It was hard to tell it was winter. With stretches of 70 degree days throughout December and January, the shapes of the winter trees reminded me that even without the cold or snow, my world was in winter.
I shared with the children my love for trees in all seasons, especially in winter. Without leaves to hide behind, they are quiet and still, their forms vulnerable against winter skies. I wanted to paint these shapes with the children, to create little forests together.
The children said that they love them, too:
“It’s like they are naked without all their leaves.”
“Sometimes I see things in the branches that I wouldn’t normally see, like birds or nests.”
“They look more like sculptures.”
We studied the shapes of three trees that live outside our school. In partners, the children took turns sharing what they noticed about the ways their branches were alike and different.
Then came the practice. Painting lines that look like trees is no easy feat. For some children, trying something and failing at it the first time is really difficult. And no wonder– as adults, we so often applaud children for their immediate successes (“Good job! How talented you are!”) rather than their continued perseverance and reflection (“You are trying so hard! And look– you’re getting better!”).
To help the children release the need for creating something perfect or worthy of taking home, I explained that we would be painting for the sake of painting. I told them that we would put whatever came of the creation—“good” or “bad”— in the recycling bin at the end of our first session. We were practicing non-attachment to the end result. Often artists create as a form of practice, without attachment to whether they like what they have created or not.
Non-attachment was a new idea for many children, but one that they soon grasped. For many, it allowed them to be more spontaneous in their creation, letting go of thoughts like “I can’t do this” or “This is too hard” with greater ease. After all, it didn’t matter anyway. Whatever they made wasn’t going to last forever; it wasn’t going to hang on a wall or fridge. They made five, ten, twenty (!) practice trees before painting their final tree in India ink during the second session, progressively getting better.
Still, for some children, an initial failed attempt at a tree was enough for them to want to stop. This is where teaching begins.
The more I have taught, the more I realize that my teaching compass always points in the same direction. No matter the content– whether it is sounding out new words, or painting a tree, or solving a math problem– what I want children to learn is how to face their failures in a way that serves them. If only a learner can be gentle to their self and keep trying in the face of challenges, they will find the words, the painted trees, and the answers to the math problems will come with time. Helping children believe that they will get better with practice and time is, for me, what it’s all about.
The real teaching began. For children who were struggling to persevere, I took turns painting tree branches with them. For those who were worried their work wasn’t good enough, we marked up their papers practicing making straight lines, squiggly lines– anything but trees. For those who were worried about perfection, I crumbled up, made tears and scratches on paper, and asked them to paint on the already imperfect surfaces. Some took breaks, and we talked about what their thoughts were saying.
Before long, all the children were creating their paintings. When we compared their pictures side-by-side, they could see progress. Progress, not perfection, was the goal all along.