Teaching with Contemporary Art

….and the Not-So-Powerful, Part 2

paper-airplane

This week I want to continue sharing a few stories in the Not-So-Powerful series about units that didn’t go well and the things that happened as a result…

Years ago a colleague asked me to join him in entering our students into a contest. For a variety of reasons, I won’t go into detail about the specifics of the contest to protect the innocent… and the guilty. I agreed to participate with my classes even though the “student art contest” didn’t exactly fit with the curriculum we had written that summer. He was excited about it, so I figured I should play along and not be the geek who wanted to stick to our original plan. We’re artists, let’s go with the flow, I thought.

As soon as the project began, I could see that what we were teaching had three classic qualities of a bad idea in the art classroom:

  1. The timing was all wrong. This contest theme had nothing to do with what the kids had learned or what they would be learning (and let’s just say that switching from mixed-media sculpture to making posters about a very, very specific time period wasn’t exactly riveting).
  2. We lacked serious motivational resources, so my colleague and I were literally trying to teach the theme solely through words and without much visual motivation.
  3. We framed the assignment as a “contest”. It was clear there would be winners and losers. As a consolation prize, I would quickly add, “But everyone will be able to display their work!” Like I said, riveting.

Students slogged through this particular project as if they were trying to cart all the furniture out of the room strapped to their backs. Every day I was listening to cracks about the current assignment and how boooooring it was. Frankly, I was bored myself and couldn’t wait to finish.

Two weeks, three sharpeners, one cracked chalkboard and a few dozen headaches later, the project ended and we sent the work to be “judged” (you see, I was out of school one day, and they took out their frustration on the room while a frightened substitute teacher hid behind one of the drying racks).

Since then, I have backed off spontaneous contests and requests for participation that takes serious time away from our core curriculum. I will stay after school, hold lunch sessions, even give private lessons if I have to, but I won’t stick oddball themes and assignments where they don’t belong. Kids winning contests, if there is clear criteria and everyone knows what they’re getting themselves into, can be a nice thing. But a majority of students whining for two weeks and practically scaring a sub to death, well, this we can’t have.

Contributor
Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.
  1. Nate Morgan says:

    The thought of a substitute hiding behind a drying rack is priceless….

    Reply

  2. Leah R says:

    I am in the middle of this VERY SITUATION heading into week 2. It’s like we’re all chomping at the bits to get on with REAL ART!!! Also, there’s nothing like seeing kids shut down because they know, “I’ll NEVER WIN!” It just set back our whole “art for art’s sake” and “art as a means of expression” mentality. I will have to start at ground zero once again.

    Reply

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