Monday, August 29, 2005

Very Sharp Pencil. Too Much Eraser?

Just finished Sam Swope's I Am A Pencil, chronicling his time as a teaching artist with grammar school kids in New York City. It's a good read (you can find the first chapter here), and a valuable one if you are as interested in teaching artistry as I am. The book discusses many of the exercises that he does with one particular group of students, including a year-long one in his last year with them. It also highlighted for me some interesting issues about the concept of artist as teacher.

First, in the preface, he points out that he's corrected most of the children's poems and stories for grammar and spelling. And throughout the book, he provides evidence of his own examples of correcting them live in conversation. I have two small issues with this. Is it the role of the teaching artist to make such corrections? I regard the TA's primary task as infusing kids with energy and appreciation for the arts, and correction is at best neutral, and at worst counter to this. But this particular group of students were largely immigrants or first-gen Americans born to immigrant parents; should you reinforce "proper English" with these kids whenever the chance appears?

Because he spent three full school years with the same class, he got to know them well, and he discusses their personal issues in some detail, and his involvement with their lives and their young academic careers. I guess I was surprised at how much fifth graders were willing to discuss with Swope in his role, and how much he seemed to be able to influence them, and they him. One thing he alludes to but I don't think did very well was suspending his own feelings in trying to reach the kids. I think you need to be neutral-to-encouraging with a side of safety whenever you are dealing with children and you are not in a position of authority over them. By definition, the teaching artist is not the authority in a classroom; that's the teacher's job.

I Am A Pencil is definitely worth reading for a sense of the potential of and problems in the teaching artist's experience. You will learn a few new tips for teaching, but you'll learn much more about what writing and relationships can mean to children.

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