Painting party, Frosty the Snowman, and lesson planning
My friend Paco turned 5 and I was invited over to play with art with him and his friends. I've been exploring art with Paco since he was a baby, fondly witnessing his and his siblings' joyful growth as young artists. Since Paco had requested a painting party, I started planning how I could make that happen in a NYC apartment, making it manageable for me but also engaging for a dozen kids who don't know me and whose experiences with art materials (or lack of them) I don't know. Knowing Paco's love for 3D collage and construction, I ran a few ideas by him; we ended up settling on having available tempera paints, paper, and paintbrushes, and also cardboard, wood, and paper rolls that could be used to create 3D stuff, that could potentially be painted on as well.
We had a lot of fun at the party, and the kids – 3 to 8 years old boys and girls – created paintings and constructions that were quite unique and individual. They played with their just made airplanes, spaceships, and shields, built sets for their clothespins characters, explored the apartment with three-person telescopes, and told many stories with their paintings.
And that gave me something to chew on during my train ride back home. Birthday parties and other one-shot events are particular occasions: you're not establishing long term relationships with the kids, you're not actively teaching them specific sets of skills or techniques, and actually coming up with a somewhat finished product is generally also part of the fun. As an educator, however, I can't really help myself: I'm nudging them to explore color mixing by providing only primary colors, I bring in materials that are open ended and non-restrictive as to what they'll become, I scaffold them in how to use the materials but not in what to do with them. That, what to do with the materials, should be each child's call. At the end of the day, even at a birthday party, one should look around and see diversity in what the children come up with. See different pieces crafted in their own ways instead of 15 identically looking airplanes, googly-eyed dolls, or cotton-ball-for-head-frosty-the-snowmen if it's wintertime.
And that same diversity and individuality, I believe, should be seen in schools as well. In the classroom, working with students in individual ways is not necessarily easy if you have 25 kids to deal with and maybe not a solid classroom structure to help you with it - I fully understand that. But does designing lessons that will result in 25 identical shiny-nosed-Rudolphs make it easier in any way? Even as a "classroom management" strategy (not to mention the much more important learning, personal meaning and engagement, etc.!) opening up lessons, assignments, and activities to the possibility of them being meaningful and personal for each child seems like a good idea to me.
Knowing what will come out of students' explorations with materials often feels much safer for teacher - no surprises can feel like "being in control." But being in control may also mean not knowing, being willing to be surprised, and giving students the space to take classroom activities and assignments, at least to a reasonable extent, in their own ways. And good lesson planning can provide for that.
As I reach my stop and get off the train, I think of my graduate students and how lesson planning in this way is often a joyful discovery for them in our classes, how their lesson plans evolve throughout the semester; I think of how much I have been learning myself about letting go, and how much that process brings to my teaching of both children and adults; I think of a NYC living-room packed with kids flying twig-made planes and offering adults a drink from their paper-roll-and-paint-coffee-maker.
Next year it will be a clay party, Paco already determined. And I for one look forward to it.