While explaining one of my chaotic paint/spindle collages to a viewer, I was reminded that at some point a work of art has to come together, that the main object had to come into view. My art inquisitor asked what that chunk of wood in the upper left quadrant of the piece, the one just emerging from a slather of pink and green acrylic, represented. Represented? Good God. I thought a moment, cocked a smile and informed her that the chunk of wood was what I called the Dairy Case.
I gloated. Where is the Dairy Case located at every supermarket you’ve ever entered? Far back wall, Right? You have to walk past everything else to get to the milk, cheese, and, uh, Greek yogurt. So, she queried, that chunk of wood is the key to this collage? I hemmed. I hawed. Maybe not. It could be. She shook her head, no longer interested in the musings of the artist. Hey, we’re still in Deconstruction, right?
So what does the dairy case have to do with Don Wettrick? Don is the guy running an amazing program in Noblesville which, according to his notes, “Allows students to explore beyond the classroom . . . students take on events – really whatever they are passionate about--.” His wide-ranging program has high school students starting, for instance, a sustainable school in Ghana. Wow. His students learn from failing, succeeding, and trying things different ways. Aha. ‘Beyond the classroom’, ‘passionate’, ‘failing and succeeding’. I get that. Those of us working to blend our classrooms with technology understand the struggles and successes. We squint and strain to spot the objective somewhere up ahead. Don Wettrick has set up the dairy case back there at the far end of our educational supermarket. We and our students must travel the long aisles past amazing bargains and baubles, apps and sites and blogs, back there where the coolers hum and a blue light of hope glows.
Under the tutelage of Kevin Schamel, eLearning guru, I took one step toward that place. The idea: have teams of art students compete in the creation of a sculpture. Each team would choose an artist whose work they embraced. They would design a plan that would help them win, in this case, a pizza party. Students imagined the result, created an archive of their struggle, of their successes. Not exactly a sustainable school in Ghana, but at least my kids have moved past the deli counter, the frozen mac’n’cheese dinners and waffles, and staked out a place far from the teacher-driven classroom they once inhabited.
So how did this go? I’ve run collaborative projects for many years. Now, the notion that I was no longer the classroom art enforcer, but the guy who fulfilled wish lists of materials, gave mentorial comments when needed, the one who cleaned brushes in the back, discreetly staying out of the way, shaped not just my new role, but my students’ new roles. Choices had to be made. Various tasks had to be accomplished. A presentation loomed up ahead, two weeks hence. I offered the pizza party as an enticement, but student interest and passion, the energy of unfettered cooperation drove the project. Yes, at times I had to shove my hands in my pockets and become slightly deaf and blind. No, not every task was accomplished with polish and vision. But the results of their work traveled far from any solution I would have anticipated. And I managed to know my students better in those two weeks than in the previous ten. Also, new skills needed to be learned and employed to progress in this project. True to Keeler’s suggestion, I let students struggle with this, not allowing them, of course, to run too far ahead of me! Yup, I was a learner, too, in a community of learners.
Key to this team process was the ‘Group’ feature contained in the Canvas ‘People’ tool. It allows teachers to communicate with small groups. (I prefer the designation ‘teams’.) Lessons can be honed to each team’s specific needs and processes. I’ve only scratched the surface here, but it is a wow discovery. You could say that this ‘Group’ feature gives me a glimpse at Wettrick’s glowing challenge. Was this project successful with all my classes? No. Another 7th/8th grade class was unable to embrace the leadership, decison-making, and self-driven energy necessary to succeed. I returned to my old role with them and did my best to inch them forward. Joy Kirr remarks that her shifted classroom took years to develop. So goes the struggle.
A new wave of students is due in my classroom next week. What will their natures allow? How far toward independence will they venture? What sort of passion will carry them along? The difference: a new vision exists for what is possible. Further, another blended piece in the puzzle of readiness has fallen into place. This dramatic shift informs measures I should be taking to prepare my 5th and 6th graders for this process.
That glowing place at the background of our struggles, that chunk of wood in the slather of our trials . . . (OK, lousy metaphor) . . . should be the objective toward which we advance with our students. This is about their process, their struggle, their independence. Maybe, like that Deconstructed artist, our view is not the vital part. Their view is critical and the object of their struggle must involve their vision and their successes.
Did I mention how much fun it was watching this unfold? Move forward and enjoy.
Today's thoughts come to us from Mr. Richard Green. Richard currently teaches art at Dennis Intermediate School in Richmond, Indiana. A native of Massachusetts, he taught in the Bay State for a decade before making his move to the Sunshine State. During his tenure in Florida, he spent a year in Nagano, Japan as an exchange teacher. This eye-opening, life-changing experience fired up his teaching with a worldview and the confidence that comes from pushing outside your comfort zone. Now a resident of Indiana for nearly a decade something just as awesome has happened. He found a home and a renewed clarity for teaching art. His passion for teaching, writing, and producing his own brand of art continues to rise.