Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Importance Of Making Cool Stuff

"In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra." -- Fran Lebowitz

For me, the moment of despair and frustration tended to come upon me while sitting in the hot circle of a high intensity desk lamp, alone and blurry-eyed. Why do I have to do this? I'll never use it in real life. And indeed I know I am not the only one who hasn't factored a quadratic equation since high school, yet I do employ some of the philosophy, the hard logic, of algebra nearly every day. I was right about the specifics, but wrong about its usefulness.

No one ever pretended to explain to me how algebra would be applicable to real life, yet no one, even me, ever doubted that there was value in studying it. We chuckle at the Fran Lebowitz joke, because for most of us it's true, but we never once consider stripping algebra from the curriculum.

Usefulness, applicability, practicality: these are tricky words when it comes to education. Many of the things we learn in school are not obviously useful, applicable, or practical in the vocational sense, but we rarely doubt they are essential.

Art (and in that I include music, dance, theater, etc.) of all our academic pursuits, stands virtually alone when it comes to having to defend itself in terms of usefulness.

In the comments to yesterday's post about teaching creativity, Gwynneth Beasley, author of the Zeke and Ky nature book series, wrote:

. . . the school our kids are going to has a big emphasis on art but by the end of the 6 years all the kid's artwork looks the same.

I don't know anything about that specific school. I'm sure it's a fine school, but when the art classes are producing cookie cutter art, it's likely because the curriculum has been tainted with the curse of usefulness, applicability, and practicality. These things should not be the starting point for education, but viewed rather as its inevitable bi-products, just as the hard logic of algebra remains with me long after I've forgotten how to solve for x.

As a preschool teacher in a progressive cooperative school, I don't generally feel the pressures to teach "useful" stuff. Everyone in my protected little world seems to embrace the notion of an open-ended, exploratory art process, one in which the end result is secondary to the act of creation. My colleagues teaching older children, however, especially as they approach middle school, feel intense pressure to demonstrate usefulness in everything they do, particularly when it comes to art.  Art for art's sake is all well and good for preschoolers, but now it's time to knuckle down and get serious. It's an attitude that often forces art teachers to focus on artistic technique over actual creativity. Art students in this environment often find themselves learning more about "useful" things like composition, brush work, and color theory, than about their own creative process.

Artist, teacher, and rattle snake wrangler Anna Golden from over at Atelierista expressed her frustration in having to defend art education:

Sometimes I have to justify art education to people, as a tool for getting into college, or something . . . but really, what's wrong with art, anyway? What if we all drew things and danced and sang? Would that be so bad? And why can't these rigid thinkers see that artists don't see what they do as genres or labels? It's just making stuff, or being who you are, or exploring. I so wish people could see art the way young children see it. It makes me want to think of a new name for this thing we do. Let's call it creative thinking, or fun, or learning, or Fred. That'll fool them! 

She really touched the right note when it comes to my own artistic endeavors. More often than not, when I get to work on something, I start with the question, "I wonder if I can even do this?"

When I made this recent piece, for instance, it started with the idea of a saw embedded in the stack of books.

If you want to see more of my art click here for my online gallery.

There's a part of me that wants to make up a story about this piece of art after the fact, one that demonstrates my deep thinking on the relationship of humans to their knowledge, tools, and the creative process, but the honest truth is that I just thought it would look cool.

I carried the idea around in my head for weeks, not necessarily planning to make it, but one day as I killed time in a thrift shop (not an unlikely hang out for a middle class bag lady) I spotted this incomplete set of the The Complete Handyman Encyclopedia. I was struck immediately with the corny joke about an incomplete complete encyclopedia and liked the idea of my saw slicing into these particular books. While standing at the cash register forking over $7, I thought it would look particularly cool to sink four long bolts through them as well. I had no idea if it was even possible to do what I was thinking about doing. Or rather, I had no idea if it was even possible for me to do it. It was exciting to finally fire up the circular saw and lay into those books. Would the spinning blade cut properly or just shred the cardboard and paper? Would it be a nice clean cut like I envisioned or would it be a mess? How deeply should I cut? Is it dangerous to be using this tool for this purpose? Will the cut be too wide to hold the hand saw securely? Would I have to resort to glue? What kind of glue? These and dozens of other creative questions and challenges raced through my head even while I was in the process of angling into the tops of those do-it-yourself manuals. Everything about getting those bolts installed was a struggle. I cursed and sweat. I regretted that I didn't have a drill press, but only the measly 3/8" hand drill I've been using since I was in college. The paper dust kept getting impacted in the holes, and the holes refused to line up through the entire stack. I had to stop frequently because the pages kept smoking, threatening to burst into flames -- at least that was my fear. Would some scorch marks add or detract from the finished piece? I sweat and I cursed and I nearly gave it up several times. At one point there were tears of frustration in my eyes, and as I tightened down the last of the nuts, cinching the entire thing into a flexed muscle of kinetic energy, I experienced a wave of relief and joy and "I did it, you stupid m----r f-----r!" that can only come from being on the other side of the creative process.

Just making stuff. Being who I am. Exploring. 

The other night I was out to dinner with a businessman who was going on about his idea that every child, whatever they plan to do with their lives, should have the experience of being "on the line for making a profit." I don't disagree, but the same argument applies to making cool stuff (which is what I think we ought to rename "art" if that's something we need to do). 

When a child approaches our art table, easels, or work bench, she most often just gets right to work, although sometimes she'll ask, "What are we doing?"

The right answer is, "I don't know," or simply to start listing the materials at hand, "I see tape, paint, scissors, pipe cleaners . . .

. . . and trust them to explore, curse, sweat and struggle their way through their own creative process on the way to making cool stuff.

In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as art. But knowing how you make it is very useful.

Bookmark and Share


Michaele Sommerville said...

One of my favorite centers is our creative construction zone, full of donated materials ready for inspired repurposing. What's more telling, is that it's my students' favorite center as well. While many of my students' parents don't share their childrens' creative vision, they value contributing mightily to the cause, participation that trumps "well what's the point in having THAT center" critiques from other teachers and administrators.

Juliet Robertson said...

I'm in a strange position in that I love art activities with children yet at school it was one of my worst subjects. It was the only class I ever walked out of, after an argument with a teacher who was telling me what to do with my painting to make it better. I remember feeling no ownership of the painting at all.

Experience and fun is everything - doing what and how a child wants.

As children get older, yes I'll teach techniques. 6 and 7 year olds love this. We look at the environment, artists, the different dimensions of art, etc. We have a formal activity and then just time to play and experiment.

My own testimonial is a Millennium tattoo on my left arm near my shoulder. My sister who is now high up in the UK arts world was appalled. The tattoo artist "didn't get it". He couldn't design my tattoo. I told him to let me have access to the dyes and a piece of paper. Oh my! Ten years on I'm still happy with the result. High class art? No. Something for me? Oh yes!

Enjoy your creative summer, Tom!

Unknown said...

Here's a cute story.

I co-teach an afterschool "green team" with the gym teacher. She is the BEST P.E. teacher I have ever had the privilige of knowing.

We often split responsibilities. .. one day I'll do a lesson and the next time she will. The kids decided they wanted to do a fundraiser for the Green Team. We decided to make mother's day necklaces for kids to buy for .25 cents. I was rolling out the clay and showing them samples of how to make it and one student from my art class says "Wait I think I have a better idea maybe we could do it like this." He showed the group. Others chimed in and we agreed on how to make the necklaces.

My teacher friend told me later how she thought it was so brazen that the student interrupted the lesson and how everybody had their ideas and had no problem interrupting mine. I told her that I train them to do that in art class. I always give the students a starting point but it is their job to bring their own creativity to it. When they do this I know they are thinking. It is very different from organized sports and math there is no "way" to do it. I could tell she thought this was really great once I explained it to her. It made me feel good to have someone "get" it so quickly! Sometimes as artists we just need to explain because many people are willing to listen.

Unknown said...

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures. ~Henry Ward Beecher

Cookie cutter art has always saddened me. Every person should see the world through their unique experiences and views : )

Love your philosophy.

Ariella said...

Sadly enough, most schools (at least the schools in my area) seem to have one goal--- to teach kids how to operate inside the box, to jump through hoops, to sit at desks and properly regurgitate useless information for quizzes and tests. No consideration for soul, love, art, health, free thinking or self discovery. That is why I have chosen to homeschool at the moment. Of course, like I've said before, if I could send my kids to a school like yours I would be thrilled and have no hesitation.
Thanks for your continued inspiration, I always enjoy your posts!

GianneCurry said...

I so agree! I love all of your simple ideas, especially the ones using simple around the house and nature itms. In the short time I have been following your blog, you have inspired me numerous times. I wanted to tell you how thankful I am for your creativity and for sharing your ideas with me, so that my little ones can experience the fun and love that inspired your activities. I am giving out 15 blogger awards and you are on my list. Visit my site to see it and to give out awards yourself.

GianneCurry said...

almost is that link:

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

so true!

Let the Children Play said...

Your post made me sad. I hate the thought that I send most of our kids off to school life where they won't have much opportunity just to create for the joy of it and to express their thoughts and ideas and not those of someone else.

But it also made me happy that there are teachers like you in the world.

My own kids have continued on in a progressive school environment which values individuality and creativity and attending to the whole child, so art and creativity still play a big role in their lives. My 6 year old's report this term told the story of how he uses drawing to find meaning in things he is learning about and so drawing plays a big role in his day - thankfully :)

Gwynneth Beasley said...

I enjoyed that piece! I find a parallel with the nature movement - they nature movement is trying to tell people that time inn nature is good for your health - so people will take their kids outside. Its the same with art. Just do it because it is fun, beacuse you want to see if you can, ebacuse you want to see what it will feel like, and look like.

Play for Life said...

Being creative is very much about the process. The product is the outcome, but how the children get there and the journey along the way is what makes it creative.
It makes me so angry and I'm actually really embarrassed when I go into other kindergartens or primary schools and see "artworks" created from templates ... all looking the same in size and shape and colour. I mean what are teachers thinking for goodness sake! They all preach about the importance of creative art but they sure as heck aren't practicing it and if they think a daffodil photocopied onto a piece of paper and handed out to their students with right and wrong instructions on how to cut, paste and colour it to make it 'look like a daffodil' is create then heaven help all the children!!
Sadly I have even had children show me how they did theirs wrong because they didn't paste things in the right place or used the wrong colours ... I mean how sad is that!
I worry that we are sending our children, who are free to create in their own way off to school where not only is their creativity squashed but is all too often provided 'only if there is some spare time' ... I mean what the ....?
I have had many children over the years return to kinder with a younger sibling on a pupil free school day who are so excited to be back because they have missed the wonderful creative opportunities they were provided when they were here and it's the most basic of things they are being denied like free drawing, basic painting, and box construction!
You may remember our young friend Maggie who has popped up in a few of our posts with her amazing creative talent ... well we have known a number of "Maggies" over the years, some of whom loved to draw and paint, others who loved the art of dance or drama whom we have caught up with years after leaving kinder only to discover that their passion for their art sadly floundered as they progressed through school simply because they were not provided the opportunities to freely express themselves. But then again Tom you never know perhaps today THEY are at the top of THEIR algebra class!
Donna :( :(
P.S. I think you struck a nerve here. I'll get down off my soap box now!

mumusok said...

I love your site. It is a source of inspiration as I look for ways to enrich my children’s day to day experience with the world.

I don’t, however, understand why math, science and art need to be at odds. I can see that a lot of the emphasis that our schools place on math and science seems to be in hopes of creating a more competitive work force. I can also see that art and real artistic expression are being pushed out of the rigid school curriculum to make way for more useful, applicable and practical. But I also agree in part with the Newsweek article. Creativity doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘taken out of the art room,’ but why not try make some room for it in other disciplines like math and science? Creative expression and exploration come in many forms. Too often we are led to believe that creative expression belongs exclusively to the realm of art. Perhaps many students struggle with math and science because there isn’t time or space in a curriculum that emphasizes usefulness and applicability to share the joy, beauty and creative process of these disciplines.

In college I started out as a science major, who found real pleasure playing with numbers. I gave this up entirely to explore my more creative self, eventually graduating in literature and fine art. It was after college that I met some brilliantly creative (and artistic) scientists and mathematically gifted musicians. Many of these people, perhaps coincidentally, are driven by their passions, not by profit.

Thanks, by the way, for sharing more of your students' art. Each piece is truly unique and beautiful.

Teacher Tom said...

@Denise . . . I totally agree that there can be a lot of value in integrating the various disciplines in school. Absolutely. I think that the tinkering/maker/DIY movement is an incredible example of exactly that.

I'm just frustrated by the apparent hierarchy of subject matter we find in schools, with art being pushed to the bottom of the heap, if not eliminated entirely.

I guess what I'm arguing for is more space for "pure art," as opposed to only "applied art" (just as we have pure science/applied science and pure math/applied math). The Newsweek article is wonderful in many respects, but the author seems to have fallen into the trap of only considering art valuable in terms of its usefulness.

Thanks for reading my little rant!

(V.Kerr) School Time Adventures said...

I have always loved the performing arts: music, theater, dance. My ability to draw or paint I think topped out around 2nd grade, so that's why I love doing art projects with preschool age children, it's all about the expression, not the exactness!

Scott said...

I agree, Tom. We need room for pure art and exploration as well as applied art/creativity.

Vanessa said...

It's sad that educators constantly feel the pressure to justify the work children do in terms of academics. Of course, everything that children do can somehow be tied to their academic learning, but in a way doesn't this kind of justification perpetuate the idea that academic learning is the only valuable thing about children's experiences? What about the fact that art and music are universal forms of processing and communicating ideas? What about the spiritual, socioemotional, and humanistic benefits of making art? I think part of our job as educators is to educate parents and remind them that their children are people with feelings and ideas and if we want them to grow up to be happy, moral, well-rounded, compassionate, spiritual, intelligent, successful people, we need to support them more holistically.