Sunday, January 29, 2012

The arts as cultural identity.

This is a child's mask from Nigeria. Children love masks as much as they love to pretend. We say that children use pretend play to consolidate knowledge, practicing skills. They use it to become larger than themselves. The arts throughout human history have facilitated people's knowledge of themselves, and of who they want to be. Children do the same.

We have been working with sound, have graduated to instruments, and now have come full circle to our original theme, not documented here: Visual art. My group of children created "talking drums" by designing and then reproducing their designs on paint drums with multi-color sharpies. My hope is that we will use these drums to call children to singing circle, using drumming as a way of communication. The art on the drums signifies the personal expression of my group and their communication of who they are.

My teaching partner wants to do the sense of taste next. Food is another way people express themselves and their culture through folk art. Art can be more than decorative. The exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, Central Nigeria Unmasked, would be a good field trip for us. I think we are headed that way!
As many of you know, I teach Art, Music and Movement for Young Children at Northern Virginia Community College. I have just started another eight-week Hybrid course and a student posted in her journal this comment, which I will share with you.

"I can't believe what an eye opening experience this class has been for me!! I am taking this course for professional development to keep my teaching certification up to date. It just shows that no matter your age, career, or life experiences we truly need to keep growing and learning. I have gained so much knowledge of the arts and the importance of cultivating art and creativity in young children in the last 2 weeks…unbelievable!
Art is everywhere. It surrounds us on a daily basis. Having read the text chapters, Gail's blogs and watching videos, I realize I have been really lacking in my own use to explore the arts more with my students and with my own young children. I actually feel guilty, as if I have missed years of opportunities to be a better teacher and mom. So, it's time for a change! Just yesterday, my son came home with an art project that he called "horrible". It really made me sad to hear him say that. He told me the teacher said it wasn't right, that he did not follow the patterns correctly. Now, I am mad. My son is already very critical of his work, and hearing this from a teacher just made it worse. So, I told my son "Art can never be wrong. It is you expressing yourself and that makes mommy happy". I also added that I loved his use of blues and pinks and how he made it a swirl pattern. In the past, I would have given the usual reply of "That's great, cool, or pretty".
All I can say is,  "you CAN teach an old dog new tricks". " All I can say is, this is why I teach!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Our Sound Unit

It began when I opened one Wednesday morning and had to set out the "Question of the Day". This is an activity children do with their parents as they enter the childcare center. On a table is an intriguing question to answer through some sort of experimentation. This particular morning I set out musical instruments alongside various objects that could, in some way, produce sound. Maracas sat next to chopsticks and paper plates. A cow bell sat next to a gift wrap tube. The table was full. The question was: Which of these objects make music?
It was a trick question, of course. Anything can be used to make music.

Next we began exploring sound with real instruments, from children's rhythm sticks and our director's collection of world instruments to actual band instruments such as a horn, a trumpet, a clarinet, and more. The children learned about what makes high and low pitches on a xylophone or a thumb piano, how items such as beans or popcorn make unique sounds in a shaker, and how to produce different pitches and timbres by striking glass jars containing varying  amounts of water. My partner, Sue, brought in the band instruments and it gave me an idea. I emailed the local high school band director and the next week our class, with many willing parents, were seated in a rehearsal room listening to a wondrous demonstration of how different families of instruments combine to play music.

This led to...Peter and the Wolf! We played it before lunch the next day. Sue and I modeled movement to each  character's musical theme. The children followed. We learned more about some of them than we ever knew, about how one boy could totally inhabit music and express it through his body. How would we have known this if we hadn't taken the risk of playing Peter and the Wolf for sixteen four year olds? 

We continue on this journey. We learn as we go. Science, language arts, social studies and math naturally spring from this work. There's no need to compartmentalize. We all learn together.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Game Project

This is not my project. My partner, Sue, did this with her small group. They exhibited an interest in games. She asked them to bring in games from home and they began discussing the common elements of the games they were playing. Board games have paths, cards, spinners, and tricks, traps and freebies. The children quickly picked up on this. Sue asked them to design their own game, and she interviewed each of them to help them decide what the rules of their game would be. There were many steps to the process and a lot of hard work on both children and Sue's parts. The results were worth the efforts because the children each had a play-able game to take home, built on foam-board. A serendipitous event allowed the children to meet a sixth grader who had designed his own game, in response to his experience with cancer. Make-a-wish foundation facilitated  
the game-making so that the result was professional and beautiful. Our children eagerly asked the young game-maker pertinent and knowledgeable questions about how he designed his game. They looked up to him. Wanted to be like him. The children had a concrete example of who they could be in the future as creative people. The goals of education are that children grow up knowing that the knowledge they gain, not just isolated facts, but skills and dispositions, will make them the people they want to be. This was an example of that kind of education.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Snowy Day: Teaching Art, Teaching Tolerance

I am breathless with excitement! The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, is fifty years old, and a commemorative edition is out. I’ve already ordered it after reading about it in the Washington Post Style section today.
I was ten when book came out and felt that I was way too mature to look at a mere picture book, but I did happily read it to my daughters when they were little. Since we were living in the D.C. area and only visited my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio a few times in winter, the magic of snow in the city was mostly unfamiliar to them. Those few times that we did visit home, they made snow angels to their hearts’ content, as did the story’s protagonist Peter in The Snowy Day. We never talked about Peter as black. He was a little boy, just like some of the little boys they knew in school.
When I began teaching young children, Keat’s stories became a regular part of my curriculum. We went outside in the snow (with boots on!) to make snow angels and throw snowballs at trees (not at people!). The children enjoyed making tracks in the snow with sticks, as Peter did. They experimented with footprints, and we looked for animal tracks. I even photographed snow-tracks of different animals for guessing games. After reading Peter’s Chair, the children voted on a design of a chair we would sand and paint for the school’s auction. One little boy asked his mother to bring his baby sister to school for show-and-tell. Peter had a baby sister, so he wanted to share his!
Once I began teaching Language Arts for Young Children at Northern Virginia Community College I required my students to do an author report, sharing curriculum ideas, biographical, and bibliographical information. Much to my surprise, and a testament to the truism that teachers learn by teaching, I discovered that “Jack” was not black. He was a Jew of Eastern European descent, and that he changed his name to Keats from Katz because of the anti-Semitism he experienced in New York. My own mother experienced such anti-Semitism in urban Cleveland during those same years. A simple story about a little boy became intensely personal for me.
Keats expressed his love for his tumbledown urban, integrated (“diverse”) neighborhood through his art.  Keats’ love of art, of his life in a city of graft and graffiti, inspired his storytelling even as both he and his subjects suffered from prejudice and bigotry.
Teachers can take Keats’ work as a springboard for many activities that inspire interest in science, art, literature and math. They do this all the time. African-American teachers can and do use The Snowy Day for Black History month, since Peter was the first black child featured in an American picture book. What else can we do?
A large part of teaching young children includes emotional literacy: Knowing and understanding your own feelings in order to understand other people. Can we talk about how Keats felt a kinship with his black protagonist because of his own experience in a less than tolerant country? Can we talk about feeling left out or disliked with young children by asking them to journal about their own experiences? Can we talk about understanding others? Even as my mother and her family suppressed her roots to get by in twentieth century urban American, (the family name, Mansfeld, was changed to Mansfield), Keats changed his name to hide his own roots. We don’t want children to feel they have to do the same thing with any aspect of their identities. We want them to become fearless in art and fearless in communication, bridging divides while expressing themselves authentically, just as he did. How do you do this in your teaching practice? Share your thoughts.