Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"When I Make Art My Head Gets Calm"

I. An Art Story

I entered a second grade classroom today and witnessed a boy hit another child and yell when his group moved away from him.  The teacher, an experienced and excellent one, was engaged with 6 or 7 children at the time and hearing the outburst said to the boy, "Come and read with me. We'll work together."

The boy, though, was having none of that as he too was hurt as the group members had moved away from him and one had said he said a curse word which he was vehemently denying. He told the teacher no and began to run from her.   I gathered from the teacher's look and a quick exchange that the outburst and what one might read as defiance was more common than not.  I asked the child what his name was and he said, Charlie (pseudonym) and I introduced myself.  I then asked what work he needed to do.  He shook his head and ran from where I was standing.  I sat next to his desk and he quickly sidled over and when I asked if he had a notebook he said yes and took it out to show me.  I asked if he had a pencil and he said yes again and again pulled it out of his desk and showed me.  I asked if he liked to draw and he asked me if I did and I told him, 'Yes, I like to make art.' He told me he liked to 'make art' too.
Can you make a daisy? he asked.
Can you make it in my book? he asked opening his notebook. As he handed me the pencil he cautioned:  Be careful with the pencil, it's my last sharpened one.
I drew a daisy on one page and he drew an approximation of what I had drawn on the next page.  We went back and forth this way drawing a daisy,  a daisy caught in a fence, and a sky with clouds and sun--all things he had determined. He did not copy what I drew, but improvised.

Oddly, we seemed to be having a conversation as we traded images back and forth.

It was then that I recalled taking a picture of a daisy with my phone and pulled out the phone and asked if he wanted to see a photo of a daisy.  He was eager to and as we scrolled through images in the photo stream, he indicated which ones he wanted to see. For the next 10 minutes he would select an image and then create a version of it in his notebook.

The whole time Charlie worked he stood or leaned on his desk. Sometimes he looked like he was dancing as he put his whole body into his drawing.  For example when he had selected an image of a tree in fog, he made very light pencil strokes across the page and as he worked he narrated.
This is like fog. See it's light. I made the pencil light. 
The images he selected were interesting to me.  For example, he came upon a photograph of a red square and was captivated.  We talked about how making that image in pencil might not work as well and so we found a red magic marker and he made a large red square in his notebook.  This was followed by a black rectangle and an orange square.  I asked him if he liked the look of the blocks of color and he said he did.

I then pulled up a few images by Mark Rothko.  He wanted to see who the artist was so we looked at a photo of the artist and then spent the next five minutes looking at Rothko paintings--images he looked at with great intensity.

As we were making art a child Charlie had the altercation with came over and told Charlie that he was sorry for telling the teacher that Charlie had said a curse word when he hadn't. Charlie said he was sorry for hitting him. As Charlie's classmates made their way to the rug, I asked Charlie if he felt he could rejoin his class.  He told me not yet and continued to look at the Rothko paintings.
"I like these," he told me and then indicated one of the paintings he wanted to make.
He asked if I might start the drawing as he couldn't see it all.
I know it's not just red. You see, he said pointing to the edge of the work. But I can't figure it out.
You're right, it isn't a solid color, but a mixture of colors.  That's good noticing. 
I started and Charlie finished the work. He began what was his last drawing and said he was going to make it gold, not the colors Rothko used.
It's better this way.
When he completed the drawing he indicated that he was ready to rejoin his classmates and said,
I figured this out. When I make art my head gets calm.
Sounds like a good thing to know, I told him and watched as he took himself and his drawing to the rug.

II. Planning

When I was designing the summer literacy project, I did not imagine Charlie.  And frankly that's a problem. I wonder how many developers ever conjure Charlie when designing.  While Charlie's peers were working cooperatively to answer text-dependent questions based on a read aloud, Charlie was making his head calm.  I think about the grand schemes and plans that get made (like the one I did) and how the lived moments in the classroom must trump the pre-made plans. This is important to know, especially for administrators who often are entering into a scene already underway. 
With what eyes do we read this scene?   
What has happened before our arrival?  
Imagining the beginning coinciding with our arrival is to be mistaken.  We are always entering into a lived space.  Some caution is needed in order to recognize how partial our undertsanding of what we are seeing actually is.

Whereas many school officials are placing emphasis on CCSS-inspired tasks, we need to make sure that there is enough room for the teacher and the child to detour from the made plan.  This is so very important and once again highlights the necessity of teacher and child agency.  I think of this as in some districts, teachers are required to copy the standard(s) they are attending to on the board for other adults and/or children to view.  I'm sure this is well intended, but do wonder who is being served by this structure and what then might an outsider make of Charlie and his drawings. Is there enough room for novel learning in the classroom based on external standards?

There are all kinds of things to learn and I couldn't help but think that Charlie's insight was far more critical than responding to a text dependent question based on a read aloud.  I'm curious as to how you read it.


  1. This is beautiful. I hope Charlie can grow without you being there!

    1. Thanks Nancy. I'm sure he will. I also will be at his school one day a week during the next school year. I will look for him.

  2. "When I make art my head gets calm." Please tell Charlie that was something I needed to learn.

  3. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned as a teacher. This is also why I've found the notion of 'instructional core: teacher, student, content" appealing.

    I think the biggest variable in the learning equation is the people, ie teacher, students and dynamics. Multiply that by the number of students in the class and one can get an insight into the limitations of a plan, even a differentiated one. Flexibility must factor in, knowing when to go with the flow and when to rein in.

    One of the things that struck me with the story above is giving Charlie the opportunity to recognize within himself when he was ready. Such self-awareness is invaluable. "When you're ready" is a line I use in my classes but, reflecting now, wonder how many of my students even understand what that means!

    There's so much I'd like to reflect on this and perhaps a blog post is more appropriate for me. :-)

    Thanks for sharing this story.

    1. Malyn, I hope you do a follow up post Please let me know if you do as I would enjoy reading it.

  4. The implications beyond his statement are profound. Have been thinking (and writing) about what deep engagement/focus/work in the visual arts affords us when we spend the time creating. Charlie's description sounds similar to what I regard as a mindfulness through artmaking. Thank you for recounting this experience.