I am an art teacher. Well, to be more specific I am a drawing teacher. And I never wanted to be one.
I wanted to be a painting teacher. And before that, I was intent on being a Professor of American Literature. But, I ended up teaching drawing.
For a while I wasn’t sure how to respond to people when they asked what I did for a living. I believed in education, and believed in art education, but somehow I still felt like I needed to make light of what I did. I might start talking to a stranger in line at some store, or meet someone at church, and whenever we got the point of the conversation where my job came up…I felt awkward.
The visual and performing arts are such a needed area of a complete education, but they are still the first to get cut in times of decreased budget. I knew that some people don’t find value in art classes. They seem frivolous to some people. And I realized that they had a point.
The art classes that many students have taken exist outside the world of valuable academic thought, or real world skill acquisition. They are two hours a week filled with students making things. Having moments, where students can express, and create is integral in a functioning curriculum that expects to produce well-rounded individuals. But that still wasn’t good enough. And it made me begin to think about how to increase the viable integration of skills learned in a drawing class into the set of skills a student develops in order to succeed in all the subject areas. In shorter terms: could taking a drawing class help a student be better at math? or at writing? or at ethics?
I learned the hard way, that as a beginning teacher, I was made up of all the good, and bad teachers I had in the past. The lessons I could pick up from the good teachers, carried information worth integrating into current practice in order to push for success in the classroom. And the bad teachers I had served as examples of what not to do. Even any of the teacher education courses in college, while applicable, may not actually make a distinct difference when confronted with an actual classroom full of students.
The point was, and is, how to continually improve the ability of an art class to equip students with applicable skills that they can carry into other subjects, and into the real world after graduation that will help them to be meaningful, contributors to their communities and society at large.
And for the drawing classes I teach, I try to achieve that in this way: Focusing on Learning to see.
(And I owe a lot of this mindset to the professors I worked with while at graduate school.)
Learning to draw can be done in a procedural way, where the students learn a step by step procedure to follow to be able to draw a certain object. Or, it can be taught in an experiential way, where the students learn by experiencing what drawing is and improve through practice. My approach is to form a combination of the two, where experience and procedure inform and react to each other.
I talk about learning to drawing in terms of learning a new language. We need to learn the basics before we can learn to put flare and nuance to our sentences. The first and continual lesson is learning to see. We must relearn how to see an object more accurately, more sensitively in order to be able to draw it better.
In terms of our mind’s ability to recognize and process information the theory goes like this: it’s easier for us to rely on long-term memory to solve problems. Relying on our conscious thought can be overwhelming, especially when confronted with a new idea. So we learn to see better by practicing specific in class exercises to form a new way of thinking that isn’t relying on long-term memory. Essentially, when a students tries to draw a face, they are drawing a face from memory, even if they are trying to draw the person sitting in front of them. To learn to draw in my classroom, means learning to think differently first.
We continually re-emphasize this developing ability to think in the present and process that present information faster. We spend time talking in collaborative exercises that focus on how seeing the world around us more accurately impacts our lives outside of the classroom. We look at how individuals make a difference because they saw a need to innovate technology, improve working conditions, or fight against racial or social injustice. We read poetry and write papers. We emphasize discussion and development of ideas during in class drawing sessions, and during group critiques of completed work. As a group we confront fear of failure, and public criticism by emphasizing the importance of reaching the ceiling of our knowledge and that each time we push ourselves to the limits of what we know…we know more the next time.
I believe in the ability of art to make a difference in the education of a person. I want the students to see a different perspective by learning to see, and go away better people, better citizens, and more aware of the world they are going to be a part of.
For drawing, or any art class, to be considered a relevant addition to the working curriculum of a school, we must continually strive to find ways to make the skills learned in these classes applicable to the overall success of a person, both in school and in the world. We must make it more than just expression. It must be, in some part, about learning how to live.
I’ll leave you with two thoughts. One is from a students paper from one of my drawing classes, and the other is from me.
“If you set aside even a moment for art appreciation, it can open up your eyes to a whole new world through someone else’s perspective.”
I don’t make light of what I do anymore, because the focus isn’t on what I do…the focus is on what the students are able to do and how they are able to grow.