Students went on a nature hike with teachers who worked with them on
plant identification and classification by examining leaf structures of
plants and trees. Before they left, I asked each person to observe or bring
back something that caught their eye; something special that they wanted to
draw either from memory, through sketching it on site and elaborating later,
or by bringing it back to draw in class. Our "classroom" was a state park and
the kids mostly inner-city with little or no experience camping out or
even walking in the woods.
When they came back, I talked about the similarities between a scientist
and an artist - how we both used observation, we both used trial and
error as an approach for reaching our "hypothesis" etc. but how the
artist, unlike the scientist, was not limited to what was observed in the
natural world. We could use our creative imagination to alter and change
what we observed....then I had them fold an 8 1/2 X 11 piece of paper
into fourths and sketch out things they observed along the way in each
quadrant; I let them add things they had seen from previous field trips
we had been taking and to compose from their imagination if they
didn't know what to draw. Some kids picked up interesting rocks, leaves,
amber, and other things from the walk which they drew and then added
a background. I demonstrated how to place a 1" grid over one of the
drawings they wanted to blow up and how to transfer it to a 3" grid on a
larger sheet of paper. We plotted interestions in each square of the 3"
grid on an 11x17 piece of paper, based on the interesections in the 1"
grid. I demonstrated postive and negative space by drawing a shape and
cutting it out to literalize the positve and negative shapes, showing how
they would have to look at their drawing from both postive and negative spaces
in order to connect the intersections and transfer the likeness of the
Once the shapes were transfered, I let them take creative license by
adding/deleting/transforming their drawings. For media, I brought out
watercolor pencils, oil pastels, watercolors, tempera,ebony and charcoal
pencils, kneaded erasers, glue, scissors and collage papers. I
demonstrated how they could use the plant materials directly in the work
or paint them and use them as stamps, creating interesting textures.
Some treated each square in the grid differently;
some transformed their original drawing by adding new elements once the
original drawing was blown up. The results were varied and unusual and
most worked an hour longer than the hour and a half I designated for the
project, adding color to both the original 1" grid and its blow up.
But what was the most interesting element to me was how few of them knew
how to use the ruler - it was a revealing assessment in itself when about
90% of them had trouble going from the 1" grid to the 3" grid.
They didn't know how to measure or multiple or even
how to make lines that connected across the paper. Once I could show
them how to do it, they got it, but the pre-set skill necessary to use
the ruler was missing.
This seems to relate to the current discussion underway about the
challenge of teaching to ESL students. It's one thing to design an
activity that makes sense to us; it's another to work it with the skill
level of the students involved. As Ken so aptly alluded, "art is
the universal language," and when verbal language fails, the act of art
itself speaks for us, replacing the need for talk.
As people are asking for ESL lessons, it must be with the
understanding and awareness that without literacy in one's FIRST
language, comprensive understanding in one's SECOND language is not
possible. Literacy must be developed in FIRST language first. This is a
barrier that the art teacher cannot be expected to overcome without
coordinated efforts by other staff/specialists in the
school, acting together as a team with an IEP for the student(s).
As others have indicated, the very structure and content of a
lesson cannot just be plopped down on an ESL student even if it is given in
another language. Sometimes the whole structure and content of a lesson
needs to be rethought, especially in terms of cultural expectations,
cultural norms and cultural nuances. Part of the problem that I
see is that teachers are trying to impose a pedagogy based on content as
a structure superimposed over the artistic process. Perhaps like the
"hands-on - inquiry-based" approach that we hear so much about for the
sciences, we in the arts need to adopt the same philosophy, giving students
the tools and letting them come up with the conclusions, albeit different
from our own, without relying on the language to be the mediator.