Thursday, November 5, 2009

Artistic Abilities

“He kept trying to make his drawings look right, but they never did.”

Peter H. Reynolds, ish

This morning got off to a confusing start. The phone rang around 5:45AM from the sub line coordinator, asking if I’d gotten her message the previous evening. Surprised, I said, “No.” (Oh good, I got up early for nothing). Then I asked, “Have you had trouble reaching me before?” She hadn’t. For the past two days, I’d gotten several calls that came up Private Caller, which is how the sub line comes up on Caller I.D., but no messages. After I hung up, I checked the messages – there were two. The first was from the sub line, but the light hadn’t blinked on the cradle after it was left at 6:08PM. Worse, was that Caller I.D. didn’t show the call. The second was from a politician running for U.S. Senate an hour later, which is what I thought the blinking light was for. I was sure the phone had not made a sound before the sub job message was left, which was not good. I vowed to check the messages more often, and if it happened again, I’d have to get a new phone.

The next problem was that when I got the call this morning I was told that the job was for one of the eight-hour schools, which I didn’t put myself down to work at. Working from 7:40AM until 3:55PM is a challenge when my children’s school ends at 2:55PM. Besides, enduring eight hours as a substitute teacher might just kill me. The sub coordinator assured me that I’d have to report at 8:40 and leave by 2:55. But when I listened to the messages, she’d said I’d be there until 3:55. Later, I called the school and confirmed that I’d be out by 2:55. So much uncertainty so early in the morning!

I’d worked at the school twice before in the spring, since grandfathered teachers had the option not to work a full-day when the school changed from a six to eight hour day. The first time was for Music, which was a combination of this school and a smaller, Spanish-English Immersion school, which was also housed inside. The main school is a poor school – probably with the most impoverished in the district. It went to eight hours to improve student performance. In my experience, the contrast in behavior between students from the main school and the Immersion one is stark.

For the Music classes, I’d brought my Bose, and let students listen to music while they drew, which they loved. That day, I only taught K-4, which is normally easier than middle-school, but two kindergarten classes were as difficult to control as any I’ve encountered. One Immersion fourth-grade class was one of the cutest I’d ever taught, with a couple of children making me pictures and one student telling me and her teacher she liked me better than her music teacher. I didn’t point out that she liked me because I played music she enjoyed and didn’t make her work very hard.

The second time, was for middle school Science. When I arrived, I saw a previous fifth-grade student in my first period class, who was one of the saddest, most unstable, and neediest students I’d ever taught. His parents adopted or fostered a lot of children, who often seemed neglected. His peers knew they could get him to do virtually anything because he desperately wanted approval from them. When his mother got tired of hearing that he was a behavior problem, she pulled him out the school and put him in another, and then another (The downside of school choice). I heard the secretary say he had just returned from out of school suspension. When I asked him why, he replied, “I made bad choices.” The teacher was in the room as well, because he was accompanying third-graders on a field trip. He seemed concerned that I wouldn’t be able to handle the kids, but the day went fine, though the seventh-graders in first period needed a few warnings to stop talking and throwing garbage (The room was full of wrappers, water bottles, and even a tipped over cafeteria apple juice cup, whose contents had become glued to the floor).

When the Science teacher returned from his field trip, I spent that afternoon, helping the Humanities teacher get the students ready for their portfolio presentations. Among them was my former student who had fallen behind because he didn’t do any work during his two or three days of at-home suspension. It reminded me that as much as teachers do to bring up test scores, reading levels, and to work on discipline, it’s a steep uphill battle when the parents work against the schools, rather than with them. What's message for this student when he gets suspended, and his “punishment” is to stay home and probably play video games and watch TV all day?

Today, the Art classroom was neat, organized, and bright, with lesson plans that were clear and concise. My schedule would be: 8th, off, 3rd, 5th, lunch, 4th, 2nd, and 8th – and a mix of both schools. I admire specialists who have that many grades in a day. My first period class didn’t show up, which I wasn’t too broken up about, though they were from the easier school. Would that mean that eighth-grade wouldn’t show up from the more difficult school last period? Having so much free time at the start of the school day made it feel like the rest would be that much more difficult. I hoped I was wrong.

The third-grade was great, but the fifth, not so much. The third-graders got right to work, but one girl needed a lot of compliments because she worried her vase didn’t look right or that she didn’t know how to draw a flower. Most of the fifth-graders – especially the boys, didn’t want to draw at all, and thought playing with the erasers was a better way to spend the period (Until I took the erasers away). After the fifth-graders left, I realized that I forgot about the iPod and dock, but even with that incentive I don’t know if it would’ve helped. The fourth-grade Immersion class also didn’t show up, so I went over to the Immersion school and found out the whole school was on a field trip until 1:30PM. I might not even get the second-grade next. If that was the case, even if last period was horrible, could I really complain about only having three forty-five minute classes?

It turned out that I only had the last period to wait for, and although, not stellar, behaved better than the fifth-grade class. I offered to let them listen to my music if they were focused. When they asked what was on my iPod, I had to admit, “I’m an old white girl – I have that kind of music,” which made them laugh. One of the girls said, “I can’t believe you said that. You’re my favorite sub ever.” (The bar must be very low.) I don’t think the students believed me, so as I walked around, they spent most of the period quizzing me to see if I knew various artists. I failed. Unfortunately, this was the only class I’ve had that didn’t like the Black Eyed Peas, so I really didn’t have much music for them. The students who enjoyed drawing went right to work, though I needed to walk around and remind the rest of them to work the whole time. I kept hearing, “I can’t draw,” and “This is the best I can do.”

The older the students get, the more self-conscious about their artistic abilities they become, so by fifth-grade, students who think they aren’t good artists won’t expend a great effort. These students become a challenge just to get them to take a pencil to paper. As someone who loved art class, this is hard for me to understand. “If you do your work, it’s an easy A,” is my philosophy. I’ll have to give my friend, Joanne a compliment for the challenges she must face as an Art Teacher.

“Just make a mark and see where it takes you.”

Peter H. Reynolds, the dot


  1. How is art class taught in the US? Just from this post it sounds like the kids are simply asked to draw and not taught how to?

    That the way it is in France... And then your grade reflects how naturally talented you are at drawing. It was the bane of many good students...
    And later, in highschool, it becomes optional... And then still instead of learning how to create art, you continue to get graded for inherent talent (or external tutelage) in addition to getting quizzed and taught about art history. The whole system never ceased to puzzle me.

  2. @ Alesa, I never thought about it, but kids aren't taught how to draw. They just get an assignment. Sometimes they study the works of a specific artist and imitate the style.

    Our grades are about effort. Not talent. We don't get quizzed about art history. It's the product. If someone is talented, then s/he is encouraged to go to art school.

    Your system seems unfair. But I guess some people aren't good at math, but they get graded on "talent".

  3. Hmm interesting... Hypothetically speaking:
    So what would you do if you had a supremely gifted child who effortlessly and disinterestedly handed in a perfect copy of a great master, and a seriously untalented but dedicated child who struggled mightily and sweated blood and tears to produce something that looks vaguely like a stick figure?
    I thought the system was unfair... And pointless, because in the last three years of highschool, only a dozen or so student in my entire highschool took art class as an option. Shrug, another of the many flaws in the french education system. I have yet to find one that was flawless. : 7
    At least in math you get taught basic principals that you can apply to solve the problems. In the US, some schools even try to touch upon the why behind them...

  4. Alesa, I guess a stick figure wouldn't be trying your best once you were out of first grade. It's about doing the assignments and staying focused.

    You're right about math in the US.