by Molly Bang, 2019 CCIRA Featured Author
A few years ago I did a year-long residency in a third grade classroom. Every Friday for the last two hours of school, I worked with third graders making pictures.
I gave them each a 10”x12” notebook and told them that this was not only for their pictures, but also for comments they would make about them. I’d read and answer their comments once a month on a rotating basis.
The third grade is the year when children almost always decide which of their classmates is an ‘artist’, and the rest are not. If a child determine he/she is not, that’s often the end of future possibilities for visual expression: “I’m not good at art.” I was determined that every child would feel capable by the end of the year.
We first talked about animals and the qualities we associate with them, then I asked them to think of an animal they’d like to be or that they identified with and what characteristics they admired in that animal and felt they either represented themselves or wanted to have those characteristics.
We looked at pictures I’d brought in of Tlingit totem poles and Tlingit weaving and talked about what we could understand from them, how they showed the different animals. I then asked the students to make a picture of ‘their’ animal in Tlingit form. I chose these very abstract forms as I didn’t want the children to get caught up in whether they could or could not make a creature look ‘real’, which implied that they were a ‘good artist’. I wanted to begin with all the students on as even a level as I could. The discussion lasted a good 20 minutes.
Each child chose two colors of magic marker – which meant they had two colors plus white – which they could use as a color or as empty space.
As this was the first project, and the Tlingit forms were strange to the children and difficult to decipher, they had a tough time – at first. After about 5 minutes, I had all the children put their beginning pictures on the floor, no names of the artist showing. They then chose 5 of the pictures they thought were ‘working’, and we talked about why. I then asked if anyone had no idea what to do with their own picture, and several volunteered. The class looked at each one with the same three questions:
- What animals are you representing?
- What are the main features of that animal?
- How might you represent those features?
The other children helped the artist with ideas. Afterwards, they all went back to their desks and either finished their first beginning or began another version. Some children decided to choose a different animal.
At the end of each session, I gave them ten minutes to write about what they found challenging about the project and what characteristics they admired or wanted to develop in themselves.
For the remainder of the year, we followed essentially the same process:
- Define the project for the day (And as the year went along the students chose more of the projects themselves.)
- Work for 5-7 minutes
- Spread the pictures out on the floor. Be sure NOT to have the artist’s name showing.
- Have the students choose 4-5 pictures they think are ‘working’.
- Have them say why/how they are working. I required that they not use terms like ‘pretty’ or ‘interesting’ but instead talk about curves or spikes or dark, light, fat lines, bright colors, space, use of the whole page, going off the page, placement on the page . . .
- Find something you admire about 3 pictures.
- Find something that you want to use in your own picture
- If you don’t have any idea of what to do to make your picture work better, ask classmates for suggestions. (These discussions could take up to half an hour! They were very, very important and involved a lot of looking and thinking and vocabulary development.)
- Go back and revise or begin again.
- Work for another 20 minutes to half an hour.
- Write in your notebook across from or on the back of your picture what you thought about and what you learned. Include questions if you have any.
The projects I most remember were
- Making ‘together pictures: working with one, sometimes two partners, NOT friends, more often a boy and a girl. Each chose a color of magic marker. One would make a line or design, for about 10 seconds. The partner would then do something to make that design ‘more wonderful’. This went back and forth until they both felt the picture was done. Rules: No crossing the other person’s line or design but can fill it in. See how much you can use white as a color. After a few minutes, choose a third color. (Again, as with the other exercises, we stopped after the first 5 minutes or less to look and discuss. )
- Cubes and spheres. I brought in oranges and square blocks, had one of each on each table, had the class draw them large, with the shadows. Notice how the shadows fade, how some sides are darker than others, make the lines underneath the object a bit darker than the others and see what effect that has.
- Same exercise but using crayons as well, oranges with colored boxes. Notice if the shadows have colors, if so, what. We looked at the objects, then closed our eyes to see what colors we saw immediately with our eyes closed. Discussion of color chart with complementary colors.
- Drawing roses or lilies: I brought in enough flowers so there could be one or two for each table of 5-6 children. We looked at the flowers and described the parts: stem, thorns, how the leaves grew from the stem, how the leaves grew across from each other alternately or exactly opposite, shape of the leaves and outer edge of leaves, veins, sepals, petals, etc., then the children drew the flowers with pencil, no erasing, from whatever angle they could see them from, back or front, side. Make the flower take up as much of the page as possible.
- Same exercise but this time using crayons and magic markers, could use pencils as well. Be sure to notice shading of the of the leaves and flowers, check the changes of color within the whole petal or leaf.
- Same exercise but I put the flowers on colorful prints. This took two full sessions.
- Same exercise but with vegetables: broccoli, carrots, onions and zucchini. All vegetables were placed on white plates or plates of one color.
At the end of the year, we had a show for the parents. The children described to them what we had done. The parents were all blown away (as were the children). Many parents recalled being discouraged from doing anything with art when they were in grade school, remembering how a teacher had told them their picture was wrong or inadequate or had made some remark that convinced them that they couldn’t do it or weren’t going to be good at it.
I think what most impressed me was how often the children talked about how good somebody else’s picture was, and what they had learned from other students.
Molly Garrett Bang is an award-winning author and illustrator. She is most noted for the series of books about Sophie. For her illustration of children’s books she has been a runner-up for the American Caldecott Medal three times and for the British Greenaway Medal once. Announced June 2015, her 1996 picture book Goose is the 2016 Phoenix Picture Book Award winner, 20 years after it was published.