In my Discussion section I will analyze my research data using the three key themes from my Literature Review: A Critical Reflection on Process, Learning Through Movement and Teaching Through Contemporary Art. The purpose for using this format is to weave together academic theory with my everyday and lived experience of being in the classroom with students. I will first summarize each section in my Literature Review in relation to my research and then use these themes as critical lenses through which to view each of the three significant moments discussed in my Story section.
In the first section of my Literature Review, A Critical Reflection on Process, I talk about how an artmaking practice with an emphasis on process may help students find pleasure in the act of thinking critically while making art. I was interested in engaging students in an artmaking practice that emphasizes the process of grappling with and solving problems creatively. My first research question asked: How will students respond to an artmaking practice with an emphasis placed on process and product? I wanted to help students understand artmaking as a way to deconstruct and reconstruct their personal experiences and to find value in their own ideas. By doing so, I hoped to position these young people as the sources of their own unique knowledge. In the standardized educational culture of today, students are often told to just sit and listen to what’s best for them as if their thoughts and opinions do not matter. I argue that by granting students flexibility in the process of making art, a greater potential for understanding “artmaking as a discovery process” (Walker, p. 11) arises. I will also suggest that the freedom of not needing to know exactly where or how an art project will end up allows room for students to experiment and take risks.
In the three process oriented projects I worked on with students during my research, I tried to position them as the ones in charge of making their own decisions and I aimed to be honest with them about not having all of the answers. Although the freedom to decide their next steps was not always met with enthusiasm, students became more motivated to work when they were able to take ownership of their projects.
In the second section of my Literature Review, Learning Through Movement, I argue that learning to listen to one’s body through observing the way that it moves is a crucial component in forming an ability to communicate with oneself and with others. In the beginning of my research, I wanted the projects to originate in students’ physical movements in the world at large. I wanted them to understand their movements as influenced by and capable of impacting others. My second research question asked: What happens when students’ unique paths taken to and from school become a context for making art? Although this question pertains only to the Walking, Making, Mapping project, all of the projects incorporate movement in some way.
In my opinion, artists need to move around when they are making art. Unlike most Chicago Public School students are made to do, most contemporary artists do not sit in desks for long periods of time. Moving helps artists to see their work from different perspectives, which in turn helps them to make more informed decisions in their working process. In each of the three projects I worked on with students, we rearranged the classroom to work as an active studio space where students had the freedom to move around in a self-directed manner to gather materials and feedback from their peers. I must admit that the collective energy of thirty high school students up out of their seats at the same time felt chaotic and crazy as a first time teacher. However, I believe this freedom to move around helped students to feel a strong sense of ownership in their classroom and in turn aided in the production of extremely well-executed and thoughtful artwork.
In the third and final section of my Literature Review, Teaching Through Contemporary Art, I argue that artists, not unlike adolescents in search of constructing unique identities, are in a state of constant questioning. It was important for me, as an artist and teacher, to make this questioning process transparent for students. My third research question asked: What occurs when an art teacher looks to the aesthetic strategies of contemporary artists for teaching strategies? Contemporary artists consider multiple options, they make complex decisions, they make and break rules and they pay attention to details (most of them). I argue that artmaking involves critical thinking and I believe that by making visible the thinking processes of artists, students are given the tools to examine and discuss big ideas and formulate essential questions of their own.
All of the projects I worked on with students were inspired by the work of contemporary artists. Students read artist statements, watched videos of artists’ at work, listened to interviews with artists talking about their distinct processes and discussed and wrote about their thoughts throughout. I also shared my own artistic process with students through video, demonstrations and exemplars. I believe that in exposing my students to the thinking and working processes of contemporary artists and to my own thinking and working process, they were more equipped to tackle what was being asked of them, each in their own unique way.
Walking, Making, Mapping: Taking time to observe the artmaking process.
I wonder if it’s ever possible to understand the problem of not knowing where to go next as something freeing-a positive thing-a decision to be made. Something exciting? Is this something I can teach to? Research Notes
The first significant moment in my research occurred when I began to understand myself not only as a teacher but also as an artist. As an artist, I find pleasure in figuring things out as I go, and I am rarely worried about making things perfect straight away. The decisions I make during the creative process are influenced by the ones made before, and they inform the ones I will make next. It was helpful for me, a person learning to teach, to bring this way of working into the classroom. In identifying my teacher self with my artist self, I was able to share with students a confidence, which was largely lacking before this.
During the Walking, Making, Mapping project I shared my non linear decision making process with students when I showed them a video of myself making the exemplar, which was a large scale mixed media painting. Throughout the video, students were able to see me, their teacher, making mistakes on a big screen. They were able to observe how I dealt with the mistakes and used them to move forward, trusting in the process of not knowing as opposed to worrying about the end product. Exposing my intuitive artmaking process to students felt a little funny but helped, I think, to introduce the notion that decisions made during the artmaking process are as important as what gets created in the end. Patricia James (1996) says, “although creativity is an evolutionary process that is developmental and purposeful, it is also a non linear process shaped by accidents, mistakes, and chance occurrences” (p. 360). This non linear process based thinking that James mentions and that I shared with students, helped them to understand the creative process in ways they hadn’t considered before. Students were learning to understand the creative process as a way to think about themselves thinking, as this student reflection suggests: “The decision of making no decision made things look differently that gave me an idea to work with leading to another idea...”.
In this project students were asked to write about their personal experiences of walking through Chicago. They took four photographs on their paths to and from school. They then transferred their printed photographs onto acetate through a process of tracing. Researching their everyday movements became the foundation for the project. The initial process of researching their seemingly mundane movements helped to spark interest in students, as walking to and from school is part of their everyday routine. They were familiar with the habitual process but hadn’t ever considered it as a context for making art. Marion North (1973) says, the chief aim of movement education is learning to ‘know’ one’s body, in rhythm, action and stillness, in skills and in striving, in freedom and restriction. This knowledge contributes to a ‘sense of self’, that is, an awareness of oneself which is intimately bound up with becoming a person in one’s own right” (p. 23). The research students conducted of their daily movement patterns was beginning to contribute, as North argues, to an untapped awareness of themselves. This is made more clear in the following student reflection: “Taking pictures of my daily walks made me realize and notice so many little things that I didn’t know existed and made me realize that they make my life what it is.” By grounding the project in the personally relevant research of students, a meaningful framework was established, which they were able to work creatively within.
The importance placed on movement carried through the entire project. We set up nine projection stations, which students took turns using to project their transparencies onto large scale paper. Materials were scattered around the room and students were able to move around to gather what they needed when they needed it. Having students up out of their seats forced me, the teacher, to move around the room as well. It seemed more natural to me to interact with students in this way. We seemed to be more on the same level. Since students were working in different spaces each day, they were able to get feedback from a wide range of people, which I believe helped their working process and in the end helped them to produce high quality and distinctive artwork. In Figure 16, for example, three very different interpretations of the project are represented. Although the artists who created these paintings all live within close proximity to one another, they were able to uniquely portray their experiences of walking to and from their school.
The second noteworthy moment in my research took place during an awkward conversation between myself and a student during the Color Jam! project. As mentioned in my Story section, this project was continually changing its direction. We started with the idea of constructing individual sculptures, changed our minds to one large group sculpture and finally settled on small group collaborative sculptures. The next phase of the project was to make observational drawings of the sculptures. To determine the tools and techniques to be used in the drawings, students generated their own list as a starting point. I felt really good about having the students making most of the decisions and I could tell they felt similarly. Unfortunately, I failed to take into consideration students, one in particular, who happened to be absent on these important decision making days.
During the conversation I had with Leo, I learned how important being a part of the decision making process was for students, as mentioned in my Story section. Leo’s absences, which I later learned were caused by a mandatory court date he was required to attend for physically assaulting a stranger, caused him to miss out on having a say in the project not to mention massive amounts of stress. Sydney Walker (2004) argues, “it is one thing to introduce students to an artmaking process or to instruct them to engage it in a reflective manner, but it is another for students to utilize the process with invention and deeper critical thinking” (p. 11). Through my research, I learned that in order for students to even begin to think critically and inventively as stated by Walker, they must first feel a sense of ownership in what they are doing. Otherwise, as evident in Leo’s case, what’s the point? I think it’s important to point out that I would not have learned why Leo was acting so disruptively had I not taken the time to listen to what he had to say. It was challenging for me to listen to a student angrily speak about a project I spent so much of my time thinking about and planning for. I wish I would have talked with him earlier instead of avoiding the encounter. In looking back, I think Leo’s disruptive behavior was a way of asking for help to work out what participating in the project could mean for him. I have learned that teaching is largely about helping students figure out why things matter and what things may mean to them. In the process of attempting to do so, lots of things break down. Learning to understand why things are important or unimportant can be a painful process.
Drawing Through Movement
I’m shocked at how responsive the students are to this movement stuff. Low pressure. I can do this. Up outta their seats. Seems like a winning combo. It was so refreshing to get outta that classroom. Students felt it too. The energy in the room is different.
The Drawing Through Movement project started out rough. I, a stranger, was asking students who had already decided they were “not good at art” to try drawing in a new way. Not surprisingly, students were resistant in the beginning. I had anticipated this resistance but I still felt a little uneasy when I actually encountered it. I listened to their worries and shared with them my own as a first time teacher. Although it wasn’t easy to admit to a room full of people my own feelings of doubt, I believe the students liked hearing this coming from a teacher. Can a teacher who questions herself along with her students be considered an expert in knowledge?
As mentioned in my Story section, I designed the project with the hopes of facilitating situations for students to understand their everyday movements as resources for making art. I hoped that in doing so they would become less apprehensive about learning to draw. According to Walker (2001), “by using big ideas, students find that artmaking is more than creating an interesting design or learning a particular technique with a specific medium: artmaking also becomes an expression of important ideas related to their life and the lives of others” (p. xiii). What Walker suggests connects to my thinking in that although students hadn’t considered using their whole bodies as a way to generate drawings before, through the small conversations that began to happen, I learned that they did feel confident in their athletic abilities and dancing skills. Understanding their everyday movements as important in these other realms helped them to connect to the big ideas in the project. I excitedly latched onto this as a way to further their participation. From this project, I learned that students were already physically literate. Physical literacy, according to Margaret Whitehead (2011), “is a fundamental and valued human capability that can be described as: a disposition acquired by human individuals encompassing the motivation, confidence and physical competence that establishes purposeful physical activity as an integral part of their lifestyle” (p. 1). They were able to use this prior knowledge to help them make expressive and large scale artwork, something they had convinced themselves they were not capable of doing before the project began.
Rearranging the classroom and making art in the hallway helped students to see their school in new ways. The student who normally punches the walls, as mentioned in my Story section, was now using them to draw on. Understanding drawing as a way to experiment with materials helped students to loosen up and open up. I learned that this particular student considers himself a boxer, practices after school three times a week with a trainer, and punches the wall because he’s good at it. I would have never learned this about him if it weren’t for the physical nature of this project. The playful atmosphere we created during the project provided opportunities for students to share personal stories with me, their teacher. As I said earlier, I hoped that this project would facilitate situations for students to understand their everyday movements as resources for making art, helping them to maybe worry a little less about learning to draw perfectly. I was surprised to realize that it also created a space for students to feel comfortable talking about their lives with me, someone they hardly knew.
In my study, students were positioned as artists and researchers, capable of making complex decisions on their own. Although the freedom to decide their next steps was not always met with enthusiasm, students became more motivated to work when they were able to take ownership of their projects. This sense of ownership not only helped students produce artwork they were proud of but helped them to find value in the process of making it.
During my research, I attempted to scaffold the three projects I worked on with students in a way that would invite them to think critically about their everyday movements, their own artmaking processes and the processes of contemporary artists. Students made sketches, wrote about personal experiences, read artist statements, took photographs, watched videos, jotted down notes, collaborated with classmates and were regularly up out of their seats. In understanding these exercises as not separate from but components of the artmaking process, students were able to think critically about all of the meaningful work involved in producing a piece of art, which I believe may help them to sustain a curiosity in all creative processes in the future.
In my thesis, I encouraged students to value the decisions they made during the artmaking process and gave them room to think about why they were initially resistant to what was being asked of them at times. In taking the time to observe the artmaking process with students, I was able to draw connections between my art practice and teaching practice, which in turn helped me to find much needed confidence in my new and unfamiliar role as an art teacher.