"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." Edgar Degas
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This summer, many posts in my online PLN's discussion threads rallied behind the discouragement of cartoon characters and the like in high school artmaking. Do I think high school students can think deeper than cartoon characters? Yes, absolutely. Do I think there is anything wrong with letting them use cartoon characters in their artmaking? No. Now I admit that every time my students say, "I want to make a minion" or "I want to focus on superheroes," I do feel a tiny shudder inside, but then I remember that they are still learning and sometimes learners need to make things fun for themselves in order to push through the challenges. So, they use a cartoon character. Can they plan their project? Yes. Can they explain the why of their project? Yes. Can they still take risks, try new techniques, reflect, problem solve, identify strengths and weaknesses, persevere through challenges, assess their own work? Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes. And since this is a ceramics studio, my students are never just copying cartoon characters, the characters themselves are part of something bigger.
I must also consider student population. My students live in a small, high-poverty, inner-city community that has seen a rapid and substantial increase in drug flow and drug-related violence over the past two years. I don't have enough fingers to count the number of former students involved, shot or killed in the growing violence. One of our students took her life this year. Another student brought a gun into the building. Fortunately, security was alerted, the building went into lockdown, security emptied the building and the gun was recovered before it was too late. I have students that sleep on mattresses on the floor rather than a bed because they feel safer, lower than stray bullets entering their windows. Some of my students are foster children and some are living in shelters. For many students, the ceramics studio is a place to escape the bad around them and that means avoiding some of the deeper topics discussed in suburban art rooms. I do have students who are willing to explore deeper themes in their work, but allowing characters as part of a choice-based pedagogy does seem to help my students who struggle with their reality, and with that, I am OK.