I wipe my smudged hands on my apron, then with my index finger swirl the yellow and orange of the stars as they blaze against the vivid blues of the night sky. The classroom hums. The tables are covered with newspaper, pieces of colored chalk litter the tops, roll under chairs, form bright splashes where they are crushed into the carpet. We’re studying the Universe, no less, and each of us is busy making a chalk painting of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
On his way back from the water fountain, Kyle comes by to check my work. “How did you get the stars to spin like that?” he asks. Grinning, I make a circular motion in the air with my soiled index finger. “I’m going to try that, ‘cause my stars don’t look swirly.”
“I like the way it looks,” I say, “but I’m having trouble with this Cyprus tree. I can’t seem to get the colors dark enough.”
“I put a little black in mine,” says Kyle.
“That’s a good idea,” I say, taking up a black piece of chalk. Kyle watches while I dab on a bit in wispy lines then cover the black with green. “Hey, that worked Kyle. Thanks.” Kyle shrugs, gives me a humble smile, and heads back to his work, no doubt to share the smudged finger idea with his tablemates.
Shortly after Kyle’s visit to my table, Evangeline bounces up wearing her characteristic excited expression. “Ms O’Keefe,” she exclaims in that voice of hers. “Did you see Alita’s painting? It’s beautiful. You just gotta come over and see it!”
“I’m sure it’s very beautiful, Evangeline. I’ll be right over." Indeed Alita’s painting is extraordinary. Her artwork is the benchmark we use to measure our own and her hints and suggestions, willingly given, are helpful in improving or enhancing our work. “That is very lovely, Alita,” I say.
“Oh, thanks Ms O’Keefe, you know this is the kind of thing I do best,” she says, shifting her weight and tossing her black hair. “It beats spelling any day!”
When the “Starry Night” paintings are complete, I mount them on colored paper, label each with the artist’s name, and display them with several copies of the original on the walls of the classroom. The following morning as the children arrive, they study the display, looking for their version of the Starry Night.
Individuals comment to one another about their work; compliments are given and bashfully accepted. My work is there, too. It is technically superior to those of the other members of the class, but lacks the spontaneity and artless flair of the children's work. But my students and I now share more than a lovely display of paintings. We share learning that cannot be catalogued or measured, that in some ways cannot even be described, but which has enriched us individually and collectively.
Working along with the children has made me a better teacher and makes the children better students. By engaging in the lesson, project, or activity, I get immediate feedback about the efficacy of the assignments I plan, allowing me to modify and refine the work as we progress. When one of us uncovers a new piece of information, idea, insight or strategy, we can immediately apply it to our learning and alert others to do so as well. Children begin to articulate and be aware of their learning as it is happening. They begin to think about their thinking.
When I donned my paint spattered bunny apron and worked alongside the children in the Starry Night project, my participation raised the bar for their work. In addition to the usual teacher suggestions, hints, and directions, I modeled the behaviors necessary to create high quality work: perseverance, focus, follow through and enthusiasm. I modeled working through a thorny problem, sharing strategies, and knowing when to put the work away for another time. I modeled accepting that I am not Van Gogh (or Alita) while still taking pride in my accomplishments. I modeled making a mess and cleaning it up.
My students and I have shared the frustration and elation, the depth and breadth of experience inherent in the activity. Like looking into the wrong end of a funnel, an experience like the chalk painting opens to the alert observer the myriad ways a learner engages in the work; making decisions, making mistakes, discovering the possibilities and limitations of the materials, noticing what comes easily and what is difficult, solving problems, developing strategies, and the joy of being totally present and fully immersed in the doing.
An early mentor of mine referred to hands-on experiences like the Starry Night project as "messing about," and it is through this messing about that I have had a chance to experience the elementary education I believe in, but never had.
In the classrooms of my childhood, wooden desks with scarred lift tops were screwed to the floor in neat rows. The teacher's desk indicated the front of the room and the dusty blackboard was the focal point of our lessons. The slow ticking of the clock echoed in the enforced silence and the cursive alphabet and American flag constituted the sole efforts at interior decoration. The textbooks were well worn, our arithmetic and cursive practice was done on dun colored newsprint that invariably tore when one attempted to erase a mistake. Writing tools were limited to pencils and, on the rare occasions when color was needed, we each had a slim box of eight Crayola crayons.
In my own classroom, I've had the chance to inhabit a space where tables are routinely pushed aside and rearranged for activities, where displays of student work decorate the walls and counter tops, where shelves are filled with baskets of books, buckets of manipulatives, and a variety of tools for measuring, coloring, and geometric construction. And where the give and take of productive conversation forms the soundtrack of our learning.
Over the decades I have enjoyed a rich and varied curriculum, participating in assignments and activities that were unheard of, even inconceivable, in the classrooms of my youth. Where else would I have had the chance to build the Yellow Brick Road to Oz or create a time line of Woody Guthrie's life? It was as a student in my own classroom that I began to write about my experiences, discover the richness of children's literature, unravel the mysteries and beauty of mathematics in the natural world. This is where I've come to know myself as a learner, to realize and value what people of all ages have to teach me, and to get in touch with the creativity that went untapped during most of my formal education.
Working along with my students has improved the effectiveness of my instruction, helped my students think more deeply about their learning, and given me an opportunity to experience the education in which I passionately believe. In short, messing about has been the best practice I've discovered for teaching, for learning, and for self-discovery.