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Learning How To Swim

My name is Lauren Nemchik and I am the art teacher for an Elementary and Middle School in Uniontown, PA. My class sizes are large with a diverse group of young people in each. I am facing the many obstacles arts educators across the nation are becoming quite accustomed to: little or no budget, lack of space, and figuring out how to manage, challenge, and reach a melting pot of educational learners on an individualized level. As a first year teacher, I began this journey overwhelmed and uninspired. And then Arts Educator happened.

I am from Uniontown, and had moved back this school year after living in Philadelphia for two years. In Philadelphia, I worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, spent my evenings going to galleries, and had great discussions over vegan, hipster meals with artist friends and people just like me. It was safe to say that after deciding to move back home, I was a bit apprehensive knowing that art resources wouldn't be in the palm of my hand anymore.

I was asked, more like given no choice but to apply to be involved with Arts Educator 2.0 by my school district's Curriculum Director. In fact, it was on her list of to-do's during our first-year employer school initiation meeting. I had no idea what she was talking to me about, but I went online, filled out the application, answered the questions, and went with the flow. After learning that I was accepted, meeting my CIG, and experiencing my first Arts Educator meeting, I knew this would be my chance at having the art community I missed so dearly in Philly.

Arts Educator 2.0 has reinforced what it means to be an art educator. It has eased my worries and boosted my confidence during my first year. It has immersed me in a pool of creativity and appreciation, a pool I don't mind drowning in once in a while. Although there were specific challenges I have faced this year teaching in an urban setting, AE2.0 reminded me that as long as you have a strong curriculum, clear objectives, and fresh approaches to education you will be successful. (Showing how passionate you are for the subject doesn't hurt either).
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Passing Go

Our CIG decided to focus on the implementation of 21st Century Skllls in the classroom. This couldn't have been a better choice for me. Graduating from Penn State, I practically spent all four years talking about diversity, collaboration, and thinking outside of the construction-papered-hand-turkey box. So, I jumped into the inquiry much like I do with any task - head first, tackling the most challenging part of the job, and then later dealing with the stomach ulcers and anxiety after realizing what I had gotten myself into.

My biggest challenge since day one: sixth. grade.

Sixth grade is divided into two classrooms (in a perfect world it would be more like three or four, or zero). I see one class on Mondays and the other on Thursdays and when the kids show up for school, they pack the house. My classroom resembled something between a zoo and juvie facility (there are usually two security guards present "just in case"). I do not mean to paint a picture of violence. Chaos, yes. The security guards are basically just there as two extra sets of hands. These students simply need attention all the time. They are great kids and very inquisitive, but they didn't know how to function when given the instruction, "just start creating and see what happens". They needed me. They were too scared to make a mark without me reassuring them that that mark looked good. Now, this lack of creative confidence and understanding of what it means to truly be artistic and find "happy mistakes" I'm sure happens in every art classroom. But my students dealt with it differently. They didn't just put their head down, shrug their shoulders, twiddle their thumbs, or ask to go to the bathroom to kill some time. My kids dealt with me only being one teacher, and not being able to give them immediate attention all the time, by screaming, throwing things across the room, and (my biggest irk) being straight up nasty to one another to guard their own teenage insecurities. There was enough "cutting up" in my room that it could have doubled as Home Ec.

I threw everything at them. Tried every tool in the shed. I played stern teacher, laid back teacher, comedic relief teacher, even hippy, earthy let's-take-five-to-get-in-the-right-mindset-and-practice-self-control teacher. All seemed to work for a short period of time, but of course every coach needs a real game plan for the huddle.


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The X's and O's

I started my sixth grade inquiry quest with a short assignment. I wanted to see why my students couldn't think abstractly. I knew that their brains were fully capable. Yes, they have difficulty spelling and formulating complete sentences on paper, but the majority of those mistakes come from lack of motivation. When I talked to them, I knew they were bright students, I knew that they noticed more in the world than what they led on. If I could figure this out, then they could make some decisions independently, hence keep busy, hence not rip up on one another, hence become more prone to developing 21st century skills, hence turn my classroom into a zen-like sanctuary (okay, that last part was a joke. I was just tired of my brain feeling like the new "Thanksgiving Bucket" - cranberry sauce, turkey, mash, and stuffing all mixed together in a bowl, being served in the cafeteria). My theory was that these kids couldn't think abstractly because they couldn't relate enough to the topic. They weren't interested enough. Cue: rap music.

My abstract-thinking experiment was based on analyzing rapper Kid Cudi's song, "Sky Might Fall". For the record, it took me a long time to find a hip, interesting, and clean song - props to Cudi. I had the students first read the lyrics, without their knowledge that they were song lyrics let alone rap song lyrics, and then went over a few of the verses line for line. We talked about what the song meant, what kind of emotions he was feeling when he wrote it, and how this all relates back to artistic expression. Then, I tossed in the tah-dah(!). Some students were very excited to learn that they just read through a rap song that had substance, others, more like the majority, thought it was lame that a rapper wrote about real emotions, a real experience, and not about cleavage, cars, and cash. We listened to the song, and then the students worked on using text to describe an emotion. They cut out words from magazines and newspapers, and like Kid Cudi did, used those words to describe an emotional time. The only difference was that they had to make it visual.



I thought for sure that having a rap song as an introduction and icebreaker would get the students motivated enough to at least try. I couldn't have been more wrong. Frustration occurred, therefore cutting up occurred, therefore no real 21st century skills were being developed. Some produced quality work, but before I could grab my camera it had already been ripped up and thrown in the trash.

I decided I was ready for some stomach ulcers.


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The Big Bang Theory

My next sixth grade project, I decided to make a doozy. Yes, they were going to be able to relate to it. The project was also going to be bigger than they could handle. They couldn't spend all of their time making fun of one another because they were going to need one another. I wanted them to acknowledge diversity and collaboration, by having to naturally rely on it. I was also getting tired of the fact that they were wasting my materials that I so preciously guarded (and hoarded). I wanted them to learn that in the real world, people, especially artists, don't just get anything they want. There's this thing called "money".

I started the project by introducing sculptor Claes Oldenburg and discussed his large works of everyday objects. The students were immediately attracted. It was so fun, so humorous, so...easy to look at. They felt an immediate connection because they recognized and could relate to each of the sculptures (a stamp, bowling pins, ice cream cone etc.). These were all things they knew so well so it wasn't hard to grab their attention (once again, all part of the plan). Then, I hit them with the assignment. I wanted them to think of an everyday object that could represent them. A metaphor if you will. This was of course to boost their critical thinking skills, and make them realize that artists have concepts and ideas and don't just do.

The classes planned a lot. They created sketches, brainstormed ideas, used different activities to help them think of ways that they could describe themselves. They had to give me something with metaphorical substance. For example, I wasn't falling for the "I want to make an iPod because I listen to it a lot and I <3 music" explanation. Sixth grade worked, and what kept them motivated was the appetizing grandeur of Oldenburg's sculptures. Once I felt that the students had a good grip on a concept for their project, I announced that they had to write (wait for it..) an artist proposal. My room was calm for a few weeks until that point. However, once I started heading for the cup o' pencils, arms started flailing, bodies slouched, and I was getting looks like my face was something that caused instant gag reflexes.

I explained to them that in order to begin this project, a project that was going to be very big...so big that it "will totally cause envy among the other grades", they would need to earn their materials. I explained the purpose of an art proposal and reinforced the idea that people actually need to do some initial work in order to make work they want to do. As the moans continued, I placed a dictionary on each table and explained that the proposal is something to take seriously. Proposals are either accepted or denied, and it's up to them to create an up to par proposal so that they can create this "awesome sculpture that 7th and 8th grade will for sure be jealous of". The catch of course was that until I get a proposal that is accepted, you won't get your materials and you can't move forward with the project.

The students wrote their proposals in class, and surprisingly took it very seriously. I even had students work on it as homework...HOME.WORK. In fact, a few students who actually finished outside the art room don't carry book bags, fail classes here and there, and waltz into school an hour or two late on occasion. Art homework just didn't really seem like it'd make their agenda, especially when I never really assigned it.

I realized that this assignment gave them a sense of ownership. Middle schoolers naturally want to take on some responsibilities. They are at that weird stage where they like to feel like an adult, yet sometimes fall back into children's play. This assignment created a pre-teen version similar to playing "house". These kids pretended like they had a job to do, they were applying for something..something that most of them genuinely wanted to accomplish. In turn, they found a little thing inside themselves.

Sixth grader, meet Mr. Motivation.
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Along with the proposal, students were to include 5 reasons why their object represents them as well as a sketch of what it will look like

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Example of student proposal



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Detail of student proposal


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Detail of student proposal



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Leveling It Out

Work Day 1 was a little nerve racking. Each student, with an approved proposal, had their own bin with the materials they needed to begin the project. Community materials such as the duct tape, scissors etc. were placed in one specific labeled area and directions were listed on the chalkboard. The whole period was actually very well organized and thought out thanks to my morning, prep, and lunch. I am typing this with one hand because my other one is too busy patting my back.

My thought process was to continue making this project something special to show these students that they are special. Sixth grade had a really bad rep. The students knew they were hard to handle and rambunctious. I wanted to flip that thinking. Instead of pounding in their heads that excuse of only being able to do paper and pencil projects with them because they're so "bad", I instead wanted to prove to them that they can handle an incredibly involved project.

Their eyes were lit before they even sat in their seats.

"Did I get approved, Ms. Nemchik? Huh? Huh? Huh???!"

Their attitudes towards each other changed. I wasn't welcomed at the door with bickering or shouting, these kids were on a mission. They sat in their seats and waited for me to tell them how we were going to start. They were already involved in this project before they actually started building it. The class totally felt different. There was less tension and stress--a great alternative med for those ulcers, indeed.

The students got their materials and were quite surprised with the large sheets of cardboard I gave most of them. They didn't realize how large they could make their projects, which only excited them even more. For those who didn't turn in or get an approved proposal, quickly did so after experiencing all the hoopla around them. Positive peer pressure is like a really good student teacher, it does the work for you without having to open your mouth.

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The class had their off days, don't get me wrong, but what developed throughout the project was exactly what I wanted: collaboration. Students were almost immediately asking each other for help. They were talking to one another. I was constantly hearing students ask what the other one was working on, or saying how cool the other person's idea was or how their project looked. I also noticed that the students didn't go to the same spot to work every week. They were okay with moving around and working around different people. The cliques dissolved and teams started emerging. Students were combining materials to make one bigger and better sculpture while tackling the problems together. I was needed less because they were depending on one another more. I must mention that some of the partner combos came as a total shock to me. Best friends and the weekly flings weren't always working together. It was as if these kids didn't care who they were helping, or who was helping them. They just wanted to work and use the resources they had around them. Of course I took that down time to acknowledge what was going on. I would remind them to look around and see who they were working with. I asked them to take a moment and listen to how they were speaking to one another. (They even started throwing in their "please" and "thank you's" by the way). "Isn't life just easier when we can learn to get along," I would ask, holding back the urge to break out my own rendition of "Why Can't We Be Friends".

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Student helping the other finish painting her project before cleanup


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Student helps hold the sculpture while other finishes painting


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A sneaker sculpture in progress after two students came up with the idea together


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Final reflection survey


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On The Side

While sixth grade worked on their projects, I was attacking our inquiry question in a different way with the rest of the school. We are currently undergoing construction and renovation and part of the school is being rebuilt. Fingers crossed for a couple more sinks and fully tiled floor! I was asked by my principals to create a mural for the new building, and decided that this was a perfect opportunity to get the whole school involved.

7th and 8th grade came up with the theme while the rest of the school designed specific elements. The following excerpt is taken from our blog and explains the method of my inquiry madness:

Each class is partaking and we are having conversations about the school’s diversity throughout the project! The mural is going to be based on a puzzle (the middle school uses puzzle pieces as a positive incentive for good behavior). 7th and 8th grade have been brainstorming ideas for an actual message. We have decided to go with: Acceptance Is The Piece That Connects Us. This has really opened up many discussions on who we are as a school, recognizing that there are many different types of people that go to the school, and seeing the beauty in our differences.

The elementary grades are designing a puzzle piece that represents their class and that goes along with the theme. We have had some great critiques because of this. Each student designed a puzzle piece, but as a whole class they have to decide which idea they like the best AND THEN BUILD UPON THAT. I am trying to get across the idea that art can always improve..and that it is okay for someone to give you suggestions about your work. The students at my school shut down so quickly if someone even looks at them the wrong way. Their self-esteem is incredibly low. The more we use our personal artwork to talk, the more I am seeing an improvement in not only their esteem, but their acceptance of other people’s suggestions. It is also helping them realize that words can hurt, so they are starting to be mindful of how to make suggestions, and the right and wrong way to say something.
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Brainstorming with 7th and 8th grade


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Our conclusion


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Journal prompt to help narrow down idea for mural


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1st grade working on puzzle piece designs


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Picture showing the critique process. Students were told to go around and review each puzzle piece, then place their post-it note below the one they liked best. Students were taught how to walk around in a museum or art gallery-no touching!
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Detail of critique. After each student chose their favorite puzzle piece, we discussed why. This opened the conversation up to a more formal critique.





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After choosing the design the class liked the best, we discussed how we could improve the drawing.
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Student working on finalizing the design




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7th grade working on mural



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Mural in progress


For more of Lauren's reflections please visit her archives.

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Buzzer Beater

For additional information on Arts Educator 2.0 please go to: http://artseducator20.wikispaces.com/

To learn more about Orange Cig and to get a deeper look into my experience, please visit our blog: http://orangeinquiry.wordpress.com/