After laying down seemingly miles of copper tape–practicing complicated bends and turns–the fourth graders at Hannah Gibbons were ready to see if their skills could be applied to complete circuits and illuminate tiny LED lights. They masterfully wired a simple circuit, and celebrated 100% success as a class on their first try, each of them rewarded with the soft glow of a single LED light. Eager to master multiple lights, they dove into their parallel circuits with equal success and much enthusiasm.
Robot creative writing template and parallel circuit planning sheet.
Planning light placement with a student on her robot illustration.
Students plotted out the placement of their lights, and got to work designing and creating their custom parallel circuits. This was a huge challenge, and as a result offered the greatest reward. After weeks of practice, students adapted and translated their understanding of circuits into a line drawing of positive and negative parallel but never touching tracks looping back to the power source to illuminate the lights beneath their illustrations. There was an excitement of challenge, mixed with a little head-scratching, many super tight turns with copper tape, and a few frustrated re-starts.
Student reflects on his completed robot illustration.
Completed robot fox illustration ready for parallel circuit planning below.
And then, it was absolute magic. Every student mastered a unique parallel circuit for their book spread, and then folded down their robot drawing to lay flat over the lights. “Oooh”s and “Aaah”s sounded out in a cacophony as students celebrated in both amazement and disbelief of how their robots lit up exactly where they had hoped; their smiles as bright as their lights!
See the students in action in their classroom by watching the YouTube video below:
Mound STEM School 4th grader working on coding his Scratch animation.
The 4th graders at Mound STEM School in Cleveland were already well-versed in landforms when I began my residency this past fall semester. Their teachers had done an excellent job teaching the students all about weathering, erosion, and the formation of landforms. What I found lacking in this class was the ability to visualize these landforms. They could tell me how a valley or a glacier was created, but they could not tell me what said valley or glacier looked like. They could describe the weather associated with these landforms, but not the visuals of them. This is one of those key factors missing from our education system: the ability to let students experience these realities first-hand. Although we cannot take the students to the Grand Canyon or to the valleys of the Rocky Mountains, we can show YouTube videos, paintings and images to give our students a glimpse of these environments.
It took students some time to realize their visions for their Scratch animations they made as part of my residency work. The animations included drawn imagery sourced from discovered images and videos research. Once they had conquered the imagery, the students incorporated facts about their landforms to educate other students and other viewers. We then used conductive materials such as graphite, aluminum foil, and copper tape to create conductive drawings, which worked along with the Makey Makeys to trigger the Scratch projects. The conductive drawings were a result of experiments completed by the students, during which they tested various materials to find what the most conductive materials were to use for their artworks.
Experimenting with conductive materials and the Makey Makey.
The results of combining these various materials and methods was a (surprisingly) cohesive and exciting project. The students learned the basics of coding, digital painting, physical drawing, and conductivity, along with their landform curriculum. This was a very challenging residency to accomplish, and the results were far from perfect. I would love to do this residency again, with slight adjustments to streamline the process. The students were very proud of their work, and their projects can be viewed here. I enjoyed my time with the 4th graders at Mound STEM, and I look forward to seeing what these enthusiastic learners create next.
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching I have found is witnessing the literal “light bulb” moment in the arts-integrated classroom. The third graders at Michael R. White STEM I worked with during the fall 2015 semester were certainly enthusiastic learners, but the concepts of screen printing and printmaking were totally foreign to them. The assignment was to design and draw a life-cycle, which they would then screen print onto a square of canvas. These squares would come together to create a quilt, depicting life-cycles found in our natural world. They were excited about the project, but it was the physical act of screen printing that made students’ eyes truly light up around me. It was like magic for them, seeing their drawings burned onto screens, and then printed on canvas. The students loved moving the ink across the screen with the squeegee, watching it seep into the mesh and onto the fabric. A student who was particularly restless, a self-proclaimed “trouble maker,” became entranced with the printing process. By the end of our first screening session, she was reminding students to “flood their screen,” and demonstrating the proper way to hold a squeegee.
Another “Aha!” moment occurred when we began the second half of our project: sewing. Students were finding personal connections within this project from the beginning; when we looked at pictures of historic quilts, students were exclaiming “my grandmother makes those!” or “we have one at home!” Many of these students had helped their relatives with quilting and sewing in the past, and were very intent on creating patterns with a plastic needle and yarn. As a class, they sewed each other’s squares, working together towards their goal.
The history of quilts comes from bringing together different elements to create a single collaborative blanket, something warm and familiar, something steeped in history and personality. The third graders at Michael R. White took this opportunity to create something educational that also represented each of them as individuals, and as a class. The quilt will be installed in the school during the second semester, and will remain there long after these students have graduated; a little piece of history.
One of the most difficult aspects of my job as an artist-educator is designing and implementing rigorous residencies that constructively challenge all students involved, knowing that they start at a wide variety of academic and artistic skill levels. Utilizing a variety of differentiated instruction techniques has allowed the residencies that I have taught to meet the individual needs of my students.
I frequently encourage collaborative learning by placing students in mixed-ability groups. Students who struggle gain assistance from other students and higher achieving students receive peer modeling opportunities. I saw the benefits of this during this semester when I was teaching a book-making residency based on the transfer of energy from the sun to living things. After I provided classroom instruction, students helped each other break images of animals into geometric shapes in order to more easily draw them. I frequently heard students complimenting each other and requesting specific assistance based on their needs. Mixed-ability groups were also successful this semester when I taught video production to a combined group of second graders and older special education students. These social dynamics prevented bullying and provided opportunities for all students to grow.
Sometimes the needs of students aren’t as clear. I’ve learned to quickly and instinctively adapt instruction when students are stuck, but I’m beginning to find ways to predict these moments and integrate differentiated approaches into my lesson planning. This past semester I had a first grade residency during which the students needed to copy a sentence from the whiteboard onto an overhead transparency. This was not an easy task for some of the students on IEPs. I needed to scaffold the activity in a way that didn’t draw attention to those who were struggling. I copied the sentence on a paper and placed it under the plastic for some students to trace, I wrote the first letter of each work for some students as a guide and some students continued to write their sentence independently. After addressing this challenge in the first class, I was able seek guidance from the classroom teachers of subsequent classes so that I was able to provide the proper guidance for each student.
As we transition from the fall to spring semester, I’m looking forward to digging into additional research on differentiated instruction and implementing more best practice techniques into my arts-integration residencies. I am most excited about applying this to the use of technology in the classroom.
Developing a new project is challenging. It is one thing for an artist to develop their own work, their own process and own methodologies. It is another type of challenge to apply those processes and methods to arts integration projects. While developing a residency for 5th graders at Michael R. White STEM School, I drew upon a past experience I had while developing my own artistic work. The residency’s activities consisted of the students first drawing parts of a food web, then making transfer drawings, arranging and testing gears, making series and parallel circuits, and eventually creating connections with gears to light up (literally) the different parts of their food web.
Constructing a Circuit
Drawing has been one of my passions since I could physically pick up a pencil, crayon, or marker; I didn’t really have a preference when I was younger. I have spent thousands and thousands of hours drawing in my life. If you ask me to draw something, I can probably whip up a fairly accurate sketch in just a few minutes. Throughout most of my life I have had the mindset that there is one proper way to draw. The “traditional way,” as some might refer to, is drawing from life, rendering objects and forms through a push and pull with materials and the media. Then one day I got frustrated. I couldn’t figure out how to draw something. The form eluded me and through many, many attempts I simply couldn’t get it to look like I wanted. After about an hour of just staring at my paper fighting with myself internally, I walked out of my school studio and down the stairs to the checkout area. I checked out a projector and opened up Photoshop. Hours of frustration melted away, and I got the form I was looking for faster than I could have imagined. Photoshop enabled me to edit pre-existing images as source material to create the new image I had envisioned. I have been tracing, copying, and editing ever since.
This particular experience has shown me that different methods of making can be used to complement each other. Technology and traditional drawing do not have to be independent disciplines. I have also found that the right way to do something is not predetermined, but must be figured out through experience and trial and error. Making drawing fun and empowering for students can be a challenge. By using my previous experiences as an artist to shape and develop my methods to teach drawing, I have been pleased to observe that students are able to find a balance between rigorous skill building and achievement.
My concept and final creation for “Constellation,” a wearable I created in 2014.
The technical skills I’ve developed in 3D modeling and rendering, animation, photographic manipulation, and more have enhanced my traditional drawing abilities. More recently, I’ve developed a skill set in circuitry that has allowed me to take my drawing and sculptural work to a new level much as I did previously with other technical tools. This has allowed me to design and implement learning experiences for students that sit outside of art making in the “traditional” sense, helping students have access to materials and methods they may not have otherwise.
When students hear that I am an artist, they often ask me if I can draw a specific thing: a car, a favorite cartoon character, etc. One of the lessons I often wish to impress on my students is that even professional artists use visual references to draw from observation, and that drawing something accurately entails looking at that reference and reproducing the shapes that you see in it.
For my current 1st grade residency at Mound STEM School, we are making chimerae, or “mixed up animals.” To help students get past the fear of the blank page, we began by collaging together pre-printed photos of different animals’ body parts. Students loved choosing the different body parts for their silly mixed up animals!
The next time we met, we figured out different ways of using shapes to help us draw the animals we had designed on a new piece of paper. For instance, an eye might look like a large or a small circle, while an ear might look like a skinny triangle. We used a light artist’s touch to draw our animals in pencil, then traced over them in Sharpie. Finally, we added texture using crayons and texture plates (plastic sheets embossed with a variety of different patterns).
After this, students collaged all over their animals with colorful squares of tissue paper. When we cut out and glue the finished animals into their environments, the bright colors of the tissue paper will draw the viewer’s eye directly to the animal, giving it emphasis in the finished piece.
I’m so pleased with the hard work the students have put into this project, and can’t wait to see it come together in our final sessions!
The details are so important. I often forget that it took me many years and many experiences to gain the skill sets and perspectives that I have. I forget that someone took the time when I was a kid to patiently walk me through all the details of how to do something right. Our current project (an LED arch way) incorporates elements of drawing. We’ve drawn a few things already. When I look at the kids drawings, generally I’m disappointed and surprised by how little their drawings communicate. Of course there are always a few who are naturally gifted or have been trained, but for the most part the imagery consists of smiley faces, basketballs, flowers, and hearts, poorly drawn ones at that. I’m not expecting Picasso’s, but I was expecting to see at least a fascination and curiosity about the drawing process.
What I’ve come to realize is that I have lost touch with the mechanics of drawing that I learned so long ago. I forgot to spend time focusing on the differences and subtleties of mark making. How to hold a drawing tool, fluid movement across a paper, breaking a form into simple shapes, differences in pencil lead densities, and finally how to choose a subject matter. By overlooking these steps I’m actually putting the students in the most difficult artistic position, a blank page with infinite possibility, and then expecting them to make something great. First, they need references and practical skill sets, and hopefully this will propel them forward and transform there drawings into more inspired ones.