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Coaching the Arts

John Caddy


You don’t teach art, you coach art. You focus on process more than result. You guide people in useful ways to help them celebrate and interpret their life experience.

Art and the act of self-expression are keys to the human heart.

It is in self-expression that the power of art-making is felt by children.

Give me the heart and the mind will follow.

Making art will recruit children’s hearts.
Most art-making is automatically expressive of the emotions of its creator. If I attempt a poem, for example, it is unlikely to become one unless it communicates something of what is in my heart. If I paint a canvas realistically, it will not an be exact copy of reality, but it will be my interpretation of what I am seeing—colors, shapes, textures will all be filtered through my eyes and my feelings.

Self-expression means making art out of direct personal experience. We all need to express our selves—that is, we all need to somehow let the world know how we feel about things.

When we express powerfully, we feel better—we are motivated to continue. When we make art, we do express powerfully.

In Morning Earth, the purpose of making the art personal is simple: The love of Earth must be based in kids’ personal connections to Earth. If love isn’t personal, it won’t make a difference.

The single most important thing a teacher can do for kids when asking them to make art is to let them know that you know they can do it.

As a forty-year residency artist I have learned that the ability to make art in many forms is inherent in all of us. It is wired in. Children don’t know that only geniuses are supposed to be able to make art. After working with kids for a time making art, you will find that they can not only write ‘passable’ poems and make ‘pretty good’ pictures, but that they continually astound both you and themselves with the excellence of their creations.

When kids make art, they are not incomplete persons practicing for the real thing. They are working artists.

Let Kids Critique Kids?

Go easy on the idea that a kid’s personal art is a good subject for the rest of the class to practice critiquing skills on. Few kids are kind enough and careful enough to pull it off.
Teach criticism using as subjects your own original work? Wouldn’t think of it? Then don’t do it to kids.
Kids are routinely damaged by this process so often justified as teaching ‘critical thinking.’ What works is to recognize that emotions are heavily invested in personal expression, and that responses should be gentle and affirmative.

“I-Reference” Your Responses

Don’t lie! Don't fib. Well meant "white lies" are destructive. Don’t say “That’s nice, dear,” when you don’t mean it. You are not Mom. You are Coach. Don’t praise what you don’t admire. Do praise what you can--a well chosen word, a rhythm, a color wash, a line, a performed movement.

Instead of automatically praising, respond as your self, not a judge, not an expert, just you. It is a joy for a teacher to lay down the burden of judging everything.

If you “I-reference” your response, you and the student will minimize risk.

“I-referencing” is a way of owning your responses honestly, without having to have expertise. For example:

• When I read (or look at) this part, I feel…
(Lets the artist know how the work affects one person emotionally)

• When I read (or hear) this part, I see… (Lets a writer know what pictures a description or action passage creates, or fails to create, in one reader’s mind.)

• When I read this (look at this), I get confused . . . .
(Begins useful process for writer, who has the option always of ‘checking it out’ with other readers, to see if they have the same problem.)

• I liked this part—it was so much fun I wanted it to go on longer.

• When I’m “here”—at this point—how do you want me to be feeling? What do you want me to be seeing?

You do not ‘correct’ art. If you set out to correct art, that means you know what it should be. You don’t and can’t.

Do be alert to every opportunity to praise some aspect of the work—but again, never lie. Kids are people who survive day-to-day by “reading” adults, and they’re very good at it.

“I can do that!”

Your task when you present an art-making activity to a class is to make every student feel “I can do that!” Speak to every kind of intelligence.

You need to talk about it for some, give directions for some, present examples for some.

In teaching poetry, a variety of examples gives kids “syntactic models” that are quickly absorbed by the mind as patterns that could be used in building the poem. This is mostly an out-of-awareness process. Don’t worry about making it conscious.

Do it Your Way

1. Praise students for going off in their own directions.

Tell kids that once they start off working in a direction, and find themselves thinking, “I wonder if this is right? I wonder if this is what she wants?” they should remind themselves that what she wants is that you express it your way.

Tell kids that art is never right or wrong, but that some is more effective for an audience than others. Some art meets the artistic challenge of communication more effectively than others.

2. Your adaptation of these tips to your classroom is crucial. Take what you can use, ignore what you cannot. It’s your class, your kids.

3. Making art requires a lot of improvising and experimentation. The teacher, when demonstrating a process or making her own art with kids, should be an experimenter.

When you experiment, you do not have to be wonderful. You are not required to succeed.

It frees up students enormously to see a teacher risking her creativity just like them.