Friday, September 16, 2011

Make a Symmetrical Cuna Mola

Due to my recent transfer to new schools, I'm a little behind in starting my first project of the year.  I spent the last week getting my two new classrooms setup (I'm now split between MLK, Jr. Learning Center and H.S. Thompson Learning Center), but now we're in full swing and starting our first full project.  We're making a paper version of a Cuna (or Kuna depending on who you ask) Mola for Hispanic Heritage month.

The Cuna people live on the San Blas island off the eastern coast of Panama.  Mola is the Cuna word for cloth, and these beautiful panels of hand-stitched fabric are often sewn into blouses and dresses or used as wall hangings. The designs are thought to have originated with body painting and often include geometric patterns and images of birds, animals, and plants in a symmetrical design, although many contemporary molas depict urban themes like cities and cars. 

We're using a poster from the Harcourt Art Everywhere set titled "Pananmanian Cuna Mola with Iguanas and Birds" as our inspiration for this project.  I found a bunch of plastic sun catchers at Wal-Mart for about $.50 each that we're using as templates for our shapes.  We looked at several examples of molas, and then using our poster as a starting point we came up with a list of steps to make our own mola:

     1. Create a Line of Symmetry by folding your paper in half.
     2. Choose a shape to work with and trace the outline of it on one side of your paper with a pencil.
     3.  Draw in the lines and details on the inside of the shape you traced.
     4. Flip the shape over and move it to the other side of the paper.
     5. Trace the shape in the new location.
     6. Repeat steps 2 - 5 for as many shapes as you want in your design.
     7. Add a border stripe around each shape on your paper.
     8. Fill in the empty areas with geometric shapes and designs.
     9. Trace your drawing with a black marker.
    10. Add color with oil pastels.

I think these are beautiful, and it's a great opportunity to teach line, shape, and symmetrical balance (including the difference between a rotation, a translation, and a reflection.)  This project would also be great using cut paper shapes instead oil pastels.  This is a very colorful project that has a very high rate of success and accomplishment for just about all of my students.  With the younger students we use a small piece of paper and only one shape, while the older grades (3rd - 5th) use a larger format at least three different template shapes in their designs.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Survival in the Elementary Art Room

I’ve taught 9th – 12th grade art at a private high school in Dallas, 8th graders at Florence Middle School in the Dallas ISD, and Pre K to 5th grade at my current school, W.W. Bushman Elementary.  I’ve also taught music at the elementary level, and I spent two years teaching special education for 4th – 6th grade specializing in behavior management and language arts.  That’s eleven years altogether, so I feel like I’m a pretty seasoned teacher at this point, but every year at the beginning of school I’m reminded of what a challenge we elementary art teachers have.  Here at W.W. Bushman I see every grade level, from Pre-K to 5th grade.  They only come once a week for 45 minutes, and there is no 5 or 10 minute transition time between classes like I had in middle school and high school.  That means my room setup, rules, and projects have to be able to accommodate 4 year olds who have never been in school before, and then go right into a class of 10 or 11 year olds who are very different in every way.  With no changing period between classes there’s just not enough time to have different rules and table setups, so over the years I’ve stumbled upon a few things that help me manage my classes to make the most of their art making time:
1)      Have a procedure for entering class.  I divide students into four groups on the first day of class.  The groups are color coded.  There’s a red table, blue table, yellow table, and a green table.  Each student receives a folder with a daily grade rubric and their group’s color labeled at the top.  At the beginning of class I put each groups’ folders on their table.  The students enter and sit with their assigned group, get their folder from the stack on the table, and write the date and lesson for the day on their grade sheet (I post this on a white board every day.) This is an easy way to keep up with work and check attendance.  If they’re absent I simply mark it on the grade sheet.  I have a shelf divided and labeled for each class section.  At the end of class students place their folder in their class section when they line up to leave.
2)      Have supplies ready ahead of time.  I have colored baskets for each group that have basic supplies for the day in them (markers, crayons, pencils, erasers, etc.)  I post a list of the supplies in each basket, and at the end of class each group organizes their supplies basket and cleans their table.  I can walk around the class and inspect supplies and table readiness very quickly, making sure that nothing is lost or needs replacing so that I’m ready for the next class.
3)      Minimize reasons for leaving work.  45 minutes is not much time to make artwork.  We need to maximize every minute of class if we’re going to have successful projects.  Some students will try anything to get up and keep from working on a project, so I try to anticipate any problems or reasons my kids may have for leaving their work.  The usual suspects are throwing trash away and sharpening pencils, so each of my group tables has a small trash can (color coded for the group) and hand held sharpeners.  Since they already have supplies at their table they don’t need to look for anything else.  A lot of my students want to get up to use the sinks.  I have a simple policy that the sinks are always last in class, meaning that we don’t wash hands until everything else is done.  Your hands will get dirty again while you work or clean your table, so why wash them before everything else is done?
4)      Label everything!  I am fortunate to have four working sinks in my room (although I’ve taught art without any sinks in the room), so I have the sinks color coded for each group.  I organize supplies (paper, paint, drawing supplies, clay, etc.) and label cabinets and shelves to minimize the time spent searching for needed items.
5)      Have a storage system for student work in place.  Most of our projects take more than one day to complete.  If it’s a work on paper we simply store it in their folders until the next class.  Wet paintings and three dimensional projects like clay and plaster require storage shelves, so I have some plastic shelving, a cheap drying rack, and an empty table available.  I also have a cabinet labeled for each group during a class in case there’s overflow.
6)      Have something for students to do when they’re finished. No matter what the project is or how long it should take, some kids will inevitably finish a project before everyone else.  I keep a box labeled “I’m finished, now what do I do?” at the front of the room.  Inside the box are small strips with drawing starter ideas, mostly fun and slightly off the wall things for them to draw independently.  Students simply pull a strip from the box, grab a sheet of paper from the stack beside it, and follow the instructions.  This is a chance for them to have some less structured art time of their own, but only after completing the assignment.  For longer projects I have a self assessment rubric that kids can go through to make sure they’ve really finished the assignment to the best of their ability.  I also post step by step instructions for longer projects on the board.  After all, it’s been a week since they’ve seen their work or our project so they always need a little refresher of what’s expected on the assignment.
7)      Procedures and Rules are your friends!  This is a tough one for a lot of artists.  Many of us are creative types that kind of buckle at the thought of a strict regiment or routine.  While many artists thrive in chaos, most young children don’t.  They need structure, and it’s particularly important when you see the classes infrequently like I do.  I’ve settled on a kind of generic set of rules written as an acrostic that seems to work well for both my young kids and the older students:
Ask permission by raising your hand.
Respect our classroom.  Use materials responsibly.
Talk quietly about art with permission.
Involve yourself.  Participate!
Share supplies and ideas.
Treat others the way you want to be treated.

On the first day of class we go through these rules and talk about what they mean and how it looks in the art classroom. We go through the rewards and consequences and how our grades work (I’ll post a copy of my grade sheet later.)  I keep a treasure chest full of goodies (mainly school supplies) that students can earn during class, and I have a file cabinet full of alternative assignments for students who won’t follow rules and need a time out from art.  Time out in my room doesn’t mean sleep time or play time.  Students receive an alternate assignment like art vocabulary worksheets or assigned reading in the textbooks.  It’s very rare that I have a student who wants to work on our art vocabulary instead of painting or drawing.  Everything is clearly posted in the room, and I just remind students to be an ARTIST when they’re in my room.  The color coded groups are a clear procedure for entering class, and the supply basket checklist and routine for returning folders is a clear procedure for ending class. While there’s always a few surprises with young students, having these rules and procedures in place helps me maximize our time on task and make more art, which is what it’s all about.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The "I Can't" Funeral

I discovered this on  It was in reference to a discussion of pet peeves from various art teachers, and one that all of us hear over and over is "I can't draw."  I tell everyone that "I can't" really means "I haven't practiced it enough."  I think his idea is fabulous, and not just for kids in art class.  I think we should all have our own "I Can't Funeral," just eliminate the phrase and all it's variations from our vocabulary and mindset.  If we focus on growing and learning and work hard enough we can learn to do anything.  Van Gogh wasn't a particulary naturally talented draftsman, but his desire to be an artist outweighed everything else and he just kept painting.  Now he's recognized as one of the most outstanding talents of his time.  When confronted with a new challenge we should all think like Dori and Nemo and "just keep swimming."

Art teacher Mikel Lee has a good idea about this syndrome:
"I had an "I Can't Funeral." I had [the students] all write what they couldn't do from art to every other topic and then they folded their lists and we stuck them in a coffin...they didn't know what we were doing at this point. Then I gathered them all and said that we were all gathered for the funeral of our dear friend, " I Can't." He had been a good partner and has given us many years of security. He had many aliases: 'It's too hard,' 'I don't know how,' etc. (make it up as you go)... He is survived by his brothers and sister "I can", "I will", and "I am going to try my best." In the future when we feel like we need "I can't" we will turn to his brothers and sisters for strength and we will make it through our tough times..... Then we had a moment of silence and put the top on the box. I think that the teacher I borrowed from even buried the box outside.. I just put a tombstone on the wall and wrote R.I.P "I Can't" and the date. It was cool because even though it was corny every time someone said I can't someone said "I can't is dead" and pointed to the wall."

 Here's the link to the full article at Incredible @rt Department (

On the Edge (the "I Can't" syndrome)

"On the Edge"
Mark Nesmith
Charcoal and Conte on Paper
10" x 8"
Inside each and every one of us is the potential to be something better than we are.  Our job as teachers is to help people find the key to the lock.  It’s easy as an adult to think that we are what we’re going to be, that we’ve already done all the changing and learning we’re capable of.  Some of our students already have that fixed mindset as well, when in reality, all of us, especially children, are like blank canvases.  Part of the problem is the “I Can’t” syndrome.  This is a portrait of one of our students.  He’s a very bright young man.  His mind is quick and he has a good memory, but he often has trouble carrying through on his work.  Like Kung Fu Panda, “his focus needs more focus.”  People tend to follow the path of least resistance.  We’re simply more comfortable with what we already know.  What he knows is acting up.  He has a quick temper and generally skips past the problem solving stages of an issue and goes straight to “let’s fight.”  When faced with something that’s a bit of a challenge he’s equally quick with “I can’t” and “it’s hard.”  He’s on the edge.  He’s sharp enough to be anything when he grows up, but his behavior usually leads him the wrong way.  His teacher last year saw the potential of his mind and worked with him constantly.  She tried countless ways to help direct his energy into positive channels with little success.  It’s a new year, and so far he’s seems to be off to a better start.  He’s seems to have calmed a little, matured a little.  He’s been on the edge for awhile now, but I hope this will be the year he’s able to jump with both feet into a new life and start to realize his own potential. Achieving success in school in this neighborhood often has negative implications.  I’ve had many students who didn’t want to be on honor rolls or receive awards because other kids (and sometimes grown-ups) would give them so much grief.   I’m often reminded when thinking of our students of the great poem “Our Deepest Fear” by Marianne Williamson, introduced to many through the movie Akeela and the Bee.  Williamson writes that “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Respect Yourself

Mark Nesmith
Pastel on Paper
14" x 11"
Well, it only took a couple of days for people at school to start noticing what I’m doing.  I’ve had countless students, teachers, and even a parent or two asking about having their portrait painted!  I think everyone likes to feel like someone else thinks they’re important, and when you flip through history books the portrait paintings you see are usually of famous, important figures.  I think what goes on in our schools every day is as important as anything in the history books.  Our students are our future, and I want the future to be a bright one for my kids.  This is a painting of one of our TA’s on campus.  I’ve had the honor (although I think he’d understand if I said displeasure) of working cafeteria duty with him since last year.  Cafeteria duty is one of those thankless jobs that no one enjoys but is essential to the day to day operation of a public school.  Some of the older kids say he’s mean, but that really translates to "he won’t let me get away with something!" I don’t think he’s ordained as a minister, but I believe his real talent is preaching.  The topics of his sermons always seem to come around to respect.  Every day I listen to him talk with students, sometimes whole grade levels in the cafeteria, sometimes just a kid or two privately.  Sometimes he’s on the soapbox in the center of the room, and sometimes he’s quietly walking down the hall working with a small group of kids.  He’s tireless in trying to find ways to get them to understand how respect looks, sounds, and feels.  Simple things like tucking in your shirt or raising your hand in class can be signs of respect.  It’s one of the most important lessons we can teach.  Respect opens doors.  In the world outside of the classroom how you present yourself to an employer can sometimes have a bigger impact on getting hired than your report card. You could be the smartest person in the room, but if you don’t act the part no one believes it.  We often hear that respect has to be earned.  Before you can earn anyone else's repsect, first you have to learn to respect yourself.   

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Find Your Smile

Mark Nesmith
Pastel on Paper
14" x 11"
Some kids come to school full of excitement and joy, and some kids need a little help finding their smile.  No matter what's going on around me, I'm usually smiling.  On campus I'm kind of known as a bit of a jokester, and while sometimes sarcasm gets the better of me, I try to be friendly and optimistic towards the people I meet.  When I met this girl she seemed shy and reserved.  She was in line with her class in the hallway, and I was talking and joking with several of the students I already knew from last year.  She kept turning away and covering her face with her hands.  It took a little work, and a bit of help from her classmate in line behind her, but suddenly she burst out with this radiant smile.  Her face just lit up! It's amazing how much a simple thing like smiling can effect people.  Smiles are contagious, they cost nothing, and they make everyone around you feel better.   I think alot of our students (and their families) kind of have a bad taste in their mouths about school.  They think of it as something they have to do, not something they want to do.  We need to change that perception.  If we can get our students and our families to feel welcome at school, get them to feel a little joy at the idea of learning new and exciting things and meeting new friends, then our effect on them will be much more than a test score.  I think our biggest goal as educators should be encouraging our students to be lifelong learners.  A person who enjoys learning has no limits in life.  They can adapt and overcome obstacles.  They value their own potential and can dream big.  One of my main reasons for starting this series about my school is to help our students realize that they have value.  They're not just an ID# on a standardized test.  They can be more than that.  We want them to be more than that, and as soon as they start to believe it, they can achieve it!

Who knows?  Maybe it can all start with a little smile.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Making the Case for Fine Arts in the Classroom Part 2

You guessed it!  Here's another re-post from my Paint Daily Texas blog about the importance of studying the Fine Arts for kids.

Today in staff development at school we started our new Dallas ISD book study of Teaching With Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen.   We read an introduction and watched a few videos, and the book looks like it has some solid, practical ideas for improving our teaching.  There was a brief mention of the power of the Fine Arts to help engage at-risk students and increase their overall performance in school, and while I yelled a big "Amen!" at that point, it's really old news to the thousands of art, music, dance, and theater teachers out there.  I've discussed this topic before ( but thought I'd share this list I made years ago summarizing studies about participating in music (I'm a musician as well as a visual artist.)  There's many more studies out there, some of which focus on particular disciplines (visual art, music, theater, dance, etc.) and others that look at the broader impact of the Fine Arts in general.  No matter what study you look at, they all seem to come to the same conclusion: studying Fine Arts helps kids learn!  This is why I get so frustrated when looking at the extremely limited time that I have to work with students in my art or music classes.  I'm trying to keep a positive mindset and hope that even the small amount of time I can give them will pay off with huge dividends down the road.

   Here's my list (feel free to add more in the comments section if you have them):

1.       In a 2000 survey, 73 percent of respondents agree that teens who play an instrument are less likely to have discipline problems.
- Americans Love Making Music – And Value Music Education More Highly Than Ever, American Music Conference, 2000.
2.     Students who can perform complex rhythms can also make faster and more precise corrections in many academic and physical situations, according to the Center for Timing, Coordination, and Motor Skills.
- Rhythm seen as key to music’s evolutionary role in human intellectual development, Center for Timing, Coordination, and Motor Skills, 2000.
3.    A ten-year study indicates that students who study music achieve higher test scores, regardless of socioeconomic background.
- Dr. James Catterall, UCLA.
4.    A 1997 study of elementary students in an arts-based program concluded that students’ math test scores rose as their time in arts education classes increased.
- “Arts Exposure and Class Performance,” Phi Delta Kappan, October, 1998.
5.    First-grade students who had daily music instruction scored higher on creativity tests than a control group without music instruction.
- K.L. Wolff, The Effects of General Music Education on the Academeic Achievement, Perceptual-Motor Development, Creative Thinking, and School Attendance of First-Grade Children, 1992.
6.    In a Scottish study, one group of elementary students received musical training, while another other group received an equal amount of discussion skills training. After six (6) months, the students in the music group achieved a significant increase in reading test scores, while the reading test scores of the discussion skills group did not change.
- Sheila Douglas and Peter Willatts, Journal of Research in Reading, 1994.
7.    According to a 1991 study, students in schools with arts-focused curriculums reported significantly more positive perceptions about their academic abilities than students in a comparison group.
- Pamela Aschbacher and Joan Herman, The Humanitas Program Evaluation, 1991.
8.    Students who are rhythmically skilled also tend to better plan, sequence, and coordinate actions in their daily lives.
- “Cassily Column,” TCAMS Professional Resource Center, 2000.
9.    In a 1999 Columbia University study, students in the arts are found to be more cooperative with teachers and peers, more self-confident, and better able to express their ideas. These benefits exist across socioeconomic levels.
- The Arts Education Partnership, 1999.
10.  College admissions officers continue to cite participation in music as an important factor in making admissions decisions. They claim that music participation demonstrates time management, creativity, expression, and open mindedness.
- Carl Hartman, “Arts May Improve Students’ Grades,” The Associated Press, October, 1999.