Art education in the public schools has come a long way since I was a boy. In fact, it has gone through quite a few changes since I began my career as a professional art teacher nearly twenty years ago. Educational trends will come and go but, despite these trends, it’s always good to remember why you chose to teach in the first place.
As a child I thrived in art class and thankfully, I don’t ever recall having any art teachers who were discouraging or condescending to myself or to my fellow classmates, with regards to skill, talent, artistic ability, or lack thereof. Sometimes I’ll talk with a person who remembers having an art teacher who told them that they had no talent, or were bad at drawing, or something along those lines. It makes me sad hearing these things and has me wondering what kind of potential was lost as a result of this kind of negative feedback.
As an art teacher to young children, I think it’s important to understand where your students are coming from. Every single child who steps into the art room has a different background, comes from different circumstances, and has a different set of abilities and strengths due to both nature and nurture. I feel as if it’s my job to gauge where my students are ability-wise and take it from there. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can these children improve upon them and how much effort do they need to make to improve and reach their fullest potential? I try to capitalize on the positive, even when a student seems to be beyond help. Most of the time a little bit of encouragement can go a long way.
Photo by Steve Loya
We are living in interesting times. Then again, when have we not been living in interesting times? In the art classroom it’s my job to keep kids interested. Since I started teaching, there has always been a push for technology in the classrooms. I have absolutely nothing against this kind of thing, I’ve seen so many good things come from it as a result. However, I’d like to think of the art classroom as a place where it’s ok to make a little bit of a mess and get back in touch with that primal urge to work with one’s hands. In art, it’s ok to get a little dirty in the name of learning, exploration, experimentation, and discovery. At the elementary school level, it is absolutely essential to exercise and develop those fine motor-skills. In art class, that’s what we do!
There’s no doubt that kids these days love their computers and electronic devices. Believe it or not, kids some thirty or so years ago, did as well. When I was ten, I remember my parents buying my brother and I the Atari 2600 for Christmas. Needless to say, we were obsessed with it. Still, I had never lost my interest to go outside and play in the woods, ride my bike, or skateboard for hours on end. I also continued to pick up pens, pencils, crayons and paper, and drew, despite the fact that Pac Man game was down there in my basement, just waiting for me to help him chomp on some unsuspecting Ghost Monsters.
From what I’ve seen over the past couple of decades, the same still holds true for today’s young people, contrary to what some might tell you, and for the most part, children still crave what is malleable. Yes, this is true - kids still love to work with their hands and create things from real, three-dimensional, physical objects. I witness it on a regular basis in the art classroom, when young people make imaginative sculptures from once-lifeless lumps of clay, build inventive structures from discarded scraps of wood, or construct brilliant collages from colorful pieces of paper.
Photo by Steve Loya
It is always a joy to witness creativity in action and I would argue, that it’s quite possibly the best part about being an art teacher. Then again, I’m sure most art teachers would agree with this. In the art classroom I witness the creative seeds being sewn into the minds of young inventors, architects, artists, and engineers, as their creations begin to take shape and materialize. Many times I’ve had students come up to me and say that they want to become an artist when they grow up. I tell them that they already are an artist, since they’re already making art. Now this might not be true on a professional level, but on a more personal human level, it very much is the truth. I think of that popular quote by Picasso about how we’re all artists as children, but forget to remain artists as adults.
The art classroom is a place for kids to enter that creative zone. It’s a space where imagination, creativity and self-expression is encouraged - all qualities essential to being human. A term I use to describe what we do in the art classroom is something I call “serious play”. Yes we play, but it’s not quite the play you might see out on the playground or at recess time, though there are similarities and parallels. The play we do involves work as well. While there is plenty of room for error, mistakes and failure, as their teacher, I try to push my students to improve on a number of levels. In fact, for many the word failure has some negative connotations, but I let my students know that it is simply a part of the process. There is always room for improvement, as long as we keep on trying and striving to improve. These are life skills that will hopefully move beyond the classroom and eventually stay with people into adulthood.
Art class is a place where young people are free to get into that “zone” and a creative mindset. It’s a place to utilize and experience that part of their brain that can often get neglected throughout the day and week. A good art education makes for a well-rounded individual. I liken a world without art education, to a person who lifts weights with only one arm. You can imagine over an extended period of time, using only their left arm, eventually they’re going to look kind of funny, kind of lopsided. Art class restores the balance, and we art educators encourage young thinkers and dreamers to set the wheels in motion, to see their creative efforts materialize.
To learn more about Steve Loya and view his artwork please click here
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