Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Art/Community/Education: The Art of Teaching

By Milisa Galazzi

I’m back with a new name for my column. What was Artist Communities is now Art/Community/Education (Art/Com/Ed for short) to better reflect a broader range of ideas. This new column focuses on individual art makers, the ways they/we work together, and how we share what we know.  For this piece, I asked four accomplished artists, who are also successful art educators, to consider my questions about the art of teaching. Toby Sisson and Sara Mast teach semester-long courses in the university setting, while David A. Clark and Lisa Pressman teach entrepreneurially in multiple-day workshops in art settings across the county as well as internationally.

Toby Sisson with student
"The gift for me in being a teacher lies in doing work that facilitates a deep engagement with the practice of art making and supporting students who want to generate their own vision and practice."

Milisa Galazzi: How do you define the art of teaching?

Toby Sisson To answer this question, I will share a favorite quote from The Art of Teaching by Jay Parini, an educator for over 40 years. Parini begins his book by asserting, “A teacher is charged with waking students to the nature of reality, providing rigorous introduction to a certain discipline, and creating an awareness of their responsibility as citizens trained in the art of critical thinking.”

Sara Mast I take what I do seriously and reject art being tossed off lightly as ‘fun.’ My view is that the creative intelligence at the root of art making (and of creativity in every field) transforms society and culture in profoundly significant and life-altering ways.

David A. Clark The art of teaching is about helping students get out of their own way. I want to help my students see the path of their work and how their work fits into a much grander world. It’s my job to push them off the edge and also to be their parachute.

MG: Some educators say that 'teaching is a gift.' What does this mean to you?

Sisson The gift for me in being a teacher lies in doing work that facilitates a deep engagement with the practice of art making and supporting students who want to generate their own vision and practice. The relationships I’ve developed around a shared passion for art have sustained me in ways that other connections have not. Among my closest friends are classmates and professors from undergraduate and graduate school. And I’ve been fortunate to have friendships with several former students that have endured the passage from novice to colleague.

Clark I believe that teaching is an honor, not a gift. With that honor comes a lot of hard work. I feel a huge responsibility to my students because they are paying a lot of money to study with me. I want to give them everything I can offer. That is hard work. It’s also the most deliciously rewarding work!

MG: When a student and a teacher truly connect, magic can happen. Describe that magic from your own experience.

Pressman For me the magic happens when a student has the Aha moment—the moment of recognition, realization, and connection when thought, emotion, process, and materials are all in sync.

Clark  I had a student a few years ago who had one of these moments right at the start of a class. I knew immediately. She was using the materials in ways that were completely her own, and the work she was making was off the charts. I went to her workstation and said, “What you are doing is really special. Can you feel that?“ and she said, “Yes.” So I said, “ I’m going to continue to teach the class and I hope you watch what we are doing but do not  interrupt the flow of what you are doing. Feel free to ask questions and to ask for help, but keep doing what you are doing.”

Sisson  I feel a special connection to my students who are most engaged with their artwork. Almost every year, there is a student (or more than one, if I am lucky) who demonstrates insatiable curiosity and fearless ambition to pursue their inquiry wherever it might lead. They do not focus on grades or worry about what the other students might think of their ideas. They are seemingly possessed by the spirit of art making and answer only to the work itself. This, in turn, inspires me with magical optimism.

Mast  When I walk into the classroom I am engaged and ready to collaborate with students to take their work to the next level. My enthusiasm and excitement for their process of discovery creates a supportive atmosphere where every mark, be it hesitant or confident, is cause for celebration. Everyone's voice is important, and I emphasize that it's not about 'what' they paint, it's about 'how.'

MG: When students are in an emotionally safe teaching and learning environment, they tend to grow at a faster rate. How do you make your teaching and learning environment emotionally safe?

Pressman  I begin my workshops sitting in a circle where everyone introduces themselves to the group. This usually gets rid of the nervous energy and creates a cohesive learning environment. Early on in my workshops, I spend about an hour facilitating quick visual warm up exercises. This group activity really helps the students get out of their heads and into their work. In addition, good humor helps so much in creating an emotionally safe space!

" I describe my classroom as a lab where the freedom to experiment is most important."

Lisa Pressman

Sisson I am careful to create an environment where everyone’s humanity is respected; self deprecating talk is discouraged in my classroom. I am a strong supporter of artistic freedom. Although viewing particular works of art or discussing challenging ideas may make some students uncomfortable, the growth that comes from moving past perceived boundaries is valuable. Truly great art is always disruptive on some level and should seek to question our most deeply held beliefs, not simply reinforce the status quo or become simply decorative.

That said, the construction of an emotionally safe space lies in the approach one takes in preparing students to do the hard work of challenging themselves and others. Being respectful and open is a first step in modeling the type of learning environment I hope to create. Expecting and accepting a certain amount of discomfort when confronting change is another way to create a safe learning space. Finally, understanding that moving across difference is the work of a well lived life, despite the emotional risk involved.

Mast  My course structure aims at providing my students with a strong scope and sequence of skill building and conceptual underpinning, one layered upon the other as one builds layers in a painting. My pedagogy supports and encourages both divergent and convergent thinking and making.

Clark  This is a difficult question to answer because each student has different needs and different levels of bravery. I tell my students that there are no rules except the rules of health and safety. If my students have an impulse to do something, as long as it is not dangerous, then I encourage them to do it! The gold always comes from exploring the what-ifs. The only thing wrong as an artist is not following your instincts. I tell my students that as an artist, your ideas may work and they may not, but there is no shame in trying them out. Mistakes and failures will happen and sometimes they lead to gold! Failure is a temporary state of being and success is forever.

MG: What are the markers of a student struggling to learn and grow in your classroom? And what do you do to support such a student?

Sisson  Encouraging a struggling student often requires addressing the whole person rather than just the problem at hand. If a student does not complete a project, or has repeated absences, or is frequently inattentive, it is usually a symptom of a bigger issue that likely does not have anything to do with art making. When see this, I will talk with the student individually and suggest that s/he seek the services of the campus counseling program. I do not feel equipped to diagnose or treat emotional illnesses and I trust the professionals to assist troubled students.

Mast I make every effort to foster student initiative and serve as an inspiration. I work one-on-one with students during each class so that I can best assist them in expressing their unique intentions and aspirations.

Clark Usually a struggling student will make jokes or share self-deprecating remarks. S/he might make frustration sounds or retreat from the group. Additionally, the pace of art making slows when a student is struggling. Frustrated students labor over things and tend to second guess their choices or attempt to find the 'right' way to do something instead of their own way.

Pressman I can see when a student is struggling because it often  looks like frustration and sounds like a lot of sighing. I will spend some alone time with these students trying to pinpoint where the frustration is coming from. Sometimes I will do some kind of demo with them, or change their focus—suggest they paint with their  eyes closed, for example. I also may ask them to stop working and walk out of the studio. Sometimes the point of the lesson is to simple get through that frustration!

“It is my job to push [my students] off the edge and to also be their parachute.”
–David A. Clark

MG: We’ve talked about struggling students. Now let’s address successful students. How do you identify them,? And how do you continue to challenge them? 

Sisson  As a teacher I am very mindful of process as well as product in the classroom. Successful students are willing to abandon themselves to the process of learning more readily than those who are focused on achieving a pre-determined outcome. Successful students are not as concerned with seeking my approval as much as they are interested in collaborating with me to find solutions to the questions they develop around their own work. I continue to challenge successful students by asking them to go deeper, not just broader, in their pursuit of knowledge. When they hit on a topic that sparks their creative energy, it is vital that they explore that as fully as possible. Learning to stay with something, rather than moving on to the next shiny bead of an idea is often difficult, though it is essential to developing an authentic voice.

Clark  When students are experiencing success, there is a kind of ease to the pace of their work. There is a heightened level of focus and a fluidity between the way they look at the work and the way their hands engage with the materials. When students are on to something their pace quickens yet there seems to be a cloak of intimacy to the way they work. Even after I leave the room, successful students will often remain present in their own space with the materials and their ideas. 

Pressman  I can usually see when a student is totally engaged because s/he will produce more and more work and exhibit no frustration, just pure joy. I will challenge a successful student with prompts such as,  'Now use colors that you have not used before' or 'Now limit your palette,' or I will simply give them a concept to spin off on.

Mast Successful students generate their own energy and passion for their work. I am there to cheer them on and support their creative flow. They want the feedback--they want to grow. They are not afraid to dig deep both with me and with their peers on what more the work requires. Open dialog and fresh ideas percolate in a classroom where strong students are role models for their peers. It is thrilling to watch student self-consciousness drop away when experimentation and a sense of play are activated through a communal commitment to trust the process.

MG: Exceptional teaching requires extraordinary patience and focus. How do you nurture yourself as a teacher?

Sisson  I love making art. Sharing that enthusiasm with others is a great joy for me and comes rather easily. Effective teaching, however, is something that I have learned over time. I was quite purposeful in college and graduate school, paying close attention to how information was communicated most successfully by my teachers. Halfway through my education, I decided I wanted to be an artist/educator and though I did not yet know what form that combination would take, that goal became part of my life plan. I sought out mentors among my professors. I was candid about my goals and emulated my role models. 

As for nurturing myself as a teacher, I do not think of my work as a job but, rather, as an important part of my identity, one that requires self-care every bit as much as the other parts of my being.

Mast My own research passion for interdisciplinary exchange and creative practice in ‘artscience’ gave rise to the design of a new Honors course, Radical Creativity, a teamtaught course with my colleagues in Physics and Architecture. As S.B. Kaufman, the New York University cognitive psychologist and creativity researcher, states, "Openness to experience is consistently the strongest predictor of creative achievement." The cultivation of intellectual curiosity and openness to new experience is fundamental to my teaching philosophy.

Clark I stay at the top of my game by not teaching too much. I would rather teach three awesome classes a year than eight mediocre ones.

Pressman  I learn from every interaction I have with students. Each workshop I teach helps me to tweak, develop, and focus what will come next both in my teaching and in my own art making. When I am not teaching, I am in the studio. That back-and-forth of teaching and painting is continually fulfilling and informative to me and my students. Additionally, I take weeklong workshops myself from time to time, because I think being a student helps me be a better teacher.

"I believe that my enthusiasm about teaching and learning creates a productive learning environment that gives each student an opportunity to grow, evolve, and uncover his/her own voice and vision."
--Sara Mast

Click "Older Posts," below right, to continue reading the rest of the issue

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