Once Upon a Time in the West: the art lesson

In California it is rare to have large cloud formations.  Huge cumulonimbus formations are unnecessary in a desert climate, perhaps.  That said, from time to time there were clouds, and they were lovely.

One of my favorite things to do as a child was to lay on my back and search the cloud’s various shapes.  I found that watching them morph into something recognizable was fascinating.

Fast forward to the 90s

We had a bit of rain and the inclement weather had kept us inside for most of the day.  The children were boisterous, loud and needing to get outside to run off some energy!  Thankfully, the sun came out and there were some cloud left overs up over head.

As we walked to the playground I asked my students:  “How many of you like to watch the clouds?”

Several responded with:  “What do you mean?” and “No.”  The rest just giggled.

I said:  “Your parents never told you the magic of finding things in the clouds?”

This comment produced more laughter from the group, so I told them to go and play, and when they got back I would have a fun activity for them to do!

While they were out I gathered my tools and supplies:

  • large tarps
  • white construction paper
  • pencils
  • lined paper
  • a book:  It Looked Like Spilled Milk
  • blue chalk

I then sent up a quick prayer that the principal would not catch us in yet another of what I termed a “*Teachable Moment” because he simply did not approve of them!  (He didn’t catch us by the way.)  😉

I met the kids on the playground with my tarps and told them to be very quiet so we wouldn’t be caught out here having fun.  We then went to the quietest spot, and laid out our tarps.  Cautioning them to remain quiet, I then told them to lay down and watch the clouds…

“Look at the clouds up there.  Do you see the shapes they are making?  Do any of them look like something you’ve seen before?”

It took a moment but then someone saw a puppy.  Then another saw Pikachu, and the fun was on!  So many shapes, so many things to see, and all changing before their very eyes.

It was magic!

Whispering, I told them to get up, and gathering the tarps we went inside.  Continuing in my whispered voice, I asked them to go to the carpet and sit so we could talk.  I read the book and then the lesson began.

Today we are going to draw clouds.  I want you to think of your favorite shape that you saw and then I want you to draw it on your paper.  I picked up a large sheet of white construction paper and clipped it to the stand.  This elicited several incredulous responses from the crowd, and in unison they said:

“Teacher, the paper is all white!  Clouds are white!  You can’t make clouds on white paper!”

I could see in their eyes they thought I had lost it.  Shhhhh… I said softly, let me explain!

“To draw your cloud you will have to make your pencil whisper on the paper.  Watch!”

I began to draw an outline on the paper of a simple cloud, and explained about how soft the lines needed to be so that they wouldn’t show up when we were done.  Then I took my pencil and ever so lightly pulled it across their arms so they could feel how softly I was drawing.

“Do you understand so far?”  Nods of acknowledgement.  “Good, now watch, this is the magic!”

Taking my blue chalk I carefully outlined the pencil marks.  Then, taking my finger I softened them into the inside of the cloud.  Next, I laid my chalk on its side and began to fill in the background.  Instantly, there were sounds of Oooh, and Ahhhh…

The children went back to their desks and began their work.  It was one of the most focused portions of our rainy day, and when they were done, there wasn’t a single complaint from the group about the next part of the lesson.

“Tell your table partner about your cloud.  Describe it to them and explain what you saw and drew.”

While they talked I passed out the lined paper…

  “Now, please write about your cloud.  I want details about what you saw, and also about how you drew it.”

It was amazing to watch them write.  Some were only able to write a paragraph, but all were engaged in the task, and all gave me their best work.  Even the non writers in the group!

Later we would have to do the requisite re-writes from our rough draft, but they were proud of their work and excited about the prospect of sharing it on the Parent Teacher Night.

I feel it was a wonderful experience for all of us.  They learned about cloud watching, negative space in art, and had a lesson on drafting and re-writing to boot!  However, for me, the experience was an affirmation of the use of  Art, and a Teachable Moment.  A special gift brought to us on a cloud.



From the movie ~ Mr. Holland’s Opus:

“Well, I guess you can cut the arts [and teachable moments] as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”
Jessica Di Santo ~ at the Blog by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

“Beethoven *needed* to compose.  As Mr. Holland states, we *need* the arts.  Students *need* exposure to creativity. Children *need* to let their imaginations run wild.”  (You can read her whole article HERE)


NOTE:  Some of you may have previously read this topic here, but I wanted to share it again because my friend “Z” (aka: Lisa) at Zeebra Designs & Destinations is guiding us in a quest to draw, to express ourselves, to stretch our ability and in my case, to break out of my need for perfectionism.   The thought of what you are about to look at just curdles my stomach, but here it is with all its warts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt isn’t even the current assignment, but I had to just DO IT, if you can understand.  So, for the record I thought my photograph of the original cloud looked like a Gnome laying there on the mountain. 

OK, I’m hyperventilating now…

Well, even Monet had to start somewhere.

Didn’t he? 😉