In my Art Thesis class right now (made up of all seniors), we have quite the variety of projects going on. Among others, we have:
A life size robot sculpture made of aluminum cans
A 4-foot wood sculpture
A 7-foot wood sculpture
A set of 6 x 9” graphite drawings
An 18 x 24” Colored Pencil Drawing
Some Wheel-Thrown Ceramics
A construction paper sculpture
A mixed media painting across multiple canvases
Why do we do this? Why can’t I just teach a normal lesson and be happy with it? The biggest reason is that I’ve spent the last four years with these kids trying to teach them to think creatively, research, explore, and learn on their own. At this point in their career, they have pretty free reign to do what they want in the room, as long as it’s in the context of the ideas I’m teaching. They’ve earned my trust, and as long as they can explain their ideas and plans coherently and intelligently, I will continue to trust them to make quality work.
The idea of kids pushing the envelope a little bit starts way before their senior year, however. I’ve never consciously made a decision about “I won’t tell them no”, but it’s more a thought that I want to foster creativity in their artwork. I want kids to take chances with what they’re doing, and I want to support their ideas if they come up with something new. If kids approach me with an idea, I will generally let them run with it.
In 9th grade, it starts with innocuous questions about little things–painting their penguin a different color, or adding something that wasn’t specifically mentioned–of course I’m okay with that. After I say yes to a few things, they begin to ask for more leeway. If they’ve earned it, I am more than happy to give it to them. This builds from year to year, and it’s a process to develop students’ comfort level, technical skill, ability to reason and question, and ability to plan and think ahead about projects. Those are the skills they need, and when you mix those abilities with enough experience, you have a group of students who can (and will) work successfully on their own.
The important thing, however, is to always guide them with the choices they make. I’m not breaking any ground here by saying this, but: students’ ideas are not always the best. When this is the case, I still avoid telling them no; I will simply try to guide them down a little bit different path with their project. I will tell kids the problems I foresee, the issues that might come about with logistics, challenges they might face, etc., etc. Now, if it’s a good idea, I will treat said issues as a learning opportunity. With a bad idea, however, I use those same issues as a dissuasive argument.
When students are juniors and seniors, they should be thinking, brainstorming, and creating on their own. I don’t want my projects to become stagnant, so from day one, I encourage kids to think beyond what I’m presenting. With a big enough group of students, they will eventually come up with something that I haven’t thought of–something that can improve the project and the way I teach it. Spend enough time using higher order thinking skills, and some great ideas will come of it.
Judges at our art competitions are looking for original work. College admissions officers are looking for original work. Art teachers are looking for original work. Let’s help our kids give it to them. Let them be creative. Let them invent. Let them change things. Let them make their work better, and let them make it great. But before you let them, teach them how, and don’t say no when they are trying to learn and trying to grow.
Why do we avoid saying no? Because we challenge materials. Because we alter processes. Because we improve lessons. Because we can change our worst ideas and because we can improve our best ones. Because we’ve worked so hard to develop the skills needed to conceptualize and create incredible work.
And because every once in a while, it’s just easier than explaining why a kid’s idea is terrible.