Stretching the canvas

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In Conversation reports on an informal discussion among a group of teachers about how art can play a role in education. Teachers who participated in this were Anwar Sultana from Princess Esin Girls High School, Qudsiya, an ex-teacher from Parkwood International School, Kanchana Rajendra from Vidyaranya High School, Kuntal Dey from The Slate, Afshan Jabeen, Counsellor, Glendale Academy, all from Hyderabad.

Presented here are some excerpts from the discussion:

Qudsiya: What is it that we are teaching in schools as art? It’s important to understand this before we go further.

Kuntal Dey: Art is a part of education. Any model, project or chart, is art. Children must come to art class to express their feelings and their knowledge. The problem is that projects are perceived only as information, and art as only for beauty. It has to be merged to incorporate both beauty and information. But today most art classes have technical training like cutting, painting or box making. Conceptualising an idea has taken a back seat.

Kanchana Rajendra: I teach the nine-ten year olds, they don’t go to the library and actively gather information for their project. They don’t make models but they make charts. They do a lot of collage work, cutting and pasting, and by doing this, they learn about textures. This can be very interesting, because they feel the materials. Any information that they like to include, they write it down and also give a small write up on how they did the experiment and also what they learnt from it. At this fundamental level, we don’t encourage complicated experiments.

Kuntal Dey: Nowadays, many children use computers to understand colour. There is no scope for individual talent. Every child will end up with similar work.

Kanchana Rajendra: In Vidyaranya, this is a complete no no. Even for children of higher classes, use of computers this way is not accepted.

Qudsiya: Do you mean that children are not allowed to use computers at all?

Kanchana Rajendra: We don’t use computers this way. Here the computer does most of the work and the child only takes a print out. The child does not even know how this technology works. The child will pick this up very mechanically and growth is slower. At the level I teach, i.e., the fourth standard, we stick to encouraging the child to use their own hands to create. One activity we did recently was block printing. We brought vegetables and carved out shapes, of course I carved it out for them because I didn’t want them to use the knife! I gave the children poster paint and fabric paint, and they brought along T-shirts and cards and we printed on them.

Qudsiya: In any subject we can use art. It is actually important to use art.

Kuntal Dey: We are all saying it’s important to use art, I think we should say it’s important to mix art with the curriculum. In the primary class where I teach, we use slides to teach children. The reason we are doing this is because we think they will retain the concepts better. If this works, then why are we not applying the same manner of teaching with higher classes?

Qudsiya: Yes, yes, I totally agree with you, but this can be done in the lower classes, not in the higher grades. In the higher classes, the syllabus changes, and there is no time. So, the question is, when there is no time, how do we mix art?

Kuntal Dey: This is a practical problem and every teacher can use this excuse. The idea is to mix art in every subject. When teaching about maps, one can use art, when children make charts about any topic, include art as a part of it. Have theme days. Nowadays, almost all schools have theme days – a Social Studies theme day, a Science theme day. This will help the child explore new possibilities and become innovative. In our school (The Slate) on one Social Studies theme day, a child brought a CD with some photographs he had taken. He took this to every child in the class and showed it to them and had a discussion about the photographs.

Qudsiya: So is this really art then? When it comes to a chart or drawing, the child is using his/her hands to make something. But where is the creativity here?

Kuntal Dey: This is definitely art. It was the boy’s idea to click the pictures. He was the one who framed and clicked the pictures. Choosing the subject is also creativity. Art does not mean only painting or sticking, even this will qualify as art. The point is that the boy used the camera! Here he is using technology and being innovative about it.

Qudsiya: So, coming back to my question, how do we deal with the problem of using art in the higher classes? This is important, because once the child reaches the seventh standard, [art and craft] exercises reduce drastically. So is art actually playing a role in higher grade or should it be restricted to lower grades? Or are you saying it depends on the creativity of the teacher how s/he uses it in the classroom?

Kuntal Dey: For example, if there is a project, the children are either drawing a diagram or making a model. What we should observe is how innovative they are when it comes to this. For example, if a child decides to use some innovative material in a project, that is being creative. Many times children use thermocol and colour paper while making projects; if a child decides to use some plastic waste to show a heart or a kidney in a project, then the child is being artistic. This must be encouraged by the teachers. While making projects, it must be a process where the teacher and the students interact, talk about the subject and bring out the best in the child.

Anwar Sultana: This is the point of using art; it must allow a person to imagine beyond what it is. In my school, we aim at teaching art not just as a subject but also try to integrate art into language, science and social work. When an art teacher enters class, s/he is relatively free because there are no constraints of the curriculum. The art teacher has an opportunity to help develop the child’s language. S/he can definitely introduce new words to the children, especially young children. It’s amazing that exercises like paper folding teach a child complicated terms as well as complicated concepts. Hence art and craft can be the basis of any learning, be it science, social studies, even maths!

Kanchana Rajendra: Exactly! We cannot do without apples and cakes while teaching fractions. When we use this the child learns these concepts instantly. It is the images that are taking the message across, not the mathematical concepts.

Qudsiya: Then is it safe to say that every teacher must be an art teacher?

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Anwar Sultana: It is important for every teacher to have ideas, to be creative and not be or feel limited by the resources. Even a sheet of paper can be exciting to children if the teacher uses it creatively.

Kanchana Rajendra: I agree. To demonstrate the formation of the Himalayas, the fold mountains, I use a piece of cloth and dusters. We spread the cloth on the table and push it from both sides and children see that the cloth rises. This way they understand tectonic movement of the earth and formation of fold-mountains. Everything in a class can be used to explain different concepts. I think teachers just have to look around.

While teaching science, the hinge at the door can be used to teach children about joints. Images like this, children will never forget. Speaking from my childhood experience, I am certain. I have never forgotten how fold mountains are formed because of the rising of the cloth. If you tell a child to imagine a huge earth and tectonic planes moving, it’s difficult, so images like this will definitely stay with them.

Afshan: In fact, this is better than making the children write down notes in class, and then go back home and [learn] by heart and reproduce the same without making complete sense of it.

Kanchana Rajendra: Especially difficult concepts like fraction, when you ask a child which one is bigger 1/10 or 1/20, the child will immediately say 1/20! How do you explain fraction to a child? We pick up two sheets of paper; fold one into 10 squares and the other into 20 squares. Then we colour these squares, and when you open it you will find 1/20 much smaller than 1/10! Another example is when I have to teach the difference between Direct and Indirect speech in English, we play a game called Chinese whispers; there are many such innovative ways to make teaching interesting!

Kuntal Dey: Another thing that can be used in classrooms is drama. Qudsiya: Drama can be used in higher classes when children know how to converse. At a lower lever children don’t even know how to speak. It’s important for us to give them those basics before we take up drama.

Kuntal Dey: Drama can be used, because in this form, not only speech but the whole body is used. In a play we conducted at our school, we were discussing bad food and good food, so, some children were dressed and were acting as fruits and some other children were junk food, so the fight between these two characters explained to the child which is good food and which is not.

Afshan: I agree that drama can be used in lower classes. Since public speaking has become so important, I think it must be encouraged. In my Montessori class, what I did was to ask the children to read out a poem expressing different emotions; first anger, then happiness. Then they had to read it out slowly and then fast. Through this exercise, the children used their body to display the emotions.

Kanchana Rajendra: These are the ideal building blocks for drama.

Art in its various forms – some of them being painting, sculpture, music, poetry and drama – is an integral part of the teacher’s toolkit, and every teacher can use it to make concepts clearer and more engaging. Teaching art might be the art teacher’s job, but using art in the classroom is a possibility, perhaps even a necessity, for every teacher.

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