Students and Teachers as Artists: Collaboration in the Classroom

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]

Mimi and Gabe

In fall 2013, I initiated a project in collaboration with two groups of students: with nine students from the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) of Chicago, and a group of children at the Telpochcalli Elementary School in Little Village, a small neighborhood school specializing in dual-language immersion and arts integration. Our class, Collaboration: Art as a Social Force, convened both at SAIC and at Telpochcalli. Through a series of sessions at the elementary school, as well as a series of workshop sessions that took place off-site, our project was to explore collaborative making and power sharing, and, more broadly, the idea of a public school as public art.

The SAIC students pursued individual and group research, with topics ranging from hierarchy and consensus, power sharing, to materials exploration as they relate to art and education. As a class, we critiqued and shared ideas: a major shift from making things to a critical examination of our process as it evolved over time. At Telpochcalli we spent most of our time with kindergarten and first graders, and also did projects with second and seventh graders. Photo documentation of our collective work, as well as written reflections provided by the SAIC students can be found in the online version of this article. Themes that came up repeatedly include trust, power and authority; active and engaged listening; and how to be clear with ourselves that we were not there as teachers but to learn, create and explore in collaboration with children. The students at Telpochcalli were expert children! We were beginning collaborators. We grew more open to failure over time and learned to curb our expectations, and to bring the sensitivity and flexibility of our art practices to this project.

In the process of reflecting on this project, I interviewed Jennifer Klonsky, the teacher of the K–1 class with whom we spent most of our time. Excerpts from that conversation have been transcribed below.

“Kids by the Tree”, image by Patsy Diaz

Jennifer Klonsky (JK): So, what does it all mean for me as a teacher? It reminded me to think of myself as an artist. And it made me want to make more art. I’m not at all new to art. And I make a habit of telling my students that we are all artists. But I don’t think of myself as a visual artist most of the time.

I have studied many artistic disciplines, I’m a musician, and I work closely with teaching artists in my classroom. But this experience of living and working inside this evolving installation… has made me think hard about the idea of the space in which kids learn and create and to think of the space itself as work of art. The classroom is not neutral, it’s not just four walls and some shelves. It’s a space for creation, and you have to consider what’s in the space, how the space is organized, and how the kids can access and use materials relatively independently. I’ve never thought about the space itself as art, about installation. When I’ve considered site-specific work before, I’ve only ever thought of it as murals. Painting on stuff. And that’s cool, but narrow.

Nicole Marroquin (NM): The classroom as an artwork itself—that was new to me, as a former high school and middle school classroom teacher, and also as an artist.  I only thought of classrooms as a place to work on tasks—even if the tasks were art-related.  I held on to skepticism, especially for doing this with very young children.

JK: Now everything is a potential work of art. I want to build this experience for kids, where they are artists, living and working inside a work of art. The imagination and ideas can be the artwork, and they are also the space where learning is happening.

NM: The thing about art and working as an artist, and not students or teachers, is that the outcome is no longer the thing we are focused on. Now we are looking at the process, and an outcome that is able to be unknown. And a radical individualized learning plan for each kid.

JK: Well, the thing about working as an early childhood educator is that the outcome shouldn’t really be the thing, because the payoff comes so much later. It’s like planting trees from seeds—you might never see the fruit. Certainly, it’s not immediate gratification.

I just read this study about teaching reading. It said, whether you push reading early or not, kids get good at reading by around eight years old, regardless of how early you try to teach them to read. My own addendum: it does really matter how early you try to teach them to speak to each other. We have many kids who come to school with very limited oral language, and we have to build on that, build their vocabularies, in my case in more than one language.

Finding meaning in language is an essential prerequisite to finding meaning in text. Reading is thinking. We think in language. We need language in order to build meaning. And we need experiences to build language. The more experiences children have, the more they can talk about their experiences. The more opportunities to have ideas, the more opportunities to express ideas.

The child is her own teacher in this way. The idea of project based learning [is that] the child has an idea. The child has a question. The child makes a plan to find the answer. The kid in this story is actually multiple kids, in conversation with each other. Language/art/music: all transactional. Ways of engaging in discourse about your experiences. Or your ideas. When kids learn to speak, they get the big payoff. “Cookie, mama,” then they get a cookie. We’ve talked before about how, for example, music isn’t paid off the same way. So, kids sing songs when they’re little, but when they enter formal music education, they’re practicing alone in their room. Or told to turn that noise down.  So they quit.

NM: They can experience feeling validated in speaking their ideas or manifesting ideas through making them with their hands. Those are rewards, for sure—but it can be just as much the tactile and the process and the negotiation, and the dialogue, sometimes even more than the outcome! But when a kid drives the conversation with questions, you have arrived! They are totally capable of directing their own inquiry, and that’s the goal, to me.

JK: Right. I would say it’s always more than the outcome.

NM: The sand table was a huge learning point for me! I didn’t know about the combination of imagination and exploration together. You could see the shock and excitement when they put the rocks in one end and then, lo, they appeared on the other end.  For hours they could do this, and you could almost see their heads getting bigger, there was so much learning happening.

JK: Yes. What do the sensory tables do for different kids? Some kids start measuring, pouring back and forth. Some kids, given the proper equipment, will invent things to pour sand through. Some kids want to build. Some kids just want to feel the sand on their hands.

I have heard it said that kids tend to gravitate toward the kind of play that they need. Kids who do a lot of dramatic play are developing a narrative about some aspect of their life that needs to be figured out. Kids who play with play dough or at the sand table might crave some kind of sensory input. Or need to build strength in their hands. Play and art are very closely related!

The social emotional learning is job one, along with building oral language. From my perspective, on the hierarchy, those are my priorities. Nothing else happens until we can be kind to each other and use our words.

So a kid who is struggling socially, emotionally but is recognized as a creator, an inventor, an artist? Not just by the teacher, but by all the people in that child’s milieu? That is a kid whose successes and abilities we can build on. We can give that child more opportunities to do what he does well, and use those opportunities to build on other, possibly less visible, talents or abilities. You know, I always say, “Teaching is more art than science.” I mean that teaching is driven a lot by intuition, creativity, insight.

I sometimes feel we are asked to prove that arts education is valuable by choosing core-content learning outcomes that will be or have been supported by the arts. Arts in the service of math. Arts in the service of literacy. I have nothing against math and literacy, understand. But art is valuable in its own right, and should be part of the core content. Art in the service of finding beauty in life, expressing the contradictions, inventing, creating, building.

NM: On our end, we had all these realizations as artists coming from the studio to working with kids, working in groups, and listening, being flexible.  Having a single voice to listen to is an entirely different experience. In some cases, artists have a thinking routine we adhere to, and we are used to the power of controlling the outcome. Letting go of that was visibly tough on some folks. Artists have been told to be unique geniuses and when we are positioned as a special snowflake, we can only produce unique things, brand new to the universe. When our process involves people, we have to embrace not knowing. Another huge realization was that our process needed regular critical reflection, both individual and as a group. Teachers know about this already, but it was new to some of us. Listening, learning and being non-experts, and foregrounding the ideas of the kids—all these moving parts become the artwork. That’s a lot of negotiation.

JK: Collaboration means things are going to be unpredictable. You cannot be attached to a plan. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re playing pretend with other kids. You’re always negotiating.

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