Teaching Who I Am.
“There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness”.— Emily Carr
Knitting together a teaching narrative.
Here I sit in my most comfortable chair beside the door to the garden. The door is open. A white cabbage moth floats through the doorway in search of a flower or fruit to land on and not finding any in the kitchen lightly turns back to the greenery outside
I have decided, as I sometimes do in late summer, to begin a knitting project. When I began to knit as a child, I learned the knit/purl stitch; it is very mundane but good to build from. This project will however be a challenge having a wonderful cable pattern reminiscent of the knitting I became familiar with while living in Eastern Canada. I looks difficult on the surface with its twisting textures but with the right tools, and some understanding that comes with time spent together, it can be a pleasant project.
The wool is soft and yet retains its natural scratchy feel. In my mind it smells of the sea. The lanolin seeps into my fingertips as memories slip into my thoughts.
-Slip next three stitches onto cable needle and hold in back of the work.
My mind turns to a ‘most difficult teaching experience’. I smile. I smile because the experience was in actuality a ‘most amazing learning experience’. The two classrooms were unique, sitting at the top of an old fire station. The students were special in every sense of the word. They each came with a youth worker, and a sordid past. Some were convicted of unimaginable crimes, some were victims of violent family situations, and some had too many behavior problems to tease apart. All were living in group homes. There were ten students in all, five in each classroom.
-Knit three from left needle, knit three from cable needle.
I quickly learned that these students would require my time, my presence. They would demand my attention in their own way and I had to be listening to each young person as soon as I walked through the door.
-Purl three, knit three, repeat across the row.
Three boys in this multi-age math class were the ones I would learn from the most, for their stories repeat and reverberate in my teaching even to this day.
The youngest boy who could not sit still, acted out in a cycle of behaviors. He would at times be aloof and cold, shut off from all of us in the class. I noticed how the other students reacted to this behavior. They would ‘go with his flow’ and seemingly respect his wish to be left alone, but they would also adopt his gloomy feeling and the room would become heavy. When he was ‘on’ and active, all of the students would join in and be loud, busy, laughing and talkative. The room would become light , buzzing with energy. I found that it was my place in these bipolar moments to balance those mood swings. When it was a quiet day for him, I would attempt to pick up the mood. When it was a very highly emotional day for him, I would direct the students’ focus away from him to calm the group. This young boy was, in his way, teaching me the careful dance of teaching and learning.
-Knit one, purl six, knit two, purl four.
Another boy in this class had much stronger and abrupt behaviors. One pivotal moment of learning for me came when I was sitting with him outside the classroom. He wasn’t able to sit with the others that morning because the group was too distractive. I gave him some time to settle into his work and then I sat with him. After only a few minutes of looking at the math problem he was working on, this very thin, wiry boy moved with the speed of lightning across the room, grabbed a heavy wooden chair and threw it at me. Actually, he threw the chair past me. I didn’t have time to flinch. I had barely registered what had just occurred when he sat beside me, very close to my side and asked me when my birthday was, if it was coming up soon. It was in this sudden moment of explosive energy and emotion that I understood this young man wanted something from me. He was seeking my complete attention. My other four students were working on their math with the youth workers and another teacher, so I took the time to chat about birthdays and to build our relationship.
-Knit two, purl two, repeat.
My most influential teacher was the oldest boy. He entered the classroom late in the year and would undoubtedly alter the feeling of the group. Whispers and quick glances amongst the two girls that morning were my first clue that I would have to stay focused all day. It was during the math discussions that connections between each individual student and I would be strengthened. This new student was no exception. In fact he added a new flavor to the group that we didn’t expect. HIs age and inquisitive nature caused us to begin our new ‘Friday Art Program’. It was an amazingly effective reward program for the group. It all began with his questions about the practicality of learning geometry. Everyone had something to say. I remember stating that math could be found everywhere. The group took this idea and chewed on it all week long. They talked about it in other classes. They thought about it outside of school. I made a plan to go onto the internet with the class to ‘look at math’ on Friday, if their behavior was controlled during the week.
When Friday came, all of us looked at fractals together. Some of the students from the other group shared in this exploration as well. We talked; we were all amazed at ‘nature’s math’. We then began a simple drawing project, creating a basic fractal and then inserting our names. The students looked forward to every Friday after that activity. On Monday they would begin to ask me what Friday’s art activity would be. There were some Fridays that one or two students had to sit out the afternoon, missing the art project because of poor verbal or poor behavioral choices. There was one Friday that I sat for an extended amount of time beside the oldest student and chatted about books he loved to read, the characters he related to and the stories he had written. That’s when he revealed his inner child, full of hope. I realized that he could not be reduced to the crime he had committed; he had a future and could move on from his past.
-Repeat rows 1-8 for pattern.
I realized then that during my time at this school I had been learning the skill of listening to the child. I had not allowed the students’ past information to cloud the interactions we had. I knew in those moments that building relationships was my leadership style. With tools that could support me, I could go beyond the knit/purl stitch and create a cable knit rich with many layers.
From Crochet to Knitting; a teacher’s beginnings.
When I was eight years old, my grandmother shared with me her love of crochet. As we sat side by side, she showed me the main stitches and the freedom of creating any shape desired, by increasing or by looping the knots together.
I would practice for hours without any real direction. I had a favourite crochet hook that felt good in my little fingers. Crochet to me was like making an imaginative drawing.
Learning crochet was very much like learning to drawing and create art.
Not long after studying those beginning stitches, I began to apply my learning to new ideas and projects. As I read through the instructions in crochet magazines, I increased my learning and began to really understand the elements of crochet. I would bring each new idea to my grandmother for inspection, validation, and approval. Soon I felt confident enough to describe myself as, “one who crochets” and I began to find my flow within each new piece.
It was also my grandmother who gave me knitting instructions. Knitting, my grandmother taught, is more restrictive than crochet. It comes with a set of expectations, a pattern to be strictly followed.
My quiet yet knowing grandmother taught me to knit by example. She would sit close beside me and watch for my first errors, all the while knitting her own piece. Mistakes were an opportunity to learn each problem that would come up, teaching how to self correct. Attentively, she would reach in and take my needles, asking me what had just happened. This would cause me to reflect on what exactly I was doing with the yarn in that moment. Had I just placed the needle under the other or over? Doing so would construct a completely different stitch. Reflecting upon the influence my grandmother had in my life and my creative pursuits, I am realizing she had quite an effect on my way of teaching methods as well.
Taking my straight needles from their quilted holder, I consider the similarities of knitting and teaching. Before the needles and yarn come together in a serious investigation of the subject, I will have to make a swatch. This preparatory sample will show me how the yarn interacts with the needles. It is during this groundwork, that I learn how each single stitch, in combination with others, creates an interesting grouping. I must also consider the capacity of the needles required. Larger needles are a good choice for a simple subject that won’t take much time or effort. A more intricate project will need delicate needles to produce the intended goal.
The type of yarn must be taken into consideration as well during this beginning step.
A scratchy, loosely wound yarn is more difficult for the needles to control. Time and care must be taken for the yarn to play its role in the endeavor.
While working on the swatch, I will also check the gauge of my work. In this pause, I reflect on what I have just learned about the combination of the needles with the type of yarn and the biases I bring to the project. These three variables must be checked at the beginning stage and throughout the design to make sure the direction and focus remain consistent.
Focus is important while knitting. There are many times that I work on a pattern and lose attention in the middle of it. My mind drifts and I don’t give individual consideration to each stitch. I fail to notice how the needles merge with the yarn. It is at this critical moment when a stitch could be dropped. While it doesn’t seem important for the work as a whole to lose only one stitch, a gentle tug in any direction will reveal the catastrophe that could occur. When one stitch is forgotten, left to slide away, others join and lose their connections, their relationship with others. Left to their own devices, these loose stitches will unravel the entire effort, leaving a gaping hole that cannot easily be put back together. It is necessary then, to keep a ‘stitch minder’ tucked into the work while continuing with the piece. Depending on where I am and what I have handy, I might use a ragged piece of cloth or an intended plastic loop to place into the beginning of the row, noting my ideas, goals and possible difficulties ahead. The minder keeps my focus, I can clearly see ahead to the end of the process while looking back at what we have learned and make adjustments along the way.
There are times, as with cable knit stitches, I need some assistance or another perspective on the row or with the entire group. A simple cable needle is brought into the back of the work to quietly take aside some perhaps rowdy stitches or some who need more time, calming them with individual attention and when the time is right, these stitches will be welcomed back into the group. It is of interest to note here that once these outsiders are once again within the group there will be a twist recognized. The group changes, becomes more detailed, more interesting.
In my work, I have learned to attend to each stitch as it interacts with the others, some pull in their own direction more than others and as a group we must share and listen to each other to create a stable final work.
How do they see me as a teacher?
To aid me in listening and learning about my own teaching, I have at times, handed out envelopes and paper with questions such as, “What did you learn in my class?” and “What did you enjoy?” and I left blank spaces for student responses. I wanted to observe myself through the students’ eyes.
Some responses I received did not surprise me in the least;
“That you always understood people and how you let them do things the way they’re most comfortable.”
“…that you could teach us and we would listen…”
“… but most of all the great drawings you taught me to draw. I’ll never forget you.”
and possibly the quietest letter yet the most telling…
At one point in my teaching career, I had the opportunity to create the first grade ten art program in a little country high school. I felt that I made many strong connections but was genuinely surprised to receive a copy of this letter that was given to the principal at the end of my contract.
“Dear Mr. Principal,
I would highly recommend Mrs. C as the grade 10 & 11 art teacher next year. Ever since she’s started teaching the art course, I and many other students in the class have become much better at drawing and we learned a lot about painting, art history and even clay making. I think a lot of why students are getting bad marks in other classes (is) because of a lack of motivation. When you’re in Mrs. C’s (class) she really motivates you to give every assignment your all.
Most people may think its art class; you walk in, draw a couple pictures and ace the course. It’s not like that at all, she is very good at judging if you put effort into your work and marks accordingly. It really has nothing to do with how good of an artist you are, she pays attention to how much work you put into things and if you use the techniques learned in class, to evaluate your work.
I’m not sure if I know anyone that’s in one of her classes that doesn’t like her as a teacher and even some people that aren’t in her classes I know for a fact will be sad to see her go as well. In conclusion, she’s been the best teacher I’ve ever had and I’ve never learned more from anyone in all my years of being in school.
These student writings are what I go back to, when I seek to see myself as a teacher. Through the students’ eyes I can see my passions and how they are reflected in the students in many ways.
Educating my Artist Teaching Convictions;
Why I teach
“Every child deserves a champion — an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” — Rita F. Pierson
For me as a teacher, educating is more about making connections than it is about the transmission of information to passive students. In his paper, Education for the twenty-first Century (Daedalus, Vol. 124, No. 4, Fall 1995), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states, “One song heard on the radio or one conversation with a friend can have a more profound effect on a child’s future than a thousand hours spent in school.” (p.3) I believe in making that profound connection with a student, no matter how simple it seems in that moment, and the positive impact that it can have on their lives and their future.
Student interest and motivation
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”― Aristotle
I believe that today, teachers need to be creatively courageous and seek ways to incorporate students’ individual interests into the curriculum while also allowing for the students’ voices to be heard maybe more than the teacher.
“Peers can be the best teachers, because they’re the ones that remember what it’s like to not understand.” — Peter Norvig
The interconnectedness of the teacher and the students requires building trust in the classroom. In her article Art Education and Constructivism: A Compatible, Natural Fit (Journal of the Ontario Society for Education through Art, 2005), Joanna Black writes that with care and respect built into a curriculum, students’ esteem, and their learning can grow exponentially so that other students are mentored and motivated to learn, which in turn builds student and teacher confidence.
An important task
“Education is great … but it’s really my creativity that’s taught me that I can be much more than what my education told me I am.” — Raghava KK
I feel that learning comes when students are actively working with their subject. While making their art; their hands getting right into the piece of work, making their own mistakes they can find new directions, new answers to problems they would never come across had they not started creating.
Csikszentmihalyi asks how our education system can assist students in today’s culture. He answers with a quote by Plato, “The most important task of educators is to teach young people to find pleasure in the ‘right’ things.”(p.8) and concludes that these “right things” are activities that “require skill, concentration and personal involvement, leading to an education that is real, has personal growth and a lasting sense of happiness.”(p.8) Thus, activities that have no real connection for the student are possibly easier in the moment for the teacher to plan and present but do not promote any understanding for the students’ personal future and could create a feeling of hollowness towards education. The goal of education shouldn’t be simply developing cognitive skills within a passive learner but to foster participation in personal and group learning. Csikszentmihalyi believes active learning can help students find ways to increase healthy happiness that would lead to a future worth hoping for.
Creativity needed, apply here
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”—Nelson Mandela
Today’s students need creativity as a tool for their future.
I believe that we are in a very important place of change in education today. Teachers and students are not surviving the previous complacent education system and are seeking new more comprehensive ways to learning.
A quick Google search with the word creativity reveals these current headlines:
Creativity needed to break Israeli-Palestinian Iogjam. October 2, 2014, al-monitor.com
Creativity needed for a wealth-creation economy. July 24, 2014, The Sydney Morning Herald, smh.com.au
“…creativity is perhaps the key attribute most needed and desired to address our 21st century business challenges. Creativity, after all, is not valued as an end itself but a critical means to that end.” What is Creativity’s Value-In Marketing, In Business? October 4, 2014, FORBES.com
More creativity needed on economy. August 22,2014, thestar.com
U.S. official says ‘creativity’ needed for Iran deal. September 27, 2014, timesofisrael.com
Thinking through a medium
In Peter London’s article, No More Secondhand Art, Awakening the Artist Within, (Shambhala Press, 1989) he seeks an end to the superficial technique and empty beauty of the past ways of art instruction. What he wants is a more profound art practice. Maybe teachers should be listening to his ideas today. Should teachers should let go of all the information and education they have? Perhaps there is a time for information, and history. Perhaps there is a time to simply allow the student to create, experiment, and enjoy the experience without holding a history’s worth of knowledge within their hands but simply a lump of clay that can inform them of what it wants to become.
Cooperative learning, the co-construction of knowledge
“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”—Helen Keller
Joanna Black (Art Education and Constructivism: A Compatible, Natural Fit, Journal of the Ontario Society for Education through Art, 2005) describes how art teaching classrooms have naturally followed constructivist learning theory. She elaborates on why all classrooms could learn from the art teacher’s courage to allow the student to be a part of the learning experience. The teacher is a mentor, a guide, not an expert who never allows any other voice in the room but her own! Social interaction in the classroom is key. Education occurs actively through mixed age groupings, and peer learning.
Integrity of expression and lifelong learning
“In order for the artist to have a world to express he must first be situated in this world, oppressed or oppressing, resigned or rebellious, a man among men.” —Simone de Beauvoir
Outsider art is a complicated term labeling complicated artists. I am reminded of how humans seem to need to label things to understand them and how exclusive the art world really feels. I find outsider artists who say less about their art quite refreshing compared to the expounding artist statements that are fraught with terms and philosophies about an abstract black dot just left of the middle of the canvas. Robert Dalton and Bill Zuk focus on teachers bringing outsider art into their art room, in their article, Off the Beaten Path: “ Outsider Art” Inside the School Curriculum, Educator’s International Press, Inc, Troy, NY, 2001). Teachers considering this may fear the question, “If I can do it by myself, why do I need a teacher, why do I need school?” This question however can lead to so many great discussions about art; its many pathways in life, and the role an artist teacher can play in making the path shorter and less complicated. I believe that students want real art education and outsider art can be a very positive opportunity for learning.
Listening and receptivity
“The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second listening, the third memory, the fourth practice, the fifth teaching others.”—Solomon Ibn Gabirol
In her article, Tell Me a Story: The Power of Narrative in the Practice of Teaching Art, (Studies in Art Education, Vol.48, Issue 2, 2007) Mary Jane Zander seeks to bring narrative into the classroom as a way of teaching, learning. Zander describes why humans are storytellers, the importance of listening and what place telling stories can have in the art classroom. I rejoice in the moment of listening because there have been way too many times where I have continued to speak perhaps trying to get the information into a person, forgetting to step back and hear what they may know. I feel that it is important to allow young children to make marks without influence because sometimes these marks tell more than what they can formulate into words. The same can happen for older students. Allowing them to play with identity through personal stories can build self-esteem, and their own voice.