Monthly Mentor

Shelly Breaux (December)
Each month, a different member and NAEA awardee is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Shelly Breaux established the Art Program at David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy in Lafayette, LA. In her classroom, Breaux focuses on inquiry-based learning, problem solving, collaboration, conceptual thinking, and constructive criticism. She believes in using art as an educational tool, and that art provides her students with a voice and an outlet. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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« How did the lab teacher build in opportunities for students to experience Kngwarreye’s approach to making art? | Main | Shinique Smith in the K-1 Classroom: Discovery, Transformation and Crazy-Pants Art! Days 2 & 3 »

April 24, 2017

Shinique Smith in the K-1 Classroom: Discovery, Transformation and Crazy-Pants Art! Day 1

From: Jennifer Childress

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Another lab teacher from our program, Erica Taussig, had already investigated Shinique Smith as a primary artistic influence on her personal studio work. She wanted to introduce her kindergarten and first grade lab classes to Smith’s investigative spirit and highly tactile sculptural installations. Her success as a contemporary black female artist with urban roots, and her wonderfully inventive artwork – on a very large scale (about 25’ in diameter) seemed like a great inspiration for our young students, and that definitely proved to be the case. 

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Erica thought these facts about Smith, gleaned from her research, were relevant to the lesson she was developing:

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The lesson’s primary purposes were to allow students to use discovery learning to make artworks, to make art from entirely unexpected materials, and to experience the joy that comes from independent problem-solving and working with colorful, exciting and highly tactile materials. The artistic strategies of using one solution to generate new questions and new problems to explore, and to see everyday items from a fresh perspective were key to this lesson. As Art Markman noted in his article on promoting creativity in Psychology Today,

“When you ask most people to do something creative, they quickly get stuck in a rut. Studies by The University of Alabama's Thomas Ward and his colleagues asked college students to draw animals from alien planets. Nearly all the animals people drew resembled real ones from Earth. They had similar sensory organs, legs, and arms and were symmetrical. Even when asked to be creative, people based their work on known examples. And that observation forms the basis of a crucial technique for generating new ideas.

Your memory automatically calls up information that is related to what you are thinking about… If you want to change the way you approach a creative problem, then you need to change what you are thinking about. You need to describe the situation in a new way. That will change what you pull from your memory and the knowledge you use to solve the problem…

A key strategy for changing what you think about is to find the essence of the creative problem you're trying to solve. Start by looking at how you described it. Then, see if there is another way to frame that issue and explore where that takes you (Markman, A., 2013, May 7). (emphasis mine)

In other words, look at things like an artist does – from multiple angles, and from different associations.

The results of the 2-day lesson (plus another 15 minutes on a third day) showed that both kindergartners and first-graders were capable – and unsurprisingly, very eager – to explore and invent new forms by combining everyday items like cloth scraps, socks, foam blocks, stuffing, yarn, string, etc.  As our lab teachers were required to write reflections on each lesson, throughout this post I will share Erica’s thoughts on this lesson and how it changed from her expectations.

Erica wrote:

Students expressed great fascination in transforming everyday objects like socks, yarn, clothing, and styrofoam into beautiful sculptures. They yielded a widely differing range of forms, and were eager to solve technical problems which arose during the art making process, like how to tie a knot, wrap yarn, stuff socks with styrofoam, etc. Many students went an extra step with their creative problem-solving by adding extra yarn to their sculpture, or tying a bow with their yarn, rather than a simple knot.

I feel that by choosing an artist who solves problems that are very approachable to students of this age level, I was able to really engage all students in this lesson. The media not only had a tactile appeal to the students, but created a tactile challenge as well, as students this age are learning to tie their shoes and are at that point where developing fine motor skills like the ones addressed in the lesson are critical. Student interest and learning increases when ideas that students are familiar with are re-contextualized. In this lesson, students were excited to solve the creative problem of transforming everyday objects into beautiful sculptures because the everyday objects were taken out of the context that they are used to.

On day 1, after having conversations about Shinique Smith’s artworks, what they were made of, and her ways of working and thinking, Erica demonstrated different ways to make forms. Before demonstrating, however, she increased the level of palpable excitement in the room by handing out bags of surprise materials to small groups that could not be opened but kept secret. Student helpers eventually were in charge of passing out certain materials at a time to their group, to help students stay focused on one task at a time and listen carefully to directions and demonstrations. Day 1 was considered the “skill-building” day more than the exploratory day, though plenty of new discoveries were taking place.

From Erica’s reflections:

As eager as the students were to transform everyday objects into beautiful sculptures, the students are still developing the fine motor skills that this lesson addresses, so we didn’t end up having enough time for the free-creation time that I had scheduled into the lesson. This was fine though, because I realized students needed to really practice these skills to get them down.

Using the classic method of gradual release, first Erica showed one example, then had students follow her step by step in how to stuff a sock with a foam block, and make a colorful rectangular solid.  Students were allowed to “finish” the block in whatever way they wanted (to deal with the leftover sock material). The next form was demonstrated and after students repeated back the steps, they proceeded on their own to make a tied form.

Erica demonstrating to KindergartenErica demonstrating to Kindergarten

For the next solid, a wrapped spherical form, students had to first use their deductive powers to figure out how it might have been made, then demonstrations followed. The forms provided much challenge for the 5 and 6-year-old’s fine motor skills, so Erica ended the day with a brief review of Smith’s work and how they had problem-solved their forms, rather than the free exploration she had planned. This was a good reminder that another important artist’s strait is to PRACTICE constantly, not just explore and invent. But the quality and nature of that practice is important. A particular frustration for our lab teacher was that in the Kindergarten class, which took place in the children’s regular classroom, the aide had to be discouraged from doing the activity for struggling children, rather than assisting/coaching from the side so that the child did most of the work. This did not happen in Grade 1, whose teacher expected the first-graders to develop more independence.

She wrote:

As much as I didn’t want to, I did end up tying knots and wrapping rubber bands for those students who absolutely could not perform the task on their own, even after re-teaching how to do so. In my kindergarten class, I noticed that the classroom helper, Mrs. ___, got up and began helping students by actually completing these tasks for them, rather than letting them do it themselves.

I feel that I did have to help the students who absolutely couldn’t complete the tasks even after I re-taught them how. This was especially true for my kindergarten class where some students simply hadn’t ever learned how to tie their shoes or wrap a rubber band. I can’t expect them to be able to do that after 1-2 tries, they need lots of practice. However, Mrs. ___ was reinforcing their “I don’t know how” way of avoiding a task by completing it for them without attempting to re-teach them first.

In day two of the lesson, there will no doubt still be students who are not developmentally at a point where they can complete some of these fine motor tasks. However, I plan to stress before independent art-making time that I want students to be able to try as hard as they possibly can to complete the task before receiving help because they had a chance to practice the skills last class. It is my hope that after repeating this expectation multiple times, Mrs. ___ will not feel as inclined to complete tasks for the students before re-teaching and making absolutely sure that they cannot do it themselves.

… Although I had planned moments where single students could come up and help demonstrate, I decided to cut time and exchange participation during demonstration with focusing on helping students strengthen the fine motor skills required during the times when I circulated the room. This is not to say that there was no participation during demonstration, because I had the entire class participate by telling me how to tie a knot, double knot, rubber band, etc. …I exchanged moments for demonstration participation for time to practice skills because I felt that skill acquisition was more important than participation during this [day of the] lesson. Although it sacrificed participation during demonstration for this lesson, I feel it was still a wise choice because extra time spent practicing sets the students up for success during the free-creation time planned for day two of the lesson.

I also planned an opportunity for students to participate on a personal level by collecting an everyday object from home and bringing it in to incorporate into their sculpture (with parent/guardian permission). Students were very excited about this.

For day two of the lesson, I want to push the students and encourage them to get really creative with the materials and discover what they can do, now that they have practiced the fine motor skills required. In addition, I will provide a segment of time for students to discover how all of the sculptures they made can then fit together to form a larger whole, allowing them to realize the positive impact of collaboration with peers. Over the course of the lesson, the level of discovery-based learning will continue to grow incrementally, until reaching its peak at the moment the students discover the larger whole.

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Markman, A. (2013, May 7). The danger of starting in the same old place: Reframing known problems offers   a creative fix. Psychology Today. Retrieved from         



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