Through Art we can elevate children’s minds to new levels. This blog and the next feature two profoundly powerful teachers in Maine schools, Waynflete in Portland and Watershed in Camden. I observed and spoke with teachers and students in the late spring months and from all of them learned unexpected lessons.
THE STORY: Introducing her students to Maine (and NYC) artist, Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Rikki explained her work concisely: “Nevelson was the first recycler. She used materials that were available to her”. Nevelson made her intentions clear, saying, ” I wanted a medium that was immediate.Wood was the one thing I could communicate with spontaneously and get what I wanted.” With her collection of found objects, Nevelson selected and combined elements to form a new whole. Rikki laid out the materials for her students, they chose what they wanted from the lot, and began trying out Nevelson’s techniques. From the outset Rikki explicitly defined the problem and its parameters. She told me, “If I just gave them the wooden pieces without any boundaries, they would likely build tall.” The problem she posed was no different from any real world problem; these children had to work with constraints. Within that context, kids let their imaginations go, some working from the edges in, while intentionally placing and overlapping elements. For most, they worked without a plan, piece by piece. The process was critical, not the outcome. One boy told me, “For me, it’s a lot like making a city.” The next challenge pushed kids’ thinking much further. They were to replicate their three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional pen drawing. This required a different kind of thinking and a concrete strategy. Each student designer now had to observe, consider spatial relationships, and create an accurate configuration – a new translation. Whereas kids were “thinking big” the first time around, they now had to be analytical, looking at the precise relationships between one piece and the next. I watched Rikki as she took her place by each child’s side at the table; she listened carefully to understand how her students were thinking. Her role was not only to guide them but to support the intellectual processes that were at the heart of the project. She focused their thinking through purposeful inquiry, each time, asking them to take their thoughts one step beyond. REFLECTIONS: After the children went back to their classroom, we had a chance to talk about the experience. I was interested in what skills Rikki had planned for, why she had chosen these materials, what she expected vs.what actually occurred, and ultimately why she believes that Art propels kids to become adventurous thinkers. It was clear to both of us that any project that sparks kids’ imaginations and intellects must have meaning for them. Rikki launched this project by connecting a group of five and six year olds to Nevelson’s story, giving them an interesting real world context. Planning the Artwork around materials that were available, she inspires kids with rich mediums and empowers them with room and time to create. As for intentionally teaching kids thinking skills, Rikki says, “What often happens is a surprise!” Rikki is a brilliant facilitator, who with decades of experience, has mastered the art of noticing and asking good questions. For Rikki, Art is a language through which (and for some the most accessible) students can convey their ideas and understanding.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have observed her teaching, which is a veritable artform in its own right.
Nancy Harris Frohlich
In the next BLOG: Project II: Learning from a Pro: High School Students Design Longboards