Who's teaching whom?

I have often said that I take lessons from children as much as I teach them. I was recently in a classroom with 28 grade six students as a guest artist through the DAREarts program. DAREarts, if you are not familiar with, is a Canadian charitable organization that uses educational experiences in the arts, out of school, to empower at-risk children and youth with confidence, courage and leadership skills to unlock their potential and make positive change in their lives and communities.

In all my experiences as an artist educator, this last visual arts day with the students was extraordinary. I had done this particular lesson about impressionistic art with a previous group, but I was overwhelmed with the insights, abilities, articulation and intelligence of these little humans who have lived only a small portion of their potentially long lives! Their questions were perceptive, observant and thought provoking. I suppose that's why I was so impressed. They made me really think about my answers and I wanted to give them real, authentic and open-minded truths about being an artist. I treat children like young adults, they are capable of processing more than adults often give them credit for.

Growing up, I was part of a “gifted/enriched” program in school. We were given special privileges, advancements, out-of-classroom experiences that other students were not. I realized, these kids in the DAREarts program have the same type of opportunity. If no one had told me that I was teaching “at-risk” students, I would have thought these kids were “gifted”. It goes to show, what a fine line separates the two labels. The artwork they produced was outstanding for children who had never seen, let alone done, an impressionistic painting. But more than anything else were the words they chose to reflect what they had learned that day. One student, had said “I learned that by taking an image/photo, we can use that as a starting point to spin off and create something of our own and if it doesn't look exactly like the picture, that's OK, because it's our impression of it.” Insert jaw-drop here. I swear, I didn't tell her that! Another student said, "I learned to respect other people's experience in the gallery by staying quiet". After one student finished her painting, she brought it to me and said, "I'm finished, for now. I may go back to it later." which I was particularly proud to hear, because it meant she listened to me when I said I sometimes return to a painting years later and make some adjustments to it, if I feel the need.

My mother had asked me, after that class, what I teach the students. After thinking about it, I realized I didn't show them much in terms of techniques, as I prefer to let students create through experiential learning. I teach students to not be afraid to try (and potentially fail), experiment, explore, play, look for alternatives, look at different perspectives, to question, have confidence in their actions and ideas, embrace their individuality and “weirdness”, believe in themselves (especially when it seems like no one else does).....I realized, my job is to be an inspiration. That's it. If my students take away nothing else from my classes, I hope they leave feeling inspired. And, isn't that the most honourable achievement in life?

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