Category Archives: education

A Bit on Running

I promise this isn’t going to turn into a running blog (I wouldn’t even know what that entails), but I do want to talk about running today. I ran competitively for only four years–junior high and the first two years of high school. I ran cross-country, so races of 2.5-3.5 miles on trails, and I began training in the summers. The season began when school began and ended by early November, because this is New England.

Freshman year of high school. Yeesh, could those glasses be any bigger??

I was pretty good at running those distances. My high school’s home course was at Bryant College (pfft, I know that link says Bryant University, but it was a college way back then), and that was also where the division meets were held, so I knew that course well. There was a big hill at one point, coming out of the woods, and how I loved to attack that hill and pass people on my way up. I had a decent kick at the end of races, too; I could usually manage to sprint by anyone who was nearby. I liked running. So why did I quit after sophomore year?

A combination of reasons. I wanted a job, but I probably could have worked one in around cross-country practices; the season, after all, wasn’t that long. My coach left and I didn’t know the new coach. It’s possible I would have continued running without that switch. The new coach came through my line in the grocery store–that was my job, cashiering–the summer before my junior year to try to convince me to come back, which felt kind of…icky. But I think the big reason I quit is because I was all-division my sophomore year and I started hearing things like, You should be all-state by senior year. I didn’t hear that as encouragement; I heard that as pressure. And while I’m very good at self-imposed goals, other people’s expectations feel like a failure possibility. And the surest way not to fail is to decline to compete.

(The best place I can send you for a deeper explanation of that phenomenon is Alfie Kohn. His books should be required reading.)

So I haven’t really run, except for one summer in college, for about 25 years. But all this time, I felt like a runner. At various times I’d consider it, but I was always tied to a nursling or something and it just felt like too many logistics to figure out. For most of this year I’ve struggled with insomnia, and at some point this spring I realized it was light out at 5:15 am, so why not get out of bed and go for a walk through the neighborhood? It was a chance to center my head before having to deal with everyone else’s needs and demands. By the end of June, I felt like I wasn’t moving fast enough to get out of my own head, and I began to run.

My 4yo stretching with me before a recent evening run.

When I was fourteen, my grandmother loudly declared at a family gathering that I had “a runner’s body–nothing extra.” And while I was mortified about the latter part, she’s right about the first part. I do have a runner’s body, and it quickly remembered what to do. I’ve gradually increased distance and decreased my time per mile. Somewhere along the way I signed up for a local 5K, which takes place in a week. My first goal was to run it without embarrassing myself. As my split times fell, I changed my goal to under 9 minutes per mile. I hit that and quietly decided I wanted to run the course in under 27 minutes. I’ve struggled to run 5K through my neighborhood in that time, but my neighborhood is full of hills. Yesterday I ran the comparatively flat 5K race course for practice and finished in 26:39. So I guess I need a new goal for that race.

As I said, I’m good with self-imposed goals. If I’m running, I’m running for myself, and I think that was my hang-up in high school. At a time when I wasn’t at all sure of my own expectations for myself, I simply knew I wasn’t comfortable serving as the instrument of other people’s expectations. The coach who came through my line wasn’t interested in how I felt about running; he knew I was pretty good and wanted me on the team so the team would be better. In the same way, my guidance counselor didn’t care where I wanted to go to college; he pulled me into his office freshman year to lay out a plan that would get me into Princeton, because nobody from my high school had gotten in there yet, and it would reflect well on the school. That was my high school: as a smart, moderately talented student, I was viewed not as an individual with individual wants and interests but as a means to an end that might glorify the school.

That last paragraph is why this post is also filed under “education.” If there’s one overarching goal I have for my kids’ educational experience, it’s that they’re not viewed as a tool for someone else to gain glory. The only goals I’m interested in are their own.

Back to running. I’m loving it. This morning I ran five miles, the longest distance I’ve run this summer. I feel good out there, even when I’m a little gaspy and my thighs feel like rubber. I can feel myself getting stronger, and I feel awesome at the end of every run. I’ll be forty years old next month and I’ve given birth three times and I ran five miles today! I’m so looking forward to next weekend’s 5K. And even though this isn’t going to be a running blog, I hope you don’t mind if I let you know how it goes.

Enough With Your Summer Reading!

My boys last summer, reading in the yard.

My boys last summer, reading in the yard.

The reminders are everywhere this time of year, and have been for a while. Amazon and Scholastic are sending me emails with book lists for my children. Pinterest is full of summer reading posts. The local librarian has visited my oldest’s classroom, encouraging the kids to sign up for summer reading, dangling the carrot of performances and prizes if they’d just, you know, read. I’ve heard all the arguments in favor of these programs, but you won’t convince me. I don’t believe in bribing kids to read. I am wary of extrinsic motivators, and I want—and have—children who read for reading’s sake. I’ve been told that some kids just won’t read all summer without summer reading programs, and while that may be true, summer reading is not solving a problem here. It’s a cosmetic fix for a deeper, underlying problem that isn’t being addressed. Why don’t these kids want to read to begin with?

I have two areas of parenting where I’ve nailed it (yes, only two). All of my kids love books and reading, and they all eat a variety of foods. As I thought about this, I realized that these areas are where my intent, priorities, and desired outcome are completely aligned. We have a hard time, for example, explaining to our kids that they shouldn’t swear when both their parents have a bit of a potty mouth. Until I change my own behavior, all the explanations in the world aren’t going to have an effect. However, I don’t eat cookies while asking my kids to eat an apple; because I value healthy eating and sweets in moderation, they naturally followed my lead. I don’t stare at a TV screen while telling my kids to read a book, either. I have my nose in my own book, thank you very much. Sometimes I’m asked how I “get” my kids to read, and this is my long response to that question.

I began taking my kids to the library in their infancy. Yes, even my firstborn. I spent hours trapped under a sleeping baby who’d awaken if I tried to slip away. I needed books, lots of books, to pass the time, so the baby and I went to the library. As more babies came, they were brought to the library too, and now all of us pick out so many books combined that certain librarians duck when they see us coming. From the beginning I instituted the Mama-First Rule: Mama gets to pick out books first, and then (and only then) will we go to the kids’ section. It’s like putting on my oxygen tank first. Now, of course, I have some kids old enough to wander off by themselves to pick out books anyway. The library, in other words, is a regular part of our life and routine and always has been.

I also began reading aloud to my kids in infancy. My oldest would sit and listen for as long as my voice held out. He was (and is) a placid child. By age two he was listening to chapter books, and at age four he could repeat, word for word, his favorite stories—including The Polar Express, which is quite a long one. I thought he’d be an early reader, but it didn’t click for him until he was seven. He was homeschooled at the time, and he was allowed to learn to read without any external pressures whatsoever. By the time he started school in second grade he was reading well ahead of grade level.

Younger siblings, of course, hear read-alouds from the very beginning. My second child wouldn’t sit still and listen like his brother. He’d squirm off the couch and onto the floor, where he’d busily play. He was a mover. No matter; I knew he was listening. When my oldest began to read on his own, I didn’t stop reading out loud (of course, I had two non-readers at the time, too). Books are part of the activity choice in our house along with toys and other playthings, and were not reserved just for bedtime stories. I read in the morning, the afternoon, and evening. When both my boys were in school, my daughter and I would see the bus off and then come inside to read. I’d sit with my coffee and the stack of books she’d selected and sometimes read for an hour or more before we continued with our day.

My middle child was in school during his learning-to-read process. At the first parent/teacher conference, I told his kindergarten teacher that I didn’t care if he was reading by the end of kindergarten and, in fact, didn’t expect him to be. (This, I was told, was not the normal parent statement about reading in K.) I didn’t want reading to turn into a source of anxiety or pressure. By the beginning of second grade he could read, somewhat laboriously, but it hadn’t clicked for him yet. In the meantime, I told his teacher that I would not be having him fill out a book log, because such a thing made reading a chore. (Have you ever written down everything you’ve read? So boring.) It also reinforced the idea that he should read because school says so and not because he wanted to. Knowing my son’s oppositional nature, I felt there was a risk he’d simply rebel against reading if he felt it wasn’t his decision. No book logs for us. My job was to run interference while my child got his reading feet under him. By mid-second grade, reading had clicked for him, and by the end, he, too, was reading beyond grade level. Still, when we began homeschooling, I continued the morning routine of reading books aloud, now with two kids instead of one. Just because a child can read to himself doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy cuddling up and hearing stories read out loud.

So how did I end up with kids who love reading? I take them to the library and always have. I read aloud, early, often, and even when they can read to themselves. I read books myself, where the kids can see me. I occasionally ignore them because the book is really good. I pick out books for myself at the library. I make sure they are allowed to learn to read at their own pace and without externally imposed pressure, anxiety, or stress. I don’t judge their reading material. Both boys take out books below their reading level along with harder books. I simply remind them to make sure they bring home some longer books, too, because otherwise they finish all their books too soon and I have two kids moping around the house complaining, “I’m out of book.” They love graphic novels and read them again and again. I suggest books I think they might like, I find books they’ve requested, I give books as presents, I provide magazine subscriptions. I thoroughly support their reading habit, as I support my own.

So there is no quick-results answer I can give when someone asks me, “How did you get your kids to read?” It’s a lifestyle; it reflects what’s important to me. These readers of mine are the product of the sum total of my time as a mother; getting a kid to value reading isn’t a quick summer project involving McDonald’s coupons and a magician at the library. Of course, there are outliers. There are people who love to read who grew up in bookless homes, and kids who don’t read at all whose book-loving parents are mystified. But in general, results begin with what you value and where you put your time, which is why my kids love to read and often ask for apples for a snack. They didn’t learn to read because I sat down and made it a chore, and they don’t read now to earn prizes at the library. They read because books take them to different places, different times, different universes, carried along on the wave of a fantastic story. They read for reading’s sake.

The Week’s Work

I don’t feel I made much progress with my own making this week. The first part of the week I felt sluggish and like I wasn’t focusing well, and the second part was busy–so busy that I’m joining in with Dawn’s Making + Listening link-up three days late. Nevertheless, we’ve been making things here.

My oldest made a zine to fulfill a class project. I used this as an excuse to finally buy a long-reach stapler. His only supply request was a non-photo blue pencil (because you don’t need to erase your lines after inking; it doesn’t show up on photocopies). I want to make zines too!

I finally finished my Tang in green wool (so perfect for this time of year…um, not!).

It needs a rinse and block, but my utility sink, which I thought would work so nicely for washing handknits, is full, as always, of drying paintbrushes and paint splotches. I won’t wear this for a few months anyway, and perhaps I’ll remember to do a post with modeled shots when I do…

My daughter made me a cardinal sitting in a nest.

This was all her own idea and execution. She asked for my help reaching the red and green card stock and then set to work with scissors and tape, cutting the shapes out herself. (She used the large circle hole punch for the head and feet.) She ran back and forth to check the bird poster hanging on our wall, the one that includes a cardinal. She was detailed about the feet, wasn’t she? That’s one of the bits she double-checked with the poster. This is so authentically a four-year-old’s creation. I adore it.

I also helped my daughter make more goat note cards.

These sets are already claimed and paid for, and we need to make more to fulfill more orders. I’ll talk more about her work in a future post, but for now I’ll say that I’m so pleased she is having success and so grateful to the communities (both online and in real life) that are helping her achieve that success. My daughter never doubted her plan would work, and I’d do well to observe and learn from the confidence of this four-year-old.

Speaking of which, she also made it to the top of the rock wall at her brother’s school fair today.

Climbing to the top.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo that shows the wall in its entirety so you can see how tall it was. It was really, really tall.

At the top.

It was a little hard to look at my last baby dangling from a harness at the top of that thing, but she was so excited to try and so determined to get all the way up; of course I cheered her on. She drew a little bit of a crowd. A rock-climbing gym recently opened nearby (this was their traveling wall), and I don’t think we’ll be able to keep G out of it.

As for the listening portion, my husband was away this week, so while I wove ends into my sweater and tried to embroider (that being the project I haven’t made much progress on), I watched and listened to Merlin. I have four episodes left to go in Season 3. The younger kids finished listening to The Phantom Tollbooth and The Arabian Nights as I read them aloud. And, because we met friends at the zoo this week, we of course listened to Tom Paxton’s Goin’ to the Zoo on the way. This is such a great CD of fun songs. We all like it.

I hope you are in the midst of an enjoyable weekend, with some time to make and listen to whatever makes you happy.

{PBL} Give a Goat Project

g's goat cards

Several years ago, blogger Teabird sent us her review copy of the book Give a Goat. I read it to the boys right away, and it now sits on one of our storybook shelves. Periodically my daughter chooses it as part of her bedtime stories. Not too long ago, after hearing it again, she decided she, too, would like to give a goat through Heifer International. We talked about different ways she, at age four, could earn some money, and she began earning quarters every time she helped set the table, fold laundry, or clean the bathroom sink. (Normally I don’t pay for routine helping-out-type chores, but she’s four. Her earning options are limited.) However, a goat costs $120. We brainstormed some more.

Eventually she decided she would like to make note cards with a drawing of a goat on them, so we Googled for images of goats and she picked some for me to print out. Then, she drew some pictures of goats, using her reference images. Finally, she picked out two of her drawings (a mama and a baby, she told me), and together, we turned them into stamps.

Her goats are smiling because they are happy. Of course! Next, she picked out colors of card stock and ink, and we set to work printing.

Here’s a closer look at the mama goat:

And the baby goat:

When the cards were dry, she counted out six envelopes to go with her bundles of six cards, I wrote out a tag to her specifications, she signed the tag, and we bundled the cards and envelopes with pretty ribbon.

g's goat cards (2)

She settled on $5 for a package of six cards, and we began by emailing family members. Her next step is to brainstorm other places that might agree to sell them as well. Meanwhile, her dad gave her all his dimes, nickels, and quarters for her Give a Goat bank, and she and her 8yo brother sorted the coins; then he counted, added them up, and let her know she had just over $10 towards her goal.

So much going on with this project. So much!

{PBL} Monster Book

Front cover of monster book.

Front cover of monster book.

Back in December, I posted about my 8yo’s monster project. Last week, after a couple illness-related delays, we brought a thumb drive full of files to Staples and came home with five copies of his book.

We both learned quite a bit during this project. He took his original idea through to completion–no small task, given how many monsters he ultimately included (12) and how long he’s been working on this. At times we both struggled to keep him moving forward. I was firm that he would finish the project, but somewhere there’s a line between mentoring and taking over, and I tried to be continually aware of that line.

Chupacabra page.

Chupacabra page in monster book.

I also tried to get any thoughts out of my head regarding how anybody else might describe a third-grade writing level. The series Become a Writing Mentor to Your Child at Wonderfarm helped with this, too. My son is moving at his own pace where writing is concerned. I know he brought home more “advanced” writing assignments from school last year, but I also know he required one of the teachers to sit and work with him one-on-one to produce them. The writing barely reflects his personality, and I suspect he had very little say on subject matter or style. Honestly, I’m happy he chose to do anything connected with writing. His book pages are mainly lists, with sentences here and there, but he did the research, took the notes, and chose what to include himself. He also drew all the pictures. The one I’ve included is one of my favorites, but truthfully, they are all pretty special and definitely reflect his personal style.

Beyond the planning, researching, writing, and drawing, he also learned how to use Publisher, looked over the printed pages to catch any mistakes (editing), and decided upon the page order in the book. After creating a made-up monster out of Model Magic, he decided to paint it and use a photo of it for the cover of the book, so he set up the shot and took it himself (top of post). He then decided he needed another shot for the back cover.

Back cover of monster book.

Back cover of monster book.

He used the back of the monster, of course! Once at Staples, he needed to make decisions about the cover stock and binding, as well as direct his brother and me as we collated the copies into the correct order.

Sorting monster book pages at Staples.

Sorting monster book pages at Staples.

He was incredibly excited to have five “published” copies of his book–one for each family member–in hand, and sat down to read it to me as soon as we got home. Yet, he downplayed his accomplishment. Plenty of people write books, he said. I tried to emphasize what he’d done–he made a plan, did the research, put it all together according to his own vision–this is huge.

My hope is that this book becomes a physical reminder that he can set a goal and then reach it. I want that for my kids, all of it. I want them to be able to set their own goals and feel capable of reaching them.

{PBL} Scattering

There have been some seemingly one-off random things going on this week, but you never know where things will lead. My 4yo has been interested in bones for a while now, although I’m not sure I even posted anything about that interest here. Recently she’s developed an interest in coyotes, too, but that’s not necessarily a separate interest. We visited the local NWR visitor’s center a week or two ago to look at the bones they have on display–they have many, out and available to touch, and among them are many skulls.

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Coyotes have skulls too, you know. And skeletons. She was delighted to make this connection between her projects. (Yes, she identifies them as such. As a never-schooled preschooler, she signed on to this style of learning with full joy, quickly realizing the gravity the word “project” bestows upon her interests.)

Here she is drawing and then painting a picture of a coyote, using some reference pictures.

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This is such authentic work she is doing. She is working hard there, choosing to try to draw a coyote, noticing its colors and how many ears and legs it has, and where they are. She asked me where its nose was, and I showed her the snout and we talked about how the shape of the snout is one of the ways a coyote is distinguished from other dogs, and she worked at getting it right, at the same time understanding that she could make as many paintings as she wanted to try and get the coyote to look the way she wanted to.

This all makes me happy, not because my child is doing this but because I have created the space in which my child knows she can do this. She is not being kept distracted with “age-appropriate” busywork but instead allowed to choose her own work.

Also this week, all three of the kids made light straws.

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Someone on Twitter–I can’t remember who, unfortunately–posted a link to an article about diy.org. I checked out the site and sent the link to my 11yo because I thought he might find it interesting. He decided he wanted to make Light Straws, so he bookmarked the video instructions and wrote a supply list. All of us went to Radio Shack and tried to figure out which LEDs were super bright if none of them said super bright, and realized he’d spelled “ohm” incorrectly, but we managed to find everything we needed. I helped the 4yo but he and his brother made their own while we watched the video. Don’t they look super cool? And once they were made, they tinkered with the design, deciding they’d like the switch to work differently.

Later that day, my 4yo looked up at one of our light bulbs and excitedly announced that inside, it had wires that looked like the ones that connected to the LED in her light straw. My 8yo, who is building a pretend machine out of various block-type toys, is explaining how the “wires” should connect. All these scattering activities and interests…they connect in such interesting ways.

This is Why

Heads, by N, age 8.

Heads, by N, age 8.

We began today with me reading Act III of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar out loud while I drank my morning coffee. We’ve been doing an act a day. Why Julius Caesar? Because we’re up to Ancient Rome in our history reading, we read about Caesar being assassinated, and I thought, Oh, we should read Julius Caesar. So I am. I have to explain some parts, of course, and make sure I’m clear on who’s talking, but the kids are getting it, and I really love reading it out loud. My oldest was home sick on Friday when we read Act II and he was pretty disappointed to realize he’d miss Act III today. And of course, I had to remind myself of the five-act dramatic arc so we could talk about it.

Later we took my daughter to her preschool gymnastics class, and after my son finished his math chapter, we spent the rest of our waiting time playing Uno. Back at home, I made lunch while my son worked on another page in his monster book, and after lunch we went downstairs so my daughter could work with model magic to make some bones (she’s been studying skeletons). I suggested my son might want to make some monsters out of model magic–why not?!

So we sat down there together, my daughter making bones, my son making monsters, and me making some sketches for an embroidery project. When I’d gotten as far as I could right then, I switched to doing some planning for a class I’m offering in the next co-op session. We were down there for about two hours–time just flew right by. My son began with a group of monster heads (you can see those above), then made a monster with such personality that we are talking about working together to make a stuffed version. I think we need a trip to the big fabric store so he can find just the material he has in mind.

At dinner, he filled his older brother in on what he’d missed in Act III, explaining with glee how Antony turned the crowd against the conspirators and how that crowd just agreed with whoever was speaking at the time, and Antony got to speak after Brutus (foolish Brutus!), and he kept on calling the conspirators “honorable men” but he didn’t really mean it.

What struck me most about this day (which is not at all how all our days go, by the way) was how consistently my younger son–the one I’m homeschooling–was the child I remembered from several years ago. The interesting, interested kid who looks at things from unlikely angles. Smiling. Relaxed. Agreeable. Out of respect for my kids, I don’t go into details when it comes to the challenging bits, but it’s been hard, this child’s unhappiness. It sucked all the air out of the family at times, leaving me gasping with anxiety. Is everything perfect now? Nope. Still have challenging bits. But mixed in with the challenging are more and more glimpses of this child. An afternoon like this reminds me how much I’ve missed him.

This is why I homeschool.

{PBL} Projects + School

One of V's scenes in his organic farming movie.

One of V’s scenes in his organic farming movie.

One of my biggest frustrations with school is how much time it takes up. My oldest chose to remain in school, and I haven’t managed to support him on any self-led projects on nights and weekends, which fly by so quickly. The school describes its curriculum as “project-based,” but their definition and implementation is somewhat different than mine. Recently, my son completed a school project on organic farming. The curriculum is pre-planned, and my son chose the topic from a pre-set list. The projects had certain requirements—for instance, each student had to interview someone local pertaining to their topic, asking at least five questions. Interviewing somebody is great—if the student decides that’s the best way to get information that otherwise is unavailable. But assigning an interview takes away so much of the learning process…What do I want to know? How can I find it out? What resources are available to me? Instead, it seems like somebody else decided fifth graders should interview “experts.”

Several weeks ago, my son and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Him: I think I want to make a movie for my project representation.

Me: That sounds cool. None of us have experience with that. Can Miss [x] mentor you as you figure out how to do that? [Because that is what is supposed to happen in project-based learning; the student has a mentor.]

Him: I don’t know. I think there’s a video camera I can borrow?

Me: That’s a start. Do you have an idea of how you want your movie to be?

Him: Well, I want to start with a scene of fields, you know, with the crops.

Me: Okay. It’s December, though. You won’t be able to film that here, unless you’re okay with, you know, dead-looking fields.

Him: But that’s not what I want.

Me: Could you draw a background for that, maybe? Or perhaps try stop-motion? I can show you some examples.

Him, beginning to sound frustrated: I don’t have a lot of time to figure all that out! Maybe I’ll just do a poster.

Me, after a long thinking pause: I can understand, given that you have a deadline for this, why you would want to do a poster. I won’t think less of you if you do. But it makes me sad that you have an idea and don’t feel you have the time or support at school to see it through. I’ll do whatever I can to mentor you, if you want to try a movie. I hope, if you don’t do a movie for this project, we can come back to it when you have more time to dig into it.

And we left it there, for the most part. It seemed my son had decided on a poster. He let me know the materials he’d need (my role in his homework is mainly procuring supplies when necessary). For Christmas, we gave him the book Unbored, which I’d hoped to look through myself, but I can’t get it out of his hands! After his first day back at school, he told me he was going to do a movie after all. Unbored has a chapter on stop-motion, he told me, and now he had a better idea of what he needed. Awesome, I said. Make a list, and a storyboard. A storyboard? “Draw out each scene—figure out what you want to show and say. Then you can figure out what props you need.”

And this he did, in detail. After looking at his storyboard, I pointed out that it didn’t seem stop-motion would work, but perhaps a series of photographs? He brainstormed props. I thought I remembered a Duplo farm set…we checked his sister’s LEGOS and yes, indeed, she has not only a bus and a mailman but a farmer with flowers, a chicken, a pig, and a tractor. He received her permission to borrow her farm LEGOS. He figured out solutions for his other scenes—he transformed a bottle of spray fixative into a pesticide bottle by drawing a new label. We added an acorn and butternut squash to the shopping list. He painted grains of rice black, to represent harmful insects on the plants. We lucked out with a sunny Sunday afternoon, he set up each scene in natural light, took multiple shots, and chose the best ones.

Shooting film for his movie.

Shooting film for his movie.

I’d have liked to set him loose to figure out Movie Maker on his own, but given the time constraints, I tried to figure out the basics ahead of time so I could help him. Together, we added his photos, edited the duration of each shot, and recorded his narration, which had to be matched to each scene just so. He typed up the title and credits, and we strung it all together. It is amazing. If this were a home-based project, more time would have been spent on figuring out the program and investigating different methods of movie making. It’s hard for me to accurately describe what I see as the difference in school projects and home projects, but I’ll try:

School is more interested in showing what was learned about the assigned topic. The movie is a means to prove he learned about organic farming.

I am just as interested in the learning going on to create the representation. Learning about a topic is one part of the learning; acquiring skills to share information in a chosen way is just as (if not more) important. He drew a storyboard, wrote a script, arranged his scenes, photographed them until he was satisfied. He had a vision and manifested it. He struggled with the computer program, worked through that, we figured it out, and he created a finished product which pleased him. All of this is more important to me than the facts he acquired about organic farming.

I still hope he returns to this interest when he has more time to dig into it for the sake of digging into it rather than as a means to fulfilling a school requirement. I will nudge, and I will mentor. And I am so glad he chose movie over poster after all.

Why Process Over Product? {Part Three}

(Part One, Part Two)

Part Three: Realizing a Vision

In Part Two, I said that if someone hasn’t had the opportunity to explore different media and materials to see what they do, he or she will have no idea how to achieve the desired goal. Learning new skills is both exciting on its own and a means to an end; sometimes it begins as one of those and progresses to the other. Do you want to re-create somebody else’s vision, or know how to express your own? I want to do the latter, and I want my kids to be able to do the latter, too. I learned embroidery because I wanted to embroider poetry on my jeans, but in the process it became another way for me to express myself, and while I embroidered some commercial patterns at the beginning, while I was learning, I can’t see doing that anymore, because I’d rather use embroidery as part of my own artwork.

Practicing embroidery

Practicing embroidery

My 8yo, who already knew embroidery’s properties so well from having watched me, and already knowing how to sew, decided to learn how to embroider so he could make his aunt a snowflake ornament, based on his own vision of the finished project. I helped him with the angles of the snowflake and transferred it onto the felt for him, but the idea was all his. And we didn’t have an example of “this is what your felt snowflake ornament should look like,” either. It was all his own thought process and design.

Following directions give us the skills to re-create somebody else’s vision. There is nothing essentially wrong with that. I have no problem with knitting a sweater somebody else designed if I like it and want to wear it. It saves me the trouble of doing the design work myself. But if I have an idea in my head, I appreciate having the ability to make it a reality, rather than trying to find somebody else’s vision that sort of approximates my own. Following directions is certainly a useful skill to have, and prevents any of us from having to re-invent the wheel. But exposure to process-based activity is essential to gain the skills and confidence to realize our own unique vision.

“Just messing around” with materials allows the space for accidents to happen, for unexpected results, for discoveries, and that is when we learn. If something unexpected happens when the goal is to re-create a predetermined end product, it can be perceived as a disaster. If it happens during a process-focused exploration of a material or technique, it is a delightful discovery, leading to knowledge that is filed away for future use. When and if we have an idea that requires that particular effect, we know how to obtain it. Process-based art is not pressure-filled. It is fun. It is play. It is essential, for children and adults.

We cannot expect children to be creative, original thinkers if we only present them with so-called “art activities” that involve following directions to reproduce an end product. They deserve (as we all do) the space and time to develop the confidence and skills to determine their own end product, and then figure out how to get there. When I said, “I’m going to knit a stocking,” having never knit before, nobody was around to tell me I couldn’t. When my child says, “I’m going to make a snowflake ornament out of felt and embroidery,” even though he’s never embroidered before, I’m not going to say, “You can’t do that.” I don’t even say, “Let’s look and see what patterns you can follow.” My response is: “Let’s practice embroidery so you know how to do it. Sketch out what you’re thinking. You can totally do this.”

The process of looking for an already-existing project that meets your criteria versus creating the project you have in your head is so very different. Children who only have experience in following directions to produce a version of somebody else’s vision may not ever make the leap into realizing they can create the steps to produce their own vision. It takes more work on the adult’s part to mentor a child’s individual vision. It is harder to have a room full of children interpreting new materials or techniques in different ways, rather than following directions all at the same time. I see my job as facilitator, and I am on my toes when we’re in the studio, especially if we’re doing something new. But this sort of mentoring is essential, because the ability to have an idea and realize that idea is essential. And one way to raise children who have the confidence and skills to not only realize their ideas but to have the idea in the first place is to provide plenty of exposure to process-based art.

Why Process Over Product? {Part Two}

(Part One)

Part Two: Knowing the Materials

When a child (or adult) has an idea and a specific end result in mind, if he or she hasn’t had the opportunity to explore different media and materials to see what they do, he or she will have no idea how to achieve the desired goal. I can’t stress this enough. It seems so basic, but I see so many people going about it backwards. Until we learn how to use various materials, we have no idea which one is best for the task at hand. If we have a vision in our mind but have a limited number of techniques from which to choose, we may never reach our vision.

When my children come into the studio with an idea, they have a vast array of materials from which to choose. They learned how to use these materials not by following step-by-step directions to reproduce a project designed by someone else, but by experimenting with the materials in a controlled way. Parameters are, I think, necessary when learning a new material or technique. I didn’t just give them watercolors and leave the room. We used, at different times, watercolors wet on wet, wet on dry, pan watercolors, liquid watercolors, watercolors from a tube. The different methods and materials yield different results, and we learned what they were by doing. In the same way, watercolors are different from acrylics and gouache and tempera. So when my kids say they want to do X and they need paint, I can now ask them, What kind of paint? And they will think about their desired end result and decide what they think they need.

The same thing is true of every material in our studio.

Non-representational creativity is often difficult for adults to understand. They think kids are just “messing around,” the painting is “random,” the activity is “aimless.” If it’s not a picture OF something, an adult often doesn’t see the point. Firstly, if the child is enjoying himself, is another point necessary? But beyond that, quite a bit is going on—or can be going on—when someone is “just messing around” with a material. The first thing I did when I bought new watercolor pencils was scribble with them and add water to see what happened. It would be frustrating to try to use a material for a specific end result if I didn’t know what the material could and couldn’t do.

Exploring tints and shades of blue.

Exploring tints and shades of blue.

In the same way, a child learns quite a lot while “smearing” paint around. He’s learning how paint moves, how much to put on the paintbrush to get different effects, what happens when wet paint touches. If it’s quality paint, he learns what happens when different colors mix. When my middle child was about five, he spent weeks investigating different paint colors, a couple at a time. He learned about tints and shades and secondary colors while he moved the paint around on large sheets of heavy paper that I’d pinned to the wall. Limiting the color palette meant that he could see what happened when just those two or three colors mixed. This is, again, about setting parameters to help a child learn about the materials in a useful, meaningful way.

During this time, he happened to be painting while an adult relative was over, and that adult stared at the non-representational paper that held all that exciting information about tints and shades, and instead of asking my son about it (and he would have eagerly explained what he’d done to get that range of color), she stared and stared until she found something that sort of looked like a flower and pointed it out. “You painted a flower.” No. But now, when he does want to paint a flower, or anything else, he is confident that he can mix any color he needs or wants, in a variety of paint types. In fact, like me, he’d rather have just the primaries, white, and black in his palette, and mix his own colors.

For more on this sort of sequential introduction of materials (as well as how to talk—and NOT talk—to children about what they’re doing), I highly recommend Susan Striker’s Young at Art.

Next: Part Three—Realizing a Vision.