Breaking Rules

by beccaborrelli


Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life.) Henri Matisse. 1905-06.

Great Art makes it’s own rules. Every rule is waiting to be broken. Just remember the two rules for breaking a rule:

1. Fully understand it

2. Know why you want to break it

— Henri Matisse

Third Graders are doing Egyptian etching right now. Teaching children to embrace and reproduce any art style other than their own, was a hard pill to swallow the first years I taught. It seemed counterintuitive in my mind, to demand children submit to rules set by other artists. What is the point? What am I trying to accomplish with this? If my ultimate goal is to help them create their own voice and style- should they mimic someone else’s?

The “free as a bird” approach to art education in those first years didn’t work well, and it was largely because children can’t create anything… be it art, or their own personal style- when they have so few life experiences to draw from. As far as I can tell from my own limited experience- childhood is an experience-gathering time… adolescence is when they begin consciously (or sadly sometimes, unconsciously) creating their selfhood based on those experiences.

“Why will researching Egyptian style, or any other style for that matter, help you form your own style as you get older?” I asked today.

The boogers nailed it. I suspect it will be hard for me to ever love any age as much as I love 8 and 9 year old children.

“You can decide which parts of other styles you like, combine them with your own personality, and make a new style.” “You can make Art that people of all different backgrounds will like.”

“Okay, what do you think Henri Matisse means by this quote,” and I read the above quote that also hangs in both of my classrooms.”

“Are you saying I can break the school rules??” says smartypants Jared.

“I’m saying there’s a time and place for everything, and there are going to be points in your life when you have to decide: ‘will I follow or break this rule?'”

Blank stares.

“Miss B, you don’t like rules?”

“Sometimes I like them, and sometimes I have a hard time with them. There are times I observe how rules keep kids safe. There are other times I notice how they teach kids to be quiet when they should stand up. Think about Rosa Parks. What rule did she break?”

Hands shoot up.

“She wouldn’t sit in the back of the bus when a white person asked her to, and back then that was the rule.”

“Boys and girls,” I say, my voice swelling… my eyes getting wide (oh how brazenly dorky I can be when I’m excited), “I don’t know if you have any idea how huge that was. That was a strong rule no one had successfully broken before. Not only that… many people believed it was a good rule.”

For added impact I got a little crazy: “What would happen if you saw a blue fairy fly in the window right now??”

More blank stares (Miss B is wacked guys…) Then giggles.

“I would freak out!” shouts a voice.

“But what if it flew back out the window, and no one saw it but you?”

“I would tell everyone about it!” shouts another.

“Great, but what if the class starts telling you that you’re crazy. And they’re getting mad at you and calling you foolish and to be quiet. How would you feel?”

“I would feel sad.” says another.

“I would just be quiet,” whispers a student.

This conversation illustrates my somewhat brazen notions about rules. And I’m no anarchist. I think large, diverse and complex societies need rules. Check that- I think large, diverse, complex and spritually un-evolved societies need rules. Yes I called us spiritually un-evolved.

Another post for another day.

Simply put, I get why rules are necessary. I also believe, we need a rich, sensitive educational approach- that fosters in children the wisdom to make  choices between following and breaking rules. Otherwise, we lead kiddos to believe that rules are concrete, that the cultural norms and biases they are raised within are always correct, and securing a “safe,” submissive existence is more ideal than questioning authority for what’s right.

Sometimes I worry that the students are going to go home:

“Miss B told us that sometimes she doesn’t like rules.”

Hopefully when the day comes that I’m challenged, I’ll be brazen enough to stand up for my beliefs. It’s much easier to sound confident on an anonymous blog than in the front of the bus.

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