The cliché says that you can do anything you put your mind to. I say, you can do anything you put your heart into.
I believe that true, deep learning requires making a connection to the learning process. The desire to learn, an openness to possibility, and a persistent dedication to exploration will lead to success. But if the heart is not engaged, classroom skills and information will be short-lived. I believe that it is my role to foster an environment that nurtures the transition of information into knowledge and skills into tools.
Every semester I tell my students, “If you’re going to fail, fail gloriously. This is an opportunity to challenge yourself and see how high you can reach. This is the chance to take risks.” And, while I set the bar high, when students work to meet their own challenges, they own what they have learned.
The two most important teachers in my classroom are the students themselves and their peers. I employ problem-solving challenges through group assignments and guided exploration during demonstrations to allow students to arrive at the answers rather than giving all information outright. While lecture and demonstration are necessary in any course, they are only a starting point for learning. Lecture and demonstration coupled with repetition, peer teaching, and one-on-one engagement helps me to address each student’s individual learning – visual, aural, or kinesthetic.
The most important of the skills that I address in all of my courses is communication. As artists we attempt to communicate a message whether it is conceptual or formal. Technique and craft are means to those ends. If either falls short, the message may become lost or the audience may become distracted. I teach my students that techniques are the alphabet that allows you to build the basis of a visual language. Craft is the formality that allows that language to be heard. Lack of craft can disrupt the ability to clearly understand the visual message. However, so long as the work is done with authenticity and intention, there is plenty of room for experimentation, including the intentional disregard for craft and language.
This seems to be the easier form of communication for many of us and many of our students. The skills to speak about our work and, just as importantly, to hear about our work require significant practice. I feel strongly that once a work of art is completed, it is an entity on to its own; and, I try to impart that to my students. Adopting structure from Terry Barrett’s “Criticizing Photographs” (description, analysis, and eventually evaluation of the work), I ask my students to speak in academic terms about the art with which they are presented. In order to reinforce evaluation of the work and not the artist, I ask students to remove emotionally driven words (such as “like”, “enjoy”, and “interesting”) from their speech. Whether the critique is intentionalist (beginning with the artist presenting the work) or a small group format (where the artist is presented with the findings from a group of peers) these student-driven critiques speak about an artwork’s successes and challenges not the artist’s.
As an educator, I try to strike a balance between being a teacher, a coach, and a mentor. In addition to imparting information and developing skill mastery, I strive to make a one-on-one connection with my students that lasts beyond the classroom. In the end, it is about sharing our passions. My mentors have shared with me and supported me as I have shared with them. I only hope that I can be that for my students as I work to create the environment in which they will succeed, excel, and grow to become a peer and fellow artist.