05/26/2011 at 12:39 pm 4 comments

(You should probably read Part 1 first. Click here to do just that.)

A have a fair amount of friends who insist they aren’t good with kids, largely because they don’t know how to talk to them. There’s really no science to it. At least for me. (At least in my amateur opinion.)

Kids are essentially adults, only smaller. They have worry, just like adults do. They are passionate about things the same way adults are. And they experience the same range of emotion adults do. In my experience, there are only two major adjustments you need to make when talking to children:

1) avoid sarcasm with the younger ones, and

2) adjust your vocabulary accordingly.

Each grade was broken down into three classes, and I met with each class four times over the course of two weeks. The first class was me introducing myself to students, which meant those two rules I mentioned came into play heavily. The next three classes were for brainstorming, sketching, and completing the final. Those preliminary steps are extremely important to me as an artist, and doubly important as an artist working for companies and other people. Understandably, the kids weren’t too thrilled to be making lists in that first class. They’re so excited to MAKE stuff that those first couple of classes seemed like unfortunate roadblocks instead of helpful steps. (Hear that, people wanting to cut funding for art classes? Kids are EXCITED about something in school.)

Aside from the brainstorming and sketching, the other big theme across the board was the use of materials most folks might otherwise throw away. Sure, it’s a very environmentally responsible thing to teach. But for me, it had more to do with teaching that you can still make art even if you can’t afford fancy paper or canvas to make it on. I don’t want any kid to ever think they CAN’T make art at home because they’re too poor to afford the proper materials. I’ve made (and still make) countless things on materials that art purists would roll their eyes at. But in my book, there is no such thing as “proper materials.”

For my K/1 kids, I decided to teach them that their art could be used as a release, a means of expression. Instead of shouting your likes and dislikes from the mountaintops, DRAW them. This was well-received (as soon as I explained that “dislike” is the same thing as “don’t like”— rule #2 in effect). I did have to lay some ground rules: nothing violent; fellow classmates could NOT appear on your “don’t like” list (as it would be hurtful); and please don’t copy the example I just drew on the board. (That last one would be a very hard one to talk the kids out of in MOST classes.)

The finished pieces would be drawn and colored on the blank sides of old cereal boxes. One of my excellent parent helpers trimmed them all to one uniform size, and upon completion, we mounted the finished pieces to a larger black sheet of paper to present the two-panel projects together.

Overall, the kids did a really great job grasping the concept, and completing the two preliminary steps. Here are a few of the finished examples:

2nd & 3rd GRADE

I decided to assign my 2nd & 3rd graders a project I’m quite fond of doing— painted records. The kind folks at 91.7 FM WMSE donated two large boxes of old, scratched vinyl records for my students to use. I took them home, washed them, and spray-painted base coats on them so the kids wouldn’t have to.

But the kids weren’t going to paint just anything on these records. (And yes, most of them knew what records were!) They had to paint themselves how they FEEL they look, instead of how they actually physically look.

Yes, that sounds incredibly artsy-fartsy. As soon as I’d say this, the kids would look at me like I just asked them to fly. Then I’d demonstrate. I’d say, “Look at my face. You see how I look, right?” I would then draw how I felt I looked on the board. This meant I was flat-headed, had wildly monstrous crooked teeth, two horns, a ghost body, and wings. I drew a heart above my head because I love most everything. I drew a coffee cup next to me because, well, duh. I drew a pencil because I draw. And so forth.

The idea was to use your imagination, AND to define who you are without doing so literally. And the kids really took to this. They started by writing down some things they liked, things that defined who they were as a person. They then sketched out (ideally) a few different versions of themselves, with little icons of the things that defined them floating around them. When it was time for the final step, they were handed their records, and a piece of chalk to do their preliminary drawing with. Since we were using paint markers for the final, I wanted to give them a means to be as accurate as possible.

BUT, I also informed them that in art, and only in art, mistakes can make something BETTER. In Math, 1 + 1 is always 2. In History, America always started with 13 colonies. But in art, if you make a mistake, you can turn it into something great. And the only person who knows you made a mistake in your finished piece is YOU.

The kids were really excited about this project, and the results were so brilliant and creative. Take a look at a few of ’em:

(This student made his record a head eating everything happening in the middle. How great is that!)

4th & 5th GRADE

The above image was NOT made by my 4th & 5th graders. It was made by me. It’s a spread from one of my “garbage books,” in which I build collages with things that have meaning to ME— old photos, ticket stubs, receipts, scraps I find while walking through the city. Once glued down, I paint, write and draw all over them. And I can tell you where I found most of the elements glued in my books. They’re my version of a photo album, I guess.

I wanted my 4th & 5th graders to create something SIMILAR to this. Something that represented them, using things they collected and found that meant something to them. But I didn’t want them to do it in a book. At least not for our class time together. So, in keeping with our “reused materials” theme, I took the cardboard sleeves that all the 2nd & 3rd graders’ records came in, split them apart, and handed each student a panel to build their collage on.

Some of the students took to this project immediately. Others, not so much. But once they started finding things, and realized that it could be whatever THEY wanted, because it was about THEM, enthusiasm increased. We had them thinking in layers. We had them thinking of different ways to apply color to their pieces. They started looking at magazine pages full of text as background textures.

This also wound up being a very significant project, in that you didn’t have to draw. For the students who don’t consider themselves that good at drawing, it was a chance for them to excel. And the art teacher who helped me at every turn noticed this. Students who never seemed all that interested in projects that required them to draw were suddenly completely immersed in this project. It was a pretty incredible thing to watch, and especially awesome to see their personalities come through in their projects. See for yourself:

(The above student was the first to want to use the side of the sleeve with art on it. Funny kid.)

(Before I started teaching, this student had some seriously long hair. It kind of defined him. But shortly before I came to the school, he had it cut off and donated to Locks of Love. I have insane amounts of respect for that, AND the fact that he made his piece ABOUT that.)

(I have no doubt that the above student will someday be a visiting art teacher herself.)

I wish I could show you EVERY project, from EVERY student. Actually, I wish you could have been there with me, to see each project evolve into what you see here. It was incredible to watch these projects take shape, to learn how each kid thought, and what they wanted to express.

(Click here to read Pt.3.)



Entry filed under: Event. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .


4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Frank Cvetkovic  |  05/26/2011 at 12:49 pm

    God, this is so inspiring. Kudos, sir! (and kids!)

  • 3. Andre Bosseau  |  05/26/2011 at 3:10 pm

    Amazing story and great artwork!Helping kids to express themselves though Arts.In the past I worked as a janitor at a school(Mt.Olive in milwaukee I collected art work from the garbage.Don’t know why they never keep it? I found this painted paper mache head,what struck me on this piece it was painted with Packer colors.I called it the Packer Godhead only comes out during football season and my friends thinks it cool.I’ve have kept this piece for20+yrs.I appreciate it cause I know that a child did this piece.Children arts are fun and interesting. Community service at it’s heights.Great job:)

    • 4. dwellephant  |  05/26/2011 at 3:22 pm

      Thanks, man. The work IS amazing. Those kids did some incredible stuff. I think some of them even surprised themselves!

      And that’s equally incredible that you kept that piece all these years. I hope that kid— who’s now probably an accountant somewhere— stumbles across this, and geeks out knowing someone liked his stuff so much.


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