Friday, November 11, 2016

Tales From the Schoolyard...Cave Painting

My school is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, which is a program of study that emphasizes a global approach to learning. IB schools, for example, must offer 2nd language instruction (our school offers Russian and Spanish) to encourage bilingualism. Units of study are developed by teachers to reflect this global approach to learning while also staying true to whatever local standards and curriculum exists (in our case, California State Standards).

This year, as we roll out the IB program in our middle school, I'm building units of my own...and my first one is a unit for my 6th grade art class on Ancient Art. They study ancient civilizations in 6th grade Social Studies, so I figured it would be cool to give them some exposure to the art these people left behind.

While pre-history is not a part of their curriculum, I decided to include the cave paintings of Lascaux because these paintings point to some of the earliest examples of culture being developed. Plus...they're just really cool.

So a week-and-a-half ago, armed with lots of ideas, I started my very first IB unit by turning on my doc camera and reading a short book about the discovery of the Lascaux caves in 1940 to my students.

"That's a 4th grade book!!" called out one indignant student in 6B. 

"Yes..." I replied with a sigh. "But if I found a book at your level, it would take forever to read it to you, and we'd have less time for doing actual art work."


"Yeah, so just relax and enjoy the story."

After reading, I gave them a worksheet about the caves and we watched a short video of Rick Steves on a visit to Lascaux. The original caves are sealed off, after twenty-odd years of tourism started to ruin the paintings. A full reproduction has been built nearby, though. 

I read one question on the worksheet out loud to the students of 6A. "Why do you think these people painted the caves?"

In answer, I received dead silence and blank stares.

Hmm, I thought. Then: "Okay...this isn't going to leave this room, I promise. But how many of you have graffiti'd something you shouldn't have?"

First, incredulous looks, followed by a couple of bold hands. I smiled at them. A moment later, a few more hands started to tentatively raise, and I grinned even more. More than half the room admitted to it.

"I won't tell. I don't condone it, but this is just a question to help you understand., why did you do it?"

"I was bored..." replied one student. More hands went up. "Yeah, me too--I was bored."

"Okay, fair enough...any other reasons?"

Finally, another hand went up. I called on her.

"I wanted people to know I'd been there."

"YES! See...everyone wants to know that they mattered, that their lives had meaning. It's why we create art, or write books, or make songs. Because what's going to happen to all of us?"

"We're going to die."

"Yes, eventually. And all humans want to know that they have left some sort of mark on the world that will exist when they are gone." 

It was so amazing to see their faces light up with understanding.

We spent the rest of that lesson sketching some of the animal images that are in the Lascaux caves.

On Monday and Tuesday this week (I see 6B on M/W and 6A on T/Th, for about 90 minutes each lesson), I gave each student a cut-up piece of paper bag and some chalks...and we went for it.

I don't yet have pictures of their final products--it was a hectic week (and an emotional one), and they are sitting in bins on my desk waiting to be graded.

For this unit, I'm aiming to find a modern equivalent for each ancient art form we study. Cave art leads quite naturally to graffiti, so on Wednesday and Thursday this week, I showed the students some pictures I've taken over the years of graffiti and street art (believe me, I looked closely at every single image to make sure there was no naughty language!!). We discussed the difference between graffiti (usually done without permission) and street art (usually done with permission) and I gave my "I don't condone graffiti!!" spiel.

In 6B, one boy's eyes lit up, and his hand shot in the air, when I said, "Here's what we're doing today...yes, D?"

"Are we doing graffiti?"

"Why yes...only I'm calling it Contemporary Cave Art."

While they got started on that, I got two volunteers to oversee a whole-class project--our very own wall of hands like one in Lascaux.

Before class, I taped a large piece of brown butcher paper on the wall outside my room. As the kids came in, they could see it, with two outlines of my hand painted with (very drippy) brown tempura.

Before long, my volunteer had kids coming out two at a time to add their hands. She was great--coming in and yelling, "Okay, [name] and [name], it's your turn!!" She made sure there was no paint dripping on the walls.

Every once in a while, I stepped out to monitor things, and it was going swimmingly.

...And a bit drippily.

On Thursday, 6A added their hand prints, and now we have a delightfully odd wall of hands on display, which most of the school has to walk past when going to recess.

Meanwhile, inside the room, there was a hum of happiness as my students drew their names, or words like "love" and "hope" in graffiti letters and blew across marker tips to get a spray paint effect.

I took a few pictures during the process, as students finished up.

The kids have begged for more time to finish their graffiti art next week, so I'll adjust my unit a little to give it to them. Next up is Aztec suns, made from terra cotta clay.

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