Years ago I read a book about how to teach children to draw. In the introduction to the book, the author shared her wounding artists story. She talked about being very young, in pre-school or kindergarten, and painting some trees using black for the bark. Her teacher corrected her saying tree bark is brown. The author said that she was picturing the trees after a rain when the bark looks black but that she never had the chance to explain that to her teacher. She told how that one interaction shut down her desire to make art for years. So my question is, as teachers, are we wounding artists or fostering them in our classrooms?
Just the other day I discovered a book called Sky Color written and illustrated by Peter Reynolds and it made me think of that story about the child wounding artists painting black tree trunks. Sky Color is about a young girl who is known in her school as an artist. She is charged with the task of creating the sky for a mural at her school and discovers she has no blue paint with which to work. So, she goes out into the world and starts to notice the sky and all of its many colors. After studying the sky at different times of day and in different types of weather, she is ready to paint the sky in her mural not blue but “sky color”.
Reynolds writes a note of appreciation in his acknowledgments for a teacher he had who took away the blue and asked him to paint the sky. Something tells me that the teacher would have been thrilled to discover a young child painting trees with black bark!
Reflecting on the experiences of both of these authors drives home 2 really important messages for me. The first is to stay open to a child’s responses and ask questions. If the teacher had asked the child to tell her about her trees she might have learned these trees were wet from a rainstorm and not only expanded her own view on trees and their accurate depiction but learned how very observant this child in her class was.
Each one of us has a very unique way of thinking about the world and the more open we educators are to the way others see the world, the more we will learn and the better we will be at educating others. And this applies to any subject, not just the arts. If a teacher asks a child to explain why s/he solved a math problem a certain way, not only may the teacher better understand how this child thinks but the teacher may find ways to help other children too.
The second message I take from these two very different stories is not only to be open to a child who thinks “outside of the box” but to be a teacher who creates an environment that encourages that way of thinking. By taking away the blue, by not allowing a poem to rhyme, by challenging dancers to dance slowly and smoothly to fast percussive music, by asking actors to perform a scene without talking, a teacher can give a child permission to break the rules and see the world in a whole new way.
If we educators remember to ask our students to explain their thinking before jumping to conclusions and create environments that encourage students to approach problems and creating in a new way, we will help to foster a generation of children who don’t have to recover from being wounded artists. Instead, we will inspire a generation of students who are open to thinking in divergent ways, who are accustomed to rising to unique challenges and who embrace and nurture their inner artists.
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.