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Observing Animals: Drawing with Third Graders

Third graders at Willow Creek Academy have been working with Mentor Artist Suzanne Joyal to utilize visual arts to make their creative writing richer. We have been learning to look: how can you find every detail, and draw what your eye SEES, not what your mind REMEMBERS. Today we worked on observational drawing, both Gesture and Contour. The drawings of animals made from 3D sculptures were inspiring.

Listening and Responding

Last year I wrote a blog suggesting that students’ behaviors should whenever possible be seen as an attempt to communicate. I encouraged my fellow teaching artists to:


1. Find the hidden messages in “behaviors” or “breakdowns”

Those of us that work with special needs students are very familiar with behaviors or breakdowns.  Initially the crying, repetitive gestures and outbursts from these students may seem random, but they rarely are.  These students have no way of saying “I don’t like this song,” or “The volume is too high.” Ask yourself:

What activity preceded the outburst?

Has this happened before?

What did you or the classroom staff do that calmed the student?

When does this student seem most content?

Sometimes there are even messages in the sounds and words said while in the midst of a tantrum.  One of my students “J” threw a tantrum in one of my classes, and after close listening, I realized that he was yelling, “e-i-e-i-o.” He wanted to sing Old MacDonald but didn’t have the vocabulary to express it.  So we sang Old MacDonald and he was immediately calmed.

 2. “Read” your audience.

A  great many skills we develop as performers are transferable to teaching special needs students.  One such skill is being able to “read” your audience.  After a while we instinctively know when to slow down, speed up or drop a section completely.  The same goes for working with students.

If you find your students engaged in a song, repeat it.  This populations thrives on repetition, and those with language processing delays will have an opportunity to learn your material.  On the other hand, if the class is losing focus or individuals are starting to show behaviors, find a quick stopping place and move on.  It takes patience and flexibility to work with special needs kids, and sometimes no matter how wonderful your lesson plan is, you may have to make a quick change.

3. Your greatest resource: The classroom teacher

The special day class teachers are an amazing group of individuals who know their students extremely well. Ask them for advice and listen to them when they make suggestions.

This year I have been considering the difficult situation when I realize what a student is trying to communicate and I have to decide to honor the request or continue with the class.  For instance, if a student breaks down in the middle of a song, is it best to stop the song or continue in the hopes that ignoring the behavior will not reinforce it.  The simplest answer I have come up with is to look to the classroom teacher for advice, but I am realizing that being a teaching artist with the same children over several years and sometimes through several classrooms can help in this situation.  We are in the unique situation of knowing students on a very deep level and can plan and react accordingly sometimes even surprising the classroom teachers. There was a specific instance where we were singing a song, and one fo the students was obviously not enjoying the experience. The classroom teacher and I looked at each other considering what to do.  I shared that in the past if I get to the next verse, this child usually calmed down.  We tried it, and it worked!

YIA Mentor Artist Hannah Dworkin

Cave Dwelling Artists at Marinwood Summer Camp

Mentor Artist Suzanne Joyal joined Marinwood camper artists again for another Thursday full of art-making. This time, we focused on early cave dwellers, and asked the questions: What would an early Cave Dweller Paint? What would they use for tools? and How would they make their own Paint?

We created our own small caves as we searched for the answers to these questions. Artists used paints made from food (tea, coffee, and cherries), and from the earth (ochre, sienne, charcoal, and gold). Our tools were simple: sticks, flowers, feathers, and our hands. And we made pictures of what we SEE and what an early cave dweller would see (animals, plants, friends and family).
Read more…

Moving into the Third Dimension: Marindalers Begin Building

Our next project begins to explore the concept of FORM: how do we create art that comes off the page? Beginning in black and white, Marindalers learned about GLUE this week. How do we make things stick to our picture? How does glue feel compared to paint on our hands? (The answer was STICKY!)

Children are learning to make choices: Do I want a Big triangle or Small? Black or White?

In four weeks, children have learned some important rules for artists:

  1. Use one material at a time (so that your neighbor can have a turn),
  2. SHARE with your neighbor,
  3. Keep your hands on your own work, and
  4. TRY not to taste the art supplies!

Children are learning to follow a series of steps to make their art:

  1. Choose a shape,
  2. Wiggle it in the glue,
  3. Place it on the base, and
  4. Pick a new shape.

We are seeing individual artistic expression in their pieces: some are limiting their pallet to one color, some have glued their pieces in a row (making a pattern), some have chosen to draw the same shape on every piece, and some have chosen to smoosh each piece with a painty hand!

“I learned that LETTERS are very attractive to many children! I had cut up foam core signs from an art exhibit, and not only were most students able to grasp the shapes, many made choices based on the letters they found on the shapes.”–Suzanne Joyal, Mentor Artist

It turns out that for many children, no art project is complete until the paint has been applied: to hands as well as artwork.

Preschoolers Experimenting with Paint: What is Slippery?

Marindale students have been experimenting with SLIPPERY: how does it feel to draw and paint on a slippery surface? How does your crayon move? Your paintbrush? Your hands? What does it sound like when you tap on the foil? On the plastic? How is it different from drawing on paper?

Mentor artist Suzanne Joyal designed several projects to explore this topic. Students were able to experiment with a variety of media on foil, green cellophane, and clear plastic, mounted on foam core scraps. Crayola Window Crayons, Twistables, and Dry Erase Markers allow students with all levels of fine motor development to see success with making marks on the boards.

Our next project was inspired by Amstel when she chose to use our erasers (meant to be pushed through the paint thereby making a new kind of mark) as a building material. She stacked them all into a tower (which unfortunately fell down).

Marindale: How do We use our SENSES when we Create?

Mentor Artist Suzanne Joyal is working with four classrooms at Marindale in San Rafael, and students of all abilities are exploring the same Essential Question. In week one, we started with Texture: how can we FEEL things when we create?

What is a teaching artist?…..

This year in the Sausalito Marin City School District the arts specialists have been thinking about their roles, and what their goals are in the classroom.

Below are some important connections the teaching artists in the District are nurturing in the classrooms:

1. Artists make spontaneous and deliberate (planned out) decisions.
2. Artists learn and develop their work by addressing challenges as they arise.
3. Artists develop works of art through meaningful experiences with materials.
4. Artists thrive in a community that accepts risks and values multiple approaches.
5. Artists work responsively, not necessarily efficiently, often working on a project over a long period of time.
6. Artists use ideas as material.
7. Artists look at art and listen to music.

Reflection is an important time to look, learn, and discuss

Crafting strong Essential Questions is important to the teaching practice

Students are given t i m e to explore & experiment with materials

Creating an environment of wonderment is key

Middle School Artist Trading Cards

Creating Artist Trading Cards was part of the arts integrated unit with Ms. Nestle, the Willow Creek Language Arts specialist,  and her 7th grade artists.

This unit was connected to the book Dragonwings, by Laurence Yep.

The essential question that the students were focused on was, “What are the many different ways people communicate?”

Each student was asked to create 4 trading cards (but they had to create 2 of each so that they could be traded).

Materials were simple: Black paper on white trading cards. Some artists chose to embellish their cards with watercolor pencils.

The symbols (that were cut out of black paper) had to represent the artist, and communicate ideas about them to others when shown or traded.

The cards were then laminated, shared, traded, and used as an artistic resource for creating their kites.

An old friend and colleague of mine, Benicia Hill, who presently works as the Middle School Arts Specialist at The Berkeley School, did an Artist Trading Card project with her students.

Here is the link:


Planning an arts integrated unit

Planning an arts integrated unit takes time and space.

In the Larkspur School District at Neil Cummins, teachers are collaborating with YIA artists to make units come alive.

YIA teaching artist, Lynn Zamarra, and science teachers, Ted Stoeckley and Rebecca Newburn, are working together to develop a 6th grade unit focused on the components of plate tectonics.

Read more…