Why I teach art the way I do–A Q & A session with Ms. Brooks

monarch study, pencil and watercolor, 2012

Robin Brooks, monarch study, pencil and watercolor, 2012

Dear parents and interested others:  I am addressing this post to you, the parents of my students. I want to help you understand why I teach art the way I do. Prior to joining the staff at Williams-Cone I spent eleven years cultivating relationships with the community at Lincoln School in Augusta. Before that, I was a stay-at-home mom for eight years. When my son Ben attended Williams-Cone School I was an active parent volunteer. My husband and I chose Williams-Cone School for Ben because it is a parent-friendly place that offers a real community for children, teachers, parents, and families. I am happy to have returned as a member of the teaching staff.

What is my teaching approach in a nutshell?  I am a teacher of art, but first and foremost I am a teacher of children. There is a “rhyme and a reason” for everything I do in the classroom. That is to say that I am very intentional about the materials, conversations, and experiences I offer to your children. Art materials and processes are ways for children to grow and learn, to show what they know, and to develop understandings about the world around them. This world includes the world of people, places, and things. It includes the world of “Art” with a capital “A” as well as the natural world of trees, plants, animals, rocks, and minerals. It includes the world above–the sun, planets, and stars and the world of the depths below–the mystery and magic of the oceans. It includes the world of number, quantity, design, and abstraction. It includes the world of verbal language–poetry, story, folk and fairy tale, and descriptive narrative. It includes the built environment–buildings, parks, furniture, clothing, and everything designed and crafted by humans.

Robin Brooks, Autumn Reflections 1, Digital Photograph, 2016.

Robin Brooks, Autumn Reflections 1, Digital Photograph, 2016.

How does being a practicing artist influence my teaching? As an artist I recognize the need for both skill development and cultivating the ability to find inspiration for one’s art, whatever form it may take. Robin Brooks, Artist is my website if you wish to learn more about my art and process.

tree of life, linocut, 2015

Robin Brooks, tree of life, linocut, 20″ x 24″2015

How did I discover the teaching philosophy that still inspires me? I have always been fascinated by how young children grow and learn and I have been interested to know what are the optimal conditions for such growth. When our son Ben was little, I learned about these amazing preschools in a city in Northern Italy. My curiosity got the better of me and in 2003 we packed our bags and headed to the city of Reggio Emilia so I could participate in a week-long learning experience, a  formal study tour of the municipal schools.

How did the Reggio schools get started? After the devastation of World War 2,  the mothers of Reggio Emilia determined to create a different future for their children. They began to build what would become a network of over 30 infant toddler centers and preschools serving the youngest citizens of the city. The preschools of Reggio Emilia have been recognized as the best early childhood schools in the world. If you’d like to learn more you can visit the NAREA website and Reggio Children, the organization in Reggio Emilia dedicated to promoting and disseminating the Reggio Approach throughout the world.

My early childhood study group PARC, The Portland Area Reggio Collaborative, recently hosted a “Brick by Brick” regional NAREA conference on October 21st, 2017. The keynote speaker was Lella Gandini. She is the Reggio Children representative for North America. Here is An Interview with Lella Gandini FMI.

02 2016

Robin Brooks, All Round, painted paper collage, 18″ x 18″, 2017

What does it mean to place the child “front and center” in designing curriculum? In Reggio Emilia, the preschool teachers have innovated an approach to using art as a means of revealing the child. The idea is that the child is already rich, well-resourced, and capable of understanding and solving problems. In this approach, the teacher has multiple roles. One role is to supply the environment with the materials and supports necessary for the children to grow and learn safely within a loving community. Another role of the teacher is to carefully observe and listen to children as they work and play with materials and one another. In this approach, the teacher is trying to understand the child in order to provide appropriate support for their learning.  What a turning upside down of all that we thought education was!

first grade color mixing

first grade color mixing

How does the Reggio Approach informs my art teaching? I pay attention to my students. I want to get to know them as individuals, to the extent possible in a class that meets once a week for 45 minutes. What is your child interested in right now? What are their questions–big and small? What books inspire them? If you are thinking there’s no possible way I, as their art teacher, can learn all this about the 240 children that attend Williams-Cone, you are right! However, I CAN create an art program where children know that I value their ideas. The children know there will be opportunities to be listened to and class time for making artwork and projects of personal meaning. Will there also be times for “Must Do” learning experiences? Absolutely. Hands-on skill-development exercises? Yes. Whole class participation, conversation, and written reflection? Yes, these are all essential aspects of learning in and through art. Although the structure I create is not as teacher-centric as some approaches, the children still rely on me to create a safe space to exercise their creativity and imagination.

How do I know your child is learning? I spend most of your child’s art class observing and assisting as they work with materials and ideas. This is a process-oriented rather than a product-driven approach to teaching art. I foreground learning and creative thinking rather than the making of specific art projects. I integrate art history and art appreciation through whole class discussions, PowerPoint presentations and selected videos of artists at work. In addition to European and American art, we look at folk arts from around the world including the arts of Asia, the African continent, and the indigenous cultures of Central and South America. We explore craft traditions like weaving and pottery and the rich legacy of the artist/illustrator.

As I was leaving school I saw Phoebe, her mom, and their dog taking a walk. When I looked closer I saw that Phoebe was cradling a monarch butterfly in her hands. They were walking to the Children's Garden to release it--a tender "small moment."

As I was leaving school one evening I saw Phoebe, her mom, and their dog taking a walk. When I looked closer I saw that Phoebe was cradling a monarch butterfly in her hands. They were walking to the Children’s Garden to release it–a tender “small moment.”

How all children benefit from choice: With respect for each individual child’s potential and the cultivation of a kind and supportive classroom community, my students develop confidence in themselves as creative, capable individuals. They learn to self-reflect, evaluate their work and learning, and set goals. The children are engaged deeply with our district learning targets and goals. Most of the children look forward to their weekly art classes. There is a palpable sense of joy present each day, in every art lesson. If you are still wondering how this all works, please come and see for yourself!

Some thoughts on how to talk to your child about their “process” art: The exploratory work children make in art class and enthusiastically bring home to show you is not the polished and “refrigerator-ready” art you may prefer, but this work was made by your child. It is evidence, or “data” that I collect (through observation, photos, and in their individual portfolios) to better understand your child’s thinking, skill development, and expressive ideas. This process work is evidence of your child’s progress toward our district learning targets and goals. Please understand that if children are only following teacher directions in art class and the teacher is the one doing all the thinking, this is not the child’s authentic creative work. 

Here’s a sample parent to child conversation: “I see that you made something from sticks and yarn. Tell me more about it! What did you want me to notice?” You can continue with this line of inquiry: “Was it hard or easy to make this? If you make another one, What would you do differently next time?”

Is there anything else you’d like to know? If so, please ask. The best way to reach me is through my school email: brooksro@link75.org. I teach at Williams-Cone on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesday afternoons. Please stop by sometime and introduce yourself!

~Robin Brooks, K-5 Art

December 2, 2017

 

2 Responses to “Why I teach art the way I do–A Q & A session with Ms. Brooks”

  1. Robin Brooks says:

    Here is a link to a Newsweek article about the preschools in Reggio Emilia. ‘A SCHOOL MUST REST ON THE IDEA THAT ALL CHILDREN ARE DIFFERENT’
    BY NEWSWEEK STAFF ON 12/1/91 AT 7:00 PM

    http://www.newsweek.com/school-must-rest-idea-all-children-are-different-200976

  2. Iva says:

    Robin,
    This makes me so happy to see the joy you bring to your work. So uplifting! Remember when you were teaching on the Lower East Side? I love how you share your thoughts about your work as an artist and an educator. So respectful and clear and peaceful.
    Good teaching is Great leadership!
    I miss you.

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