Saturday, March 9, 2013

First Grade is Not a Drill

I went to Delia's school last week to help with  a program called "Art Masterpiece" which gives a brief lesson on an artist and then allows the children to do a quick project that reflects the artist's style. 
"Memory Quilt" More info and beautiful images at Faith
Last semester, Faith Ringgold was the featured artist and the kids did drawings about a family memory and framed them with squares of paper and fabric so the whole thing looked like one of Ringgold's memory quilt square pieces.  It was just before Thanksgiving, so many of them drew turkeys based on the outline of their hands (even though one young lady huffily declared, "that is so kindergarten!") They had a good time, and I am all for encouraging creativity and artistic exploration, etc... so I signed up to go again this semester.
This time, the focus was Georgia O'Keeffe and her amazing flower paintings.  I was glad, because, through some sad quirk of taste,  I'm not a huge fan of the drying skulls in the desert, though I'm sure that some of the 1st graders might have enjoyed executing those with gusto.  After a quick explanation of O'Keeffe's themes and methods, including a first grade translation of the idea that young art student O'Keeffe had been frustrated by the limits of naturalist expression, so she strove to show something conventional, like flowers, in a new way. Then the kids were shown  assorted images of O'Keeffe's flowers along with real flowers to get their imaginations revved up. 

White Flower on Red Earth #1 1943, found here

With such an endorsement of what everyone now uniformly calls "thinking outside the box," the kids were directed to outline a flower in crayon on a sheet of watercolor paper so that the flower filled the whole page, even spreading off the page if possible, to mimic some of O'Keeffe's work.  Then they got to use watercolors to fill in the flower, doing shading and color work that was supposed to flow and pop like one of the flowers in an O'Keeffe painting.  Then twenty-seven first graders had forty minutes to create some art.

But before we could get the creative mojo going, the bell rang for scheduled "lock down" drill.  The drills have increased in frequency since the Newtown tragedy last December, in part, I suppose, to help quell the fears of parents concerned about the preparation for something like that here, and in part to really prepare.  During the drill, we filed into a workroom adjacent to the classroom where the door could be closed and all lights shut off.  Essentially, the children were practicing hiding in the dark to fake out a crazed intruder.  I had been there during other drills since Newtown, and this was the first time I just got a lump in my throat, but didn't actually sob. 

When I was in elementary school, the only thing we had remotely like this were earthquake preparedness drills, "duck and covers," where kids scrambled under their desks and put their arms over their necks as they tried not to concuss themselves on the under-desk cubbies.  (Yeah, one year a kid had to go to nurse with a cut on his forehead from the drill...) Every year, we watched this film,
or one just like it, until I was out of sixth grade.  The teacher usually had trouble with the film, but  there was always a boy (I did not say nerd) in the class the teacher could call over to thread the film onto the back spool so that the whole class could collectively sigh with disappointment as the narrator intoned the opening words:  "The San Fernando Valley, six a.m.  An almost ordinary day..."    The 1971 Sylmar quake was a big deal when I was a kid. The epicenter was local, about 90 minutes from where I grew up, with effects that most adults throughout California could still vividly remember, as in, "I was standing in my kitchen having a cup of coffee when the everything started shaking and all the glassware fell out of the cupboards."  or "I wasn't awake yet, and I thought the world must be ending.  When I went outside, my patio was cracked in half."  I think they were still showing the same film when my sons first went to elementary school, but by then, all the teacher had to do was call on a boy to pop in a VHS tape. 
By today's cinematic disaster standards, the footage of an actual earthquake with falling buildings almost seems quaint:  No aliens, no lasers, really, how bad could it be?  But then, we were supposed to be afraid enough to be compliant during a drill, in case local tectonic plates shifted and the seismic shit really hit the fan. 

The drill at Delia's school was short.  I mean,  how long can you keep little kids silently huddled in the dark when there is really no imminent danger?  But the teacher, to her credit, took it very seriously and strenuously encouraged the students to do the same.  "This could save lives," she said. And afterward, as she chastised some gigglers, not calling them out by name, but intoning that they knew who they were, she asked them how they would feel if their noisy chatter actually brought harm to their classmates.  Heads were bowed, but after a minute to consider what this might mean, time marched on and it was time to go back to the art lesson. 

White Flower, 1929, from this source
The main direction to the kids was to use the entire page,  give a close-up view, as though the person looking at their picture were inside the flower.  The flowers were meant to flow off the page.  Some kids dove right in, natural artists I guess, producing big, blowzy blooms and using bright colors.  But some of the kids struggled.  They asked questions like, "which of those flowers should I copy?" and "what color am I supposed to use?" and "am I doing this right?  I can't do this right."  One young lady insisted she would never be able to finish, so she might as well not start.  Take that, artistic expression!

I was surprised by how much trouble even a little abstraction caused them.  Several of the kids in fact, could not make themselves follow the directions, and ended up producing a standard child's view of a flower, a single bloom tidily sitting atop a stem, with the yellow sunshine drawn in the upper corner and the green grass indicated at the bottom edge of the page.  The teacher shook her head, but each of those rebels seemed to harbor the proud notion that they had done the right thing, like there was no reason to produce something that didn't look like a real flower.  I hope none of them are ever forced into art museums.  They will feel like they are in hell.  

While they worked, I couldn't help thinking about the drill, and the collective responsibility it imposed on them.  Everyone's fears had to be constructively channeled for the good of the group.  We all had to duck and cover back in the day, but that was about saving ourselves from natural disaster, not helping protect the group from a psychotic rampage.  How do you teach kids to be afraid enough to hide and brave enough to hide quietly?  It was no time to rebel, no time for abstraction. 

Three and a half minutes later, they come back into the brightly lit classroom and are instructed to put themselves inside a flower.  It's a lot to be asked before lunch.

By the time class ended,  most of the kids, even Miss "I'mNotGonnaTry," were able to finally complete an O'Keeffe-esque picture.  I'm sure the whole gallery will look great hanging in the cafeteria on the night of the PTO's Spaghetti Dinner.  While everyone eats industrial spaghetti with Parmesan cheese product, the principal will reassure the assembled parents that the school is ready for whatever comes.  "The lock down drills are going well...and please, take a look at the beautiful abstract art our first graders did this semester."  I'm sure there will be some parents nodding with approval that their child was able to show an actual flower, with grass and sun.  The way flowers should look. 


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