These kids are super intelligent, and it excites me to no end when they come through with something brilliant, in English, when I least expect it. Which means that usually even though I have no expectations, sometimes I do with them because I know they can speak English, they’re either just lazy or shy or something that makes them not want to speak English, which I can identify with completely, but I still need them to speak English regardless. Speaking of no (or few) expectations, I remember once in 9th grade, one of my teachers asked us to write about our expectations for the school year, and I said I really didn’t have any. This was a huge problem for her, but it was (and remains) the truth. Not having expectations doesn’t prevent me from disappointment, but it does keep me in a near constant state of wonder.
With the 8th and 9th graders this week, we looked at various photographs of graffiti – which included three examples of Banksy and one of Keith Haring (it was hard to find an appropriate example of Basquiat), except that they didn’t know that at first. I tried to find as wide of an array as possible, from a wall of tags to a Keith Haring ‘museum-quality’ piece, a few trains, etc. The progression of open-ended questions was something like this (my commentary is composited for the sake of brevity and interest):
• What is this? Describe the picture.
• Can you read what it says? What does it say? One that they had clearly said ‘happiness’ and another said ‘READ!’
• Is it beautiful? Why? The interesting thing is that sometimes they’ll say yes or no, and I’ll ask why, and then they’ll change their answer to the opposite and simultaneously, magically, the whole class agrees. Then I ask them if they all have the same brain, because it’s impossible that they could all agree like that. Some groups distinguished hierarchically between the tags and train pictures and more finished walls as being ‘more’ beautiful, which I found interesting.
• Where is this? Where do you usually see graffiti? Where are good places for graffiti? Is there graffiti in museums? There were some pictures that were clearly London, New York and Los Angeles, but others were rather anonymous walls. The answers about where they usually see graffiti were pretty interesting: at the station, under bridges, behind the church, old buildings (by this I think they mean like abandoned buildings), garages (which they so charmingly pronounce the British way). When I asked if there was graffiti in museums, the answer was a completely unanimous no. When I asked why, they said that museums are historical ‘pamiatky’ – ‘remembrances’ where there are also security guards and ‘nice things.’ But then, some of them recognized that (and this was so impressive) even if they weren’t beautiful or important works, the way I presented them as photographs made them historical documents. I’m not kidding. These kids are really smart.
• Who creates graffiti? What kind of person? Are any of these pictures made by someone famous? A lot of times when I ask questions, they answer quite literally. When I asked who creates graffiti, in some groups half of the kids pointed to one or a few kids in the class, who then were in some cases more than happy to pull their graffiti accoutrements from their backpacks. Another group distinguished between artists and ‘rebellious young people.’ I love that they come up with this language, and it’s an interesting dichotomy that I don’t completely agree with.
• What is important about graffiti? Hrm. This one was a difficult question, but it often referred back to the idea of historical documentation, but this is when they started making quality judgments. I also had a picture of some 17th century graffito chiseled into a wall somewhere – and so we talked more about history, document, and quality.
• Why is it art? They didn’t always agree that it was art, but for the most part they did.
The silent-but-deadly of the week concerned this picture:The girl said, “This is not a flower, this is a picture of a drawing of a flower.” Wow, way to bring up issues of the very nature of photography, of originality, and to an extent, of style.
My whole goal is to drum into their heads that language (like graffiti, in this case) is a creative act. No matter what language we’re speaking, it’s a creative act.
Some of the older ones have kind of figured out where I live, especially because there’s a special fundraising project going on, and so some of them were over here on Sunday evening when I arrived. I think it best to be honest, they have some questions, and I tell them it’s not bad at all, which is definitely the truth.
Since no one responded to my bleg for song ideas, I figured out one on my own for the 6th and 7th graders. I found this, which is the lyrics of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” with some words blanked out. The goal was for them to listen once, and then I played the song again and they needed to fill in the words and we worked on understanding it. Some of them wanted to sing along, which at that point was cool. Not being one for Disney movies too often (except I did really enjoy Ratatouille), I had no clue that they would all know the song from having seen the Disney movie "Madagascar." They thought they knew it, but now I’m relatively confident they understand it, and that’s a good feeling.
However, it’s totally not too late to suggest songs (in fact, please do!), especially for my older crew. “What a Wonderful World” is a choice I’m happy with for the 6th and 7th graders, but it would be way too easy for the older kids.