Teaching with Contemporary Art

Persistence and Patience Paying Off

Celebrating persistence... Image: bleachereport.com

Knowing full well that the New York Rangers can be out of the playoffs before I read this Sunday’s paper…. and at the same time anything can happen…. it’s probably a perfect moment for our semi-annual hockey post that highlights some bizarre (or perhaps, pertinent?) parallel between the New York Rangers and teaching with contemporary art. This post is devoted to persistence.

At the start of the school year I was assigned a class to teach that was, well, let’s just say they weren’t exactly ready for prime time. The group as a whole had so many challenging personalities (not to mention personalities that would challenge you) that more than once since September I have thought about skipping the my exit off the highway and just driving until I ran out of gas instead of going to school. It took three quarters of the year to develop a relationship with this group and last week, after the blood, sweat and tears of 140 classes……… I got to share Glenn Ligon’s season 6 segment.

It’s not that Glenn Ligon was some magic elixir, even though it’s one of my favorite from the current season. The curricular stars were aligned and it just seemed like the right time to enhance what I was teaching (a unit investigating the ways artists are influenced by and “picture” literature) with Ligon’s segment. I felt confident that the students could and would dig deep into the some of the Before Viewing and While Viewing questions that are part of our snazzy new season 6 educator’s guide which, by the way, you can download here as a free PDF file.

What I realized as we got into this particular unit, as well as recent units of study about what makes non-objective and non-representational art works of art in the first place, was that there was a level of trust, risk-taking and questioning happening that just wasn’t going on in the first semester. Persistence and patience was paying off. Students were asking better questions, respecting one another a little more (still not as much as I’d like) and thinking more broadly about what was possible in their work. They had recently been given less restriction related to media and the size of work they could make. Even more emphasis was being placed on choosing media and making work that specifically served their ideas.

Persistence has certainly been paying off for the Rangers, too. More than once over the past two weeks they have been on the brink of losing a big game or being flat out eliminated from the playoffs but the team has rebounded beautifully to stay alive. With Monday’s win they assured all of us they won’t be on the golf course at least through the coming weekend. And it’s the same way at school. The good lessons, discussions and risk-taking with this particular group keep leading to another level of interest and engagement. When these conditions exist, teaching with contemporary art is less of a struggle and more of an experience that broadens the curriculum.