Tuesday, May 21, 2024

When the Real World Cannot Match the Pretty Pictures

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 home, for instance, tends to be a tidy, with everything in its 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 its 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 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 set ups to "teach literacy." The idea, according to this writer, is for an adult to 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 explorations with the salt absorbing the paint while the glue holds it in place, and I reckon I could micromanage the right 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. (In our adult world, I see this phenomenon frequently manifest itself on social media where we get the impression that everyone but us is having a grand time which undoubtedly fuels at least some of our epidemic of depression.)

When we use these materials -- glue, salt, paint -- I typically demonstrate the "right way" 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 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 the 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 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 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 -- in art or social media -- is only a well-meant lie with no connection to reality. It tends to make us feel that if we can't be perfect we must be 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 irregular, layered, textured, ever-evolving artworks evoke the natural world, the world our species evolved to inhabit, while those slick manufactured products are more akin to the ordered, repetitive dullness of indoors.

At the end of the day, the results aren't product at all, but rather one-of-a-kind homemade masterpieces, the kind of thing one simply can't do the wrong way. That's what makes them so beautiful.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast here or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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