This morning, I stopped the art teacher to ask if there were some crayons I could borrow. My 7th grade class is working on a project based on the Black Death. They started it by reading the textbook to get an overview of the time period as well as the causes and effects of the Plague. Then they did extensive primary source work, reading accounts from the time and looking at woodblock carvings by Holbein and Durer. Once they had finished that work, which had been done in a combination of independent and small group work, they began two responses. The first is a piece of historical fiction that communicates the changes that the Black Death brought to a person living in Europe. The second was to create a drawing of a woodblock, similar to the ones that they had seen.
In the faculty room this morning, I saw Judy, the art teacher, and asked her if she had any crayons that I could borrow for my 1st period class. They seemed like they might be a good tool to use for the final drawing, rather than the colored pencils and markers that I have in my room. With a smile, she said that she did, and then she asked what the project was about. It immediately became clear why I need to ask these sorts of questions. I am not an artist. I love art, but I do not think like an artist. As Judy started asking me questions, I realized that while I value art and give my students lots of opportunities to demonstrate what they know using drawing and illustrations, I need such help in how to think about it.
Part of what I realized is how much Judy valued the work of creating the art, not for the end product alone, but for the work itself. It is important that the students see examples and use the right materials. The process of thinking about the work and then creating it had value, not simply as a means to show something else, but for itself. She wanted to students to approach their art work with the same dedication that I have them approach their reading and writing. Judy pulled out illustrations of woodblocks as well as one that she had created herself.
“See how important the grain of the wood is? You always want to carve with the wood.” Who knew? And until then, in truth, I hadn’t even thought about it or why it even mattered. Seeing an actual woodblock and recognizing how difficult it would be to create made such a difference. I know that I have students who care tremendously about details, and they were fascinated when I discussed them later in class.
Then Judy pointed out that woodblocks are starkly black and white, so that the crayons that I thought I wanted probably would not be the best tool to use. She experimented with different markers and paper until she decided which ones she liked the best. Then she found a piece of wood and began to sketch on it. The medium had a value that I had failed to give it, basically because I didn’t even think about it. By not recognizing the value of the process, I diminished my students’ understanding and effort as well as the art itself. As Judy talked through her thinking process and came to decisions about what would work the best, I became so grateful that I did not have to do that work by myself, because truly, I don’t even know the questions to ask.
When teachers work together, we can build on each other’s strengths. We don’t have to do it all or know it all. I can’t begin to think like an artist, but as I ask questions, I can learn and begin to appreciate more of what happens in other disciplines. I think that I need to observe more classes – math, science, art and music. Classes where I really only know how I was taught and not how students are learning today. I need to understand that more, and I need to ask for help more often!