Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Making Things

Curried red lentil soup with sweet potatoes and greens.
I know a lot of people who make things -- dinner, for example.  I know people who grow their own food, make their own music, build their own rock walls, design and build their own houses, decorate their homes with their own artwork, sew their own quilts, and bake their own bread, all as a matter of course.  I know people who knit their own socks!

Then again, when I go into schools, I meet legions of children who never even considered the possibility that they could make something, let alone their own percussive dance patterns.  Here the thing, though -- most kids, even if they don't regularly engage in making things, get excited when it's their turn to make their own dance patterns in class.  It's amazing and energizing to watch, honestly.  It's like I'm giving them permission to take their rightful place in the human race.

I have been reading back issues of the Teaching Artist Journal and finding common themes emerging in what I read.  One of the things that comes forward is that many Teaching Artists (like myself) teach with less of a focus on the technical aspects of their art and put more emphasis on helping their students make things within the structure of an artistic practice and processWhen a Teaching Artist takes their art into the classroom (or community center, or after-school program, or a nursing home, or wherever people are)  they work with people who may have never taken a dance class or made music or used paint in a meaningful way in their entire lives.  They usually have limited amounts of time to work with a group of students and so they become masters at helping people make personally relevant art with a limited vocabulary of skills.  

This is what I do in Math in Your Feet.  In an upcoming article to be published in April 2011 in the Teaching Artist Journal, I go into detail about a teaching tool I created which I call 'Jump Patterns.'  Essentially, Jump Patterns are to percussive dance what creative movement is to ballet or modern dance.  Jump Patterns reflect the elements of percussive dance and allow children to be creative and successful in this particular dance style, but without great need for technical development. 

Don't get me wrong, skill development is important, but sometimes a focus on technical issues creates a huge obstacle to experiencing the incredible joy and importance of just making...things.  Art.  Ideas.  Music.  Shoes out of paper plates.  Even having this particular discussion is part of the cultural baggage we carry, a particular mindset that gets activated and reactivated whenever we think of art solely as something to be 'good' at  instead of an opportunity to make things.  And that's a pity, because I believe that making things is one of the most meaningful activities in which a person can engage. 

An 'old fashioned dress' the creation
of which was facilitated by safety pins and
some adult modeling.
Right about now you might be asking yourself, 'Just how can someone make something without skills?'  The answer is facilitated making.  Kids are like everyone else, you do have to give them something to work with before they can begin to create.  But, in the end, all you really have to do is help kids explore the medium, find a way for them to  investigate the processes of the art form, help them formulate some questions or just wait until one is asked, and, when it's time, add instruction on specific skills when the student is ready for them.

Here are some examples of what I mean by facilitated making:

Example I:  In Math in Your Feet, Jump Patterns are the tool that facilitate the making of foot-based dance patterns.  Once a kid learns three of the four elements of percussive dance (leaving out the most technical aspect, parts of the feet) they are then ready to experiment and create their work.  They become participants in the traditional aesthetic -- everyone has something to offer, everyone has their own style or take on the dance, everyone is welcome.  Not everyone is good but, more importantly, everyone participates.  Without participation there is no form.

Example II: A Teaching Artist friend of mine works with kids who, more often that not, have no formal music training.  When he sets up digital recording studios in their schools they are able to get immediate feedback on their own ideas and find ways to evaluate and adjust their ideas to make real, and often interesting, music and lyrics in a collaborative way with their friends.  He spends parts of each class talking about the science of sound or new techniques for using the equipment but mostly the kids experiment on their own and come to him if they have questions.  In this case, the facilitation is the TA's approach to using the equipment with his students. 

Mermaid's Tail
Example III: My daughter, who is five, has always had many ideas and many of them get expressed through her art supplies.  When she was two, she wanted paper cut into shapes so she could make something with them.  She had an idea but still did not yet have the skill to cut the paper the way she wanted.  Did I say, "Sorry darlin'.  You'll have to wait until your hand muscles are stronger and more coordinated before you can get that idea out of your head"?  Nope.  I cut the shapes for her and she did the rest.  Did it change the fact that it was her artwork?  Nope.  A few years later, when she was a few months shy of her fourth birthday, she had an idea for a mermaid's tail.  By then, facilitating her making process simply consisted of making sure the tape was secure so all those little pieces stayed together.

Making things is not rocket science...well, unless you're trying to build a rocket.  But what comes before that rocket?   All the times when kids get a chance to ask questions, experiment with materials, find their own answers and get some help and guidance from adults along the way.  We can sometimes get wrapped up in giving kids what we think they need to learn, but it's in the doing where the meaning is made. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...