The beginning of a school year requires a lot of adjustments. For me, there’s the change from seeing one or two people a day to seeing 21 or 41 or 400, depending on where I’m standing. There’s also the pace, the decisions, and the schedule, to name a few. I’m adjusting to an early lunch, which means a long afternoon, for the first time in my memory. For my students, the start of school has all of those adjustments as well. They probably don’t raise their hands much in the summer. They don’t write much. They’re not sitting at a desk much. One adjustment we all have is that we’re feeling a different kind of tired in the last hour of the day, especially on the last day of the week. It’s not necessarily physical fatigue; it’s more mental. Here’s a moment, though, that surprised me.
It was Friday afternoon, and yes, we were all tired. Even four-day weeks can be exhausting at the beginning of the year. We headed to the art room for the last hour. I had decided to hang around because the previous week’s art class hadn’t gone that well, and I wanted to see if this week’s would go better. We’d had a class chat. I knew that there were quite a few kids in the class with an artistic bent, so I was hoping that our scheduled time wasn’t going to be a problem every week.
The class assembled on the rug for the introduction. After taking care of some leftover work from the previous week, it was time for the main event: a sculpture challenge.
Every year our fifth grade takes a trip to an outdoor sculpture museum called Storm King Art Center. It’s an incredible space, with 500 acres of land, monumental sculptures, and the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley. To help the kids get ready, our school’s art teacher likes to have kids work on making their own sculptures. The challenge she presented them on Friday had the feel of one of those kids baking challenges, though it involved teams, so I guess it was more like some of the Top Chef experiences. The goal was to use one sheet of tag board, a pair of scissors, 10 paper clips, and a foot of scotch tape to make the tallest freestanding tower. Sorry, no fondant allowed.
The teacher emphasized the idea of collaboration, mentioning that there would be different ideas to incorporate into the design and that team members would need to compromise. To add to the challenge, they needed to try to make it attractive on all sides.
Part of me was nervous. Everyone was tired. Did I mention it was Friday afternoon? It’s one thing to come up with ideas and to build when you’re tired, but it’s another thing to show patience, good listening, and a willingness to compromise.
On the other hand, the challenge seemed to rejuvenate my class. I could sense the energy level and enthusiasm rising. When the teacher set them off to work, telling them they had 20 minutes to create their tall sculpture, the kids took off.
I shouldn’t have been so worried. They immediately split the task of gathering materials. One person grabbed the scissors, another the paper and the tape, while another counted out the clips. It looked chaotic, but it was the good kind of chaos. Conversations started at each table, and, amazingly, people were listening to each other. The purple table cut their paper in half the long way and then folded each half down the center (long way again). They set one creased piece atop another… and it stood. Just like that. And it was tall. One team member pointed out, however, that it didn’t exactly seem “beautiful.” They still had work to do.
Another cut theirs in half and turned one part into a cone. This led another person in the group to make some of the remainder into a ball. Their idea was to make a very tall ice cream cone.
Still another table drew on their experiences from an earlier grade. Remembering the heart-shaped tubes they made as Valentine mailboxes when they were in first grade, they cut their tag board the long way, attached the long sides with paper clips and bent the paper back into a heart-shaped cylinder. It stood, though they decided that tape might be stronger than the clips. They also took a peek at their purple neighbors, and realized they could use some height.
The green group created a cone and a cylinder, put the cone on top of the cylinder, and found that it resembled a tree, and it stood.
The design work and cooperation were impressive for any time, but particularly for a Friday afternoon. One group had big ideas, but ran out of time with their assembly. When time was called and everyone stepped back with hands raised (clearly they watch those cooking shows), the red group didn’t end up with a free-standing sculpture. However, during the discussion that followed the challenge, they realized some things they could have done. The teacher reminded the class that a lot of sculptures and designs fail in their first iteration, particularly when an artist takes risks. Artists and designers rarely create masterpieces with their first drafts. This was a life lesson that I could imagine not going over so well on a Friday afternoon, but my imagination was being negative again. The group received it well (how mature!), and everyone welcomed the possibility of a new challenge in a future class.
For me, the whole process gave me hope for the year. I know that not every session will feature the energy and cooperation I saw on Friday, but I also know that if they could do that on Day 8, when they were tired, when they were just beginning to form a community, when they were just getting adjusted to each other, then good things could lie ahead.
And I don’t just mean the weekend.