Aesthetics in the Classroom – Finding the Words

‘Artist of the Day’ video associated with this word cloud: Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates” NYC in a Stowstorm

Next week I plan to start asking the big cahuna art question, “What is Art?”. For six weeks I’ve been showing an ‘Artist of the Day’ with the objective of exposing them to different artists and thinking about the videos they see thematically (last week was stop motion animation, this week installations). I give them a chance to express whether they like the art that day with a show of hands, then we take a vote on Friday to see who the favorite artist is for the week. ‘Artist of the Day’ is intended to get them thinking about the big world of art. Already some of my students have told me they have gone back to find out more about a particular artist that interested them, or they have brought a suggestion for an ‘Artist of the Day’. Yea!

But before we start asking more questions about art, I wanted to spend a little time developing their vocabulary about describing the art and their feelings about it. 9th and 10th graders typically have a narrow range of words to express their feeling about an artist or artwork: awesome and cool to stupid and boring. There are not many words in between. Since divergent thinking is a big theme in my classroom this year, I came up with a classroom activity designed to get them to dig deep and find other words to communicate their ideas and feelings about the art they are seeing.

For three of the five days, after the video was shown, I gave each table a piece of paper (1/4 of a sheet of printer paper). There are about 6 students per table group, so it makes a nice small group activity. I encouraged them to talk to each other about other words they could use (get that collaborative thinking generated), then to list each student’s name on the paper and write down their word. Each day I reminded them about thinking more divergently and suggested that they each come up with their own word within the group.


‘Artist of the Day’ video associated with this word cloud: Cadillac Ranch

I gathered the sheets by period and clipped them together. Great – now what? Quite serendipitously, or cosmically as I like to say, I stumbled onto another blogpost that gave me a fun idea. Innovative Educator Consulting is the blog, with a focus on “Inspired Technology Leadership to Transform Teaching & Learning”. Perfect! This feeds right into our 21st c. learning objective to incorporate more technology into the classroom! The specific post I read is titled “Word Cloud Makers Are Here” and it has a juicy list of free sites that are available to teachers to use as instructional tools in our curriculum. I took the time to go through the entire list and chose mostly because you could put your word cloud into a shape.

You can see the word cloud for each video here and it really was quite revealing. I showed the students the word cloud the day after they saw the Christo video (I chose colors that reflected the gorgeous saffron of his gates) and we looked at what happened. When you type the words into the application (in my case 170 words from my student body), the more frequently a word is used, the larger the font and it’s prominence in the cloud. Contrast and colorful were the most frequent responses. I was delighted to see words like flowing, relaxing, graceful and soul.

I created the next word cloud from their viewing of the video about Cadillac Ranch. The next morning, I put the two word clouds up side by side and asked them what they saw. Colorful and creative were the most prominent words, but this time we had some other words that weren’t in the first cloud: changing, painstaking, unpredictable and representative. Yesterday we watched a video about a very different installation, an Art:21 artist, Pepón Osorio, and we gathered words for our last word cloud of the week. Not much overlap here with interesting, confusing and mysterious being the major ideas. Some nice observations were intentional, reflective, eyeopening and mystifying.

This activity was valuable in getting each student to express their opinion. At the beginning of the week, I tried to generate classroom discussion. My first period class has from the first day of school been unnaturally silent. I can hardly get them to talk! By Wednesday, I came up with the idea of having them write their idea on paper along with their name. Now I could actually see what each one of them was thinking, and it gave them the freedom to be more expressive and candid. There is a large percentage of students who don’t want to speak out in class because they are afraid they will be wrong or the other kids will think they are stupid! It’s hard to overcome. Smaller groups get them loosened up.  One other thing that I think was valuable for them to see was their differing opinions – some thought an artwork was interesting, some uninteresting. Some of their typical language showed up, like weird and awesome, but overall, I was extremely happy in the way they were able to express their opinions, push their thinking and then be able to see their thinking in a visual way. Word clouds are a great way to get a snapshot of collective thinking!

‘Artist of the Day’ video associated with this word cloud: Art:21 | Pepón Osorio (For a longer, more comprehensive look at his work, see the official Art:21 video that is about 15 minutes long. His section of the video is Chapter 13 of 16, 40:09 minutes into the 53 minute video. It’s worth a look!)

Aesthetics in the Classroom – The Art of Liking

21st c. learning is the big buzz word in our school. Incorporating student driven learning, the use of more technology and fostering collaborative learning in the classroom are the charges we’ve been given as teachers. As most other teachers, I was a bit more of a “sage on the stage” instead of a “guide from the side”, and I have been working on letting those teaching strategies go as I adopt new ways of learning for my students.

Last spring semester I began a new feature in my classroom: Artist of the Day. Each day I show a video of a contemporary artist to my 9th & 10th grade students. The videos are short, usually under 5 minutes. Sometimes I would show them a website, but I noticed that they were not as engaged when I walked them through a website as they were when they watched a video. So this was the first thing I learned – they are used to action and high stimulation. Last year I didn’t use them for instructional purposes particularly, but each day I was interested in knowing if they liked the artist with a quick show of hands. At the end of the week, I took a weekly survey and conducted a vote up on the board and each class could see what the other classes voted for.

In this day, “Liking” is a big deal. I see it as a first step in teaching aesthetics to our 21st c. students. They “Like” things on Facebook, give reviews and post comments on all manner of things on the Internet. Conducting a vote on the artists they see is something they know how to do and are pretty comfortable with. It’s fun for me to hear them say on Monday, “I’m going to vote for this artist this week!” only to change their mind as the artists unfold. And, sometimes I put something up that I think they will like but it turns out to be a big flop.

I am beginning a project this semester of incorporating the study of aesthetics into my curriculum. Though they practice aesthetic thinking when deciding how they feel about the artists they see, when I ask them why they do or don’t like a video they can rarely tell me, except for it was awesome or it sucked. Note to self: they don’t have much of a vocabulary to explain why they do or don’t like something.

This last week I created a theme for Artist of the Day – stop motion animation. In the past I’ve bounced all over the place with media and process when selecting the videos, but I want to focus their thinking (and mine!) more. Instead of a quick show of hands vote, I asked them to write about the lineup. We just finished studying the Elements of Art, so I asked them to write down which Elements they saw in the work. They could do this fairly well. I also asked them what divergent thinking they saw in each video, and they were able to see examples of that. (Divergent thinking is a BIG theme in my classroom this year – seeing it in action and practicing it.) But, when I asked them how the materials and processes of each video affected how the communication of the art, a good percentage of the students couldn’t make the connection on that more subtle level.

Here’s the selection for the week and the voting results. I am also including some of their thoughts about the connection of material to art; some great connections were made. If you would like to watch the lineup and place your own vote, the links are here and it will take about 12 minutes to view all five videos. I welcome your comments and input on my blog. And now Ladies and Gentlemen, Artist of the Day – Stop Motion Animation!

Which one do YOU vote for?

Snow Days and Artist of the Week

My own See.Saw picture –  the great blizzard of 2011

Unprecedented! We have missed 4 days of school this week because of this massive winter storm that has stretched across the country! Talk about a long winter’s nap!! I haven’t been napping. It has been a wonderful time for me to work on several projects: weaving samples for my guild’s overshot study group, taking the scans from my Sketchbook Project’s book and making a digital version, goofing around on the computer, and playing with this art idea I stumbled upon (if you haven’t been on this site, you have to go! Be prepared to burn some major time stumbling!!).

It’s not a new idea, but I like what the artist has done, and he inspired me to try it for myself. I think this would be a great project to take into my art classes! Lots of grade school teachers do it to make butterflies and such – you put paint on one side of your paper, fold it closed, open it and you end up with these identical paint splotches on both sides. (I was so excited, I forgot to take a picture of my splotches before I drew my picture!) I used cadmium red pale hue, cadmium yellow, and cerulean blue watercolors. I also splashed some beautiful gold watercolor out of a Japanese pot. It didn’t take me long to see the monkey, bird and camel in my drawing. The golden ribbony smoke came next, then I thought to add the Aladdin’s lamp and the carpet at the end. It was fun! Check out the link in the post headline to see the original site I stumbled upon. It’s the work of L Filipe dos Santos from Madrid, Spain – he calls it his See.Saw series. You can see more of his work here.

My Sketchbook Project – Mystery Maps of my Father

I signed up to create a sketchbook for this traveling exhibit of sketchbooks. Over 28,000 people from 94 countries have signed up to do this! The deadline to postmark our sketchbooks is January 15, 2011. I have been working like mad over the holiday to finish my book. I’m not quite done, but I see the end in sight. When I signed up for the project in October, I chose the theme “Mystery Maps”. It sounded juicy to me.

The day I received my sketchbook, I had a realization: after my father’s death, I asked for one thing that belonged to him – his satchel of maps. He began traveling around the US after he retired from teaching and collected maps from all the places he visited. That bag of maps sat in my closet for seven years. I knew immediately that I would use the book to explore my dad’s travels. This is the cover of my book. You can see my artist profile for the project here. I’ll post more info about this project later, right now I have to get back to work on it!!