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Imagine That: The Serious Business of Having Fun in the Art Classroom

Art education teacher Cibyl E. Kavan draws on her imagination, current events, and her wide-ranging knowledge of fellow artists to light the creative sparks in her young students.

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A mural inspired by the art of Yayoi Kusama, created collaboratively by Cibyl Kavan’s students. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

Cibyl E. Kavan earned her B.A. in Literature late in the last century, studied lots of visual art, some music, and clowning with various teachers and mentors from 1990 on, and received her M.Ed. in 2010. She began teaching artist (TA) training with Young Audiences in 2015 and followed that up in 2016 with intermediate level TA training at Lincoln Center in New York City. She has taught art to both children and adults. In 2018 Kavan was hired as the art teacher at the elementary school in Portland, Oregon, where she still works today.

Kavan shares the fun, and the challenges, of engaging children’s imagination and helping them explore their creativity and their world through art and craft. She explains how she builds her unique art curriculum for children from kindergarten through 8th grade, based on what she calls radical creativity.

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Have you ever heard of National Whale Day? I certainly hadn’t until this February … February 19th, to be exact! We were right in the middle of our Black History Month art lessons and my kindergarten students were between projects. We’d finished earlier than I’d expected and I found myself casting about for another, one-day project that would fill the gap and be fun and easy.


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

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As luck would have it, I stumbled across National Whale Day, and, presto-pronto, a full mental download occurred about a possible project. I found a short video about whales, curated a selection of paint in a range of blues and grays, and a pod of adorable whale crowns were finished in time for my littlest students to take home to celebrate National Whale Day with their families that Sunday. 

Jellyfish lanterns, lit from within. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.
Jellyfish lanterns, lit from within. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

I relate this particular story of a relatively spontaneously unfolding art project as one to contrast to the carefully planned curriculum I’ve been developing over the past six years as a full-time art teacher in a kindergarten through 8th grade school in Portland. My arts curriculum is a blend of carefully researched projects that address a number of different topics in visual art, from the elements of art and principles of design to a regular sketchbook practice for older students. We have a balance of multi-week projects with a featured artist or culture inspiring the work; or a particular technique; or a genre of art such as bookmaking or watercolor resist. I also include one-day projects sprinkled throughout the year, plus art game days, and free choice days.

Students work together on drawings and sculptures from a lesson drawn from the works of traditional craft artist Martin Puryear. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.
Students work together on drawings and sculptures for a lesson drawn from the works of traditional craft artist Martin Puryear. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

My Curriculum: Multicultural, Global, LGBTQ+ Positive, Historical, Contemporary 

The curriculum I’ve built attempts to address — through a variety of art lessons and analyses of featured artists — a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens that toggles back and forth between historical developments in the arts, contemporary artists, and art-making. I’m very passionate about amplifying the DEI lens in my art room. As an arts educator, I feel it is vital to expose the children to as diverse a palette of artists, cultural traditions of craft and making, contemporary artists, and methods of making as possible. But I also carefully curate the projects to be developmentally appropriate. For instance, I might introduce my middle school students to Kara Walker and her silhouette paper cutouts, the intellectual components that undergird the work within the greater context of Black history and the traditional craft of paper-cutting.

Student portraits of Frida Kahlo, the mid-century Mexican self-portraitist. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

By the same token, I’ve developed watercolor and drawing projects for my kindergarten students around the picture book Call Me Tree by Maya Christina Gonzalez that gently introduces an LGBTQ perspective from a Latina illustrator and author, and celebrates the uniqueness of each child. 

Last year I introduced my older elementary students to the work of Joaquin Torres Garcia, a mid-20th century artist from Uruguay. During our observational analysis of his work before we began constructing paintings inspired by Torres Garcia, a child commented that his work reminded them of Pablo Picasso. It was thrilling to have a child make connections on their own to someone more well known, even though I rarely introduce Picasso’s work just because he is so very well known.

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Student paintings by inspired by the work of Joaquin Torres Garcia. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

I think it can be easier to teach art or teach about artists with whom people are already fairly familiar. The resources are more accessible or readily available, or the art exists in common through calendars, posters, notebooks, and tote bags. But I feel that part of my job as an arts educator is to find artists or art practices that open up the vast world of art, a world that is not always confined or defined by institutional gatekeepers and biases. Those biases are already an embedded part of the fine arts zeitgeist that the children swim in, even if they don’t know it completely yet. I have a unique opportunity to shape my students’ experience of art with the widest possible lens through which they have the opportunity to perhaps relate to themselves as artists, because the contexts I offer have so many different touchstones.

Here’s a brief, but incomplete, list of artists and traditional arts I’ve explored with my students over the past six years. I invite you to check them out, too.:

Arts and the Mind: Teaching Skills, Bridging Content Areas, Integrating Academic Fields

Within this macro framework, I research both featured artists and techniques to explore for each month of the school year. I try to develop a balance of mediums, including painting, textiles, ceramics, printmaking, drawing, and sculpture, as well as introduce the students to both historical and contemporary artists working in any of these mediums. 

In one project I developed called “Renaissance Workshop,” we studied the apprentice-based learning model, including notable Renaissance and later women artists, and then discussed the barriers often faced by women and girls during this time period. Then we dove into grinding our own pigments, made egg tempera paint and our own vegan “gesso”. We then prepared our paper or other substrate, such as wood panels, with our homemade gesso and egg tempura, created our sketches, our underpaintings, and, finally, our finished paintings. 

In my research, sometimes a specific artist drives the choice of medium to explore, while other times I have a strong sense of a medium that I feel the students could benefit from learning about, and then I find an artist who works in that medium. My first research tool is Google, but I also rely on Art of Education University Flex Curriculum and several other art teachers for inspiration. As I’ve gained confidence and experience as a teacher, I’ve learned how to also create a dynamic balance between art as an authentic academic subject with intention and purpose, and art as a playful, joyful experience that can bring meaning, value, and insight to life even if one’s intention is not to become an artist. More on this a bit later.

One set of criteria that informs not only the art content that I teach, but also the “how” of my teaching practice, is the rubric of skills and habits of mind called 21st Century Skills and 16 Habits of Mind. The art room is a particularly rich environment for practicing persistence, deepening creativity, developing flexibility, learning to work collaboratively, and taking responsible risks.  

Cave painting by candlelight.
Cave painting by candlelight. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

The school year also provides many opportunities for collaborations between myself and other faculty or Right Brain Initiative teaching artists. These might emerge organically in the school year or as part of a planned arts integration into academic content areas. For example, if students are studying and researching ancient cultures, I might introduce an immersive cave-painting experience in the art room, complete with charred wood, a “campfire,” ochre and white pigments, painting by candlelight in a darkened room, and drumming and chanting music in the background.

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I also leave room in the curriculum for two STEAM  (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) projects. We might explore macro composition, optical illusions, one or more perspective drawing, cityscape arrays, botanical illustration from direct observation of specimens and correct botanical nomenclature, 3-D animal or insect sculptures or relief, drawing to whale songs, or paper airplane construction and test flights. 

Drawing spirals inspired by the work of the painter, printmaker, and sculpture Louise Bourgeois. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.
Drawing spirals inspired by the work of the painter, printmaker, and sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

Arts and the Heart: Cultivating Joy, Supporting Resilience

Although I strongly believe in the academic value and practical skills that are part of arts learning, I am an equally passionate advocate for art learning as joyful, fun, and playful. The last thing I want to leave the children with is a sense that art is always and only a serious endeavor, and that they have to do x, y, and z to get a good grade or realize some adult-defined objectives. 

Kavan occasionally gives her students days where their creativity is left to their imagination and the materials available. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

So I throw in art games from time to time that help keep the art room a lively and playful place. We sometimes play commercial art games that I adapt to a classroom setting, or games I’ve found from other art teaching resources. I’ve also designed several art games on my own, such as  “Frolic: The Village Building Game.” Students are divided into teams, given 12-14 architectural building templates, tape, scissors, markers and colored pencils, and LED candles. They have 45 minutes to construct as many buildings as they can. The buildings have to be colorful, neatly cut out, sturdily taped, and lit. Other games I’ve created for younger students include “Contruct-O-Magic,” involving only colored construction paper and colored masking tape, and “Monsters, INK,” involving only ink pens, paper, and timed drawing prompts to draw wacky monsters. 

While there are most definitely some “stealth” art lessons and art standard connections embedded in the art games, my primary objective is to create an environment where joy, pleasure, silliness, and cooperative play are paramount. I believe making art for the sheer pleasure of it, for the wackiness of it, for the non-purpose of it, helps build capacity in young people to have well-resourced and resilient hearts. I know in my own experience as an artist that when I get too serious or too invested in particular outcomes, my making and creativity can actually suffer, including a visit from the pesky inner critic!

I often begin the year by asking the children something like this: “Who here has ever had a weird, mean voice inside their head telling them that they’re terrible at art, they can’t do anything creative, etc. etc…? Raise your hand, if you know what I’m talking about.” It’s always surprising to me that even very young people know this inner critic voice. I also raise my hand and explain to them that this voice is a normal part of our minds, but sometimes it tries to run the show, especially in the art room, where we might be shy or vulnerable about sharing or showing our creativity. Helping to name, normalize, and provide strategies for working with the inner critic helps the children feel safe in the art room. When they feel safe, both inside themselves and in the supportive environment, they are more able to engage, explore, express, and stretch themselves creatively. 

Handmade accordion books become individual sculptures. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.
Handmade accordion books become individual sculptures. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

The Art of Teaching Art

At the beginning of a new project, I vary how we begin. Sometimes, I might show a video of a featured artist, followed by projected examples of their work either from the artist’s website or Google images. We’ll do some observational thinking, exploring what we notice, what the artist might be trying to convey, and eliciting connections between what we’re seeing for maybe the first time and our prior knowledge. This can be particularly useful when we are studying a traditional art such as Mexican suns or Alebrijes, because the cultural context and imagery inspire and orient the children in the direction to go or the context of what or who or why a particular art form emerges in that culture.

A Cochiti Pueblo tribe storytelling figure. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

Other times, I will launch into the medium we’re exploring, with some basic how to’s, and then on the second or third week of the project, introduce the featured artist with an observational thinking process. This approach can elicit some really profound connections and “aha” moments as the students authentically understand from their own experience the pleasures and sometimes frustrations that any medium inevitably presents. 

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Not only do I teach how to make art, I also teach the children how to talk about art, both theirs and others. We practice observational thinking strategies when analyzing artwork made by others. This involves a series of concrete, specific questions that guide the children into a deeper engagement with what they are seeing. We also practice how to speak to and about each other’s work, such as, “I like how you used ( fill in the blank),” or “Can you tell me more about what you were thinking here?” With the ages that I teach, kindness and curiosity guide our language about art, rather than critique or criticism.

There’s always room for “one-off” lessons, or student requests such as paper airplanes, or whole school collaborative projects, such as the Dot project or paper quilts, miniature ombre self portraits, Sumi Ink Club, and InkTober. We sometimes have guided drawing practices around basic art concepts such as perspective or texture, pattern, shading, or buildings or animals (the younger children especially love learning how to draw animals). I also include free draw, or set up the art room adapting some of the principles of TAB (teaching to artistic behaviors). These days in the art room are a huge hit with the children, and give me more of a chance to sit and chat with different groups of children while drawing or creating companionably alongside them.

The Dot Project, inspired by Peter Reynolds’ popular book. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

I also have annual projects such as Corn Husk Dolly making that happens the week before Fall Break, or lantern-making for our Festival of Light. The last week before Winter Break we often make paper toys, ranging from paper dolls to flip books or anything that has to do with early animation. This past year was our Second Annual Kindergarten Magic Castle building project, where my students use tempera paint on all manner of small boxes, tubes, and other assorted found cardboard, and then the following week, construct “magic” castles with plenty of colored masking tape and castle “bling” such as silk flowers, leaves, and shells. 

The Pandemic

I really have three important takeaways from teaching during the pandemic. First, we never stopped making art! Every student, every class, every grade had art once a week for the entire year and a half we were in online school. We drew, painted, made ceramic bowls, made corn husk dollies, made a collaborative installation, made land art and fairy houses, learned how to make our own paints, and much, much more!

Second, I learned a massive amount of educational technology and how to create dynamic, engaging slide shows with my own avatar, as well as how to use Google Classroom/Meet experiences with guest artists, websites, film and music festivals, online art galleries, and school-wide digital portfolios.

Lastly, although my data is very informal and really only from a very small sample size, my students actually gained in art skills, art explorations, and arts confidence. They spent that year and half making a LOT of art, even if some of them experienced academic losses in other subject areas. I’m very proud of them for their engagement with art, and extremely curious about how and when this might come to fruition in the future.

Final Thoughts of an Art Teacher

Teaching art is a busy, dynamic, evolving, truly amazing job! Like any teacher, art requires me to be part wizard, part project manager (200+ individual art projects in varying stages of completion every single week!), part curator, part art therapist and emotional support. I have weekly newsletters to write, photo documentation to accomplish, volunteers and Right Brain Initiative guest artists to coordinate and schedule, and artwork to display around the school building. I am also incredibly fortunate to work at a school that highly values both the arts, specifically, and hands-on, project-style learning in general. My students have dubbed me “Ms. Scribble.”

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Cibyl E. Kavan teaches art to children from kindergarten to 8th grade.
Cibyl E. Kavan teaches art to children from kindergarten to 8th grade in Portland. Photo courtesy of Cibyl Kavan.

As an artist myself, I’m an omnivorous maker, essentially drawn to the materials or processes that solve my artistic curiosities, questions, and what or how a concept needs to be expressed. I work in textiles, painting, drawing and printmaking, paper and book arts, and ceramics. I am also an avid gardener, poet, and occasionally a clown.

I have three primary influences that shaped my life as an artist and art teacher. When I was a child, we always had what my mother called a “useful box,” which was filled with simple imaginative things, like strings, sticks, buttons, and fabric, which my brother and I could use to make art. From the time I was 10 years old, my mother was a single mom on a limited income, but she gave us the gift I like to call radical creativity, using the most unlikely resources to sometimes create truly magical experiences.

In addition to my mother, two other artistic influences are my stepmother and my grandmother. All three of these creative women are or were artists and each in her own way excelled in the craft of their artistic mediums. I feel fortunate to have an opportunity to pay it forward. In my work as an art-teaching artist, I hope that I’m able to inspire this type of radical creativity, and to model their commitment to developing a sense of craftsmanship and appreciation of art in each of my students when they leave my classroom and go into the world. 

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One Response

  1. This article is a veritable magic box of guidance for teaching philosophy and ideas for myriad art projects. I love the blending of joy and skill that i imagine prevails in Cibyl Kavan’s art room!

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