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(Art) Teacher Blog Post
Notes on a new school year. I'm starting my twelfth year of helping teens make art.
I’m sitting here with my coffee and the screen door showing me another blue summer sky. My patio allows for privacy and gives me colorful things to look at, that enhances all of the natural things- ice plants, oak and cypress trees. The neighbor across the way is always listening to Latin music in the morning. Not too loud. I can hear cars warming up in driveways, which is not really cars warming up (since it’s California and it’s not that cold) but most likely people getting their phones set up with a podcast or audiobook or music playlist for their work commute.
Summer lets me have this time. It’s when I recharge, focus on my own life and the art, writing and crafts I do that allows me to help young people find ways to make things.
Another school year is just about here and I’m thinking about what I might work on, as a teacher, with my students. What things I might be considering or re-considering- what strategies I might attempt to employ…
In teaching art to teens, in a one-to-one setting, a lot of the time is spent allowing them to make art the way they see art as. I have to let them do this, first.
Most of the time this is a combination of things their parents or guardians told them art is, combined with projects that the internet shares with them on their feeds. This is when I learn how hard they are on themselves, or how rigid they are about their perception of the world. It’s my job to listen and observe and be ready to hopefully inject a teeny-tiny seed of something at the exact right moment, that allows for a fraction of change. One fraction of an open mind to merely allow the idea of change at first can sometimes be the key that gets everything going. Other times, students just stick with that one little spark until some time further down the proverbial road after they’ve had more life experiences or perhaps another teacher gets through to them. Sometimes students see me as a figure to fight against, even though I never fight back or start a “fight,” for that matter, and they basically just checkmark task boxes toward completion of the semester. In that case, I hope I can be a pleasant part of their day. People are so different, even though we are also kinda similar.
Sometimes parents don’t think I’m challenging a student enough, and they never really like me. Sometimes they think that and despite that, I trust my gut with the kid and eventually the parent thanks me for my class being the reason their child attends school. It’s so nuanced. I never know.
Art is rarely taken seriously by parents, which I’m so thankful for. It’s a good gig. I mean, some parents know how important art is in life, but they have to get their kids through the system of learning and onto an adult life. Passing their math and english tests and then taking the SAT’s and applying to colleges and programs are at the forefront of concern. I don’t blame them. A student who chooses a life of art is most often choosing a life of uncertainty and rejection. While poverty might never be an outcome for many of my students, based on their level of financial support at this stage- one never knows where a life devoted to art might lead.
I share the artworld as I know it, with them. Mostly contemporary artists, designers, photographers and filmmakers, but we also move further back into art history and make connections. I do what my favorite college art history professors did and share with enthusiasm the circumstances of artists’ lives and the changes that came about from their art. I like to draw lines between them and all of us as humans, no matter the time, in regard to motivations for creating or being a part of what we later can determine as an art-movement.
And then there is the healing element. The act of free expression, the confidence that can grow from someone providing positive feedback- sharing work at school, with peers… the list goes on. Sometimes the kid just likes being in the fun art room and chatting and using their hands for fifty minutes. I try to make them laugh, if I can.
At the school I teach at, our students work in classes with a teacher in a small office-like room, each room focusing on a different subject, and then they go out into a setting with their peers to do homework, with help from other adults. It’s not the public school situation I grew up in where we were thrown into it all as a group and left to solve social problems on our own, which I happen to think is a good thing, but it’s a very specific kind of place. Specialized learning.
Because of this, and shy art students letting me know their desire to make friends with other creative kids, I host an art club at lunch, one day each week.
It’s nothing fancy, usually, as us teachers have a lot on our plate every day. I just sit at a table where the kids are and bring some drawing supplies and a prompt. I find that not having a plan makes students uncomfortable. That said, they can work on whatever they want and while they do so, they chat with others while looking down, inevitably talking about how “terrible” their art is. Their peers are supportive. There is something so great about keeping our hands busy to help us socialize.
What is so wonderful and adorable, is how I see students really push through their anxieties, sometimes. I can see how hard it is just to move over to the table with other kids and allow yourself to be the kind of vulnerable we have to be when showing others our art.
I’ve learned the hard way not to be very aggressive in trying to make students meet each other, although they tell me in class that they want help making friends. If I try and “make” two teens meet they almost always become mutually comatose, right in front of me- so I just sit there during our club meeting and chit-chat and make sure everyone knows they are welcome. I pull up a chair and shove materials in front of them.
The worst for me is when their chatter becomes inappropriate for the setting. This is where I miss my public school education of the 80’s. I’m meant to step in and carefully move the conversation to a “safer” place, but what I’m more comfortable doing is acting like an old fashioned mother and jokingly pointing my finger and saying something like “Shhh, no!”, not unlike The Dog Whisperer. I grew up in a very “stop it” environment and it just comes out of me, albeit with a smile. I don’t have time for the buttons that teens so often wish to press. I’m not mean though. Certainly, I’m a pushover. Kids just have to learn to be kind, especially when they expect to be treated kindly by others.
This summer I’ve been acting, once again, as a “door person” at a dance club my partner recently acquired. I don’t have to tell you that dealing with adults who are drinking and having fun is SO much worse, but SO similar to totally sober teenagers who have a not-yet-fully-developed frontal lobe in their brains. Meaning, when a teen does something that seems obviously to be a bad idea and we ask them, “Why did you do that?” and they respond with, “I don’t know,” it’s the truth! They lack that little voice or switch in their heads that will come, in time.
Adults letting loose on the dancefloor with the help of intoxicants, on the other hand, have a lot to release. Stresses, obligations, rules, fear, worry, anger… They want to ignore that pesky frontal lobe, and I get it. In both situations I’m meant to smile and exhibit patience. In both situations I wish for everyone to feel free and transcend all the bad stuff, if they can. In both situations, I would rather it not be any of my business, but alas-
I’ve found my path to service, and it’s good. What’s even better is that it’s earned me moments of solitude, like this one. Coffee and the sound of birds outside. Soon someone else will be taking my door person job, thank God.
So what can a teacher be?
My most important teacher of “recent” years just passed away. Shirley Luke Schnell. I wrote some things about her and shared it all at a local open mic. (I’m trying to get myself back into the practice of sharing my work, in person.) I wanted to express what made her someone important in my life.
What I found myself choosing to share had less to do with things like “scaffolding lessons” and inspiring lectures, and more to do with her presenting us, her students, with subtle and mysterious moments that added up to a whole and forced us to look without as well as within. I chose to share her moments of quirkiness, and how her appearance seemed so opposite of who she expressed herself as with words and through her art. I chose to share her seriousness and how she so personally connected with each of us.
This isn’t something I’d tell teens but- we create because we are more, as well as nothing. We investigate and question existence with words in unusual ways and we also use elements other than words and shed rules that we often need in our day-to-day lives as a reminder of something we don’t truly know but we can feel. That’s a part of what I got from Shirley, because I just happened to be ready to receive it, and because she knew what she was doing. I hope I am working toward something similar.
If you want to read more of my thoughts on teaching you can click on these links that lead to my “teacher blog” on my website, lindalay.com.
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