Saturday, January 18, 2014


one of the programs my kids are fortunate to participate in is GRACE art in the schools.  i volunteered to work with ander's class last semester as we all learned about carmen lomez garza and robert lobe.  what i love about the program is the the fact that kids have the chance to be exposed to artists they might not otherwise encounter in their art classes, that the collections are curated by the arts center, and that parents are the volunteers so we have another opportunity to be involved in our childrens' learning experiences at school.

i must admit that i felt something was off, though.  i didn't sense that ander was really connecting to the artists or to their art.  i wanted to do more, do something different.  so when the opportunity came up to lead the next presentation, earlier this week, i embraced it.

mind you, the presentations and lessons are geared towards all elementary-aged kids.  k-6.  there's a wide range of interest, ability, and opportunity in there.  i fully believe that the artists and their representative works are all accessible and interesting to people of all ages, but trying to cram the breadth of their work and complete a project in 30-45 minutes?  oh, it can feel like sheer futility.  the dedicated parent volunteers who organize and lead these sessions are creative and mindfully work within the restrictions of time and space and budget, but it has ended up in me feeling frustrated that the kids are rushed and limited.

i determined to go about it in a different way.  i learned that our next artist would be alexander calder.  not knowing anything about him, i googled and my eyes goggled at what i found.  what a treasury of works and what a fascinating life!  there was so much to learn about this man, but i had to focus clearly on only one aspect of him.  thinking specifically about ander and his first-grade classmates, what i knew to be available to them in terms of time and materials, what i have gleaned from watching them listen to and talk about stories during library time, i was convinced i had to pull away from a presentation on the smartboard.

fortunately, my searching quickly unearthed a beautifully illustrated book about the artist called sandy's circus by tanya lee stone.  this book served as my inspiration - i was going to read the story to the kids, show them the pictures, let the author's words tell the story of alexander calder's life, and have a circus theme for their art project.

i was nervous and excited about this.  it was a deviation from The Plan.  i didn't know how the teachers and other adult volunteers would respond to this change from other GRACE art experiences.  i wondered if it would go over well with the kids.  in the end, my confidence in the kids was resoundingly justified!

did they learn about the artist?  yes!  did they use one of the artist's processes to create their own art?  yes!  did they create something individual, personal, expressive?  yes!  were they proud of their work?  yes! 

so, you wanna know what i did?  lean in and i'll tell you:

  • gather your students together in their being-read-to-as-a-group space, away from their desks and tables, where it's comfortable and familiar and intimate.
  • read the book Sandy's Circus aloud.  show all the pictures.  point out things of interest linking the words to the pictures on the page. ask them if they know where paris is.  you can skip over some of the details within the circus itself as you go along in the interest of time.  (i had their rapt attention all the way through.)  maybe it is the words, or the pictures, or quite possibly the very expressive and enthusiastic voice you'll use, stressing the things you really want them to hear, like:
 "he has discovered, in playing, a new world." 

  • ask them to close their eyes.  tell them to imagine a circus - one they have been to, read about, heard about, dreamed about.  now tell them "imagine your very own circus - where would it be?  on earth?  in space?  in the ocean?  what would be there - animals?  people?  animal-people?  what size would it be - tiny?  humongous? what would be going on - what acts, what experiences?"
  • with them still in silence, imagining in their heads, say " now go.  go to the blank white paper and draw it.  draw your circus.  show me what it would be like to be there."
  • to the teachers and other parent volunteers, tell them to follow your lead.  if you see a student not drawing, ask him or her about the ideas that come to mind.  some kids prefer to think things through completely and then put pencil to paper, so they need to be left alone to concentrate, while others may be hopelessly stumped and need a more specific question to help them get started.  when students want to share a thought or idea or an element they drew, look at it, listen to them, ask them to tell you about it.  reflect their excitement.  there are no wrong ideas here, because it's their own circus, out of their own imaginations.  (one student said he could not imagine a circus he would want to attend, so i told him to imagine one he would not want to attend, and he related easily to that.)
  • when a student claims to be all finished, take a look to see what you can identify within the picture.  ask questions to confirm ideas and encourage explanations.  if it feels incomplete, say you are having a difficult time seeing yourself there quite yet and wonder aloud if there could be more detail.  (the answer is almost always yes.)  to suggest the use of a different drawing implement other than a pencil, ask if the circus was in black-and-white.  (some kids had not known that they could incorporate other elements and happily went to the crayons to bring their ideas to vivid technicolor.)
  • the art needs to be shared with others.  mount each circus representation on black paper as a frame.  find a blank wall near the classroom in a hallway where the students and other classes would pass.  create titles to provide a context to viewers.  thoughtfully consider the arrangement of each piece to display the range of ideas.
one section of the gallery

your efforts will be noticed and appreciated.  one student's reaction made my heart so happy: "thank you for putting our work up.  i love to see it there."  yes!


  1. I am so excited for you! And for those kids. :-)

  2. So glad you pulled away from the smart board! Smart you. Sounds delightful.