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It's for the birds.

Teaching first graders after a seventeen-year absence from the primary grades, proved to be not only exciting, but intriguing in ways I hadn't experienced during my former tenure as an art specialist. Perhaps the intrigue was due to my own maturity--an appreciation of their idiosyncrasies due to the greater difference in age. Perhaps it was due to my own experience--being able to focus more on them and less on what I was "supposed to teach" (or felt I should teach) in providing them with growth-oriented activities. Perhaps I was able to simply enjoy them and thereby enter into their world more fully because I felt more relaxed and confident within myself.

After presenting a series of lessons designed to provide children with some challenge, and reacquaint me with their level of abilities in general--my classes of first graders in particular--I decided to design an activity focusing on birds as the subject, and family as the concept. Since I had preparation periods during my work week, I knew I would have the time to develop the kinds of visuals I demanded from my college students, but which I never had the time for when I first taught in the public schools.

A Pleasant Surprise

Using a variety of books supplied by the school's librarian, I began a series of bird pictures done in colored pencil on illustration board. Since these were detailed renderings, my progress was slow. Conversely, my involvement with birds began to generate quite a bit of excitement within me, so instead of waiting until I'd finished a full array of examples, I decided to implement the lesson with a few pictures instead of a lot. I counted on the children's enthusiasm to make up for the sparseness of my examples. What I did not count on was the range of their knowledge of birds.

I began with pictures of a pigeon and a toucan, and a chart showing various kinds of birds' feet. In addition to being able to recognize the different birds, my first graders were able to recognize the different types of birds' feet! They not only recognized the ostrich's foot, but could figure out why various types of feet were shaped differently. For all we may criticize television because of its unhealthy effects upon children's minds and attitudes, cable--with offerings of such as the Discovery Channel and Disney--is providing them with a wealth of information formerly not accessible. These resources, in combination with school field trips and parent outings, expose today's children to information that my first graders back in the '60s and '70s were not privy to, to this extent.

No Copying--Why Not?

After we had talked about the birds, I left the pictures on display while they worked. It's never made sense to me why some teachers fear a child's tendency to copy. As adults, we copy all the time. As artists, we constantly seek resource materials to help us visualize our ideas more accurately or descriptively. Yet, we deny these sources to children. Why? If children are properly motivated and fully engaged in the phenomenon being utilized, they may refer to examples, but they rarely copy. And even when they do, their interpretations are so unique to their particular perspectives that the results are highly individualized. Thus I left the pictures in place as a reference.

Painting the Whole Flock

Once they were finished with their pencil drawings, they were allowed to get the tempera and brushes, and proceeded to paint their pictures. Wet paintings were casually tacked around the room to allow for drying, and the children proceeded to create a family of birds for the one they had just completed. Some opted for drawing the other parent along with the babies. Others decided to paint just the smaller versions. Still others made complete pictures--somewhat like family portraits. Left to their own devices for interpreting the concept of family, they entered into the idea and expanded it in many ways.

In my beginning years as a teacher, I'd never devoted quite so much time to painting with first graders. I'd always wondered just what I could teach them in terms of technique and skill development. In the intervening years, I came to appreciate their own unique dynamic of being themselves, and getting involved with paint for the pure enjoyment that it provided. Nor had I ever mounted a progressive display which unfolded over time and which, not only stimulated interest, but served as a kind of mystery at the same time. By allowing the first graders the right of pure enjoyment and creating a mystery with the display, I was able to provide the children and the faculty with an experience that served to generate interest on its own.

Marilynn Weisensee is Assistant Professor of Art Education at State University of New York, New Paltz, New York.
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Title Annotation:elementary art project
Author:Weisensee, Marilynn
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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