I love incorporating opportunities for teamwork and collaboration into my curriculum at all grade levels. It’s important to structure activities that foster social-skill building along with creative and critical thinking.
For the past few years, my fourth-graders have worked together to create digital sculptures that are inspired by the work of Rachel Beach (May 2018 issue, p. 16). That collaborative process is all about talking through ideas, taking time to listen to each other, and learning to work together to create the most successful art piece that they can. I love the energy and discussions that happen during that experiment.
AS A FOLLOW-UP to that experience, I have used an activity that uses the work of artist Heather Hansen (www.heatherhansen.net) to get them to collaborate again, but when they do so, it becomes a nonverbal creative challenge.
I start by reviewing our process from the previous week and then I share a video of Heather Hansen at work. She uses her whole body to create gorgeous large-scale drawings that show symmetry. While viewing it, we look at how her hands/arms create the same types of marks on both sides of her body as she works. We look at the physical nature of her work and how it was both a physical and visual dance on her drawing support.
I then share a video of me and my son doing what they’ll soon be doing in class. This breaks down the work one more time, so they can see it done by a peer and a teacher, and adding the collaborative component to the process.
I emphasize that this process is an experiment with symmetry and centering their bodies and minds. The communication between partners should be as nonverbal as possible. This is an experiment in close looking (reading) and responding or mirroring the actions of your partner.
Partners take turns leading each other—if they notice their partner is confused with a movement, they should repeat it in the drawing to reinforce it. On the opposite side, if they are the one not understanding, they should take the time to think and visualize their partner’s movement. They do not need to feel rushed during this experience.
WHEN ALL THE TEAMS GET IN PLACE—kneeling across from each other (or across from one another at tables)—and the music comes on, they can begin. I tend to use the instrumental tracks that accompany a few of Heather’s performance videos, as they are calm and slow, and allow students to maintain a relaxed state as they draw.
I emphasize drawing with both hands at the same time. If students break from this momentarily, I let it go, but if the break continues, I’ll gently remind them to reset and start again. (I think this is the most common deviation from the activity and it is totally understandable. After all, how many times do we encourage kids or adults for that matter, to use both limbs simultaneously?)
After about four minutes, I give the groups a second color, followed by a third after another four minutes, and one more color to wrap things up. Throughout the experiment, teams can put down their chalk and use a finger or two or three to make marks by smearing chalk that had already been applied.
One of the fascinating things about these drawings is watching how they develop: the marks that come first, the responses to preceding layers, the eradication of marks altogether, and the compositions that become final. It would be cool to display some of these with time-lapse videos of the process next to the installation, so that viewers could watch the evolution too.
For this drawing experiment, we use 24″ x 36″ sheets of black construction paper. I like the larger size, so that kids can stretch out and use a bit more of their body in ways like Heather does. I choose black because of its contrast against the colors students are using. We primarily use sidewalk chalk due to this larger size, although we do usually use chalk pastels for the final layer, in order to give the foreground a little more pop against the preceding layers.
When the drawings are done, we wash up, and come back together to reflect on the processes of the past two projects. The hands-on portion of the lesson is no longer than 30 minutes, so there is plenty of time for this reflection piece after the drawings are completed.
Students answer exit-slip questions for me, and then we take a few minutes to share out to the larger group. It’s always interesting to read and/or hear about which activities students were more comfortable with and what aspects were most challenging for them. As these come up, as always, I encourage students to dig deeper and think about why they struggled and how they dealt with these challenges.
I ENJOY SHARING this experience with students of all ages. I’ve done it with kids as young as 7 on a smaller, table-sized scale. I’ve led a few groups of art educators through it, and participants have responded enthusiastically to the nonverbal challenge of the collaborative process.
As one collaborator said this past fall, “it pushes us to trust one another—in decision making and mark making.” It can be an intimate experience that encourages close reading skills and active visual listening, as the follower attempts to process the dance leader’s marks and movements.
I think the experience, due to its brevity, can be quite useful as an introductory or closure experience for any number of units that we include in our art education curriculum. So many of the drawings made through the activity are rich in mark making, color, layering, and approximate symmetry.
I highly encourage you to give it a go with your students and, as David Gahanna from Depeche Mode sings, “enjoy the silence.”
Elementary students will …
• collaborate successfully to create a drawing.
• work together to create a layered drawing that demonstrates symmetry.
• reflect on the creative process and identify challenges and how they dealt with those obstacles.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• Creating: Explore and invent art-making techniques and approaches.
• 24″ x 36” black construction paper
• Painters tape to hold paper in place
• Class set of colored sidewalk chalk
• Assorted chalk pastels
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Arts & Activities Contributing Editor, Don Masse, is a K–5 visual arts teacher at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy in San Diego, California. At the 2018 NAEA national convention, Don was named the 2018 Pacific Region Elementary Art Educator of the Year.
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