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The elementary critique: talking about children's art.

Life in an elementary art class is a high voltage experience. Kids think, dream, chatter and make decisions about the right color, the right shape, or the best possible combination of materials to make their ideas take form. In a lively art class, decisions about artwork are being made every second.

Surrounded by all this enthusiasm, it's natural to assume children will talk willingly about their artwork and the art created by their peers. I thought that the things children chose to say about their projects would be as carefully chosen as their materials. All I had to do was make sure my class was exciting and then ask a few good questions.

Things didn't work out that way. The children were actively involved in the lesson, but when it was time to talk about their projects there were problems. The children had difficulty using language to express themselves. They had difficulty concentrating on the artwork being examined. They were shy or sometimes they were so silly everybody had a good laugh and forgot about the artwork. Sharing didn't work. If I held up a student's work and commented on it, this did not inspire student comment. In fact, they seemed happy to let me do all the talking.

A spontaneous beginning

I was convinced a verbal examination of student art was valuable, and I had firm ideas about what an elementary critique should include: positive comments and simple analysis. At the beginning there were several false starts because I wasn't sure how to structure air elementary art critique and the maximum time allotment for elementary art was sixty minutes per week. There wasn't a lot of time to talk about student artwork. But one afternoon about three years ago, I had a few spare minutes left in a lesson and called on Lisa, a primary grade student, to bring her project up to the front of the room.

"Tell us about your painting," I said.

"This is a house and this is me," she said and looked at me hopefully. Now what? Instead of asking for general comment or commenting myself, I asked the audience to look carefully at the painting.

"Does anyone here see just one thing about this painting they like?" Slowly, one or two hands came lip.

"Good! Now Lisa will pick out the people who will talk about her painting. Remember to talk about the thing you like."

I stepped back and Lisa began to choose participants. More hands went up. Lisa was happy, she was finding out what the other students enjoyed about her project and she had the power to control who would speak. The other students were happy because they had a focus for their comments--finding one part of the painting they liked--and they were more eager to speak because of the novelty of a student controlling part of the art class. I was happy too. I had finally discovered a successful structure for a class critique and my students were talking to each other positively about their art.

Structuring the results

I was inspired by my small success. Within the year I worked out the following program for grades kindergarten through six:

Kindergarten. Students are introduced to the work critique. They are told that during a critique they will talk about student artwork and are asked to choose one part of each project that they like. They raise their hands and the student artist chooses who will comment. Two or three comments per project seem to work best and take very little time. Children are reminded to talk in full sentences and are encouraged to present their observations thoughtfully. This process is extremely simple but it forces students to observe the project carefully and decide what part of the work they enjoy. This type of analysis is rudimentary but it prepares everyone for the next step.

Grades one through four. The definition of the word critique is reviewed essentially as it was presented in kindergarten. Children follow the process above with an important addition: they tell why they like the part they've chosen. Students are asked to begin their comments this way: "I like the--because ..." Providing a structure for their sentence helps them to present their comment clearly. Even students who have great difficulty with verbal expression are able to present their observations. Talking about why they enjoy a certain part of an artwork forces students to examine their attraction. It also requires them to use their art vocabulary (introduced at the beginning of the lesson) because they need precise words to explain the artwork's appeal.

Grades five and six. By now students are comfortable with the above procedures and are aware that the critique is a positive experience. Students conduct the critique as they did in grades 1-4 but are now asked to consider how one part of the project could be improved and why that improvement should be made. A single person is chosen by the student artist to present one suggestion for improvement. The artist considers the criticism and then agrees or disagrees with the observation. If the artist agrees with the criticism, the critique is over, but if the artist disagrees, the artist explains why he or she feels the suggested improvement won't work.

Interesting discussions can start between critic and artist when they don't agree. Occasionally classes run late while the artist and critic argue back and forth. The whole class gets involved, some support the artist, some support the critic and all hotly dispute the issue. Moments like these are chaotic but inspiring. Children who are willing to argue about a classmate's art have at least looked at the project, formed an opinion and dared to express it.

Thoughtful Expression

This form of verbal examination of student artwork is invaluable. It builds confidence in verbal as well as artistic expression, it helps children to be specific about what they are seeing, it increases the use of art vocabulary, students exercise independent thought and, finally, meaningful communication about art occurs between peers.

A good critique at the elementary level will engage a child's interest in the same way that the process of creating art engages the child's interest. Student artists express themselves thoughtfully and so can student critics. My objectives are to give children the time to examine their artwork positively with their peers and to promote thoughtful verbal expression about student art. In my classroom, I provide the structure that guides their artistic expression and, during the critique, I provide the structure that guides their verbal expression. Talking about art has become another occasion to be excited about art, to think about art, and to give students the gift of each other's observations.

Shirley Ende-Saxe, teachers art at Woodland Elementary School, Tallusoge, Ohio.
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Author:Ende-Saxe, Shirley
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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