Far More Engaging Than a Paper Hat (Part 1): Meaningful Art and Learning

If we believe in children’s intelligence, it changes us.
CSU Research: Excellence in Action

Karyn Callaghan

As an educator that has devoted a large percentage of my career, effort, and passion creating and promoting rich engaging tasks for all students, I am continually amazed by the rote, unengaging, blackline master, Internet worksheet printouts that my almost 7 year old daughter comes home with on a regular basis. Medea is one creative, bright, and curious child. She sees fairies in the trees, tweets to Santa, creates collages from found objects during Bruce Trail hikes and waterfall adventures, navigates the web like a champ on her netbook, and creates stories on her iPad. Although we have a plethora of technology in our house, she is not consumed by it. She often chooses to sit in her office, draw pictures, create narratives and write stories with paper, pencils, markers, and crayons. I need to emphasize once more that she WRITES stories that SHE CREATES. Not a worksheet that she needs to fill in, not a pre-fabricated colouring sheet created by someone else that she colours – but draws, writes, and creates her own material. Needless to say then, I get a bit upset when I see her disengaging with learning when she loves it so much. This is especially true when she comes home with items like those illustrated below.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom Activity

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom Activity

These are tasks in which I fail to see deep learning. She is not extending her creativity, she is not thinking deeply or critically and she is not being imaginative. In fact, it is very difficult to do so when the tasks she is given are to stamp letters around a tree ala “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” or pasting purple pasta on a sheet of paper and declaring for us that she has created groups of purple pasta.

This is also true of the infamous paper hat – that everlasting mainstay of young children in which they come home from school at Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas with a prefabricated paper hat that they colour and stick things on. The ear pieces are all the same size, the bands are all the same, etc. Very rarely (I’m going to say never) do I see that students have created their own hats from scratch and from their ideas – they all look the same. I fail to recognize the learning or rationale behind creating such an item. Medea doesn’t care about them (they’re often jammed into the bottom of her bag). There is no attached meaning to it. I get the impression that the only goal is to have a group of children look cute for the adults to “ohh” over.

Sorting Activity

A Sorting Activity

I use these two example only as illustration and understand they stand a bit out of context here. We obviously don’t know what was said in the classroom at the time (a topic for another post – more transparency of learning is important for parents so that we understand the value and point of work that comes home). The point, however, is clear. These items do not represent rich tasks. These would be whipped up quickly and neither sample demonstrates Medea’s creativity or thought process. She has not put the same passion into these that I will demonstrate below and in Part 2 of this post.

This leads me to the Paper Hat debate I outlined above. The Ontario Arts Curricula for Grades 1-8 (pg. 36) outlines an overview of approaches and teaching strategies in the arts that emphasize the innate curiosity and creativity of children as well as their individual, diverse, and unique interests and experiences that they bring to the table:

[jbox color=”grey” title=”Instructional Approaches and Teaching Strategies” icon=”http://www.hydroone.com/PublishingImages/icon_Ontario.jpg” border=”5″ radius=”35″ shadow=”9″]One of the primary objectives of elementary arts curricula is to encourage children’s natural inclination to express their ideas through the arts. Students come to school with a natural desire for a wide variety of outlets for their creativity. Students also bring with them individual interests and abilities, as well as diverse personal and cultural experiences, all of which have an impact on their prior knowledge about arts and about the world in which they live. The arts curriculum, particularly for students in the primary grades, should be enjoyable for students, and should be designed to encourage them to take a lifelong interest in the arts. [/jbox]

When allowed to expore (with guidance and support when needed) children create the most amazing things! I love the quotation by Karyn Callaghan that I started this post with: “If we believe in children’s intelligence, it changes us.” I am changed every time I visit elementary classrooms and watch the children as they problem solve, create, adapt, explore, and discover…not because we told them to, not because it is an assignment, not becasue it is expected…..but BECAUSE THEY WANT TO! (See Also: “The Hundred Languages of Childhood“) I am changed every time my daughter creates something and shares it with us with pride.

So what about the hats?

Rabbit Hat - Large - 1 Rabbit Hat - Large - 2 Rabbit Hat - Large - 3

The three examples shown here are just a few I found on the internet using a simple “elementary craft paper hats” search. The sea of paper hat activities is actually a bit overwhelming (I stopped on Page 10 of about 7,450,000 results). Again, I am left asking the question, “Why do we want our students to create a paper hat?” What is the learning goal of such a task? Are “…students [given] plenty of time and opportunities to explore the arts in ways that are meaningful to them (my emphasis)…with a wide variety of tools and materials ?”  (The Ontario Arts Curricula for Grades 1-8, pg. 36-37)

[jbox color=”grey” title=”Instructional Approaches and Teaching Strategies” icon=”http://www.hydroone.com/PublishingImages/icon_Ontario.jpg” border=”5″ radius=”35″ shadow=”9″]Students should be given a wide range of activities and assignments that foster mastery of the basic fundamental concepts and development of inquiry and research skills as well as opportunities for self-expression. In effective arts programs, teachers provide a variety of activities based on assessment of students’ individual needs, proven learning theory, and best practices. [/jbox]

Particularly for Grade 1:

Through guided practice students begin to develop the ability to use the creative process (see pages 19–22) and the critical thinking process (see pages 23–28) in their explorations. Young children are naturally curious and ask many questions about things that catch their attention, and arts programs should capitalize on this natural desire to learn and absorb information. Since young children learn best by doing, it is especially important to provide opportunities for them to engage in open-ended, hands-on activities. (61)

Part D of the Grade 1 Curriculum concerns the “Visual Arts”:

Grade 1 Arts - Overall Expectations

Grade 1 Arts – Overall Expectations (pg. 72)

There are a number of fundamental concepts outlined in the Arts curriculum as well:

Grade 1 Arts - Fundamental Concepts

Grade 1 Arts – Fundamental Concepts (pg. 72)

As a parent and as an educator my issue with paper hat activities and the like is that I do not see my daughter’s “self-expression” as it was not her idea or concept to create the paper hat. Since this was not an idea generated by her she is not demonstrating a creative process, nor is she able to apply principles of design in art when the shape of the ears, head band, eyes, nose, etc. are pre-cut and provided to her. She is not able to express her ideas, thoughts or feeling about Easter (in this instance) through the creation of the hat (as it really only puts the focus on the ‘Easter Bunny’) and she is not exploring various art forms, styles or techniques either. An activity such as this also doesn’t offer any exploration or understanding of other cultures, communities, or celebrations. As outlined above “students should be given a wide range of activities…that foster…development of inquiry and research skills as well as opportunities for self-expression.” Researching another culture and then creating a product individually relating to that culture without prescription or pre-design would be fabulous and link to Expectation D3.1 identify and describe visual art forms that they see in their home, at school, in their community, and in visual arts experiences and D3.2 demonstrate an awareness of a variety of works of art from diverse communities, times, and places (The Ontario Arts Curricula for Grades 1-8, pg. 74). This link (http://www.easterbunnys.net/easteraroundtheworld.htm) has great examples and information of Easter and how it is celebrated all over the world.

At no time, did I see a piece of work where Medea was reflecting or responding personally to her work, the holiday, or to the same of her peers. I should mention that other work that I saw at this time include coloured eggs, more rabbits, and some photocopied blackline masters. I also didn’t see any connection to technology in this, or many other activities. The arts curriculum is based on four central ideas – developing creativity, communicating, understanding culture, and making connections (The Ontario Arts Curricula for Grades 1-8, pg. 6). In regards to ‘Communicating’, students should be given opportunity to use new media and technology to produce art works and to convey thoughts, feelings, and ideas about art. Construction paper and the like has it’s place. I have tons of it at home and use it interchangeably. I am not advocating for the abolishment of paper. I am, however, advocating for an emphasis of ART over CRAFT and increased opportunities for our children to explore their creativity, their desire to learn, and their innate ability to do so through the outlet of artistic expression using a variety of tools and mediums including new media and technology.

Further, rich and engaging tasks for students that optimize opportunities for them to learn also include a cross-curricular approach where Art can be symbiotic with other subjects such as Language and Science.

So, as I wrap up this introductory post, I would like to discuss the amazing and more engaging project Medea created after her experience with the paper hat. It had obviously been burning in her all day – something that she couldn’t accomplish during her time at school. On this particular day in question, Medea came home from school, uttered her daily and classic “Hi, Dad” as she made a bee-line to her office. Without conversation or interaction, Medea was lost in her world of creativity and design. After about an hour (a bit more actually), she emerged from behind the couch with a little book for the Easter Bunny. She had cut paper into the shape of a small booklet, stapled the edges so that it would stay together in book form, and had written and illustrated a full story (with beginning, middle, and end). With pride, she read her story to her mother and me and, as always, we are in awe of what she is capable of. We didn’t not ask her to make us anything, we did not set the stage at all other than providing her with the environment, tools, and support she needs to tap that inner artist, author, inventor, playwright, and nurturer. After telling us her story, I mentioned that we could keep going with it and create a digital version of her story where she could take pictures, tell her story in her own words with voice over, discuss her process, and create a media product that could take her physical and tangible story (able to be shared with a few) and extend it into a digital story capable of being shared with many.

[jbox jbox_css=”border:6px solid #7c7c7c;padding-left:2em;” vgradient=”#dfdfdf|#ffffff” title=”To Be Continued…” radius=”10″ radius=”50″ shadow=”15″]Read Part 2 of my story to see the project that Medea created that incoporates all aspects of the Arts and Langauge (Writing and Media Literacy). She created a project that was certainly more engaging than a paper hat and demonstrative of so much learning that could provide an abundance of assessment data if completed contextually in class as part of her learning there. Below, I provide the overall expectations of Grade 1 Writing and Media Literacy to be reviewed with the above overall expectations of the Arts in mind. I will look at Medea’s creation within this framework.[/jbox]

Read:

Grade 1 - Writing

Grade 1 – Writing – Overall Expectations

 

Grade 1 - Media Literacy

Grade 1 – Media Literacy – Overall Expectations

2 Comments

  1. Jo-Ann C-H says:

    I just finished talking to one of my colleagues about us teachers needing to challenge our students and setting the bar high. So she send me this post to read. We need to be able to let go, give the students the ideas, the expectations and the criteria and let them fly. We need to let our students have more accountability for their reading. Too many of our students are sitting in the classroom completely disengaged from what is going on. They are getting the grades because it is what is expected of them but they are not truly learning. I cringe when I see so many students reach the intermediate level and can regurgitate the rule for solving problems but cannot tell me why or how the rule was develop; or only see manipulatives as toys because they are not accustom to using them in math class. We need to start remembering that we are here for our students not the other way around. I see myself as a guide. That is my job to coach, to guide, to model, to be an instructional leader so that we are all learning and developing together. Every day I learn new things from my students because they introduce me to a different way of seeing things. I AM A TEACHER AND I LOVE MY JOB.

    • Aaron Puley says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. I completely agree with your insights when you say “Too many of our students are sitting in the classroom completely disengaged from what is going on. They are getting the grades because it is what is expected of them but they are not truly learning.” As I mentioned in comment to Aviva, far too often, my daughter included, students jump the hoops we put in place for them to make us happy and to get through the day. “On task” does not equal engagement, for children of any age, as much as it equals compliance (http://adunsiger.com/2012/06/15/when-art-is-about-more-than-just-skill/#comment-5972). I love and relish challenging students, of any age, to take ownership of their learning and truly engage as active participants of it. Starting with the learning expectations for any task and giving students the opportunity to be active participants allows them to articulate what they are learning and why they are doing it. Rather than jumping a hoop or completing a task, they are actually learning – can articulate the learning, extend the learning, and apply the learning.

      As @learninghood mentioned, “It is truly awe inspiring when students see the curriculum and pick the pieces that they feel will help their learning……discussing the curriculum and trying to figure out how to meet expectations. They got a good sense of what a teacher really does… and ‘Why do we have to learn this?!?!’ became obsolete as they saw the how and why.” (http://adunsiger.com/2012/06/15/when-art-is-about-more-than-just-skill/#comment-5971)

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