One of my favorite things about working with students is when my magical arts educator eyes can see the gears in their brains linking and turning. Since working at Orca, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about learning styles, what an interactive and dynamic classroom looks, sounds, and feels like, and how to ask students the right questions to most enrich their learning process.
The seventh graders at Orca have been learning about storytelling as it relates to Native Americans- both by them and about them. Keeping both storytelling and learning processes in mind, I helped develop a Native American Unit Project. Seeing it come alive through students’ imaginations has been a rewarding process for me. As a graphic design major in college, I learned the importance of creating several drafts, going through critique, and reworking my ideas accordingly. Since working with Nate Herth and Donte Felder, I have learned a great deal about the importance of a similar idea in education: “iterations” in the learning process. Each Tuesday and Thursday is a chance for me to see students struggle and start over, create and make mistakes, imagine and build. I see the gears of creativity churning, connecting, and pushing each other forward.
I am often asked how art teaches critical thinking, risk taking, or persistence. Perhaps persistence is the most obvious: one must play scales in all keys to master the jazz number, sketch in numerous notebooks to see doodles transform into drawings, or start daily free writing for years before a poetry slam or open mic.
Critical Thinking and Risk Taking are harder to explain. My seventh graders, however, have shown me myriad examples:
One girl wrote a song in English and Lushootseed, (yes, spent time learning the Salish language!) and had the courage to get up in front of 25 of her peers and sing it. During the “critique” time, one of her peers told her directly, “I thought you were brave to get up there to sing, and you did something no one else did.” Performance and presentation aside, each and every seventh grader took a risk the moment they started brainstorming for the project. They risked letting their brain go to new places; some risked collaborating with their classmates, they risked putting their ideas- a piece of themselves- on paper, fabric, cardboard, and film, visible to all.
Critical Thinking takes place in the creative process when students decide what could have happened if Christopher Columbus hadn’t robbed Native Americans of their resources. I recently told my students that I didn’t understand until college that “critical thinking” means considering the information you are given and automatically asking “why?” or questioning certain language that may subliminally elicit certain thoughts. I remember being in 5th grade and wondering, “does critical thinking just mean to think harder? Does that mean criticize what they are telling me? But, I’m not supposed to go against what adults say!” A visual and writing project that tells a well-known story from a different perspective – and imagines what could have been- is a perfect example ofcritical thinking through art.
I am so proud of the seventh graders for their persistence, hard work, and professionalism during the Native American stories unit. As the school year progresses and I continue to work with the middle-schoolers at Orca, I will see them as inspiration to imagine and build the kind of relationships that foster inquisitive conversations, risk my teacher ego by asking courageous questions, and persist through criticism to make opportunities for creative learning.
Each day is an iteration.
By: Elizabeth Farmer