National Art Educators Association Conference: a Reflection on my Experience

In mid-March I had the opportunity to travel to Boston with Learning Village Art instructor Kim Cox to attend the National Art Educators Association annual conference. I attended a variety of inspiring sessions and came away with both new assignment ideas to try in my classroom and new questions. I will share some highlights here that I feel are transferrable across disciplines.

           In a Forum on Socially Engaged Art and Education sponsored by the Community Arts Caucus, I listened to Flavia Bastos, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, emphasize the importance of learning to listen when doing projects with students outside of school walls. While working on public murals in Cincinnati with her university students, Mrs. Bastos had found most success when she worked on site, elicited concept ideas from locals, and  responded to the interests and needs of the community in which her group was working. An educator in the audience asked Mrs. Bastos for advice on creating similar experiences in a school with little arts funding and support, and Mrs. Bastos gave a response that stuck with me. She encouraged arts educators to focus on the positive by writing down lists of their particular assets. Mrs. Bastos suggested that we take the word ‘asset’ broadly: “It could be a beautiful tree near your campus.” She next instructed that we draw out those lists in a visual format and create an “asset map.” I would love to try this activity with other members of my department during January/February next year (a time when taking a pause, coming together, and taking stock of our assets in a creative way might be particularly re-invigorating).

            One of the keynote speakers at this conference was Peter Reynolds, the author of numerous children’s books including One Brave Dot. Reynolds spoke about mark-making as the foundation of drawing, and as a way of sharing one’s voice. He noted, “adults can be clumsy and minimize people’s voices, and then just a few loud voices come out on top.” Reynolds cast himself as an “adult kid.” To define this term, he continued, “adult kids love colors, love being outside, love being silly, and loathe fluorescent lighting.” Urging educators to pay attention to our students’ passions, Reynolds challenged us to “connect the dots” between things that we may initially deem to be distracted/distracting behavior and our course content. To illustrate this idea, he told a story about his History teacher who had noticed him doodling in class and challenged him to stay engaged by taking his drawing seriously: “I’d love for you to pay attention in History class. I would like for you to use your drawings to teach another student in our class one of the concepts we have been learning about.” I loved hearing this story about Reynolds’ teacher intervening in a strategic, personal way that maintained his student’s dignity and called him to be fully present and enthusiastic in his History class.

            Finally, Reynolds emphasized how empowering it can be to call oneself an artist. He shared that when kindergarteners are polled — “Who here is an artist?” — all the hands go up, but that as children age and begin comparing themselves to one another, fewer and fewer hands go up, and over time students begin to point to one or two students in the class instead of raising their hands. As arts educators, Reynolds suggested that we call upon students to take ownership and pride in their work by encouraging them to sign what they make.

            In a group reflection on grading and assessment in Arts Education run by Olivia Gude and Katherine Douglas, Gude weighed the merits of spending time collecting data on students versus spending time guiding students through the processes of making art. She encouraged educators to reflect on how much time we spend doing “currithmetic” (curriculum arithmetic) and to ask ourselves, “What is sacrificed in the great time balance? What is gained?” Gude used provocative questions such as, “How old do you have to be to make a bad drawing?” to generate discussion among audience members, and she asked us to consider the distinction between judging quality and experiencing quality. Gude also spoke some gems that I will not corrupt by trying to paraphrase:

            “When you mandate a form you deprive that form of meaning… you make the form [in the case of art this could be materials, size, shape, etc.] into answers on a test.”

            “It is not our job to assess student artwork, it is our job to assess student learning.”

            “Each artwork identifies its own criteria for success… Talk to students in order to generate the criteria.”

            Finally, I was thrilled to attend a session called, “History and Art: A Pedagogical Kinship.” The session leaders (a History teacher and an Art teacher) explained two projects through which they had challenged students to demonstrate understanding of particular historical topics using art: a Vietnam War Poster Project and a Graffiti Project. In the Vietnam Poster Project, each student was assigned a different anti-war movement to illustrate using either linoleum cut printing techniques or collage. Although students could choose to use a mixture of techniques, they were limited to only those two. The Art teacher then gave some demonstrations and instruction about negative/positive space, the interplay of text and image, how to create the illusion of depth on a 2D plane, unity, emphasis, etc. Students researched their historical movements and, through a process of thumbnailing and sketching, came up innovative compositions to convey their messages.

            For the Graffiti Project, the instructors introduced students to the work of the infamous street artist Banksy by showing the film Banksy Does New York. They talked about irony, wordplay, and other devices that Banksy commonly employs. Next, the History teacher did a broad sweep lecture on Indigenous History in Canada to give students a starting place for further research. Students were challenged to develop a central message that they wanted to express about their content; while conducting their research they kept a lookout for keywords and potentially relevant idioms. Students then used stencils on large wood panels to spray paint their final art in 2-3 layers (white, black, and an accent color). Finally the class took a field trip and placed these images around their home city in locations where the works would gain attention or deeper significance (one was placed in front of a court house).

            I am so grateful to St. Anne’s Belfield for providing me the opportunity to learn these things and more at the 2019 NAEA Conference.

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