The class is given by a professional artist. He can splash paint on a page and make it look like a serene Pacific landscape. The class is for beginners, and I'm joined every Saturday by two other women. One, Karen, is also in the advanced painting class, but joins the beginners since she only has Saturdays free. The other woman, Bev, is a beginner like me.
Our first lesson was to begin the under-painting. The photo we'd chosen to put on our canvases seemed simple enough -- a nice summer scene with a field and a barn in the distance. A few trees. Some tall grass.
"The first stage is to draw the lines that make up the horizon and other images in the photo," my teacher stated as if this was common knowledge among mankind, and immediately grabbed his paintbrush to draw. I looked to Karen, and then to Bev. They had grabbed their brushes and started. My heart fluttered.
What? Drawing? Horizon? Where's that? How do I find that? I looked frantically again at Karen, the advanced student, whose horizon appeared magically on her canvas. I looked to Bev, but she seemed to have it down too!
"How do I know where the horizon is?" I asked sheepishly. I felt so stupid. It was my first day of class and already I was lost. It was then that I thought of my 7th and 8th graders. How often did they feel this way in my class? How could I make sure learning something new didn't make them feel this afraid? As the class progressed, I realized a few things:
* The environment for learning is as important as the content being learned.
A teacher being a master of his or her content is lost if the student doesn't feel safe and secure to learn. Students should be instilled with the sense that even if they feel confused, the learning just hasn't happened yet. There should be a lot of trust that the teacher knows what he or she is doing, and knows how to guide the student to get there. I used to think this came from allowing student choice in how the classroom was run, but I now know this environment is built on strict, dependable structures about what will happen when. A student should come to a class expecting to learn something he or she didn't know before, and know that the teacher will do what it takes to get him or her there. It comes from watching the teacher model the same skills he or she is asking the students to perform, and showing the steps it takes to get there. I want my students to feel that the skills I teach aren't magic. Learning is a process, and it just takes some work.
* The teacher needs to not just know the content, but the scaffolding of skills needed to learn the content.
As I painted my first tree, my opinion was that it looked like a grape with some mold on it. But, my teacher assured me that it would turn into something amazing.
"Stand back a bit from the canvas," he said. "Sometimes you just need to step away a bit." Sure enough, I took a few steps back and my tree looked, well, like a tree!
"Wait until we put in the leaves," he said.. "You'll be amazed how it turns out!"
My teacher knows where I'm headed. He knows the variations of each step along the way. If my tree really did need help, he's know and give me the help I need. Maybe my painting wouldn't look exactly like his, but it would be good. I would be proud. I would take skills with me so I could paint another picture a different day.
I realized how important it is for teachers to not just know the content students need to learn. Teachers need to know what it looks like when that content is being applied correctly in a way that is generative; a way that those skills can be applied to other areas. That involves knowing what the learning looks like in each step of the way, in a variety of ways.
* Students use their peers more than we know.
My teacher is good, but he can't be everywhere at once. And, there are only three people in my art class! What about a class of 30 (or more!)?
When my teacher was busy with Bev, I looked to Karen. I watched her mix colors that looked just like the teacher's so asked her to help me mix. Even when Karen didn't know I was watching, I paid attention to how she shaded and used her brush at just the right angle to make her blades of grass. I mimicked her work in my own painting. Even when the teacher was working with Karen, I looked to Bev, who is about the same level as I am. Rather than modeling, Bev and I put our heads together to figure out how to get just the right shade of purple.
Student need each other. What we take as chatting and being off-task is often just the support and feedback students need to move forward. We forget that students know who to look to in order to do it right, and maybe sometimes they need each other even more than they need us!
* Learning means something you don't already know.
Perhaps the best part of my class is that I'm learning something I didn't already know. Any prior knowledge about painting I apply, but my teacher fills in the gaps. He lets Karen, who knows more than I do, move ahead, and catches me up when I need it. I never find myself bored because I find myself taking on information and skills that I didn't even know I didn't know, and applying them in ways every day. I look at the horizon differently when I'm outside, considering how I might draw it on a canvas. I'm noticing just how much purple there is in the world, and thinking about how to get that shade. I'm noticing landscapes and how they might look as a painting. I think about the tools I could buy that will make me an even better artist.
When teachers implement the same curriculum year after year, it becomes difficult to remember what it was like to learn it for the first time. It becomes frustrating and stressful. I urge teachers to learn something new. Try reading a magazine on an unfamiliar topic. Try writing a genre you've never attempted before. Watch yourself learn, see what you need, see how you feel. Then look to your students -- they learn just like you.