Monthly Mentor

Don Masse (August)
Each month, a different member and NAEA awardee is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Don Masse who has taught since 2001 at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy—a large, diverse public elementary school in San Diego. He is firmly committed to introducing his students to the work of contemporary artists from various backgrounds and creative fields of expertise. Masse does so because students become better engaged with visual art content and design challenges when they can see these elements being used by artists working in today’s world. Click "GO" to read his full bio.

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August 06, 2018

Contemporary Art in the Classroom

From Don Masse

“Mr. Masse, are they still alive?”

Inevitably, this was (and still is) one of the first questions I would get from students when introducing them to the work of an artist in class. The answer, when I started teaching years ago was usually “yes”. This was followed by a sigh, and the class energy level would drop- for real. So, 10 years ago I made the move to include more living artists into my elementary art curriculum. I am so glad that I did and I believe my students are too. Instead of focusing on the dead white guys from art history, my students and I are learning about artists from many different creative fields that are working and creating all around the world. In this blog post I’d like to share a few of the benefits to including more current artists into your art ed curriculum.

First of all, with careful consideration of the living artists that you bring in, there will be a spike in student engagement. Our students want/need to see themselves held up and honored as vital parts of their immediate community and the larger world. Know your student demographic, introduce them to living artists from cultures and countries that are representative of them. This will take work on our part, but all good teaching does. When you make the commitment to a curriculum of living artists representative of your students, you’ve got a hook to engage them in the power of the language of art. Then, just make sure you keep them engaged with thoughtful, well designed creative challenges for your students to experiment with.

 A recent shift in my teaching has been to introduce my students to more artists working in our community and our city. Frankly, I’m kicking myself for not doing it sooner! Be aware of the artists making and creating locally and look for opportunities to include them in your curriculum. One of the beauties of this, is that your students may be familiar with the artists’ work or after being exposed to it in class, when they encounter it in your community, the visual art experience becomes even more real and concrete for them. It brings our art content alive for our students. Incorporating local artists into your curriculum can also set the stage for artist visits, artist talks, artist led projects at your school site. Over the past few years, we have had a variety of local artists come to our campus and share their processes and products with our students and these experiences have proven to lift everyone up. It’s a winning experience for both the artists and our students

To piggyback on local artist visits is the importance of reaching out to your non local living focus artists to share the creative processes that were inspired by their work in your classroom.  After a grade level creates work inspired by a living artist, I share the process on social media- my main platforms are Instagram and Facebook and I also email the artists directly. Most often, artists working today have email, a website, and/or some sort of presence on social media, so it is quite easy to share with them- you certainly can’t do this with a dead person from art history. The large majority of artists that I contact respond enthusiastically to the visual experiences students have completed that were inspired by their work. They write letters of encouragement and ask questions of the students. You can then share these interactions with your students, and believe me, it lifts them up! My students can never get over the fact the artists we study dig their work. Some artists even share the work students have created with their own social media followers. Again, an empowering experience for your students, and for the work that you, yourself, are doing within your classroom and art program. These online interactions serve as publishing opportunities for your students and promotional opportunities for your art program and school and you really can never get enough of each!

 But isn’t art history important? No doubt it is, and these experiments with the work of living artists can make movements and styles created in the past more relevant for our students. You can absolutely connect work being made now with work that made it possible from art history. In your classroom, this could be done by looking backwards from a contemporary focus, or you can approach it by introducing a focus piece from history and looking forward to the work of living artists. Either way, your students will start making connections that they otherwise wouldn’t have made and it will strengthen their understanding of how the past informs the present and how the present borrows from the past.

So, if you are not currently doing so, I highly encourage you to bring the work of living artists into your curriculum. It doesn’t have to be a wholesale reinvention of your existing curriculum. Find a balance that works for your students and yourself. Find a balance that will resonate with your students the most and maintain a high level engagement throughout the experiences they explore within your curriculum.

1- An example of what can happen when you bring the work of a local artist into your curriculum can be found here- https://artsandactivities.com/local-love/

2- An example of an art lesson that can connect effectively with a movement and/or artist from art history- http://pubdev.ipaperus.com/ArtsandActivities/aamarch2018/?page=14

3- My blog documents many of the living artist inspired experiences that I have done with students- www.shinebritezamorano.com

-DM

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