One of the great joys of being a teacher and an art teacher in particular is that you have constant opportunities to learn from your students. In the next few weeks I hope to share some of the things that I have been taught about teaching by my students at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf. Many of these things are at the very heart of the educational issues that all teachers are struggling with today and it is my hope that these stories and insights will be as useful to you as they were to me.
One of the wonderful things about being an art teacher is that students often see you as the “doer” of the school. Think of it, how many English teachers write novels, or science teachers publish their scientific findings? But most art teachers do make art, or certainly if they are not completely overwhelmed with teaching demands, they can make art. In the past twenty some odd years we have focused so much on measurement of student activity and of criteria to be evaluated, that we often have little time to talk about that mysterious factor that makes our discipline unique in the academic world. NAEA has to its credit formed Issues groups in the past ten years, which bring focus to some of these unique qualities of art education. The Spirituality and Art, the Design and Education, The Early Childhood, and the Special Needs Groups all address unique attributes of art education that go beyond the measurement of what art is.
This week I’d like you to think about the power of what is REAL about art and how this idea of “real” is so important for us to consider in our world of “Virtual Reality”. My career began at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in forty years I have never brought young people into a museum or gallery without the word “REAL” coming out of someone’s mouth. In our society, our students are saturated with so much visual media that it is easy to become desensitized to what they are looking at.
Back in 1976 when I began an Art History class for our seniors at the School for the Deaf, I had an experience which has informed my teaching and thinking ever since. Our twelve seniors were in the MFA in Boston, part of a series of field trips to see the great art, which we had studied. We were in the impressionist/expressionist gallery, when three of my students came up to me and signed, “Denise is crying!” I walked over to Denise not knowing what could possibly have evoked tears in this very intelligent young Deaf woman who was standing in front of Gauguin’s masterpiece “Where have we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?” Asking her what was wrong, she said: “Peter, do you mean that for all the pictures you showed us, and all the pictures in books, somewhere there is a real one like this?”
It was like being blown away with an intellectual lightning bolt! “Somewhere there is a real one?” This is the inquiry of an extremely intelligent and articulate student, yet the simplicity of the question almost evokes a laugh. Of course there is a real one. But when you think about how we present things in our educational system, very little is “real”. Now, it is possible to go online and see the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum, the Getty Museum, etc.… Wonderful as these resources are, they are “Virtual”, not REAL. Can a picture of the ceramic soldiers of ancient China be compared to feeling of a lump of clay in a child’s hand? This recalls Peter London’s great and under-read book, “Step Outside”, where he challenges teachers to use “real” experience, not just second and third hand materials. In early childhood classrooms, the materials and environment are carefully considered to provoke children to wonder, play, create and discover new possibilities. Art education should do the same for all students, not just the little ones.
I look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks to come.