This Fall I went to the Makers Fair in Queens with a group of coworkers to prepare for a Makerspace program being piloted in our elementary school. While the Maker movement is mainly a technological extension of the DIY moment, I was mostly inspired by the un-techy objects.
There were thousands of cool creations waiting to be turned into high school art and design lessons.
A challenge I keep coming back to in my design course is how to encourage creative solutions that the students actually get to create. Often times, the materials and facilities we offer can be limiting. I continue to work on molding the assignments to enable creative freedom along with the whole package of completing a design from concept to prototype. How do you work beyond the limitations of a school classroom to help the students "make" more?
The first time I walked down the hallway of my school as a teacher, I was shocked. Students were in between classes, and yet the halls were quiet. Sure, there were conversations here and there and the typical hustling sounds, but it was very different than I remember from my own high school and from the school that I student taught at. I teach in a very small school. There are about 50 students per grade. Very different from the loud, 350+ that I graduated with. Beyond this quantity difference, there were two things that I believe contributed to the lack of volume. First, most of this school is carpeted. They use those neat squares of carpeting in case something gross happens to a section. It decreases the noise by a lot and also provides a nice "homey" feel to the school.
The second involves lockers. Each student is given a locker at the beginning of the year. Only about 30% of the students actually use their lockers. Of those that do use them, mostly random supplies are stored there such as an extra pair of socks or a sweatshirt for when it gets cold. They don't use their lockers to store their textbooks, or their lunches, or a bag of quarters to call home after practice with. There is no sound of locker doors closing and no congregating around lockers to socialize. They basically don't even realize they exist...the just blend in with the rest of the wall.
I keep a combination locked cabinet in my room which students have access to. Those that know the combination aren't even able to open it. They have not had the years experience that I and most of my peers have had with the dial combination locks. They just don't get the clockwise, counterclockwise for a full turn, then stopping at the last number rule. Even after teaching them, it doesn't stick. I have to open the locker for almost every student who wants to get in.
I stumbled upon the site (below) a while ago and began working on a locker redesign project. I started with assumptions based on my own history with lockers. I can remember pairing up with a classmate in order to have the "big" locker at the end of the row of smaller ones just so that my sports bag could fit. We stored everything in there. We had one of those nifty magnetic mirrors hanging on the inside which was super helpful and necessary for my teenage self. The week I got my braces off and graduated to a retainer was the week that that same retainer gained access to the top shelf where it stayed for the rest of all time. The lockers back then had many purposes and were completely necessary. These assumptions just didn't hold up to the current uses for lockers at my school. Students would have to re-conceptualize the very idea of a locker for the assignment to hold any meaning to them.
The result was a variety of interesting sketches and models. Some students decided to create sports closets for themselves here at school which could hold larger things like hockey sticks. Others attempted to create technology charging docks. Some students completely molded the space that the lockers take up to create narrow "lounge-type spots" for kids to take a break. While these ideas were inventive and unique, when all was said and done, the students were not too excited by this project. The lesson plans have been resting quietly in my computer, safe from the groans of my students. I will return to it again someday, but will approach it with much less assumption. When I introduce it to the next group of students, maybe I will tell the tale of what lockers were back in the day, and what they could be again. Maybe I will even take out my Letter Jacket and make them watch the Breakfast Club. That'll show 'em.
Perhaps this lesson will work better for your students. Here are the materials to get you started...
My two sons are read to every night right before bed. We all snuggle together on the couch and we try to get through as many pages as we can before the avalanche of questions from the older one or the inevitable slithering off the couch in search for a snack from the younger one. I value this time, and not just because it means that the very special time of day when we have the house to ourselves (for an hour) is getting closer.
I recently picked up the book Journey, by Aaron Becker as a present for my soon-to-be two year old. Anyone who knows me well, understands that I can't hold on to a gift for long. I gave it to him early, and will most likely have to find something else to give him on the day he actually turns two. It was the perfect gift right before bed-time and a great addition to our collection of children's books.
I didn't actually read the description of the book before I purchased it. I saw the beautiful illustrations and was sold. When I opened it up to read to the boys I quickly realized that my participation in reading time was about to become more than I bargained for. Being a wordless book, I would have to provide the story and encourage my very tired son to read into the illustrations. I am not a very lazy person, but I like to be prepared with the amount of effort I have to put into something right upfront. Since there was no going back, we started the journey of Journey. I have to say, In my 4 years of being a parent, and after reading hundreds of stories, I have never witnessed two children so engaged with a story as they were with Journey. I also have never had as much fun "reading" a story. I highly recommend this book.
This experience brought me to a project my students are currently working on. We recieved a grant to create a children's book in collaboration with 4-5 year olds in our district. My 10th grade students went through weeks of planning and brainstorming to decide what makes for a great children's book and how to include really young children in the process of creating one. One of the things that came to the group early on was parental involvement. My students agreed that the tone of the reader's voice was equally as important as the words they were reading. I had a wonderful 5th grade Reading teacher who used her dramatic voices in each story she read. Mrs. Walker had a better Roald Dahl Matilda voice than Miss Mara Wilson, herself.
So, my class brainstormed ways to encourage parents to read to their children in voices. They thought about including a blurb on the inside cover letting parents know how important hearing the unique voices are to children, and providing backgrounds of the characters to help the parents come up with voice options. They considered voice notes on the sides of the pages to remind parents to insert their character voices. None of their ideas stuck in the final version of the book.
The class is well into the illustration process at this point. They chose not to include any reminders in writing and will rely on their pictures of the characters to draw the voices. Whether this is the best solution or not is irrelevant. I was grateful that they came up with the idea of parental involvement with voices on their own as a topic for brainstorming and discussion. To me, the more important thing was that they were including it in their design process and knew well enough to think about it to begin with.
Just as Journey relies on the nuances of the illustrations to carry the story and provide voices for its characters, the students creating their picture book rely on subtle skills to get their voices heard. It isn't always easy to articulate this subtlety, but when a great example comes along, it is refreshing.
Go out and get this book. You don't have to read it to children to fall in love with it. If you need an excuse, get it for the sole purpose of illustrating the skill of saying something with subtlety to your students. Let them know there are ways to have your voice heard loud and clear in very quiet ways.
I have a habit of self-deprecation. My husband reminds me of that every time he reads something I write. I don't really consider myself to be an insecure person, but when it comes to putting my thoughts out there in the world, I feel more comfortable apologizing for any disappointments before a person is even given time to feel disappointed. All too often I tell my students to NOT do the very same things that I do. "Don't apologize for your work" was something that a professor of mine said often in class. I've carried that torch and now say it to my own students. I try to make them as comfortable as possible to be open with their work and to not feel the need to apologize for it. Teaching design to high school students really helps to establish a barrier between the students as artists and their work. At first, it is difficult for them to understand that the things that they are designing and the problems they are solving are not really for them alone. After some exercise in this departure from the "self" of their typical art classes, they begin to separate their art from the larger purpose of design.
I have to admit, it is far easier to critique design than it is to critique art. Art becomes a part of these young people. Sometimes letting them know that the composition is slightly off is like telling them that their 10th grader boyfriend just helped another girl sharpen her pencil, which might not seem like a big deal, but believe me..it is. In design, the need for criticism is established as the process. They understand it to be one of the integral steps of its completion. In this way, I am able to teach the core principles without letting the mess of teenage feelings get in the way. The need for apologizing for one's work is....not gone, but lessened.
When I first told my tenth grade Foundations of Design class that we would be working with members of the local senior center on a collaborative design project, the enthusiasm was less than noticeable. “Old people scare me” is one comment I heard among concerns and stories of past encounters with the elderly. Even after describing the lesson, the students were still less than pleased. The class would be working in small groups with an adult. The goal of the project was to learn how to work with a client of a different age to either redesign a product or come up with a whole new solution to a problem that the person has with a product that is used on a daily basis. The students had been practicing the design process throughout the semester long class to come up with solutions to their own design problems. Up until the intergenerational collaboration, they were only expected to design for themselves or for imaginary clients. The thought of a real client was daunting, and the fact that the client would be an elderly person who wasn’t their grandparent, frightened them.
I knew it was important for the students to gain some empathy towards elderly people or people with disabilities in order for a successful collaboration. Before they met with the members of the senior center we took a class period to discuss products geared toward the elderly. We discussed walkers and how many people put tennis balls on the bottoms to improve the design. The class enjoyed talking about cell phones and how their own grandparents have a hard time using the phones that are even marketed for an older age group. After sensing the hesitation to work with the seniors I allowed them to experience a generic version of some of the problems that elderly people face. The students wore foam ear plugs, fogged safety goggles, and a contraption on their hands that limited the use of their thumbs, made out of gloves and Popsicle sticks. They even exchanged shoes with a classmate and were asked to keep their backs at an angle as they walked. Although the exercise was a fun way of explaining my point, the students understood that menial tasks become very difficult with small impairments.
The Design Process
During their meeting, planned interviews were conducted between the students and adults and the groups cleverly came up with the design problem that they wished to work on together. One group set out to take on the problem of using a walking cane in slippery weather conditions while another group tackled the small tag on a plastic milk container that one pulls on to open a new bottle. The students asked specific questions about the complications that the adults had with these products and came up
with a broad design problem instead of a limiting redesign option. They thought about many possible
solutions to their initial specific problem as well as solutions to other problems that came about through
the design process. The interactions between the different generations were interesting to observe.
Many of the adults were asking for advice from the teenagers and at the same time keeping them focused
and on task.
Models and Prototypes
When the brainstorming was completed, the students worked on two dimensional models of their
design ideas and presented them to the adults. The entire group came together to analyze the designs
and make sure that every possible problem was thought of. The students were then asked to create a
model or working prototype depending on the product. One group was able to design and create a glove
for a senior with severe disabilities that affected the mobility in his hands. The glove had Velcro fixed
in targeted locations and matched on several accessories such as a paintbrush, toothbrush, and eating
utensils. The glove allowed the user to attach the accessories so that when hand fatigue set in, the utensil
wouldn’t fall to the ground.
The value of intergenerational collaboration
Although some groups were not able to create working prototypes, the project proved to be a success
in many ways. The adults had a vehicle for voicing the problems that they face on a daily basis
and were able to feel as though the students cared about the products that were being sold to them. The
students gained an appreciation for the simple things that they take for granted in their daily endeavors.
One student remarked, “ I don’t spend a lot of time with my grandparents so when I thought about
problems that elderly people have I figured it really wasn’t a big deal. After talking with my group
member and seeing how he struggles with simple tasks, I now appreciate the difficulties that exist.”
People in different age groups rarely have a vehicle for collaboration. I would highly recommend using
the senior members of a community as a resource for the students and allowing the students to become
involved in trying to improve another person’s life, in simple ways.
I often feel somewhat caught in the middle of art and design. I teach art. I enjoy art. However my training and experience lies mainly in design. In college I was a graphic design major. I had somehow convinced the college I attended to allow me to take my studio electives in the theatre department. I am not really sure why I did this. I didn't like theatre any more than I liked art. I suppose I felt comfortable there, mainly because of the people, but I also appreciated the tangible aspect of creating for the theatre. I liked that it had a purpose and an end product. In art, almost anything goes. In design, hardly anything does. Because I spent my studio electives studying things like sound, lighting and set design, I missed out on the very important classes that I would eventually need in my career. For instance, I have never taken a ceramics class, ever. I actually really don't enjoy clay. I hate the way it feels on my hands. (I also can't touch glass which is very hard to explain to strangers who hand me a glass) When students ask me to teach them pottery, I explain honestly that I know as much about ceramics as a kid at camp.
I decided to become an art teacher despite the fact that I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of advancing my "elective" skills. I started out my career learning all that I could about different techniques. In graduate school I was taught to expose the students to as many mediums as possible. A healthy balance of technique, history and concept was stressed and expected. Technique was always at the forefront of the lessons that my classmates were teaching. While observing them, I thought back to a couple of intelligent and inspiring undergraduate professors who taught me that concept is equally or even more important than composition or technique. Now, learning this in the design department is very different than learning it in the art studio. In design, concept is everything. The idea is the child; technique only nurtures it enough to allow it out in the world to roam. This simple rule in design is not so easily translated to fine art. I did my best to create a precedent for my lessons; technique is important, but concept, idea, or the ability to move the viewer is even more essential.
As I began actually teaching...like in the classroom, all on my own, I had to sort through what I felt was expected of me in the typical art classroom and what worked for me, my philosophy, and my students. I learned that placing concept in front of technique didn't always make for the best art gallery in the hallways. I also learned that getting my students to talk about their work became essential and even teaching them how to "massage" their explanations was a somewhat useful skill. I felt good about what the students were learning and thought that my experience in design had helped to mold this approach. The thing is, I knew deep down that design wasn't something I had to just fit into the art education world. I had a feeling that there was something brewing in the world of art ed and that design was going to be an essential part of that. I was right.
Daniel Pink spoke at the NAEA conference in NY (I don't know when; a few years ago) and I became aware that design could and should be placed on equal playing field with art. It was a great feeling to be able to have my design passion come out of the closet. In that room, with all of the typical art teachers and their cool looking stockings, dangling earrings and daring scarfs, and me in my black, blue, and grey simple ensemble, I felt as though I finally fit into the world of art education. There was a place for what I learned about, and what I thought was important. I decided then, to go with design...put it in the forefront and give my students the piece of me that was strongest.
Through the years, my curriculum has morphed from a studio-heavy, traditional art class model to a nicely balanced, art and design partnership. Students in my school take a Foundations of Art class in 9th grade and Foundations of Design in 10th. In that course they learn what design is, how to do it, why it's important, and what they can do with it. I am very proud of this course and the addition of it in my school's class schedule. The purpose of this long-winded explanation is to provide the purpose of this blog. My goal is to post the lessons that I have been using in my class, gain feedback and share with those that did not have the design training that I did. In the same way that I searched the web for the best way to use watercolors ( I still don't have the knack) I hope that other art teachers can find some answers here. I also hope to be inspired by designers that are much better at it than I am. And yes....this is a part of my Smart Goal!
I am not a writer. I am not very good at coming up with words in general. Sometimes, hearing me attempt to speak is painful. Mommy brain is a real thing, and its no joke. Trying to get my point across is embarrassing and cringe-worthy. Despite this misfortune, I have decided to catalogue my teaching ideas and adventures here. I hope that fellow teachers will use my materials to spark their own ideas and we can work together to make art education an indispensable part of our students' education. I also hope that my many grammar and spelling mistakes will be overlooked.
I have been teaching art and design at the middle and high school level since 2006 and learning about both for a lot longer.