Saturday, November 12, 2005

The art of education

One of Bud's favorite activity centers at Kindergarten has two easels, bright paint, thick paintbrushes, and reams of blank canvases of construction paper. Several times a week he brings home a masterpiece, rolled up in an rubber band, sometimes so fresh the paint is still sticky. One such masterpiece, a swirling collage of blobs and streaks of primary colors, is framed and hanging on the wall of our family room. Bud is proud of his artwork, and we are appreciative patrons of his art.

A couple of weeks ago he bounded out of school with a rolled-up paper peeking out of his backpack, but when I got it home and unrolled it I was speechless. There was a strip of blue paint across the top and penciled in next to it, in adult print, was the word "sky." There was a green strip of paint at the bottom ("grass"), a brown strip up the center with a green blob on top ("tree"), red dots on the green ("apples"), a yellow blob near the blue strip ("sun"), and an orange blob near the green ("cat").

It looked exactly like the work of a typical Kindergartener. It looked, in other words, nothing like Bud. My initial reaction was that he must have mistakenly taken another child's painting. But I flipped it over and, sure enough, there were Bud's initials on the back.

I was completely shaken. What is going on in that classroom? What are they trying to do? What are they trying to make him be?

What are they doing to him?

I began to wonder if I had completely misread the cues I'd gotten from the educators who work with Bud. I thought we were collaborating. I thought we were on the same page. I thought we shared the same philosophy. But this - this - this PAINTING changed everything.

I started rehearsing the conversation in my head. I pictured myself approaching his teacher, a wonderful, insightful, caring, tireless woman whom Bud adores, and who makes Bud feel like the center of the world. And I saw myself speaking, wondering if I'd be risking everything, wondering if my words would cast aside any progress we'd made, or - worse - if they'd reveal that there had never been any progress and that our mutual understanding was mere illusion.

I knew what I had to say: "That picture that Bud brought home: it was jarring to me. That's not how he paints. That's not how he expresses himself. That's not who he is." I wanted to tell her that I was concerned about the message that picture sent to me about the educational philosophy being used with Bud in the classroom: that it indicated a lack of respect for him, for where he is, for what he can do. It told me that there is a box -one single box labeled "correct" -and that the goal in this classroom was to make Bud pretend to fit into it - not, as I thought, to help him explore what he already has inside him and help him bring all the best parts of himself to the surface. It told me that the creative, colorful, dynamic artwork he brought home was not good enough. Worse - it told me that the message sent to him was that his masterpieces were not good enough. It told me that the product - and not the process - was at the center of the educational experience. It told me that they didn't get Bud, and that it seemed they weren't trying to get him.

It was a daunting message to think about delivering to a woman I like very much.

But the next day I steeled my resolve, took a deep breath, and entered the classroom. I lingered until the other parents were gone, then I launched into the speech I'd rehearsed.

"That picture that Bud brought home..." I started.

"I know," she said.

"It was jarring to me."

"It was jarring to me, too. Someone else was working with him at the time. But we've talked about it - you know, this is a learning process for all of us - and it won't happen again. It was very well intentioned, but..."

"But it's not Bud," I finished.

"No, it's not Bud," she sighed. She went on, and unrehearsed and impromptu, gave my practiced speech back to me.

We are in synch. We're on the same page. We share the same philosophy.

"Now," she said. "I've just got to figure out a way to be his teacher for the next twelve years."


Susan Senator said...

I was so (pleasantly) surprised by where you ended up with this! I can't imagine having been as together, as you obviously are, about my own son and what/who he really is. But you knew -- and he's only 5 -- that this was not Bud's style of expression. Wow. My hat is off to you for being so tuned into your child and then, for being brave and wise enough to confront the teacher in such a sensitive way. I am also glad that she knew, too! What a happy ending!

Anonymous said...

I recently cleaned up my storage room and went through some pictures that my son drew when he was 6 years old. Most of them had to do with volcanoes because he was fascinated with volcanoes at that time. The teacher encouraged him to tell a story about what would happen if his class went to see a volcano, to make his own "volcano book," and so forth.

It's wonderful when a teacher is so aware and encouraging of a child's particular interests and way of expressing himself.

mommyguilt said...

Oh, you've got a wonderful teacher for Bud! I was very happy to see the ending of your story. It is so important for those working so closely with our children to "get" it. Nominate that woman for a Golden Apple!