Inviting Death into the Classroom

This is one of my favorite lessons, so I thought I would share it with you. Feel free to take it in whole or in part. As I have discussed before, I love to pose a complex question to my students and then ask them to address it through art making. Most of the time I use questions that I am currently pondering, or topics I know they are facing at this point in their lives. Not long ago, I turned thirty, and my wife and I had a baby. There was something about this stage in my life that made me fear my own mortality. For months, I was constantly aware/afraid that I could die at any moment. It was bizarre, and I am over it now, but I found the experience interesting. During that time period, I often thought about how careless I was in my youth, and how invulnerable I felt. What is it that makes teenagers so confident that nothing bad could happen? So, I thought we should talk about it.

This is the first project I cover with my sophomore level class. We start by talking about drawing. I explain the way vision works, and how the mind is constantly simplifying complex information into symbols. We talk about why that is, and we talk about how it can negatively affect their ability to draw. Then we practice drawing volumetrically using the skull. I give them large, cheap paper and vine charcoal. I explain that vine charcoal wipes away and that there is no reason to fear mistakes. “Just keep drawing a line until you get it right, then wipe away all the wrong ones,” I say. And we draw. We just focus on blocking in major shapes. I give them only a couple of minutes per drawing. “No teeth,” I always shout, “you aren’t ready for teeth yet.” We keep going until they understand the concept of reducing complex forms to simple shapes and blocking everything in and laying everything out before they begin to add detail. I let them spend twenty minutes refining their favorite one.

The next day, we gather around in the center of the room. I like to put myself at the same level as my students so that it feels more like a conversation than a lecture. Our conversation is structured around the continuing presence of skulls in art. I show them contemporary tattoos, Mayan friezes, Vanitas, Cezanne still lives, Andy Warhol, Damien Hurst, Camille Rose Garcia, Takashi Murakami, everything I can think of that incorporates a skull. We talk about the different meanings skulls can have. We question why skulls are so prevalent in art, and I end with the question, “Is there anything scarier to you than death?” I let them talk more than me. I let them go off on tangents. I let them tell personal stories. I let them talk. I also allow them to be silent. Not everyone likes to talk. When they are sitting right next to you and are visibly engaged, I see no reason to force them to speak. And when the bell rings, they head to their next class. No assignment, no homework. I just say, “Think about this, and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

The next day we talk again about what we saw and anything we came up with after we left. I let the conversation go on as long as it’s relevant, and then I give them the assignment.   They have to communicate their thoughts or feelings about death using art. It can be anything they thought of based on their conversations, but it must include one skull. Of course, considering this is our first lesson together, and they are all used to a very structured educational system, they want to know all sorts of specifics.

“What media are we using,” they ask. “Whatever you feel works best with your idea,” I reply. “How big should it be,” they respond. “Well,” I say, “you’ll have 10 in class work days, so whatever size you believe you can finish in that time.” After that, I get some questions based on the students’ specific needs. “Does it have to be realistic?” “Did I say it has to be realistic? If I didn’t say it, it isn’t a rule.” They ask a few follow up questions to test my limits, but I just keep saying the same thing, and eventually they get the point. They can do whatever they want.

I always set a halfway critique. I use it as an opportunity to put a grade in the grade book, as well as to help them stay on a good pace. The grading is very simple. If they’re halfway to completion, they get a hundred; forty percent complete is an eighty, and so on. This is never set in stone. If they do a great job getting caught up in time for the final critique, I can always go back and add points. In the critique, I always like to compliment the students who are working on the most unique solution, and I veer away from praising technical skill. My goal is to encourage them to give me something that is unique and stands out from the others. I always pose the question to the group, “If you were to finish this work instead of so and so, what would you do?” It helps them to offer useful input to the artist. We spend the entire day doing this. I try to keep it to a day, but if we have to look at one or two the next day, that’s fine. Then, it’s back to work for them.

When our final critique comes around, I structure it the same way. They receive a basic progress grade, and we evaluate and give suggestions as to how the work could be improved. I support the students’ suggestions so that their voice has as much weight as my own. My goal with this is to empower them to trust in themselves and each other as decision makers. I usually like to do this on a Friday. After the final critique is over, I tell them to take the weekend to make the suggested improvements and try to get it in by Monday. I have a drawer the students turn their assignments into, and I grade what’s in the drawer once or twice a week. Of course, on Monday, we are on to the next project, and they are not allowed to work on the past assignment in class anymore. If the students need more time than the weekend, or if there is something preventing them from working over the weekend, I don’t make a big deal of it. “Get it in when it’s done,” I say. I might mark it missing or give them a “0” if they take too long, but I always mark it for full credit when it does get placed in the drawer. I would rather get quality, finished work than rushed or unfinished work on time.

I always get such interesting work from the students on this project. I think it has something to do with the fact that this is their first interaction with me, and they want to put their best foot forward to make a good impression. Because I let them choose their media, they usually choose that which they are strongest in. Combine those two things with an interesting concept, and this assignment is always a recipe for success.

Feel free to take and play with this idea in any way you’d like. Let me know if you come up with anything interesting. I’d love to hear about it.

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