Monday, December 29, 2014

The Lie Of Slickness

My goal has always been to make this blog seem as homemade as possible. I use a basic off-the-shelf template and the cheapest, most utilitarian platform available. I rarely engage in marketing, promotions or give-aways, I don't accept advertising, and generally speaking I steer clear of bells and whistles. I don't know if anyone else appreciates it, and well-intended people quite regularly give me advice on how I could make the blog snappier or boost my readership, and I'm happy for the free advice, but the amateur hour vibe is more or less intentional.

When I'm invited to speak at conferences, I strive for a similar thing: no Power Point presentations or videos or music. It's just me, in my jeans and hokey red cape, with a stack of notes, most of which are handwritten, some of which are in spiral notebooks. 

I suppose one could call it a "gimmick" or "style," this homemade-ness, but I tend to think of it more as an ethic, one that is full-blown at the place called Woodland Park, where parents come together to cooperatively make a school for their own children in the basement of a church. 

It's a place where we rarely buy new stuff, but rather finish using stuff others have cast-off, and where the playground shares much in common with a junkyard. When we do purchase something nice and new, like the fantastic Flor brand carpet, I worry that we're getting too fancy. 

I feel the same way about all those clean, crisp, purpose-built preschool facilities I've been in over the past several years: they're nice, and I even envy them, but I still have the urge to splash paint on the walls and tromp mud on the floors.

It's not that I particularly favor messiness or clutter or disorder (my apartment, for instance, tends to be a tidy, with everything in it's place) but rather that I am suspicious of slickness. 

Slickness is a trick, a way to hide the warts. It's the thing that separates the rest of us from Martha Stewart. At it's best, slickness represents a sort of unattainable ideal, but it also covers the cracks and dust bunnies that we all know are there -- that need to be there.

Like many of you, I spend a good deal of time on blogs and websites that deal in our preschool world, some of which you will find over there in the right-hand column under the heading "Teacher Tom's blog list." A big part of this is sharing "art projects," and all too often, we're lured in by slick pictures of slick activities with slick end-results and slick learning goals. 

For instance, I recently came across a particularly appealing article that employed one of my favorite art activities to "teach literacy." The idea, according to this writer, is for an adult to carefully write each child's name in white glue on a piece of paper. The child is to then carefully sprinkle salt onto the glue letters, shake off the excess, then use eye droppers to place dots of liquid watercolor on the salty-glue to create a sort of rainbow of their name.

These art materials -- glue, salt, and paint -- lend themselves to wonderful art explorations with the salt absorbing the paint while the glue holds it in place, and I reckon I could micromanage a child through this slick little process, correcting and coaxing along the way, but why? 

Even if I do hound the children like this, none will ever turn out as slick as the ones in the pictures that accompany this article, even the most obedient, careful child will dribble paint, smear glue and get salt stuck to her fingers. An experienced teacher, of course, already knows this, but that deceptive slickness is an intimidating lie, one that I fear leads many teachers and parents and even kids to frustration when the real world cannot match the pretty pictures of product-based art and dutiful children.

When we use these materials, I typically demonstrate the "right way" once, to the parent-teacher responsible for the project, not because I want them to teach it to the kids, but only because I want the adult to see what I think is really cool about using these materials in this proscribed way. I then always say, "The children will want to make it their own." 

Most of the kids do, at some point in their process, create the opportunity to explore the absorbency of the salt, the stickiness of the glue, and blending of colors, but they also must explore the properties of the glue bottle, the techniques of using a pipette, and effects of fists full of salt. 

They need to try using the pipettes as paint brushes, to empty bottle after bottle of glue, and to get glue and salt and paint all over their hands. The only limits we set are those of supply, but since we have glue by the gallon, salt by the pound, and paint by the case, we're prepared.

This is how process-based art works, this is how preschool works. It's a messy, free-form exploration of the universe, and there is nothing slick about it. The slickness is only a well-meant lie with no connection to reality that makes us feel as if we're doing it wrong. It's what I mean when I say that "homemade" is not a style, but an ethic.

Of course, I find our art "products" beautiful as well, those pages of tag board that take a week to fully cure, crinkling and curling and dripping on the floor. When I finally pull them out to send them home, mountains of salt crumble off, even as I try to balance it on there by way of honoring the child's intent, leaving much of it for the car ride home where it likely winds up all over the backseat. 

These aren't product at all, but rather homemade masterpieces, the kind of thing one simply can't do the wrong way.

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Carol said...

Don't change a thing, it is exactly what we need to hear about how an Outdoor Classroom should work. It's all about the children!

Trisha said...

Perfectly imperfect!

Tiffany said...

Ha! I tried that salt, glue, watercolor "craft" with my 3 year olds (just two of them) last year. The one I did for the baby sister turned out much like the pinterest craft. The 3 year olds' creations were not so "slick", and they had a wonderful time.

Diane Streicher @ Diane Again said...

This way of being that accepts imperfections as part of the process is important not just for art projects and playground equipment but for life altogether. Those who can accept flaws and mistakes as normal and natural tend to cope with life's roller coaster a lot better than those can't.

Allison Batson said...

As a Pre-K teacher in a public program, it's an ongoing struggle to balance what I know to be developmentally approprite expressions of art,versus what parents expect, and even what Kindergarten teachers expect. Most are looking for a finished product that can easily be visually identified. We take every opportunity to educate our families about their children are learning from the process.

Unknown said...

I love your blog. You show a deep understanding of what children need and resist the pressures of what society is seeking today. Stay strong, you are wise beyond your years. I applaud you. Happy New Year Tom

Leslie Coleman said...

I so enjoy reading your blog, especially because of the lack of blinking, flashing distractions in the margins. It speaks volumes to the purity of your mission on the blog and in the classroom. Thank you so much!