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Finding the connections between art class and physics

November 16, 2011

One of the professional obligations of my school is to partner with a colleague and visit his or her class once per semester. This year, my partner is Ben, our awesome AP studio art teacher. At first, you might think an art teacher and physics teacher have almost nothing in common, but during a conversation one friday afternoon is September, we discovered that we’re trying to do many of the same things in our classes. Our original conversation centered around the idea of Habits of Thinking—I described the list I had generated with some colleagues in the science department and he showed me the Eight Habits of Mind from Project Zero.

On Thursday, I visited his AP Studio Art class, and was really impressed by the environment he’s created to encourage exploration and problem solving. First of all, the art studio of my school looks different from nearly every other space on campus—and this is true of most of the other schools I’ve taught at as well. Walk into your typical schools, or at least your typical independent schools, and you see well put together spaces where everything seems to have its place. When you see art in the school, it’s framed and neatly arraged. Hallways are places to pass through, often with little to appeal to the eye or cause one to linger. Not so in the art hallway—the wall is floor-to-ceiling covered in corkboard, and it’s filled with student artwork pinned to the wall. As class is beginning, art students from both the AP Studio Art class and the Intro to Drawing class are mingling in the hallway, pinning up their sketches from a open figure drawing session the night before and discussing their work. It’s clear that these are sketches—not finished pieces of work. As the teacher comes around, students seem to invite critique and comment, and he offers them advice on how to extend their works further. Through all of this there’s a great vibe of experimentation, improvement and collaboration.

Pretty quickly, students in the Studio Art class settle into the project they are working on, which is titled Embracing Chaos, and its goal is to get students comfortable with the idea that not all art is perfectly planned out, and instead to embrace the idea of problem solving. To get students to do this, Ben asked students to bring in a unique canvas with texture and a pattern—it could be a beach towel, an old guitar, a woven checkerboard, or even the round pads from a floor buffer. Students then mixed up a single color and applied it drips and drabs to their canvas; they could not touch the brush to the canvas. Next, they had to create two stencils, and apply those stencils to the canvas. Finally, when their canvas just began to look like a work of art run completely amok, they had to salvage the piece by noticing the negative space, and filling in parts of the space with single colors to make an visually cohesive and appealing design. I could tell this was a pretty challenging undertaking for most students—and I watched as they discovered all sorts of new ways to overcome obstacles put before them—drilling a big hole in the canvas with only a tiny drill bit, and even turned those obstacles into opportunities, such as when the dyes from the fabric bled into the paint and created entirely new patterns and colors.

Throughout all of this Ben was moving from student to student, offering suggestions and critique. Meanwhile, students where stopping by each other’s work, offering feedback and asking questions. Finally, as class was winding down, Ben took a moment to show me some of the other projects going on in different classrooms, and I was most fascinated giant cardboard dragon that one class had created as a whole room art installation. When I saw it, the dragon had taken over nearly the entire space in the room, and there was room inside the belly of the dragon for more than a dozen people to sit.

One last thing Ben and I discussed was that often at gallery exhibitions, all he hears from colleagues and students is “that student is so talented,” and rarely do the visitors pay any credence to the process and incredible hard work that goes into creating each piece of artwork. To combat this “artist as genius” myth, he once held a show where students were required to incorporate their process into the final work, displaying sketches, photographs at various points in the project, and written descriptions of the work that went into the project.

In the end, I saw a number of connections between Ben’s art class and mine, and even more places where I would like my class (and the larger academic sphere) to emulate the art world even more.

  • I would love to see the rest of our academic space resemble the art department. It would be wonderful to see our walls decorated with student work of all kids, and even see this work make its way outside our campus in our virtual galleries—blogs, wikis and other online media. It would be even better if we could develop a culture accustomed to posting work in even the earliest most unpolished stages, since this is when feedback can be most helpful.
  • I want to find productively creative ways to introduce my students to chaos. I’m wondering what the equivalent of Ben’s embracing chaos project would be in my physics class—suddenly changing the constraints in a project or problem? Pushing them to make measurements with intentionally crude tools to help them deal with the real uncertainty of measurement? It’s not lost on me that Ben’s working with advanced students who have had multiple years of study in drawing and painting, but I think the sooner we work to help our students get off the narrow pursuit of perfection, and into the creatively chaotic space of exploration, the better it will be for their learning.
  • I want to find the equivalent of open figure drawing in physics. Every week, the art department holds an open studio from 5-8pm, and students simply drop by to work on their art. A few times a semester, there are models that they can choose to draw. I wonder what is the equivalent of this in science? How can I get students to tinker in their spare time in science? Robotics and many of our other science related clubs do this, but I’m looking for something less formal and more self directed.
  • I would love to see my classroom be taken over by a project of similar scope to the dragon project. When I first saw the dragon, i thought of how much of a pain it must be for other classes to teach in this room, but then realized how amazing it must be to have a giant artifact of learning slowly taking over your classroom as the semester progresses, and how incredible that must be for the class community. In a way, it reminds me of Anna’s “Wall of Biology” This is far off goal for me, but I’m going to keep looking for some big unifying project we could take on.
  • I want to create a sprit open to critique in the way art classes are. Art seems to invite critique at every stage, where the traditional mode of operation in academics is either to hid your work and your struggles completely from your teacher, or to seek feedback so often that you aren’t making any progress on your own.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2012 9:38 am

    I enjoyed reading this, John! Love the idea of sharing work part-way through the creation process–it’s absolutely right that this is the time when feedback can make the most difference.

    It turns out our school has a tradition of having students from other classes watch and critique dress rehearsals of class performances. Made me think these teachers (in this case it’s our music teachers who organize this) and your art teachers are on to something!

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