Last night, Ace Art hosted an artist talk by Stacey Abramson, a friend and colleague of mine who is equally as passionate about revolution. Stacey is a high school art teacher, a visual artist and one of the twelve educators who (in 2016-17) was selected to be part of the ART:21 Educators Program, an incredibly collaborative, forward-thinking and enriching professional development program for teachers interested in teaching with contemporary art.
Her talk drew a fairly large crowd (larger than one might expect for a talk about 'teaching art') - and since there are so few venues for debate, dialogue and discussion around the state of art education, especially in Manitoba, her presentation felt like a combination of a battle cry and a 'coming out' party. She might as well have begun with, "Hi, my name is Stacey, and I am a quiet radicalist." It was both a call-to-action and a joy-filled celebration of the great changes that a small collection of art teachers have been making over the past number of years.
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Breaking Arts and Taking Names
We want a massive overhaul of art education - all the way from Kindergarten to S4.
We are knocking down the walls of our classrooms and gifting the creative experience back to the kids. No more teacher-selected "copy-this-example" projects. No more worrying about filling school bulletin boards with pretty things for parent night or for last-minute superintendent visits. Yes - these 'make-and-take' projects have "high success" rates – and look great on Grandma’s refrigerator - BUT NOBODY LEARNS MUCH. They are projects with pre-determined outcomes. They projects are rule-bound – they do not allow for creativity or deviation from the norm. Kids don't get to make choices. They don't even get close to experiencing what an actual artist might work through to make their art. (And yet we remind them from the front of the room, “Okay everybody, try to be creative!”)
Rather than base school projects on formalist properties of art (see "the elements and principles") that were REALLY relevant 50-100 years ago, or on copying an artist's work ("Wow. Your Van Gogh reproduction looks just like the original!") we are shifting to postmodern ways of creating: considering hybridity, the deconstruction of gaze, playing with identity and cultural affiliations, juxtaposition, appropriation of pre-existing visual culture, perspective, ritual, layering, and re-contextualization... techniques that contemporary artists use to make meaning (Gude 2004). Students learn to ask meaningful, open-ended questions and to pursue their own curiosities with art-making.
This is constructivist learning – students developing visual literacy skills: being able to “read” art critically and deeply, and create their own in an eloquent way. They generate understanding through the interaction between their experiences and their ideas. They learn that creativity is not a fixed attribute (like brown eyes) – it is something that can change and grow.
In our classrooms, Stacey and I focus on process. Some people label this teaching method "the inquiry process" - and that's true - technically. But more than that, it's just HOW PEOPLE LEARN. It's how artists work through the process of thinking and questioning and making and reflecting. As a very simplified summary, students initiate projects and learn independently.
And here come the critics...
Hmmm… Wait a minute, Dawn. I know how much you like coffee breaks.
Is this just a way for art teachers to avoid preparation or hard work?
OH. HELL. NAH.
Teaching this way is immersive, time-consuming and incredibly challenging. As teachers, we are provocateurs. We pique curiosities. We incite discussion. We unpack and model our own creative processes in real time with an audience. We take on challenging and uncomfortable topics and bravely show our soft underbellies to kids who (in some cases) could tear us apart. But you know what? It doesn’t happen. Because our relationship with these students is not one of "the powerful leading the powerless". We are learners too. We are part of the community. We don’t know everything. We have strengths and weaknesses (oh, so many weaknesses). And most importantly, we are supports; cheerleaders. We push our students to the edge of their capabilities and then nudge them just a little further. We show them the value of persistence, and hard work, and patience. We relish in the magic of delayed gratification (and for some of these technological natives, this is truly a revelation!)
They have to work through problems, with their teachers as supports and resources - but nobody is helicopter-ing in to save the day. Sometimes the kids get stuck - and they learn to get un-stuck. And if they fail (heaven forbid!), we rename it ‘experience’ – and show them that humility and disappointments happen to everyone. They build resilience by starting again, problem-solving, and figuring out new plans. We teach kids that their personal worth is not dependent on their grades… and that ultimately, their learning is our biggest priority. (And should be theirs too!)
We won't settle for meaningless, "easy", teacher-driven art classes. We want to fuel and foster authentic, meaningful art-making – and to provide a space for our kids to work like artists do - to ask their own questions and follow personal curiosities, to search out inspiration, use their imaginations, collaborate with their peers and build supportive communities. We encourage intimate, trusting and vulnerable relationships to develop within our classroom. We teach kids to research and investigate, collect, play around, tinker and experiment purposefully, and to trust their gut. We want them to ask for help, to build technical skills, to recognize and use each other's talents and rely on each other for assistance, to take calculated risks and learn to fail spectacularly, and then discover their own amazing resilience and the incredible learning that comes from making mistakes.
Classes like ours allow kids to design with purpose and intention, and to consider audience when planning a work. Rather than teaching projects focused on the media that we (as individual artists ourselves) are the most comfortable with, we center our teaching (and our own learning) around techniques that support the students’ ideas. We encourage our kids to look for experts to help them - whether it be in a particular medium or style (lost-wax casting / public art installation / computer programming / video editing / performance / etc.) or to find an expert or experienced community member connected to the topic or theme they are investigating (scientists / refugees / architects / historians / Indigenous Elders / musicians / etc.)
This engagement in multiple modes of learning honours 'real life' experience; rather than scheduling and categorizing content areas into one-hour-blocks (ahem!), students begin to understand the overlap and connectedness between subject areas and approaches to learning. (You know - like the REAL WORLD.) Although the teacher is a guide, a support and a resource, students become independently motivated - moving through a learning journey like they would as adults. They develop skills in creating expressive and thoughtful art pieces, yes, but also experience art-making as cathartic, therapeutic, challenging, celebratory, and a socially active way to engage with others.
By teaching this way, we are giving them opportunities to feel empowered - to learn that their voices matter and to explore and expand their sense of self. That sharing their individual and collective experiences through visual means is SO important. That their art can reach those whose voices have been silenced and give them hope, and can encourage an audience to consider a new perspective.
We also know our responsibilities. We know that our words can make them feel like artists, or make them never want to take a risk again. We also realize that art teachers - for many kids - are both the catalysts AND the gatekeepers of kids' engagement with artworks, past and present. The specific artworks and artists our kids are exposed to will set the tone for art appreciation; whether they are works we have hanging in our classrooms or in the galleries we choose to visit or in the videos we choose to show. We know that the artworks that we select will either honour our students’ personal place in culture and society or negate it. These pieces will captivate students or shut down their interest.
And we are finding ways to break down the barriers between kids and real-life gallery experiences - taking the fear out of analyzing and interpreting contemporary and conceptual works. Teaching kids that they can bring as much meaning to an art viewing experience as the exhibiting artist does - and that visual literacy and art appreciation is not just for rich old white people with yearly museum passes. It is for kids. And teenagers. And contrary to what you find in most art history books, it is made by women, and people of colour, and Indigenous folks, and the LGBTTQIA* community, and people with disabilities. It is FOR them, and BY them. And their stories are incredibly important.
And so we are purposeful in our planning. Rather than spending valuable class time talking about only dead, European men, or artists whose iconic work is sold on mouse pads and mugs - or only formalist work - or only modernist work (can you imagine how horrified the public would be if a science teacher only covered content and ideas developed prior to the 1960's?) - we are choosing to focus most of our "looking" at LIVING, breathing, making artists, and the challenges and joys they face in making meaningful, personal, socially-connected art in the 21st century. We want kids to know that the arts both influence and reflect culture, and that understanding the context surrounding an artwork's creation will allow us to better understand the work.
We want them to understand that artmaking be can wonderful, significant, rigorous work. We model for our students the difficult work it is to move through the natural anxiety that comes with being an artist - to trust in their own process and forge ahead even when they hit road bumps. To say "yes" to new and tangential experiences, to learn to relish ambiguity and "not knowing". To defer judgement and look critically at things that they don't understand.
We want them to find art and beauty in the everyday – to live attentively and to move through the world with eyes open. We want them to relish in culture - to recognize the connectedness between people and communities, and wholly celebrate the differences. Through these experiences kids learn to understand “The Compelling Why”: why art has been, and always will be absolutely essential to human experience.
This is our vision of art education. It is individualized teaching and learning at its best – and it requires teachers to let go of the reins (and for many of us, that can be challenging). But what we give up in power, we gain back in student engagement, inclusive and collaborative communities, and authentic art-making. It is incredibly hard work. And completely worth it.
This revolution is happening, quietly, in art classrooms in Winnipeg. And tonight, I sat on a chair in the back of a gallery watching about 50 peoples' eyes light up. For many of them, this is the first time they’ve seen this fire. By showing real-life examples of the work she's doing in her classroom, Stacey brought the public a taste of what building this kind of safe community can do to encourage collaborative discourse and authentic engagement in art making.
Fantastic work, my comrade!
#quietradicalism #breakingartsandtakingnames #art21educators #contemporaryart
With only a little more than two weeks until the ROCK/PAPER/SCISSORS show at MAWA, I am finding myself getting anxious about putting my work out there. I have been on “visual artist” hiatus for about 15 years or more – putting all of my extra energy into prepping for teaching or volunteering or managing arts organizations, rather than actually MAKING any artwork. My anxiety about showing my work isn’t so much about whether or not it will be well-received; I expect that there will be some people who like it, and some who don’t; some who are interested by the ideas I am exploring and some who will walk by and not take a second glance. The real anxiety I have, I think, is about reclaiming my self-identity as an artist.
When did you realize you were an artist? I think this is such a huge question for each of us to consider – not just because claiming an artist identity is really challenging for some of us (especially those who have given up a LOT of our meaningful art-making time to “make a living”) – but because I think the path to naming yourself a Creator (God-reference totally noted) is one which comes with internal conflict: the feeling that you need to ‘prove yourself’, the difficulty in feeling like you are, in fact, doing something meaningful and/or original, and the acknowledgement that you can be an artist AND other things at the same time: a mother, a teacher, a barista, whatever.
I grew up in a small town in rural Manitoba. In the fourth grade, during our “free art period”, I spent 40 minutes developing a drawing of a mermaid swimming underwater, towards a deep-sea diver. (They were falling in love, of course.) This was two years before Disney’s The Little Mermaid was released in theatres, so the only mermaid references I had seen were in Hans Christian Anderson storybooks in the school library. It was the first drawing that I remember developing in detail, adding scales one-by-one onto the mermaid’s tail, and even flipping through one of the dusty classroom Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes (with my teacher’s help) to find a picture of an underwater breathing apparatus in order to accurately render an oxygen tank. Various classmates came by my desk, complimenting me on my handiwork, so I decided it was (essentially) the greatest a masterpiece ever created. I kept the 8.5” X 11” drawing in a plastic binder sheet cover provided by my teacher, to ensure its safety.
I was really proud of this work, and my 4th grade teacher complimented me on my creativity and the attention to detail in the work (I had drawn little smiling fish who seemed impressed by the developing mermaid-diver romance). She recommended that I enter the drawing into the town fair. With my mom’s permission, I submitted the drawing to the jury, and then waited until the summer months, excited about seeing if I might win a prize or get an honorable mention.
I was fairly un-self-aware at the time – I didn’t spend any time considering my chance of winning, and had no idea of the skill-level of my 9- and 10-year-old competitors – and anyway, the judges weren’t art experts, they were random members of the community that volunteered to be on a committee. So did it matter if I got a prize? Not really. I was really proud of my work. But somehow, when I walked into the room where a series of my peers’ drawings were displayed with neon stickers for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place prizes – along with a small collection of drawings with "Honorable Mention" stickers – it really broke my heart that my little drawing drew no recognition. My mom, who is known (in our town) as a woman who speaks her mind, immediately noted (not out loud, thank goodness) that the prize-winning works were, in actuality, not that strong. She talked to one of the organizers, to find out more about the “criteria” for the contest (this was her way of stealthily finding out why I didn’t get a prize) – and the person in charge of the jury team said that they disqualified my drawing because they assumed it was traced from a book.
I was devastated that my work was removed from the contest – but my mom tried to explain to me that getting disqualified was, in actuality, a bigger win than actually winning – because essentially the judges thought it looked too “grown up” to have been made by a 9-year old. I think that was the first time I thought to myself, “maybe something is different about me”.
Fast-forward to high school – where, in my small rural Manitoba town, there was no such thing as drama, art, music or choir classes. As ‘options’ courses, we had General Business (bookkeeping / accounting) and Typing (on an actual typewriter). So the Creator in me had to find ways to make itself happy. I wrote poetry and performed it at festivals. I rehearsed put on plays with my friends after school in our back-yards. I recorded video cooking shows and newscasts. I made a ballerina-gorilla costume for Halloween. When I joined the student council, the executive made me the “Decorating Committee” which basically meant that I got to paint posters for every event the school held.
I found ways to keep myself busy – but being an Artist just wasn’t a “thing” in my town. In a small way, I suppose it was similar to a LGBTTQ person “knowing” that they are different, but having no peer or adult support to tell them that the feelings they are having are actually completely normal. I had no classes. No mentor, no guidance. I knew I was creative, and I knew I loved MAKING things and thinking about IDEAS… but since ‘thinking about ideas’ is not a realistic and financially secure career aspiration, I registered for university with the intention of becoming a biology teacher (my favourite subject in high school).
In my first year at the U of M, I had my Intro to Biology class in a theatre room, and got up each morning to attend an 8:30 lecture (ON VIDEO) of a prof who looked like he was boring HIMSELF to sleep. It was tedious. I couldn’t ask questions. I hated that I couldn’t collaborate, or work with my hands, or talk about what I was learning with my classmates – and I ESPECIALLY hated that this 18-year-old, hormonally-charged couple showed up every single morning, sat directly in front of me in the darkened theatre, and as soon as the film of the professor started up, literally sucked on each others’ faces for an hour. Nauseated by the wet noises and (maybe a little bit) by my own eternal singleness, I dropped the course. Needing to fill a hole in my schedule, I registered (late) for Leslie Korrick’s Introduction to Western Art class. Why an art class? Well, if you must know: I had owned, once, a book called Some Famous Paintings (actual title!) and thought it was sort of interesting… so why not?
Long story long, I continued in art. I had begun to find my tribe – but always felt like I was just outside of the circle: some sort of Art Imposter. When I was in courses at the School of Art, I wasn’t considered to be a serious artist because I had already expressed my intentions to become an art teacher – so rather than spending my studio time pursuing ideas of value to me, or challenging myself to new artistic heights, I spent my time gathering as much information and experience as possible to apply in the classroom. Regardless, I plowed through, loving my drawing sessions with Diana Thorneycroft and my art history classes with Oliver Botar. After completing a B.Ed., I (luckily) got a job right out of school – which is great – but I have never had an identity as a visual artist. I never did a thesis, and I have never truly developed my voice.
And now, twenty years later – I am taking a risk. I am committing to making art on the regular (even if that means twenty minutes at a time, between a dog walk and a grocery run or to fill time between parent-teacher interviews. I am fumbling, that’s for sure. But I have spent the last seventeen years thinking about things I have wanted to make – and there’s no better time to start than the present.
Ahhh. September. There's a crisp breeze in the air, the leaves start turning lovely colours, and the sales on 5-packs of highlighters are plentiful. I love September - it brings with it a new hope. A new chance to work with new kids.
Much like (I imagine) someone might feel when moving to a new city, September is our chance to 'recreate' ourselves as educators. Who will I be this year? Or more importantly, How will I be? A whole new cluster of kids comes rolling in and you realize that you get to (have to?!) start ALL OVER. Finding balance has always been a struggle for me - from a young age, my parents instilled in me the drive to 'work hard' and contribute.
MY REQUEST FOR MY ARTIST-TEACHER FRIENDS
This year, set a goal for yourself to become an ARTIST-teacher, rather than an artist-TEACHER. Make art-making a priority. Set time limits for yourself, in order to stop work and marking and prepping and planning and supervisory duties and coaching and clubs (and all that other school-stuff) from taking over your existence. For me, I am setting a general limit of 5:00 PM. This year, my feet need to be out the door of the school by 5:30 - no excuses. Whatever I can fit into my prep period(s), my lunch hour, and the couple of hours after school is all I am willing to do.
Since I am a (recovering) work-a-holic, I have to set hard constraints on work time consumption or I can somehow fill my nights (and weekends) with school-related business. I have always been extremely organized, motivated, and goal-oriented, and try my best to be the best Art Teacher (hell yeah, that's purposefully capitalized!) that I can possibly be. Unfortunately, this means that for 17 years, I have managed to fill my "personal" time with everything from filling in purchase orders for art-supplies, to reading the latest blogs on contemporary teaching strategies, to laminating visuals for upcoming lessons, to researching adolescent creative development, and crafting together killer Powerpoint slideshows.
Do the kids in my class notice? Oh helllll no.
Does my boss? As great as she is, likely not.
I am doing it all just because I love what I do and I want to give kids the best experience possible when they're in my room.
But after doing this since I graduated from the faculty of Education 2000 and feeling (on multiple occasions) that I am verrrry close to total burnout, I am starting to learn that my own art-making - my own ability to ponder and process my experiences in the best way I know how (by making art) - is just as important as theirs.
GLASS HALF FULL?
I always think back to that phrase, "you can't pour from an empty cup". I am the living proof. And not just because when I'm exhausted and overworked and (slightly) resentful that I've spent from 6:30 - 11:15 PM on the internet trying to find the most engaging, teenage-friendly, "perfect" images to demonstrate the myriad of compositional techniques that artists use to create an interesting area of emphasis, it's hard to then have patience for a kid who would rather lay his head on his desk and watch a Drake video on his iPhone than talk to me about his next art project.
It's also because - as I've learned - when you don't take time to fill yourself up (with whatever your spirit needs most - family time, coffee with a good friend, an engrossing novel, working on a new painting, snuggling up in a onesie to watch the latest episode of Stranger Things, going for a strenuous and rewarding jog in the park (LOL) - or whatever - you don't have much spirit left in you to be fully there for that kid who comes to you for comfort first thing in the morning in a terrible mood because she's been kept up all night by her parents yelling at each other.
The fact is, I am going to have to let A LOT of things go in order to get my life back.
BUT WHAT ABOUT "BEING A RESPONSIBLE TEACHER"?
I have come to realize that I am a good teacher not because I know a lot about contemporary art, or because I try my best to make really fun exemplars, or because I have put on a lot of professional development workshops, or because I am always up-to-date on my marking. I am not a good teacher because I have read the latest literature on pedagogical technique, or because I have a Masters' Degree (I don't!) or because for a few years, my handouts were hand-drawn for each particular group of kids (what in the hell was I thinking?!).
I am a good teacher because I connect with kids. I authentically love their company, appreciate their sense of humour, and I am tough enough to be willing to be vulnerable and 'human' in front of them.
I am a good teacher because I let them see me screw up (more frequently than planned, actually) - and because I make myself personally and authentically available to them every day.
I am a good teacher because I noticed when Miriam's smile wasn't as bright as it usually is (she failed a Chem test yesterday and still hasn't told her parents) and because I let Jonah know how much his nerdiness is (seriously) the most fantastic thing about him, and that even if none of the girls at school think that playing the violin and building model airplanes and reading books on philosophy is cool right now, he is going to be a major HIT when he's an adult.
I am a good teacher because when I found out that Michelle was an amazing storyteller, I forced her to meet me one noon hour a week and we wrote together until she had a whole book of writing to publish.
I am a good teacher because when Kristin came to me, upset, at the end of her graduating year, worried because she felt like she maybe didn't "know enough information or have enough experience" to manage life after high school, I told her that I wasn't worried about her at all - and that just the fact that she was self-reflective and concerned enough to actually be worried and ASK that question meant that she was waaaaay more prepared than most.
I am a good teacher because when Terrence challenged me to a dance-off, I stopped my class mid-lesson to give him a chance to show his classmates how aggressively he could kick my unskilled and uncoordinated ass.
I am a good teacher because when Jiaxin privately mentioned that she couldn't afford to bring a gift to exchange for our class Xmas Party, I changed the theme to CRAPTASTIC GIFT EXTRAVAGANZA and it was everyone's job to look for (or make!) the crappiest, most broken-up, useless, ugly-ass thing they could find to exchange with another kid in the room. We laughed so hard a few of us cried. And I still have the turd-shaped jewellery box that one kid sculpted out of papier-mache for me.
I am a good teacher because I still know the secret handshake that Brian and I made up in 2001... and proved it to him when he dropped in last year to visit me over a lunch hour.
I am a good teacher because when my old Buick (The Knightrider) died in the school parking lot, and my homeroom class asked if they could hold a funeral for it, I gave them markers and cardstock and tissue-paper to make flowers. I gave them a microphone and an amplifier and we held the most moving celebration-of-life that has ever existed for a piece of rusted metal.
I am a good teacher because when I spent time with Graham, who was gay (but who definitely did not feel safe enough in our school community to be "out" at school), it really bothered me that not all kids in our school community felt welcome and able to be entirely themselves. And instead of just being like, "Well, at least he's got me... my classroom is a safe space," I cared about him being safe everywhere, so I started our school's first ever Gay-Straight Alliance and pushed the administration to ensure that all of our staff went through professional development around gender identity, sexual orientation, and creating safe spaces for our GLBTTQIA* kids.
I am a good teacher because I wouldn't let Kevin (who is an incredibly sensitive writer and happens to have cerebral palsy) back out of performing his original slam poem in front of the 300 kids that had showed up to our Poetry Slam (he said he was terrified he might literally piss his pants on stage). While he was waiting with the other kids to perform, I passed him a note that said, "You're not giving up on this. You're talented and incredible and I want these people to see it for themselves. Get up on the damn stage and kick some ass. I brought a towel."
I am a good teacher because I don't let someone's lateness or their grumpiness or the fact that they never EVER bring their supplies to class change the fact that they are valuable and interesting and capable of amazing things. And because I start each day fresh, letting go of any former wrongdoings (even when a kid once told me he would kill my mom, we started the next day with a high-five and a 'good morning', as if nothing happened).
NONE of these things are things I can put on my CV. These moments I have had, which have meant a great deal to me (and have made me feel like I am doing what I should be doing in my life) have NOT required any prep time outside of school. They aren't a check-box on an application form, and they aren't even something that anyone (other than me and a few kids) will ever see. These things have required that I be present, and open up my ears and my heart and my arms , and that am able to be responsive to what kids need, in the moment.
SO: This year will be my YEAR OF NO. When I get asked to organize my art students to volunteer their lunch hours to make sets for the new musical, I will say NO. When someone wants me to sew a banner for a retirement party for some lady I have never even met, I will say NO. When another teacher asks me to make a costume for her, I will say NO. When an educational assistant asks me to paint a large picture of a horse on a blanket for her brother's birthday, I will say NO. (Yes. That happened. Don't get me started on the whole "artists always getting asked to work for free" issue.)
It's not like I am going to become "selfish" or a lazy teacher. I'll do my job and I will do it well. I am just going to refuse to take on more than is realistic for a person who wants to have an "outside life"! I will say YES to things that (1) are educationally valuable / relevant / fun for my art students and (2) do not consume more of my time outside of work.
Sound good? I hope you're on board too... to commit to yourself, to your own fun and play and experimentation (and hard work) as an ARTIST-teacher. Have a great year, folks!
* All student names have been altered to protect the innocent. (And, you know, um, my job.)