GOTCHA! if you know me or are just getting to know me, you probably think this title is coming out of left field. no worries, have not lost my mind – just have a point to make!
the other day i was organizing, categorizing and maybe even purging (insert applause here) my professional bookcases and set aside a few early acquisitions that seemed not to fit into the current collection of books. it’s a small pile, mind you, but one that gave me cause to pause and reflect about my evolution as an educator. on the top of the stack, staring back at me in all of its cheery children cutting out uniform shapes of construction paper, was CRAFTORAMA [name has been changed to protect the innocent!] with a 1984 copyright.
the book was something i got (possibly even from a book-of-the-month club free enrollment package. SCORE!) early on in my journey as an educator – probably when i spent a year as a live-in nanny (right after college) or when a few years later, i began teaching italian to preschool-age children in a weekend program.
as you might imagine, the book is filled with halloween witches on broomsticks, santa’s with cotton ball beards, heart-shaped pizzas, and yellow school buses but, believe it or not, no hand-print turkeys (there are instructions for something called “circle turkey,” though, made from a paper plate!) as i leaf through the book with a mix of contempt, fascination and confusion, i wonder if i will be able to let go of this book. there is something so charmingly old-fashioned and naïve about it. i feel a certain reverence towards it, as if it was an archeological artifact of a by-gone era (like finding your grandmother's recipe for jello salad.)
i can feel the cockles of my heart warming up, as i work my way through each chapter. i loved making some of this kind of stuff when I was a child – the father’s day handprint clay ashtray, the mother’s day tea party hat, the kleenex tissue ghosts.
and suddenly i am reminded of just how much i treasured the “365 bedtime stories” book my sister and i had as children. there was something magical about having a special story or poem for each night, something comforting about going back to it year after year, never once thinking of reading anything out of order. it was a ritual, and rituals bring order, comfort, and predictability to life.
i kind of wish i could access my childhood box of mementos right this very second (but it just so happens to be on the other side of the country – so that ain’t gonna happen!) and go through each item my mother or I chose as a keepsake to landmark moments in my childhood.
when we lived in italy, my sister and i each had a gray milk crate in the bottom of our bedroom closet, where mummy had begun to collect artifacts of our lives – locks of hair, our first passports, clippings of things that happened on the day we were born, report cards, our first scribbles, my remarkable portrait of my father in which he oddly resembled a large phallus (whatcha think about that, freud?), my first school autography book, the very first research paper i ever wrote, and so on.
how does this all apply to my educational philosophy and practice? how has my experience shaped me as a teacher? i have very mixed feelings about construction paper (well, let's be honest - strong feelings) and markers (especially the chubby ones.) i prefer to stock my classroom and studio with white paper, black thin-tipped flair and sharpie markers, beautiful colored pencils in a wide range of colors (prismacolors are my favorites), and an assortment of open-ended re-purposed, recycled and reclaimed materials.
this does not mean that moments of teacher instruction and everyone doing the same thing have all gone out the window with the child-centered play-based emergent curriculum. i do give demos - let’s even call them “lessons” (borrowing from my year in a montessori elementary classroom) - on how to use “real” artist tools and materials. i do ask children to follow directions; to learn the proper way to squeeze acrylic or watercolor paint out of tube; to mix colors on a palette; to rinse, dab and dry a paintbrush without crushing the delicate bristles; and to use those foundations to let their creativity soar.
the likely outcome is that children, given the proper tools and the time to explore with them, will not churn out a series of cookie cutter handprint turkeys after they have had a taste of something more real. they might just create the next masterpiece you will want to steal away with, so you can hang it on your wall at home. a couple of days ago, i was in a home where one of the prominent works of art in the dining room, was the eldest child’s preschool interpretation of a bunch of brussels sprouts. now, even discounting the fact that i love this much-maligned vegetable, for a moment i coveted the painting, and plotted how to get it out of the house unnoticed, for it was an interpretation worthy of a gallery wall.
"First you become receptive, and then you become creative." [osho]