He Scribbles Like Me by Fern Tavalin

Building imaginative conversation is the first step toward artist-oriented critique, and asking simple questions can lead to insightful observations.

Think about it. When was the last time you and a friend discussed a really good book or movie and asked each other the names of the three major characters? In a forgetful moment, perhaps, but not as part of serious conversation. As a teacher, my rule of thumb has been: “If you know the answer, it’s not a question.” Not knowing what my students are about to say keeps our classroom inquiry alive and inspires me to learn alongside them. While aesthetics and traditional criticism have their place in formal learning, telling children what to see or asking them questions that you already know the answer to stands in the way of uncovering their excitement. Listen to the dialogue between young children. They are filled with wonderment. Yet, by the time we reach adulthood, that sense of natural questioning fades. So, how can we bring it back?

Building imaginative conversation is the first step toward artist-oriented critique, and asking simple questions can lead to insightful observations. Last summer, I worked with a group of MAT students at the Portland Museum of Art to model one specific approach to discussing art called Visual Thinking Strategies (VST). The approach seems overly simplistic to trained artists, and I had a near revolt on my hands when I asked my group to respond to modified versions of VST’s three basic questions: What do you see? What in the painting makes you say that? What other ideas does the group have? Instead of replying, they hijacked the conversation and began talking about what they liked and didn’t like about each piece of art and whether or not they thought the drawings, paintings, and sculptures had been properly executed. Erudite vocabulary poured from their mouths without much excitement. To a person, they refused to stay with the VST questioning technique.

Exasperated, I looked around the gallery and saw a five-year-old child, sketchbook in hand, who seemed mesmerized by the artwork that surrounded her. I walked up to the child and asked, “Is there one piece that is your favorite?” She immediately took me to a drawing of a civil rights leader with textured lines of mixed emotions cross-hatched over his face. As I began the questioning routine, the MAT group slowly gathered behind me. The young child couldn’t stop talking about what she saw and what drew her to the image. Her insights surprised the future art teachers. They took notes about what art vocabulary they would introduce based on her insights about the artist’s drawing. Their thinking moved from “This is silly” to “This gives me ideas about what to teach.”

Finally, I asked the girl, “What made you choose this picture?” She looked straight up at me and said, “He scribbles like me.” As her words tumbled out, I glanced down to see that her sketchbook was actually a small coloring book and she had scribbled all over the pictures on each page.

Fern Tavalin, Professor and Program Chair of Master of Arts in Teaching at MECA&D, is a creative educator whose work is nationally known for its technological innovation in using multimedia and telecommunication to improve student learning in the arts and humanities. She has spoken widely on topics including arts assessment, technology innovation, project based learning, primary source investigation, and the development of digital portfolios. 

Header photo by Kyle Dubay '18.