Teaching life lessons through art

The first comment I typically get when I tell someone I am an art teacher is, “I can’t even draw a stick figure!”, or, “Teach me how to draw!”

I became an art teacher to open my students’ eyes to a new world of wonder, creativity, and imagination. I became an art teacher to empower my students and inspire motivation. I did not necessarily become an art teacher to make every student that walks into my classroom an artist, rather, to show them a different way of thinking. Who are we to judge if their art is of good quality? I can teach them how to practice certain techniques or how to use different mediums, I can demonstrate how to throw on a pottery wheel, or how to draw a self-portrait. I can also judge if they followed directions but I can not say that person will be the next VanGogh. That is for them to decide.

The past few years I have witnessed not only what you would expect to happen in an art room, such as creating beautiful works of art, but a whole lot more. I have witnessed ruler use to make precise measurements, hammering, reading and writing, seeking out history, shopping and managing money, baking, planning, and debating. We have pieced bits of fabric together to make a wedding dress, entered juried exhibitions to spread awareness of people struggling with drug addiction, and used nature and science to explore new processes. We learned more about time management, deadlines, keeping a tidy work space, and how to be original and unique. There is such a variety of lessons that the art classroom has to offer. I do not just teach how to draw a pretty picture; I teach life skills that the students may or may not realize they are beginning to master.

I once heard that the healthiest form of projection is art. Art class in a therapeutic setting can have a huge impact on students. When a student feels distressed, anxious, angry, hurt, or uptight, they have a space to come to and let some of that emotion out. Pulling out some creative thought and connecting it with real life experiences can be tough, but also healing. Sometimes for students it is just about having success in class; for others, it is a learning experience in what did not go as planned. Observing and experiencing the process that my students have to go through is what is most important to me; It is not always about the quality of work they turn in or the grade they receive. If the work students create in class can help to heal wounds in their personal lives, we as teachers feel success, too.

I value my job as an art teacher. Andy Warhol once said, “Art is anything you can get away with.” As the holidays roll around and finals week slowly approaches, I have each student choose their next project in my classroom with a written proposal that allows for as much freedom as they can handle. I use this approach due to my many negative past experiences with the dreaded ‘finals week’. Past teachers and professors insisted on testing my knowledge with cumulative exams and extensive papers that were seemingly unnecessarily difficult. A final project or exam should be an expression of yourself and all that you feel you have learned throughout the course. Each student’s take away from any given class is different and I believe that one single final exam cannot adequately express every student’s experience. In choosing their own project and doing a small amount of research, we critique and learn from each other on the last day of the semester. We learn each other’s processes in what did or did not work, and teach each other the value of art making.

~Jillian Wenklar

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Chrysalis School