Thursday, January 23, 2014

Teaching My Own: High School Art And Algebra

The penultimate stop on our Seattle landmarks tour is a no-brainer on any list of must-see sites in my fair city: Pike Place Market

Over the past dozen years of teaching high schoolers, I've covered a lot of different subjects.

Current Events.

While holding firm to some basic principles, my teaching partner, Heidi, and I experimented with several different formats and strategies for those specific topics. And though I firmly believe there is always more than one way to skin a cat, especially in matters of learning, I share my success stories as food for thought.

My students did not care one whit about gazing at the market's gorge produce displays but I couldn't help myself. 

Before I became a homeschooling parent and challenged myself to rethink every preconception I owned about what makes for a good education, I presumed that art and algebra were opposites.

I mean, algebra, that's the real deal. Rigorous standards, difficult coursework, SATs, college placement exams and all that good stuff. This is what smart kids study.

But art, well, that's not even an academic subject, is it? It's more of a fun hobby for those who are naturally gifted, and high school art classes are populated by nothing more than burnouts and lazy students in need of an easy A to pad their grade point averages. Right?


A quick read of several art education books set me back on my heels. The rich correlation between art and math goes back to the ancients, and the study of how mathematical thinking intersects with art history is an important element of any well-rounded education. 

Most surprisingly and interestingly, I learned that drawing is a skill that can be taught, even to the most stubborn and skeptical of students. I proved this to be true by teaching myself to draw, and no one was more shocked than I. 

From there, my second-born's inborn passion for art led me further down the path until I found myself teaching art classes with my effervescent friend, Vickie. What I lacked in technical know-how, she made up in enthusiasm and when our school found itself with no art teacher on staff, she and I stepped in to fill the void for our art-loving students. The experience was, in a word, delicious.

Lily rides a pig that is actually a giant bank, complete with an oversize coin slot. 
Get it? A piggy bank.

Our favorite recipe for teaching the fine arts looks like this:
  1. Start with basic drawing lessons. Use pencils, charcoal, Conte crayons, black felt pens, and a variety of papers - don't skimp on the quality - to practice and draw three-dimensional forms from real life. Teach basic drawing skills such as shading and shadows, linear perspective, and composition. Always, always remind students to draw what they see, rather than what they think they are supposed to see. 
  2. Blend in a variety of media. Pastels, oil pastels, markers, and acrylic paints are all within the reach of any rookie artist. Watercolor, while a most unforgiving medium, is fun and inexpensive; well worth the inevitable headaches it causes. Teach color theory. Again, remember that good-quality supplies help students master basic skills, so buy the good stuff. 
  3. Stir together until students gain confidence in their ability to capture and compose a variety of subjects. Classroom still-lifes, playground landscapes, random field trips around the school to take in new sights - vary the assignments to keep the students both interested and growing.
  4. Season liberally with expressive yet less drawing-intensive projects, such as collage, action paintingprocess art, and bookmaking. 
  5. Pair this lovely hands-on education with a solid serving of art history. Teach the students the elements and principles of design; use this language to discuss and dissect the classic masterpieces of Western Civilization. Make connections between classroom studio projects and the masters; build up a working knowledge of significant artists and their most influential works. 
  6. Finally, offer students a variety of art experiences away from the classroom - encourage them to go to museums and exhibits, assign home sketching assignments, read and write about famous artists, and hold exhibitions to showcase the students' work. 
Learning to make and teach art has been one of the most surprising events of my homeschooling career, and a perfect example of how this journey changed me. Getting in touch with my inner artist has unlocked one of the greatest gifts of my life, and I appreciate every day what I learned from teaching art.

If you go to Pike Place Market and neglect to pose with this pig, the visit didn't happen.

Ditto for my walk as an algebra teacher. Though quite a few years have passed since I taught my own daughters math, I'm finding a never-ending stream of younger students who continue to seek out my teaching and I love my new career as a freelance algebra teacher. 

I did not set out with this goal in mind. Sure, I saw myself as a numbers person, but I had no particularly fond memories of my high school algebra career. None of my kids was profoundly interested in quantitative subjects, so I figured we would just bang out a few years of basic algebra and call it good.

But here's the thing. For better or worse, our world has come to equate mathematical competence with general intelligence. If you're good at algebra, most people will consider you smart. The relatives will be impressed, SAT graders will reward you, and colleges will lay out the welcome mat. I'm not here to say whether that's right or wrong, but that is definitely how the world operates.

I came to see that in order for my daughters and their friends to achieve their dreams for life beyond high school, they needed some strong skills in algebra. And, looking around, I saw a disturbing lack of effective teaching. So I decided to give it a go.

And just down the street is the original Starbucks store. It's kind of weird, what with the old logo and an unfamiliar but authentic design aesthetic inside. I mean, come on...the mermaid is brown??!? 

Enter Saxon Math. Widely used in the homeschooling community for decades, this no-nonsense series of mathematics and algebra textbooks has found increasing favor in traditional schools. John Saxon, the author of the books and my hero, was a retired Air Force pilot who reflected on the importance of math in helping him achieve his own dreams in life. His passion for helping young people succeed at math fueled the idea of writing textbooks. What makes Saxon texts unique is that they:

a.) break down complicated skills to small steps that are introduced over time, 
b.) reinforce the teachings through continuous review in daily problem sets, and
c.) use lots of well-ordered outlines and alphabetical lists like this one to keep students and their teachers on track.

My apologies to the surrounding students for sharing these pics that feature some less-than-flattering poses. But these shots of Gerard are just too Gerard-y to not post. 

Now I'm not going to be overly modest. The books are great, but textbooks alone do not an education make. What I bring to the table is an ability to translate complex mathematical concepts into everyday metaphors and examples, which allows my students to link new and confusing abstract ideas to familiar notions. I tell goofy stories to bring algebra to life, and that helps all of my students understand and enjoy the subject.

Me, fist bumping the big brass "First Starbucks Store" marker. I  have no idea why.

On top of that, I'm a stickler for organization and follow-through. On the first day of class, I present my students with a checklist that shows the assignments for the full semester, if not the entire year, along with dates of the midterms and final exam. I make sure my teaching stays on schedule, and I keep my students accountable for getting their significant load of homework done correctly and on time. Almost always, we finish the entire text by the end of the year, and students and teacher will agree, that accomplishment feels darn good. 

But the best news of all is that my students truly learn how to do algebra. For the past ten years, every single one of my students has qualified to take college level algebra classes while still in high school. That's amazing. I'm proud of their hard work and dedication, I'm proud of my role in helping them succeed, and honestly, I am just pleased as punch about the whole arrangement. 

As the sun set on a lovely afternoon spent exploring the landmarks of our dear Seattle, we all wandered up to the counter and bought ourselves some overpriced coffee. 

* * * * *
And that is a suitable summing up for my entire career as a high school homeschooling mommy and teacher. I had no idea what twists and turns this season of my daughters' education would bring for me. When I first set out to homeschool, so many years before, I could have never anticipated the sensitivities, subtleties and strategies that would be a part of our success.

But I also had no idea how much fun it would be, and I can honestly say I had the time of my life.

The photos in this post came from the culminating adventures of a class we taught on United States Landmarks. After a year spent discussing the historical, geographic and cultural implications of one hundred of our nation's most iconic sites and scenes, we took our students on a whirlwind tour of Seattle's top landmarks. It was one of the finest afternoons of my homeschooling career and a sweet, sweet memory today.

* * * * *

Read more stories about my life as a math teacher:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please comment...I'd love to hear from you!