Artist Yves Klein perfectly captured how it feels to be engaged in the creative act in this 1960 piece entitled Leap Into the Void.
I have been teaching the creative process and making art for most of my adult life, and this image perfectly captures the feeling of not knowing where you’ll end up when you begin to make something. Leaping, literally, into the unknown, not knowing if you’ll fall to your death or grow wings and soar, is a wonderful metaphor for the process I’ve tried to teach students. Playing with materials, wondering what will happen when you use this with that, or try to capture this feeling, scene or idea, this leap of faith is unlike any other.
Over the years, I found that traditional methods of teaching art weren’t working anymore. Students were only interested in finishing something, not in the process of making. I wondered how I could slow them down and help them experience the pleasure of making something. How could I make them aware of the joyfulness of play that making involves and spark their curiosity about materials and how they work together? About six years ago, I discovered the Maker Movement. Started by Dale Dougherty, a former middle school art teacher, it emphasizes engaging in the messy creative process. I knew it was going to change the way I thought about teaching and learning. And it has.
The Maker Movement stresses process. Being a lifelong learner, making mistakes, failing and trying again; these are just some of the mindsets that the Maker Movement embraces.
But how do you “teach” these mindsets to children? How do you include failure in your lesson plans? How do you encourage students to push through the hard stuff? Simple: start by modeling the behavior. I’ve always been a “lifelong learner”, but this summer, I’ve spent countless hours learning about circuits, electricity, and microcontrollers. I’m preparing to teach a course in physical computing and wearables next fall, so, after school was out, I dove head first into my own learning.
Where did I start? With a healthy amount of curiosity about (and respect for) electricity and micro controllers and what they can do when paired. I first discovered this world two years ago, when talking with students about the “Makey Makey” a microcontroller that is easy to program and use. I just kept searching the internet and looking at what different people were doing in this realm, from artists to designers to coders. Artists were using circuits, LEDs, motors, and sensors to bring their artwork to life so that it reacted to its viewers. I showed my discoveries to students.
We were hooked! We began with the Makey Makey and tried some simple projects whose tutorials we found online. While it might seem that following directions isn’t very challenging, it’s the best way to start. The students were interested in making the Piano Stairs and wanted to convert some stairs by the cafeteria so that students would be able to interact with them during a lunch period. You can watch our videos here. Glitchy? Difficult? Absolutely. But with a little help from a local expert, we made it happen. With this ‘win’ under my belt, I was ready to tackle something more difficult.
While I initially found the whole idea of coding intimidating, I was also determined enough to get through some minor setbacks.
Circuits are hard because one small error means the whole thing won’t work. Coding is hard because one misplaced semi colon or capitalization, means the code won’t function and you get an error message. Over the summer, there have been plenty of times when I walked away from the work, knowing that I needed to take a break and come back when I was fresh. But I persisted. I’ve made lights blink-super easy-and skirts light up when the lights went off-super hard!
Not everything worked on the first try. In fact, most projects took many iterations to get right.
I persevered despite some frustrating days. Will I know everything by the time September rolls around? Absolutely not! But I will have enough confidence and experience by that time to be able to figure out what the problems are and potentially where to look for help and solutions. Learning in 2017 is very different from when I was in school. I “Google it” and watch YouTube videos when I don’t know what to do. I read questions and answers in online forums and I look for others’ code that is open source and available to all.
I reach out to my network of people who are also doing this kind of work, asking to do a video call so they can help me through a sticky spot. Video calls are the best because it’s like having your own personal tutor and you can share your screen with them so they can see for themselves where you’ve gone wrong. One of my maker friends said the other day, “Just reach out to people when you’re stuck. Makers are generous with their time and expertise.” So true.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned this summer and that I hope to impart to my students this fall, it’s that you just have to keep trying, remain optimistic and keep pushing through it, until you figure out.
Modeling learning and not being the expert might make you feel vulnerable, but it’s teaching invaluable lessons to your students. So figure out what you are curious about and get out there and find resources. Then showcase your process and your results to your students. You will be surprised by how helpful and excited they will be!
For breakfast, I had refrigerator oatmeal with almond milk and blueberries and tea!
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