Talking about Student Art

Article excerpt

Talking About Student Art Barrett, T. (1997). Worcester, MA: Davis. 106 pages. ISBN: 87192-361-0.

Reviewed by Paul Duncum, University of Tasmania, Launceston

There have been numerous proposals to facilitate art criticism in the classroom, usually of adult art. These have mostly taken the form of lockstep sequences of activities, paradigmatically description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation (see Duncum, 1994, for a review). There have been far fewer descriptions of how these work in the classroom and, to my knowledge, Barrett's text is the first attempt to document what happens when students are asked to critique each others' work. This is a clearly written, and, for its target audience of pre- and in-service teachers, a very useful book. It brings together scholarship, though very lightly worn, classroom experience, and, in my view, a sensitivity rare among academics as to how to write for teachers. Barrett manages to situate the reader inside a wide variety of classrooms with what appear to be real rather than ideal children. Classrooms differ in terms of socioeconomic profiles, ethnic mixes, and grades, with a fairly even spread from early elementary to upper high school.

Most of the book consists of extracts from specific lessons taught in classrooms by the author. The words used by both the children and the author are recorded and interpreted by the author's reflections. The reader is thereby invited to step inside not only the classroom but also the author's thinking process. Much of the book's strength lies in the author's honesty about where things went astray. Because the children are frequently less than perfect, and because oftentimes the point of lessons emerges only in progress, or even in hindsight, mistakes are sometimes made. I had the feeling I was reading about genuine interchanges.

The critiques Barrett offers are clearly different from typical studio critiques for adult students, which tend to be teacher directed and are often highly critical of individual student effort. One example will suffice to indicate this difference: With a class of second graders, he asks students why they used pastel colors in their batiks. They answer in terms of certain technical limitations, which leads onto a discussion, that he initiates, on other things the children could recommend that he should keep in mind when making batiks.

What Barrett offers is not a format but examples of lessons that have as their common thread getting children to think beyond the immediately obvious. In doing so, he demonstrates when, in his view, to coach, when to coax, and how to question. Mostly, he works on getting children to recognize what they already know tacitly or are learning during a lesson, but he is prepared to both correct and challenge them to extend their knowledge. I appreciated the author's various strategies for dealing with the propensity of elementary children to value high realism and his stress on the desirability of focusing on meaning and ideas rather than skill. Despite the fact that students often possess little skill in discussing art, he shows it is quite possible for even very young children, as well as diffident adolescents, to find pertinent things to say about both their own and their peers' artwork. …