Effective urban educators are Innovative Practitioners who are able to demonstrate the ability to problem solve, develop ideas, and use creative methods.

This is Wayne State University’s general belief about what it means to be Innovative. However, as an Art Educator specifically, I find it difficult to separate the three listed abilities; one cannot problem-solve nor develop ideas without being creative. I might go so far as to say such processes are, ultimately, the very essence of Art.

Solving Problems Creatively

One of the most common problems a grade school art teacher runs into is how to do a demonstration all students can see. When it comes to things like drawing and painting, the teacher only has to have a large paper or canvas to work on. But not all materials can be scaled up. For projects involving small objects, I turned to the document reader. Perhaps because of their name, or the options given in document reader software such as HoverCam, people tend to think of document readers as something on which to show only flat things, when in truth they have no such limitation. Using the document reader allowed me to do demonstrations in real time with the same materials students would use. This way, students at the back of the room could see what I was doing onscreen, while students who preferred to observe the process directly could still do so. This is how I taught third graders how to tie a basic knot and how to weave on a small cardboard “loom.” Before incorporating the document reader, students were being taught one by one how to tie a knot, which cost a great deal of instructional time, and was more likely to lead to teachers tying the knot for the students rather than teaching them how to do it themselves. Using the document reader creatively helped me solve this common problem.

Developing Ideas Creatively

Solving problems and developing ideas often go hand in hand. After all, solving a problem is just developing an idea of how to make something better. I often come up with new projects by noticing that something could be improved. In the course of teaching students to tie a basic knot, I noticed that many, even in the upper elementary grades, did not have the ability to do different things with the fingers of the same hand. They could not, for example, hold a plastic weaving needle between their ring and pinky fingers while manipulating a string with their thumb, index, and middle fingers. So it occurred to me that a project such as making friendship bracelets, in which each string serves as both warp and weft, would afford students more opportunities to practice fine motor skills while building on their previous, basic weaving experience. I also thought of the game Cat’s Cradle, which requires a fair amount of dexterity even with the simpler figures.

When not developing ideas for the sake of problem solving, I tend to generate ideas from any and everything in my environment. My lesson on papel picado (Mexican cut paper) was inspired by an item a second grader gave to my mentor teacher: a series of small red rectangles with triangles cut along the length of their borders, taped together into one long 18-inch decoration. This showed me there was some interest, at least from one student, in creating such art objects; thus I decided to teach them the how and why of this folk craft. Perhaps the student who made that decoration had never actually seen papel picado and the resemblance was coincidental, but an open mind helps me connect dots in ways that generate new project ideas from the students’ own environment.

Innovating Accidentally

Sometimes, taking things from the classroom environment can generate new ideas by accident. My full-time high school student-teaching placement put me with a mentor teacher who taught four classes: Fashion Illustration, Jewelry, Fibers, and 3D Studio Art. I had zero experience making jewelry or textiles! Suffice to say I was worried about how I would eventually take over classes in disciplines I had no formal training in. But that lack of training created an interesting opportunity for innovation, unbeknownst to me.

In jewelry design, I later learned, it’s common practice to sketch ideas for pieces without the context of human forms. Given my independent study of Fashion Illustration, this never would have occurred to me. I always assumed jewelry designers drew jewelry on people the way fashion designers drew clothes on human figures. So when one day, early on in my practicum, my mentor teacher was out sick, I had a chance to do a mini lesson with the jewelry classes, and I made it about generating ideas by imaging the personalities of the people who would wear our jewelry, and actually illustrating them wearing it.

Most of the students loved this assignment; it was unlike anything they’d done in jewelry class so far. One even came into the studio on his lunch hour to work on his drawing a little bit more. But I didn’t think that I was doing anything special, much less innovative within the field of jewelry design. Honestly I was rather surprised that the lesson had gone over so well! After all, students are notorious for being unproductive when the regular teacher is out, and I had barely been in the school for a couple of weeks at that point.

Though I eventually learned this was an unorthodox approach to jewelry design, I do believe there are designs that probably just would not come about if the artist weren’t visualizing them on a model from the start. The drawing at left is one such example. I love the gentle curve and flow this student put into her choker, and how it nonetheless goes well with the pointier, more aggressive elements in the model’s other accessories and makeup. Would she have drawn this had she not been actively visualizing the roundness of the model’s neck, and her overall vibe?

If you would like to read and see more about this particular lesson, I have posted a few more samples of student work at this blog post, as well as my own sample images that I showed students.