On Purpose and Mixed Messages

2014-02-26 16.34.31




2014-02-25 12.21.01


A few weeks ago I taught a lesson on Kandinsky. The lesson focused on stuff like line and primary colors. We made black lines of various sorts like wavy, straight, zig-zag, and swirly and then painted red, yellow, and blue in the empty space around the black lines trying not to mix the colors.

In a few other classes during that same time period we made African Necklaces out of the rim of a cut up paper plate. The kids created patterns on the grooved edge.

One of the main lessons I tried to communicate to both groups of students was how to be careful when making art. In my opinion “Scribble Scrabble” is the scourge of the pre-k art room.

Ha, scribble-scrabble, get it!?
Ha, scribble-scrabble, get it!?

The art work looks un-thoughtful, the kids finish their work in no time at all and, most importantly, they learn nothing. They scribble and then hold their work up and say “I’m done!” It drives me insane. It turns their art projects into tasks to complete instead of a creative process involving thought. So while working on these projects in class I proceeded to talk with them about how to be careful when they paint.

I found it interesting that the only concept of “on purpose” that these kids knew was bad. What does on purpose mean to pre-k kids? It means “when you get in trouble and have to go to time out.” Or it means “when you hit someone and get in trouble.”

Even the older end of the age spectrum that I teach have trouble with “on purpose,” for instance, one of my six year olds told me “on purpose means that you do it on purpose.” She knows what it means but she couldn’t explain it. The way I cleared this word up for my kids is that on purpose means you meant to do it. I started telling them you want to paint on purpose in a good way and the way you do that is by slowing down.

If they paint too fast they will accidentally mix the colors but if they paint on purpose then they will be able to keep the colors separate.  The same with the necklaces, if they paint too fast there will be no pattern and the colors will just become muddied but if they paint on purpose they can make beautiful  patterns and their colors will stay bright.

Teaching art is never just about teaching art. When planning these lessons I knew for sure I was going to teach vocabulary words such as pattern making, primary colors, line, vertical, and diagonal. I had no idea that the concept of “on purpose” was going to come up. Art is rich with incidental learning and it’s difficult to anticipate what amazing possibilities even the most canned lessons can bring about. These children learned things about art but they also learned about patience, attention, and diligence.

There are a few other words that, in my opinion, are very important to art education but have negative connotations. Criticism is another one I’ve discovered that has mostly bad connotations but can mean good things.

In dance I’ve found myself in exactly the same scenario except instead of with young children it is with adults. That shows me this is not just an issue of sophistication.


For instance I got into a discussion about the word “frame” recently with a fellow dance teacher. I was talking about the patterns that me and my teaching partner were going to go over in class and I brought up that I was going to be talking a lot about frame. This sent up a red flag with him because he was viewing frame as having to do with stiff arms like the frame of a house which can make a person’s dancing unpleasant and unresponsive. That is one way to view frame just like punishment DOES sometimes follow something being done “on purpose”. But again that is not the only aspect of it that we can focus on. I was using frame in a different way that involved how to hold your body in order to keep its integrity when moving through the dance and how it can improve responsive movement which ended up being more in line with what he valued, he just didn’t use the word frame to describe any of that.

On purpose, criticism, and frame all have multiple meanings and are all part of an unseemingly complex vocabulary I use frequently with many different people.  Are there any words you’ve found are important for what you’re trying to teach but that have a bad reputation?

And how do you help students overcome scribbling?


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