Teaching with Contemporary Art

The Same, But Different

Artist at work: Cai Guo-Qiang. Production still. 2005

Artist at work: Cai Guo-Qiang. Art21 production still. 2005

About a year ago at this time I was getting ready for Art21 to come in and film me teaching about the theme of power with my freshman Studio in Art class. I was a bit nervous, but when it was all said and done, I was happy with what we had filmed and the story that got told about how students tackled the idea of visually depicting power in a variety of ways through painting. The number of hours that went into that 5 minutes of film (fame?) still blows me away.

It’s that time of year again. And while I’ve decided that I will return to the theme of power with my new students, the beginning has already been different. Rather than start with a customary skill-building approach similar to our recent drawing unit, which is the way we began in 2008, I decided after looking at some reflections in my notebook that maybe I wanted to begin with specific challenges students already have when it comes to painting. It seemed a lot easier than assuming what they did or didn’t know.

Borrowing an idea I learned while mentoring teachers in New York City, I set up a “parking lot” (aka a large chart for students to place written responses to a specific question) this past Monday and gave each student four Post-It notes in the ugliest color I could find. I asked each of them this time around to identify four specific challenges they have experienced working with paint in the past (a quick survey told me that over 90% of the class had some experience with painting pictures). After they finished, students placed their answers in the parking lot I had set up near the door.

Later that afternoon, I looked over the chart and realized that the beginning of this unit would be a little different than last year. Based on the answers I received, students wanted the most help with blending, color mixing, and coming up with good ideas (“Not making a mess” was a close runner-up, by the way). So this time around, we will be trying some specific experiments around mixing and blending before re-emphasizing, as was the case last year, a variety of ways artists get good ideas and put them in motion.

In my work as a teacher and an artist, I am constantly reminded that just because something went well once doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be better the next time around. Starting the Power unit in a slightly different way allows me to show students I am taking their feedback seriously and that I’m ready to help with what they need as we move into something new.


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