Open Lessons

I have already talked about a “closed” lesson I used in my early years of teaching. Now, I would like to explain what I consider an “open” lesson. (I would argue for a completely open lesson, but we do have TEKS and AP Portfolios to contend with, so sometimes there have to be some restrictions.) What do I mean by an “open” lesson? When I say “open” lesson, I am referring to a lesson where you give as few constraints as possible. I build my lessons around a concept, and I let the student’s understanding of that concept drive the work.

First, let’s talk about some interesting contemporary artists. Some artists I am drawn to are the Clayton Brothers, Ernesto Neto, and Jae Rhim Lee. All of them work in completely different ways and have completely different aesthetics. The Clayton Brothers use every medium I can think of to produce paintings, sculptures, and installations. Ernesto Neto creates large installations you can climb through with various cloths and cords filled with spices to create a full sensory experience, and Jae Rhim Lee is working on creating a mushroom-lined death suit to completely negate the negative environmental effects of her decomposition when she dies.

None of these artists need a strong ability to create a realistic self-portrait using pencil. It is just not an essential skill in the art world anymore, and it hasn’t been for a while. It’s not even in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Fine Arts. In fact, I am going to bring in a section of TEKS from §117.53. Art, Level II.

(2) Creative expression/performance. The student expresses ideas through original artworks, using a variety of media with appropriate skill. The student is expected to:

(A) formulate multiple solutions to expand personal themes that demonstrate intent;

(B) apply design skills in creating practical applications, clarifying presentations, and defining choices made by consumers; and

(C) select from a variety of art media and tools to communicate specific ideas in drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, fiberart, jewelry, photography/filmmaking, and electronic media-generated art.

Nowhere in there does it say a student needs to painstakingly master realistic drawing, and it surely doesn’t say a student needs to meticulously copy a photograph using a grid. Not only is that bad pedagogy, it might be illegal. OK, it’s probably not illegal, but it’s definitely not good teaching, especially in advanced classes.

So what skill can we teach students that will not only better help them to be prepared to make art at the college and professional level as well as better conform to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills that we are required by law to teach? We can teach them to “select from a variety of art media and tools to communicate specific ideas.” We can teach them to make art that communicates who they are and what their place is in this world. We need to teach them to develop concepts and make art that communicates those concepts.

I’m not saying we have to throw all skills training out the window. Skills are important, and the students want to learn skills. I’m just advocating that we let the students help choose the skills they need. I assign most of my projects with very little restrictions. We discuss a topic that affects their lives. We talk about current events that relate to that topic, artists/poets/filmmakers that create work about that topic, and their own personal experiences with that topic. After that, I tell them to make art and about how long they have to do it. They choose the scale, medium, content, mood and almost everything else. Their work is entirely about them. Together, we find the skills they need to complete their goals. They become the artist, and I become the assistant.

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