To teachers: On Lesson Plans

Teachers are supposed to have lesson plans because if lessons are planned then their outcomes can be predicted, and little Johnny will learn.  And that’s why modern education is everywhere praised.  Okay, maybe not.  If not, why not?  Well, sometimes the best things happen all unplanned.  Sometimes opportunity knocks. And even you’re not ready when opportunity knocks, it can be a good idea to give opportunity a chance anyway.

I had a “plan” to draw cabbage this season.  Lo and behold, a cabbage appeared.  But I wasn’t prepared.  I had the crayons, but didn’t have the right paper.  Later I got the paper, but didn’t have the crayons.  Finally paper and crayons were together in the same place, and the cabbage had wilted into an unrecognizable, “floppy eared” mess.  But I drew it anyway, both when I had the wrong paper but the right drawing tools, and later when I had all the necessary tools but a pooped out cabbage.

To understand the difference between “lesson plan” art projects and the kinds of working drawings that real artists make, first we have to take a little peek into the pedagogical culture that pervades nearly every public school in the land.  I searched on “7th grade art lesson plans” and arrived HERE.  At a lesson plan that proposes to teach a “Cezanne-style still life,” the curriculum standards are stated forcefully:

1-E (5 – 8) Students select media, techniques, and processes; analyze what makes them effective or not effective in communicating ideas; and reflect upon the effectiveness of their choices
1-F (5 – 8) Students intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas
2-F (5 – 8) Students select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas
3-C (5 – 8) Students integrate visual, spatial, and temporal concepts with content to communicate intended meaning in their artworks
4-D (5 – 8) Students know and compare the characteristics of artworks in various eras and cultures.

Notice the repetitious declaration of what students will do.  Evidently saying that they will do it makes it so.  No where will you find a greater display of magical thinking than in the declaration of learning objectives, no where will you be farther from the wisdom of the adage that “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.”  And no where, than in this lesson plan on Cezanne style still life, could you find a better example of notions that would have horrified the actual Paul Cezanne!

Instructions for the lesson plan are these: “After a study of the artist Paul Cezanne, students create thumnail [sic] sketches for a large scale oil pastel still life drawing.” 

I didn’t choose this particular lesson plan to ridicule it, I found it at random, but it exemplifies the typical problem:  it relies entirely upon language and says nothing about seeing.  It gives no hint how “after a study of the artist Paul Cezanne,” one is to do anything at all with a still life.  The fact that students are making thumbnail sketches and not drawings of a more ordinary size, using oil pastels no less, suggests that the teacher has no very clear conception of how Cezanne himself worked and not a lot of confidence in the ability of the students to deal with a real still life.

Also, the lesson attaches itself to the name of a “famous” artist, but with no idea of how Cezanne’s still life is similar to or differs from any other still life.  Moreover it offers no suggestion as to why students should look at Cezanne to get ideas for depicting objects when they might as readily take things they like themselves for their own personal reasons and draw them just as artists have done for centuries.

Back to my cabbage.  It is neither a Cezanne cabbage, nor a Chardin, nor Van Gogh, nor an Andrew Wyeth cabbage, but merely an ordinary Maryland cabbage, born and raised.  It’s appeal for me was its being GREEN at a time when I seem to be aching for a bit of that color.

Here’s what I did, my lesson plan, teachers take note:  I put it on a waterproof surface (it was wet).  I looked at it.  I drew it.  Unfortunately all I had for drawing at the time of the cabbage’s serendipitous arrival was some Strathmore 400 series 18 x 24 inch smooth surface paper, a fine paper for pen and ink but an annoying one for use with crayons.   Perhaps as significant as anything else, though I had the wrong materials, I drew the cabbage anyway.  This is not a trivial distinction as regards the typical approach to pedagogy, for it wends toward this great insight:   no one ever died by drawing a cabbage using the wrong materials.

That wonderful Maryland vegetable, born and raised, that blasted cabbage, was so complex!  Its leaves had little serrations along every bit of their wandering edges.  And it was so layered!  Leaves over leaves, each leaf alone a magnificent spectacle to behold … I very nearly disavowed my interest in cabbage drawing right on the spot for the evident difficulties I faced.  But I stove on.

What I did:  I drew the largest shapes I could identify in as free a manner as possible.  I looked particularly for the “anatomical” forms of the cabbage, the places where its form was most noteworthy — the roughly spherical center part, and the pattern of over-lapping leaves, seeking to understand one leaf at a time.  I had so much God-forsaken smooth white paper to cover that I also used the crayons very generously as tones, raking the strokes across close together to make something like a continuous tone upon which I could try to depict a distinction or two of light or dark.  Though I had this 18 x 24 inch sheet, I still had to reduce the size of my drawing from that of the actual beast which was much larger than what I could easily draw.  And I got frustrated too, so that my drawing — big though it is — remains only a sketch of sorts and enacts the whole narrative of my finding myself so intimidated by this vegetative-wonder.

That’s how real art goes, you see.  You strive in various ways.  You fail in various ways.  And you stave onwards.  Another day, another cabbage.

My own curriculum standards:

1 The artist will notice the largest aspects of the motif and attempt to record them with a line that is at once precise but free.

2 The artist will draw even in the absence of ideal conditions, materials or circumstances abiding by the dictim:  “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

3  The artist will refuse to be intimidated by a cabbage.

4  The artist will try another, future cabbage again on some happy day.