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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Talking to Students about Their Artwork No 3, 5768

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V’shinantam will be written by Cantor Cheré Campell, Educator at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. This series will focus on incorporating the arts into your Jewish classroom.

V’shinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim. In the Torah section you will find an essay, in Avodah, applications for your classroom, and in G’milut Chasadim additional resources.

Talking to Students about Their Artwork No 3, 5768

Setting the Stage for Art with Language

Although we’re working with art media in these lessons, the students are guided in their work by our use of words. How we as teachers speak to the students will have an enormous influence on the students’ abilities to express their creative ideas in an atmosphere of freedom and joy. Much of our children’s education emphasizes rational, direct, linear, logical thinking. We are using art to allow different facets of the child to flourish: the intuitive, the imaginative, the creative, the poetic. Therefore, we should choose words that will encourage children to express their creativity, originality and imagination through their art. A simple suggestion is to begin the lesson with a story. Stories can suggest to children’s imaginations inner pictures which can evolve into art. For example, read The Shabbat Lion and then ask students to create their own Shabbat animals, perhaps using incised printmaking with rolled ink.

At the same time that you will want to be clear with instructions regarding the parameters of the project and the use of materials, you want to leave the project open for each student to express him or herself. This is one of the biggest challenges in talking about art and using your words to set the appropriate stage. While you demonstrate, be clear that students should not try to imitate your work. You might say to the students, “As you watch me, think about how you would like to use this paint (or clay, or shiny paper, etc.). This is just my experiment; you will explore the materials for yourself.” Give permission to the students by reiterating this idea: “We may all be using paint and paper, but each of us will make a painting that is individual and different from anyone else’s.” Once you’ve demonstrated the use of materials, try asking, “What questions do you have about the materials or about what you’re going to do with the materials?” Then let them experiment. If students ask questions like, “How do I make green?” try encouraging experimentation by asking “Dark green or light green? Which paints already remind you of green?” Let them try a few color mixtures on paper, and guide them to add colors that will lead to green.

Your directions should be clear, but sometimes as students envision using or start to use materials, they find they have questions. If several students ask questions at the start of the project, answer those questions for the whole class. If at some point during the project, the entire class seems unsure, stop the project and clarify. Otherwise, you can answer questions individually.

When you are giving directions, keep in mind that while some students will tackle the project one step at a time, others will imagine the entire project at once. You can allow for both approaches by giving both kinds of instruction. For example, go over the steps: “Cover the entire sheet of paper with the smudged, blended chalk,” or “This project will have several steps: first we’ll paint a background in several colors, then we’ll glue the photos and paper shapes, then we’ll wash over the whole thing in very faint white.” On the other hand, you can also present the art project as a problem to solve. Presenting a project this way would sound more like this: “If you wanted to paint Shabbat peace, what colors would you use? What textures would you use?”

Choosing the right kind of project is equally important in creating this kind of experimental, expressive atmosphere. Rather than making a tzedakah box or even copying the style of Chagall, try to choose projects that are open-ended and rely chiefly on a student’s expression of his or her own Jewish ideas. Some examples follow.

  • Your experience of sh’lom bayit, expressed with paper and fabric collage
  • The significance of the seven species of the land of Israel, represented by designing Israeli stamps with pastels
  • A poetic expression of leaving Egypt (Mitzrayim, picking up on the root which means “narrow places”), using geometric shapes of colored paper
  • Designing a Magic Tool Box to heal the world, expressed with color pencils
  • Depicting your personal miracles in celebration of Chanukah, expressed as a window to your own room
  • A Purim front page of a newspaper, created with felt pens and watercolor wash

Using Words in the Creative Process and in Giving Feedback

While students are working and when they have completed their artwork, they will look to you for feedback and encouragement. Below are some suggestions for the best way to respond.

1. Focus. Students generally concentrate while they are making art. They may chat with one another, but often they will be quietly absorbed in their creation. If you find your students are talking more than they are working, try bringing them back in focus by asking the group, “What can I help you with?” or “What are your questions so far?” Another way to bring the class back to the project if they are distracted is to stimulate their imaginations. You can ask, “What is Mordecai thinking here? How does the food smell which Esther served at the banquet? What color is Haman’s cloak?”

2. Encouragement. While students are working, give them space by watching them from a short distance away. Try to find a moment when you can speak to each student without interrupting their concentration, such as when they pause to look at their work before deciding the next step. You can give encouragement without directly talking about the artwork by appreciating of how involved the student is in his or her work, or noting that s/he seems to be enjoying creating. If a student seems stuck, ask, “Can I help you with anything,” but do not add your hand to their work. One way to be helpful without touching the students’ work is to approach an object that students are drawing and show them relative size or shapes. You can hold up your hands as a comparison, or ask them to compare parts of the same object: “How does the width of the etzei chayim compare to the width of the parchment?”

3. Open-ended observations. Do not approach students and try to interpret their work by saying things like, “That looks like a house,” “I like your drawing of a dog!” or “What is that?” Instead state what you see: “I see that you’ve used many shades of blue here,” or “I see that you have put a lot of light into this painting” or “I see this part of the page you have made very full, and this part very open.” Avoid saying whether you like something or not, or whether you think a piece is pretty. Again, use specific but non-judgmental observations, such as, “These lines are thick and dark; these lines are lighter. You worked carefully to make these different kinds of lines.”

4. Motivation. You can inspire students to enhance or expand their artwork by responding to their works in progress. Avoid yes-no questions, or any questions that suggest you are looking for a specific answer. Instead, help them to find the answers within themselves. Ask, “What could you do here?” If the students are working in clay or sculpture, ask them to hold up the piece so that you and they can look at it from every angle. Encourage them to take a step back from their work, and ask them what they see. You can even post open-ended questions around the room. Students can look at these while they are working to help generate ideas. Some students will finish their work quickly; you might ask them to develop part of their work further by saying things like, “This part is special. What could you add to this part?” or “What other ways can you think of to show your ideas? What other ideas come to you?”

5. Mistakes. If students ask, “Is this right?” you can use the moment to encourage them to be expressive in using the materials. Within the boundaries of the project, anything is “correct.” If students want to start over, encourage them to transform what they have done. Tell them that artists virtually always make mistakes. Because they are not controlled, sometimes mistakes are the best part of the artwork. Mistakes can give an artist a new idea to try out. A good activity is giving students a “mistake” picture to transform into a new idea. You may also provide extra paper or clay to try out ideas on a smaller scale.

6. The Finished Product. When the project is complete, spend time appreciating each student’s work. Suggest that their families will appreciate seeing it when they take it home, or ask if you can display it in the school. Let each student know that you noticed and appreciated what she or he did. Don’t expect a verbal explanation from a student about his or her work; the artwork is the medium they used to express their ideas. Rather than asking a student to explain his or her piece, you can ask, “Does this piece have a story?” Have students show each other their work. Emphasize how distinctive each student’s interpretation is and cultivate mutual appreciation in the class. When you praise a student, make it specific to that student, such as, “You have really concentrated on your work. You have put something unique from yourself into this work.”

Additional Resources

Complete lesson plans, images and background information as well as questions to ask the students at various points in a project

The J. Paul Getty Museum’s “Guide to Creating Visual Art Lessons”

A searchable bank of lessons from the National Arts and Education Network

Ideas for stimulating creative thinking in your classroom

More tips on talking to students about art

The Art of Teaching Art to Children: In School and at Home by Nancy Beal and Gloria Bley Miller

How to Teach Art to Children / Grades 1-6 by Joy Evans and Tanya Skelton

Hooked on Art!: 265 Ready-To-Use Activities in 7 Exciting Media by Jenean Romberg

Doing Art Together by Muriel Silberstein-Storfer

Art for the Fun of It: A Guide for Teaching Young Children by Peggy Davison Jenkins

The Creative Spirit by Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray

(See especially Chapter 2: Creativity in Children)

Growing Artists: Teaching Art To Young Children by Joan Bouza Koster

Teaching Art to Young Children 4-9 by Robert Barnes


I am grateful to have collaborated with several outstanding artist-teachers in developing these ideas and projects. I send my profound and continuing thanks to Jean Campbell, Hana Elwell, Wendy Grinberg, Jesse Lockard, Jennifer Miller, Elisheva Moch and James Sondow.

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