gives examples of what a classroom that nurtures artistic independence would look like.



DOI: 10.4324/9781003007340-3
FIGURE 1.1 Toys Built From Goodwill Finds
FIGURE 1.1 Toys Built From Goodwill Finds
Public schools are often referenced as melting pots where students from all nations and backgrounds come to learn. The challenge of art teaching is how to teach young artists who will be independent art makers and lead a creative life to stand with courage and dare to stand out in the pot and be different. As it stands now, this goal is even more difficult.
School days start with the reading of rules. Adults are firmly in control of actions, what is to be done, and how to do things. Children are asked to be what they are not, and the faster the adjustments are made, the more successful they are in the new environment. The expectation is that quiet, obedient little adults fall in line and conform in school.
When told to learn during highly supervised days, sitting quietly for most of the time is not what children are used to at home. In a compulsory melting pot, individuality becomes crushed, and a self-regulating lifestyle, an autonomous existence becomes thought of instead as non-cooperative and unacceptable. With their desire to be active, physical, and questioning, a searching young artist may be rebellious and tend to get in trouble in school. They then can be branded as disrespectful, a student who challenges authority, with drifting grades and an unhappy existence in school.
What art teachers need to be aware of is that school life generally ignores students, showing little interest in their dreams and fantasies, or in fact any concrete expression of individuality. Teachers go on with their set lessons that “need” to be taught. Young children are manipulated into making adult art and exploring adult art concepts and techniques. They are stripped of most independent initiatives and self-regulated styles of making and doing things that are crucial to building self-respect and the belief that they are a valued, contributing member of society. It is a blow to young artists and designers to play the game of school.
In school, teachers speak to other teachers and administrators very differently than they speak to students, taking adults far more seriously. When children speak to adults, parents often jump in to clarify, repeating in their own words what children want or are saying, thereby usurping the power of expression from kids. As art teachers, we have to take students seriously, not discount youthful opinions or overwhelm them with our art lessons posing as correct solutions.
Praised for quickly adapting to the teacher’s lead, being good listeners, followers of instructions, and doing what they are supposed to, students are praised and rewarded. Those who quickly assimilate are the winners. This does not help students become independent artists who trust in their own creativity. While many other classes are focused on memorizing dates and formulas, the art room can be modeled a bit differently. Creating a classroom that instead focuses on young artists’ creativity and self-expression, the art room can save lives and sustain a happier time for students in school.
Making the art class unique was a goal of mine as I entered art teaching. To me, it should be different from the methodical way that many other classes are taught. In my first class, I was determined to get out from behind the small school tables and offer students floors, walls, even ceilings, the largest canvases in an art room. We proceeded to create unique artworks in unique places, in the school hallway, mile long streets, in public parks, and later on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry. We still make unique art everywhere except on school desks and with usual school materials.
My change in mindset, and one that has carried over into every aspect of my teaching, came during 1965, sitting in the Great Hall of Cooper Union, and nervously looking around to assess the competition. Fifteen hundred people were assembled and hopeful for admission, taking the art school’s entrance exam. The first challenge was to draw the New York City subway during typical morning rush hour.
I recall thinking to myself that many in the throng could draw realistic trains seeded with anatomically correct figures, but how could I stand out? Feeling around me a sea of nervous legs holding quaking drawing boards, I was pulled into the tense situation. My inspiration came in part from the feeling evoked by all of us in the student hall.
I decided not to focus on the figure or the morning train ride, but the tension of passengers worried about their day and how they will push themselves through the packed car to exit the train and continue their journeys. There were plenty of stressed bodies around the auditorium to model. Capturing the sense of the distressing, twisted forms, pressed into an unnerving subway car or pressed into the seats of an examination room became my goal. I went for a view that would arrest anyone looking at the test or take a chance on a rush-hour subway ride.
During the unusual trauma of the test I came away with my new mindset: nobody needs skillful, pretty pictures. The artist’s task instead is to stand out. It requires mustering one’s uniqueness and individuality. Even young artists have to look for their concepts and style that can stand out and yet speak to the masses. My art had to be an invention, not a display of dazzling skills and techniques.
FIGURE 1.2 Building Floats From Lost and Found Treasures
FIGURE 1.2 Building Floats From Lost and Found Treasures
It all came together in the Great Hall that art has to be something that is needed, that feels important and necessary to “feed” humanity. As I took the test, I also made a life changing decision that art is not a realistic or abstract rendering, but it has to be something to grab people’s attention and sustain their interest. In a similar way, art has to be made accessible to students so that they feel an interest in creating it, and has to feed off their senses of creativity in order to be created.
Although attending many fine art schools, I always considered my real learning and education as coming from the awareness and memories gained from childhood. That knowledge has then been translated into new ways of forming art and teaching art, keeping in mind the incredible innovations that children are able to imagine. As an artist-teacher, my influences and influencers have been children whose stories and creative inventions in all forms I continually have observed and written about throughout my career. More than a specific artist, children’s art has been my muse and museum.
In my exchange with children, I learn each day about exercising playful hands, tapping into inventive movements to explore spaces and found forms with childlike curiosity. Being around children all the time has sustained a steady flow of creative work and youthful enthusiasm toward everything.
Often asked who my favorite artists are, folks are surprised to hear that it is children. Observing play acts, listening to kid’s ideas, examining their treasure troves at home and bringing them to class, and benefiting from joining in their inventions has allowed me to move beyond school art and ordinary ways of thinking about art. Children’s unrestricted adventurous approach to art continues to inspire me more than any adult work dressed in gold frames in esteemed exhibition spaces.
Children as players alter all art teaching. All tools are played with as toys, all surfaces and forms are experimented with, everything is tried as a possible art tool. In play, children animate, enliven, and free art. Teaching that follows the same mindset challenges active bodies and minds and teaches them fast-moving and free-flowing acts of transformation. In a player’s world, everything is tried as a canvas, and everything is a promising art tool, whether it is found in the environment or in class. The world becomes a giant art supply store.
Children teach art classes to play outdoors as acts of innovation. Streets and buildings, roads, trees, rocks, sand, and sky are all part of the creative view, the pantheon for unlimited ideas and new play media. With unlimited opportunities to improvise and choreograph objects picked up by players, there are different sound-making possibilities, vast scales of lines, and traveling marks of new experiences. Rhythmic jazz riffs or humorous improvisations are discovered by dropping rocks and pounding sticks, because children are willing to move and pick up anything, to shift, roll, and prod the still life of nature by rearranging and redesigning, all with impatient and playful hands.
In recognizing children’s fearless play as their finest art-making game, my love for boundless invention and willingness to freely try new things has expanded. Consciously playing with paint and colors differently each day has become my way of moving forward. With allegiance to children’s creative process, I was not drawn to old philosophies, old masters, or guided by new art world trends, and this influenced how I approached the classes I have taught. Children’s fierce independence as art-makers helped to fortify my courage to strike new notes and fuel paths toward a lifetime of exploratory art-making. Children have taught me about the importance of maintaining fun while finding humor and magic in the art process as a serious requisite in making art and discovering different ways to teach it.
Our task as art teachers is to shine our spotlight on what we can learn from young artists. Art teachers need to deeply trust and believe in children as artists and creative individuals with a wealth of ideas to contribute to school art. Art teaching is taking students seriously, looking for the words, ideas, and expressions of individuality in all forms demonstrated by students in their individual artistic voices. As their transformative acts with found objects unfold, students practice the ability to look at something while seeing something different. New illusions that create new identities are used by artists to move away from the ordinary to create extraordinary works. In every art room an art teacher is sharing a studio with creative individuals. An art class constitutes a gathering of many creative artists.
Regularly, we test exciting forms as students stand in a circle and I hold up and pass around a found object. With a magic wand and magic words, everyone freely juggles and manipulates each form and contributes their visions to a remarkable transformation. A college student in my art room sits with a bunch of bright orange hair extensions before a mirror, weaving it into her hair, transforming her look, using a computer screen to film her actions. Students who think and act on their own rehearse with liberated actions and open minds to create changes in objects, views, streets, and communities. Independent ideas of exploring transformations need to be the theme of every art class, as students keep track of their transformative journeys.
The art class needs to be seen by students as a place to share, bring treasures, and discuss exciting plans and unusual ideas. The art room’s goal is to build autonomy and self-confidence to continue pursuing the search for one’s art. An art class should receive students as bold visionaries. Learning in an art class to trust intuitions and respond to personal dreams and fantasies with actions teaches students that their art experiences should be filled with innovations, inventions, and art finds. A positive support system builds independent artists by giving them pride in their explorations and the confidence to freely explore, whatever the outcome.
Freedom for art students also means learning about the transformative power of art, and preparing these young artists to work independently includes showing them that they can make changes in anything. Everything is up for reinterpretation in the art room and beyond. Art is exciting because it is an endless challenge to create new relationships, inform new constructions, and discover new things in old objects.
FIGURE 1.3 Instant Costumes for Improvised Productions
FIGURE 1.3 Instant Costumes for Improvised Productions
All art uses transformative powers to take things apart, reorganize, and put them together many times. Reshaping and rebuilding ordinary things to look and be different comes from the ability to envision change with every form in one’s hand to generate further ideas. The mindset must be that art classes spark a lifelong interest in being an innovator by testing new ideas on the simplest to the most involved student finds.
Art classes are a gym where students exercise and feel their transformative probing power. No need for assignments or specifics – just about any material and form can challenge the self-reliant young artist to find many yields and possibilities in things. Transformers browse around the art room and at home, checking out everything, demonstrating different views, acting out, and proudly showing ideas for creative change.
Often, children give up in school; they are frustrated and let the teacher do all the talking, planning, and teaching. It is demoralizing to be shown all day through adults’ and teachers’ expressions and body language that your ideas do not matter. There are two heights, two spaces: one is the serious adult world where conversations are held and decisions are made, and then there is the world below, starting with the floor, where children find samples of their world to closely examine, to the top of children’s heads, the dividing line, where our children, our students, live in a lesser, irrelevant space, less crucial, making less important expressions, sharing less significant thoughts.
Art teachers need to learn to be different, with less lecturing, less acting as the all-knowing teacher. They can express fewer “adult” opinions, spreading fewer artistic pearls of wisdom, and delineating with absolute certainty what should be considered art using other adults as the framework. Instead, students have to be encouraged to find strength in their own ideas. Art teaching is performing acts that empower kids. Practice art teaching that promotes children to become their own art teachers. Empower children to take charge, turning to their own questions and answers, eager to pursue discoveries and maintain the innovative being they used to be as young children.
Art teaching is deputizing children to take charge of outdoor walks, classroom safaris, and the course of creative classroom plays and building investigations. Art teachers and parents have to let children take charge of creating their own home space, home studio, and making artistic decisions. When students take charge, they grow in confidence.
When children are challenged to shop and investigate, make art plans and decisions in art class and beyond, they overcome crippling shyness that responds only to prescribed assignments. Art education in school recalls and reengages childhood powers and a belief in one’s voice. Otherwise, students only learn to follow the safe and known course set by adults. When adults follow the lead of children, young artists learn to be engaged, enlightened, confident in making their decisions, and developing their ideas and discoveries.
In school, students learn with comfortable certainty. Precise facts, essential knowledge, particulars, and specifics of information are memorized and practiced so they can be easily accessed for each test. Correct ways of working and ways of solving a problem are learned step-by-step through well-defined instruction. Questioning the material as taught is frowned upon. It is assumed that every theme and subject can be reduced to bite-sized lessons to be learned and mastered as taught.
The art class is a valuable balance to the learning of facts that goes on in school. In an art class, questioning is important because it is recognized that there is more and that nothing is certain. The independent art student needs to learn to be skeptical of what is known, question what has been written in a textbook or explained by lectures, and what is taught and learned in school.
Having reservations about what is asserted by teachers is crucial...

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