I’m fascinated with the continuous opportunities I’m offered to interact with educators, and to learn how art intersects with their teaching and the development of their students’ learning processes. Even after a long career teaching in middle schools, visiting hundreds of classrooms in Maine, across the country and around the world, I am grateful to know there is still much to learn. As the world changes in our own backyard and across the globe we need to support teachers who are doing the heavy lifting. Providing the “Insight/Incite” column recognizes and applauds their efforts. Cory Bucknam’s using humor is one example of an approach that is working to reach her middle school learners.
As a middle school art teacher of nearly twenty years, I have learned that the lessons that engage students the most have a healthy mix of levity and sincerity. The reason is simple: the more fun a student is having, the harder they are willing to work. A sense of play allows me to challenge my students both creatively and technically.
For example, when making clay bobble-head sculptures with sixth graders, we first play a game called “Make-a-Monster.” This is a simple drawing game inspired by the Surrealists’ love of chance combinations. On slips of paper are written a large number of body parts or “creature characteristics” such as fur, tentacles, multiple eyes, antlers, and so on. Starting with four characteristics, we pull them randomly out of a container without looking and list them on the board. Then students have three minutes to draw a creature with all of those characteristics (plus whatever else they want to add). These drawings are kept secret until the end of the three minutes when students reveal their creatures to the peers at their table. Hilarity often ensues! We then repeat the process a few more times, increasing the number of slips pulled, often going as high as ten random characteristics.
Students LOVE this game, as is evidenced by their laughter and eagerness to show off their drawings, but it is equally obvious how hard they work to create them by the complete and utter silence during the three minutes they are drawing. And although this game is just a warm-up exercise, the results carry through to the project itself in both the level of creativity and in the risks students are willing to take when learning and executing clay-building techniques. By inventing new, often hilarious creatures that they adore, when they create them using clay, they tackle more challenging sculptures than they would otherwise.
Students are not the only ones to benefit from a sense of play, however. I know when I am having fun, I am much more willing to work hard as both a teacher and an artist. At the Maine Art Education Association’s Fall Conference at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, I took a weekend-long Needle Felted Portrait workshop with fiber artist Jennifer Field. At first, I considered serious options for whom I wanted to make a portrait of: my grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, a self-portrait, and so on. But in the end, I chose Bob Ross. Anyone who has been in my classroom has seen my vast (and still growing) collection of Bob Ross paraphernalia—this began as something of a joke, but is now a full-scale exhibit including magnets, posters, chia pets, bobble-heads, band-aids, games, books, a lunch box, energy drinks, three pairs of socks, a life-size cardboard cutout of Bob, and more. I knew I would have a good time making a needle-felted portrait of him! And I was right, because all weekend long I found myself breaking into fits of giggles as Bob came to life. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun making a work of art before. Not only that, but the harder I worked on it, the more time seemed to disappear. It’s hard to explain, but it felt like he just materialized under my fingers as I looked on, much like the mountains simply appeared in Bob Ross’ paintings in his videos. It felt effortless, despite working on it with intense focus for two-and-a-half days.
Would I have worked as hard if I had chosen a “serious” portrait to do? Probably, but would I have had as much fun? Unlikely. And now my portrait of Bob makes me smile every time I see it, and the value of that happiness is priceless.
Since 2005, Cory Bucknam has been an art educator at Brunswick Junior High School. She currently serves as the president of the Maine Art Education Association (MAEA) and also teaches in the Maine College of Art & Design’s Master’s in Art Teaching (MAT) program. All three of these roles inform each other and give her insight into art education from the perspective of students, educators, and state level organizations.
Argy Nestor is an educator, artist, blogger, connector.
Reach out if you want to connect: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image at top: student work from fall 2023, white earthenware and tempera paint.