Ken would prepare for his class weeks ahead of time, carefully experimenting and planning. He would know every demonstration he was going to do each week because he did the projects ahead of time. He used his examples and other examples from past classes to show the students what he expected.
When I met Ken I had been teaching middle school and high school art for about four years. I would come to the print shop early and start my work and he would be there, nervously planning and setting up his presentation. I looked at him with amazement, and I said, “Hey Ken what are you doing? What’s up with the 3x5 cards and all the preparation? You could do this in your sleep. Thirty years and you still have to plan like this?” He never gave me a hard time. He just said, “I need to be able to show and tell the students what I am expecting. I need to know my directions will point them to success. I need to prepare because I am not perfect and I know it.” That shut me up.
Later, I was teaching freshman Lithography. Ken inspired me to write up the process with pictures and have examples ready to show so that the students could see the amazing things that were possible. I worked really hard, way harder than the art school kids that were paying $4000 to take my class. Now I realize that I should have worked harder than the students. It was my job to reach my students, not just show them art, but to reach inside their heads and get them to do some cool work.
Ken was a humble guy. He was insecure that he wasn’t good enough, and that served him well. He was a great artist, but just because he knew the subject matter did not mean he stopped coming up with new ways to teach students to learn how to make art. Content knowledge is important, but on the same level is the teacher’s desire to reach and connect with the student. “Our job,” Ken said, “is to get the kids to love to learn, and to keep experimenting.”
Ken was so supportive of me in my art and in my teaching. He died in 2003 but I feel like I am teaching his way. I always do the project first, so I can see the pitfalls and variables and know when students will need help. And I never think, “I don’t need to plan because I know more than my students.”
If you’re reading this and you are a humanities teacher, math teacher or a science teacher, I hope that you see the relevance of this story. Write that ten-page paper on your personal identity. Was it fun? When you finished it, was it interesting to read? If yes, that is great. Do the project or paper you want students to do, and then share what you created with them. If it was a drag, don’t submit your students to it.
I don’t have the students make color wheels anymore. First, no matter how cool it looks they don’t want to keep it. I have stacks of old color wheels. It was my assignment, not their project. Next, it is a flat concept. It is hard to understand why it is a good exercise to the novice; it is more just a vehicle of frustration. Finally, on-the-job training, or applying something in context, is much more effective than an exercise in a vacuum.
Instead I have the students use Photoshop to re-specify an image using the color picker and the paint dump tools.
This assignment gets the students to use Photoshop, teaches them values and hues, and gives them a great image to print and take home or to make into their first painting. They are proud of their work and they have fun doing it.
When I hear people say, “Why reinvent the wheel?” I think, “Because the wheel is plain and boring.” As teachers we need to remember the bad old days of our education and endeavor not to put our students through it too.
Ken would say if your students did “shitty work” it was the teacher’s fault. I agree, mostly. Every subject area needs to be sticky, engaging and exciting. We are lucky at High Tech High that we can customize our classes for the round peg in the square classroom. That is our job, and our burden sometimes.
One of my favorite things Ken ever taught me was the value of stupidity. He would say, “That painting is stupid, I love it! I want to try that too.” I think what he meant was that some things so obviously work. You did not think. You just did it and it looks really cool. At critiques students would say, “I love your work. It is so stupid.” It was like he reclaimed a putdown into a positive.
We had this critique with some students from UC Davis and one of the graduate students from our class commented how stupid all of their art was. The UC Davis students were very offended, and then tickled about the misunderstanding. I like to tell this story just for the hell of it, but I think it is a window into Ken’s genius. Never believe you are the best and that you are the sole oracle of information in your classroom. Always try to improve and don’t sit on your butt. Do the assignment with the students. It all seems obvious, almost stupid, to me now.