Yesterday I posted about arts integration, and how it is a pedagogical journey. One of the issues raised was the role of “guided” art projects in the classroom.
The question at hand: Is it OK to assign the kids a subject and give them step by step directions?
In my previous post the answer was yes, but I noted that not all guided projects are created equal. I see them falling along a continuum. At one end, you have something like this:
These turkeys are actually a craft rather than an art project.
Hang on- what’s a craft? Art guru and early childhood expert, Maryann Kohl, has written a wonderful article on the difference between art and craft projects. She says that an art experience will be open-ended without an expected outcome, be creative and unique, and the ideas for the project will come from within the child.
A craft project, on the other hand, has an expected outcome, is directed and led by an adult, and often includes a component of “copying” or mimicry.
Overall I agree with her definitions. I love to see children getting lots of creative time exploring and “playing” with art materials to express themselves. (Especially during the early childhood years!) However, I think there is a HUGE middle ground between the two end points of pure art and pure craft where most arts integration lessons exist.
For example- what about this project?
I posted this spider art project last year. It is an art-integrated lesson based on a beautiful book of poetry about nocturnal animals. Imagine my delight when I walked into a local school and saw that a 5th grade teacher had done the project with her students! Aren’t they beautiful? I was so thrilled!
Is this art or craft? It’s somewhere in the middle! Students were assigned the topic and guided through the steps. However, they were also taught how to use oil pastels and watercolor techniques and were encouraged to make their spider paintings unique. Each piece has the student’s “artistic thumbprint” on it. They are authentic.
I see elements from both of the art and craft definitions in this project and I think it’s a great fit for the “regular” classroom.
So, back to the turkeys up top. What’s wrong with them? In one sense, nothing! I believe that step by step crafts are OK in moderation and are sometimes appropriate depending on the teacher’s goals and objectives. However, if that’s all we do, we deprive our students of the chance to really exercise their minds and their creative juices.
What if instead of making turkeys from cut outs and templates that truly all look the same, you did something a little more like this one:
This is a project from Mary Making (art teacher blog.) The process is still guided, but the children are getting to exercise a little more “creative muscle.” Notice that they drew their own turkeys and painted them with colorful tempera, often mixing the colors.
Is it “pure” art? No, but it’s further along the continuum.
Let’s not get hung up on labeling projects as “art” or “craft.” The key is to focus on your goals and learning objectives for your students, choose the most engaging lessons possible, and honor student creativity as much as you can. For a classroom teacher who has a tremendous amount of content to teach, giving children lots of time for “open-ended” art often isn’t practical.
However, filling the school year with step-by-step crafts that lack authentic student personality or originality isn’t ideal either.
In my perfect world, students would be exposed to a wide variety of art materials and techniques within the context of “guided” projects that integrate well with academic content. Then, at various points throughout the year, they would be given the opportunity to do something completely creative without much adult direction. Let them put those artistic skills to work and see what they can do! i.e.- Boys and girls, the art shelves are open! I want you to use everything you have learned so far about making art this year to create an image you might want to write about. It can be anything you like- a drawing, painting, collage, etc. You can make more than one if you have time and choose the one that inspires your writing the most. Remember our rules for using the art materials and stay on task.
Is that “doable” a few times per year? I think so!
Like I said yesterday, I don’t think there is a “right” or a “wrong” way to teach art. Just be intentional in your teaching. Think about the kinds of art experiences you provide for your students and ask yourself:
1- Am I teaching them something valuable to know about Art?
2- Is the project authentic? Does the product bear the child’s “creative thumbprint?”
3- Am I encouraging my students to take artistic risks and be creative and original in their art-making?
If the answers are yes, then you are on the right track! If not, see where you can make an adjustment that continues to honor your curriculum while also honoring your children as creative individuals.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Post them in the comments below.