children and teacher as learners

February 9, 2007

Robin E. Brooks

Teaching journal

I had two “a ha” moments that speak to “Image of the Child” during my art classes this week.

“A ha” Number One: “Just a Rock”

The first moment occurred while I was passing out clay work to the first grade children. With clay, the decision about whether or not to keep what the children make is often up to the teacher. In the initial sessions, we often try to encourage children to learn about the material and not to keep everything they make. In this way, children grow to understand the material and its possibilities rather than rushing to put something together.

Our project as a class was to create a group sculpture—a neighborhood—from self hardening clay. Each child made parts of their neighborhood, from houses, to roads, to a school bus, in clay. At first, we did a lot of brainstorming about neighborhoods. I charted many items they came up with that can be found in a neighborhood.

After the clay session, a girl came up to me with a clay “rock” she wanted to save. Now, to my eyes, this rock appeared to be no more than a lump of clay… I was skeptical about saving this piece, but because the child who handed it to me was a little girl who often lacked confidence, I decided to save it. This week in art class, she was excited to paint her rock. After it was painted, she called me over and told me a long story about how there was this rock in her neighborhood that she loved to climb on and which led to a backyard adventure. It was such a rich and vivid story that I knew the rock, and her backyard experiences, were really important to her. It was a lesson for me in trusting children. I was also touched that this lesson had given her a chance to remember an experience in which she felt powerful and adventurous.

Clay Neighborhood--A Grade 1 Group Sculpture

“A Ha” Number two: “Drawing for our whole lives”

The other “a ha” came when my other first grade class came bursting into the art room this morning, full of big physical energy. While I tried to settle the children who were literally running circles around the art tables, a boy who has always been reluctant to draw asked if he could go get something in his classroom that he had brought from home to draw from. He is a child I have been working closely with over the past year and a half since I started teaching at this school. I sent him back to class across the hallway and he returned with an armful of toys–plastic wrestling figurines. To draw these figurines, with their bulging muscles and fierce grimaces would be quite a challenge even for a confident artist. but I encouraged him to try anyway. His friend wanted to draw, too. Now this was not my “lesson of the day” but it was a teachable moment and an opportunity which I embraced.

The trusting relationships I had established with my students formed the foundation for this experience. The two boys—I will call them Ben and Eli– were excited to try drawing the toy wrestling figurines. Here’s how we began. I first instructed the boys to  look very closely at the figurines and all their parts. I explained that one approach is to draw a skeleton or stick figure of sorts. I then proceeded to draw a stick figure that mimicked the forms of the wrestler. The two boys watched with total engagement and interest as I elaborated the lines and forms to add contours representing arms, legs, muscles, and other recognizable details. The boys were duly impressed. “How did you learn to draw so well, Ms. Brooks,” they asked? I explained to them how I took drawing classes in college and have spent many hours practicing my drawing. I added that I have been drawing for practically my whole life.

At this point, I encouraged Eli and Ben to try drawing their own figures. While I sketched out a second wrestling figure for Ben, Eli started to color in my sketch with colored pencils. I said, “Eli, We’re collaborating on this drawing!” By giving him permission to add to my drawing, Eli was able to gain confidence in his own drawing ability. I wanted him to experience the pleasure of creating a figure he could recognize, much like the experience of filling in a coloring book.  But the different element was that he watched me do my sketch, building it up from a simple armature of lines into a recognizable form.  We were drawing together and I gave him permission to add to my sketch.

Now I drew a second rough skeleton for Ben and he added in the details. “I’m drawing!” he declared. After drawing for a little while, both boys stated boldly that they were going to “draw for their whole lives”. I felt gratified that the scaffolding I had done led to both boys gaining some confidence and engaging in the drawing process.   r How do you spell wrestling?” asked Eli, He decided he wanted to make a book of his sketches. A few staples later, Eli and Ben returned to their first grade classroom with books entitled “Wrestling Sketches by…” and a new sense of courage and willingness to take on a challenge.

There are so many varied reasons and purposes for drawing. I know that every artist has to start somewhere. It is my strong belief that one’s motivation and drive to learn, at any age or stage of life, is more important than any perception of inborn talent or ability. In this impromptu drawing lesson, the children understood that I was imparting knowledge and skills. I was not trying to impress, or “wow” them with my abilities.  I gave them a drawing strategy they might be able to use independently the next time. This is why the answer to the question “Should I draw with children?” is clearly “It depends.” It depends on your relationship with the child and it also depends on the child’s intention and your intention as the adult.

Robin E. Brooks

February 12, 2007 (edited for clarity on May 14, 2013)