Art is an experience. It’s not just something to adorn your wall or coffee table. That is the product. What is important is the process. The act of creating is what affects you. Everyone can create, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t “good at art”. This is a huge myth and something too many of us have been told at one point or another. The aim of experiencing art is not to end up with a pretty picture – the joy is in the journey, the thinking, the making, the discussing, the problem solving. I’m writing this blog to chronicle my thoughts, adventures, research, and experiences, as I teach, make, and admire art.
My elementary school art teacher was teaching “Project Based Learning” long before the term became educationally cool. I was one of those gifted children, as we used to be called. I did very well in academic classes without much effort. Never mind that I was painfully shy, socially inept and never participated in anything.
When I was in fourth grade, my little school piloted a Gifted Program, and I was placed in it. I didn’t much mind, at least it got me out of those boring classes for a few hours a day. Our art teacher, Paula, (I don’t remember her last name as we all called her Paula) taught the program. She talked with each of us individually about things we liked to do and were interested in learning more about. With Paula’s help, each student then embarked on a journey, be it for a week or several months, discovering more about something. Some chose to investigate scientific phenomenon, others worked on building machines, doing research (much more difficult in those pre-Google days), or conducting interviews. I chose to learn more about creating art, specifically I wanted to learn to weave, crochet and hook (hey, it was the 70’s). I had enjoyed art ever since I was old enough to hold a crayon, and had not had much opportunity in my 10 years on the planet to explore this interest.
Now instead of dragging myself to school because I was supposed to, I wanted to go. I was fascinated with not only my Gifted Class project but the other kids’ as well. I actually talked with some of the kids during our Gifted Program time, and a handful became what I might have labeled friends. Paula asked open ended questions, showed us how to use resources, facilitated presentations, and helped us along without pushing. A stark contrast to the sit and listen teaching standards of the day, which are unfortunately still in use.
We all ran into difficulties with our projects. This was something most of us were not used to dealing with. There were several times I had to undo large parts of my weaving because I had missed an “over” or an “under”. I had a vision in my head of what I wanted my final product to look like, and was frustrated that I did not have the skills to make it look like that. Paula helped us see the lesson in our attempts, to be okay with struggling, and to move forward from there, getting “back on the horse”.
In Paula’s class, I learned about persistence and passion, failure as a lesson, and the beauty of self expression. I even learned a little about how to make friends.
Children need a reason to get up in the morning as much as we adults do. Creating is what did that for me. Making art was not simply a pastime, or a hobby, it was a way to learn by doing.
But we should not be using the arts to entice kids to go to school. What we should be doing is infusing our schools with creative endeavors that excite our students, in turn making them want to learn more. Children respond to the experience of creating, whether it be a painting, a screenplay, a machine or a building.
Now that I am a mother and a teacher, it is obvious to me that children need experiential learning in order to become good citizens and adept problem solvers. We learn through process and reflection, and making art is an ideal vehicle for this.
Does it really matter whether the art experience is in an art class or within the daily activities of a classroom? No it does not. (Although I’d certainly like to keep as many art teachers as possible in jobs.) What matters is that children are creating. That they are making something, trying something, doing something. And in turn, learning something. Not facts that anyone can google, but learning something about themselves, about their peers, families, surroundings, and about our world. That is what experiencing art does. I will show you how.