Wednesday, June 7, 2017

"Wait... That's All?" Why That End-Of-Year Art Portfolio Isn't Thicker

One of my greatest fears as an art teacher quickens my heartbeat each June. Children make their portfolios and I begin handing out a year's worth of artwork to go home, and... wait... where is it all?!  That cannot possibly be all that we made this year, right?! What did we do with all that time?

Turns out I am not the only one wondering- so are students and their parents! That's why it's so worth talking about.

Why don't art class portfolios have more in them?

In most places in the U.S., if kids have art class (note: not all places do), they have it once per week at school during their elementary years. Some students are super lucky and have it twice weekly, but that is pretty uncommon.

This year, my Monday classes had art thirty times, while my Tuesday classes had it thirty-five times. Mondays run into national holidays and long weekends, and lose several class periods. Now, factor in field trips, snow days, and random school assemblies, and it is lucky to see a class even twenty-eight times in a year.

My own schedule is unusual, to be sure- I see Kindergarten and first grade weekly, and grades 2-5 three times every two-week rotation.

It might be easy to assume, therefore, that there should be perhaps fourteen or more finished and beautiful projects. Or at least ten? It seems like there just never is that much work in a portfolio. Where did the time go? Where are the projects? The feedback I most dread is the "it couldn't have taken them long to make that, right?" comment.

To help explain, here is an example project breakdown, day by day:

This is a first grade landscape. It took a month to make. Four classes. How on earth could it take a whole month?! Let's explore what went into this rather average-length project.

Class 1: We look at examples of skies in photos and paintings, and have a class discussion about how a person can tell the time of the day by looking at the sky. What celestial objects are in it? What colors are visible?

Students make a choice about the time of day and the light source that they would like to use. Artists paint just the sky, leaving little white lines behind to add trees later. Some students don't finish painting it, because everyone has a different work pace.

Class 2: We experiment with light and shadow. We use the projector to look at how light hits objects, and figure out what we need to show- objects, light source, a surface, shadows, lights and darks on the object itself... whew.

Now, students who didn't finish the sky last time begin with that, and kids who did finish begin trees, implying the light source on the trees using lights and darks in their paint shades. Often, students finish only the tree trunks that day.

Class 3: Today we quickly review how to imply light direction, noting that darks and shadows always fall opposite the light source. Most students are working on their leaves or pine needles, stippling the brush to show lots of texture. (Or... some are still working on their sky, because they were absent, are particular, or find it challenging. Missing a class is significant, and catching up is hard.)

Class 4: On this day, the students use oil pastels to add a surface, shadows, and details, and often add a light source as well.

Most students finish this day, and it might look something like these when done. Being science-integrated, this lesson has also just done the double-duty task of demonstrating what they know from pieces of their classroom Light Unit.


I would be happy to break down any project this way.

There is also lots of work which doesn't fit into a portfolio, and goes home earlier in the year, or doesn't go home at all, like a group mural or outdoor chalk drawings.

The cardboard beast of the winter which took most groups ten classes? You won't see that in the portfolio, these already went to recipients selected by the pair of artists who made each work.

The insect prints which took most children seven sessions? The card sets went home for Valentine's Day. Single prints will be in portfolios.

All of the clay work? Many students took these home on Art Night, or in the weeks afterward.

First grade magic wands? Casting spells on your homes since October!

We also painted rocks for the Fleming Museum Project! Gracing homes around the community and helping increase museum access.

Yes, art is (partly) about making really beautiful work to hang in your home. But my classroom is not a craft factory, we are working on creative problem solving, art history, and more, with equal weight.

But it is also- perhaps foremost- about the process: learning, connecting, mistake-making, and sketching ideas.  Not the product alone.

So, if your child's portfolio is looking a little thin, dig deeper with him or her. You might ask: What tools and materials did you use to make it? What was the hardest part? What was the process like? Circle back to the projects which might already be at home. Slow down, notice the details, and celebrate the work of what your artist has come to show you!

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