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Pushing Too Hard? How to get Great Results from Student Artists - A Conversation with Public Art School Teacher Dennis Fediw

GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK – Even by the middle school level, art often becomes a relegated subject seen by many as the realm of the gifted or the introverted. On Long Island, where a premium can often be put on both academics and sports, fine arts—and the learning of their various disciplines—can often fall by the wayside, or be viewed as a required obstacle by parents and students alike. Educator Dennis Fediw (as seen in photo 1) has refined his approach to move beyond the often-accepted preconceptions about the skills required for creating art, and how to inspire impressive results from students, many of whom were positive they just didn’t have it inside themselves before taking his class. How does he do it?

thalo: Give us a little about your teaching background: How long you’ve been at it, what age/grade levels do you teach – that kind of thing.

Dennis Fediw: I started teaching visual art in the Garden City Public School district in 1997. I spent seven years traveling between three primary (K-1) schools, teaching without a classroom. I was a “push-in” special; “Art on a cart.” I love the enthusiasm of that age group. The art that kindergarteners and first-graders make is so honest. There is no having to sell anything to them. They love it all. And I considered it an awesome responsibility to be their art teacher. In most cases, this was their first formal introduction to art, and I took this opportunity to introduce my students to wide range of mediums, techniques, artists, art history...I tried to make them observers and interpreters of the world around them. I really loved working with that age group, even if it was bad, it was good. Now, I am teaching middle school. I moved up to the middle school eight years ago.

th: From where have you gathered most of your ideas for art projects over the years?

DF: A lot of my lessons, especially the ones I develop for my 8th graders come from my own experiences as a student...or I should say lack of experience. I can remember being in college wondering, “Why am I just now learning what complementary colors are?” So, with my kindergartners, I taught them how to mix secondary colors, I taught them what complementary colors were, I taught them everything I wish I had learned as a young artist. And believe it or not, when I’m going over complementary colors with my 8th graders, some of them act like they are hearing about it for the first time!

I really try to teach them what I think they need to know. For some of my 8th grade students, my class will be their last art experience. They don’t have to take an art class in high school. For other student’s they’ll pursue art through to the AP level. So, whether this is their last art class or not, I really try to develop a strong foundation for them. I really stress the elements of art, the principles of design. I try approaching art from a very practical philosophy. I let my students know there are rules in art. There is a right and a wrong. It’s not just, “Everything goes in art.” If I’m teaching you facial proportions and then I ask you to create a portrait using these proportions and you come up with something where the eyes are three eye widths apart and the ears are going from the eyes down to the mouth, it’s wrong.

I tell my students you’ve got to learn the rules before you can break the rules. If you see Picasso’s student work, you’d see carefully rendered figures and faces (as seen in photos 2–3) .  He knew the rules. Once you know them, and then only then, you can break them.

All that said, I also teach to the individual. We could be working on portraits, and I try to get a feel for my students and introduce them to artists or art movements that will make the lesson really resonate with them.

th: Tell us a little bit about your process. How you go about introducing a new project to your students?

DF: For every assignment, I create a finished version of the project to present my students with. It is paramount that they have a clear idea as to what they are working toward. If it is a lesson I am revisiting from previous years, I will share examples of student work. Oftentimes this will provide them with an achievable goal.

“An 8th grade student did that?  I guess I can do that.” When they see my examples, though my goal is to inspire, sometimes, my students get discouraged and say, “You’re an artist! We can’t do that!” But whether they are looking at my work or previous students’ work, I try to get them to explore the possibilities of the assignment. Get them to consider where they can go with it. Where can they take it? How can they make it theirs? How can they own the project? I ask them a lot of questions and listen to what they say and we go from there.

th: It’s clear that a good deal of the work you get from your kids shows attention and care from them. How do you get kids to move past apathy or being discouraged to actually putting in long-term effort?

DF: Apathy is the biggest obstacle! I try to set them up for small victories in the beginning. Usually I begin, all grade levels, with drawing self-portraits. I provide them with a mirror and ask them to complete a realistic self-portrait, but I offer no real instruction. When they’re done with their drawings I begin a lesson on proportion and how to approach drawing facial features. After several days of them following along drawing generic faces, and exploring features, I have them revisit the mirror and create another self-portrait. The majority of the students will have vast improvements (as seen in photos 4-5) - . “I guess I can learn to draw.”

The hardest part is getting them to realize that drawing, painting and sculpting are skills that can be taught. Anyone, who is open to it, can learn to draw a portrait. Anyone can learn to mix colors. Anyone can learn to throw on the potter’s wheel. It’s what you then do with this skillset that can prove you to be an artist.

There is nothing more frustrating to me than to hear students say that someone is “Just good at art.” It totally undermines the hours the person has spent working toward becoming a better artist; the dedication that they have toward the craft.  Sure, some people might have preternatural artistic ability, but even then they must work hard if they want to be great.

But with each victory, whether their own or their classmates’, I find my students growing more motivated.

One thing I don’t see in too many of my students is a competitive nature; I kind of wish that was there. I remember being in middles school and high school scoping out the artwork of the other “artists” and being constantly motivated to be better than them. I think competition is important for growth.

th: You work in an affluent district. To what degree do you feel that helps or hurts the results you’re able to get from your students?

DF: I would be lying if I said my student’s affluence had no bearing on my program. First of all, I am provided a budget that allows me to run the art program that I run. Having the money to buy paints, canvas, clay, helps. I feel extremely fortunate. That’s just one aspect. Many of my students, as a consequence of their wealth, have been afforded the opportunity to travel all over the world. I have students who have been to countries and museums that I hope I can one day visit! So in a way, they’re already sold on the importance of art. The majority of my students’ parents are very supportive of the arts. Sure, you get the occasional parent who has no idea what’s going on in my classroom and thinks it serves no value, and “My kid is just not good at art.” But that’s the exception. Most of my students have been exposed to art through their affluence and understand its importance.

All that said, my student teaching experience and first long-term substitute experience were in lower income areas and I’m sure I would feel lucky to be working in any of those districts. Really, I think it’s your attitude as the educator.

th: The school often has you display student work. Can you talk about how that ultimately reflects on the work they do, or is it a complete non-issue for them in their creation stage? How do the kids react to having an exhibition of their work?

DF: We’ve been creating a permanent display of our students’ work for the past six or seven years. The first year we did it, I guess we didn’t really sell it to our students. It was a total flop. We had a sad reception of a handful of students and parents. The work was based on Mondrian’s. Each student created a square that adhered to the style of Neoplasticism. While most of the square tiles were very nice on their own, when joined together, it created a disjointed and nauseating work of art. We learned from this. The next year each student created a low-relief sculpture; a self-portrait painted (as seen in photos in the style of the Fauves). We constantly impressed upon them that they were working as a collective and it was about their cooperative effort. It was not about the success of the individual, but the whole class, the whole grade. I would often take their pieces and lay them out together on my tables and have them observe the works all together. This, “we’re all in it together” mentality reality took over, it really worked. No one wanted to be the person who wasn’t pulling their weight. I’m happy to say that the second installation we put together was a major success, well attended and the work was not vertigo-inducing.

And then, once you’ve established yourself, you can grow. We had built a reputation. Incoming 8th graders were excited to see what they would be doing for their installation and every year we get more students and parents coming out for the reception, which is after school. It has gotten to the point where we’ve had to develop strategies to deal with the crowds so it isn’t a fire hazard!

But, yeah, knowing that they are working toward a permanent installation creates certain seriousness in how the students approach the project.

Additionally, we put out an annual art magazine that many of the students aspire to have their work featured in, which is another motivating factor.

th: Where does your help or your criticism need to take a back seat? How far is “too far” when pushing your kids or trying to get them to either change their approach or rethink their initial efforts?

DF: That’s a difficult one. Trying to gauge, “Is this the best you can do?” I think it really comes down to getting to know your students. There are students that you know you can push and be honest with. Then again I try to be honest with all my students. In fact, I tell them, “It’s your parents’ job to lie to you.” I’d be doing them no service if I just said blankly, “Oh sweetie, that’s great. Here’s a gold star.”

But the way you approach it will make all the difference in the world. I would never say, “That stinks!” I’d say something like, “You’re skin tone and the value of your background is very similar. Do you think if you created a darker value for your background we’d have a more dynamic work?” You have to explain what and why. You know? I will tell students that their effort stinks. If they’re sitting there, doing nothing; or if they recognize their mistakes and do nothing to fix them or if they’re unsure how to fix them, and are refusing to ask for help.

And if I have a student who I can tell, through the tears welling in their eyes, that they’re not ready for a certain criticism, I’ll let it go. There’s a line between making someone a better artist and turning them off from art. I couldn’t bear the thought of ruining a student’s love . . . or even like of art.

th: What’s the biggest hurdle you face in trying to inspire greatness from your students? Has this always been the case?

DF: The biggest hurdle is just getting them to believe that they can. I don’t know why so many believe, “I couldn’t possibly learn to draw.” No, you could. If you have the desire, the focus, the ability to follow directions, you can. I can teach you to draw and paint, I can’t necessarily make you an artist, but I can teach you to draw an accurate portrait. I can teach you to look. I can teach you to draw what you see, not what you think you see.

And yes, this has always been the case. Something happens from primary to middle school that students start thinking, “I can’t.” So just getting them to move beyond, “I can’t” is the hurdle. I refuse to let them say, “I can’t.” I tell them, “Maybe, you can’t yet.” If you can’t yet, you’ve come to the right place. You can learn, and if you want to, I’ll teach you.

th: Since you paint outside of teaching, has their been any inspiration from your work in the classroom on what you’ve created on your own? (If so, why/how? If not, why do you think that is?)

DF: I know it might sound cliché, but I do learn a lot from my students. I currently have an 8th grade student that has been working on a painting where my colleague remarked, “She should be teaching us.” It can be a brushstroke or a line that a student makes . . . or a whole approach to one of the projects, that’ll just turn me on my ear, where I’ll be absolutely inspired. I think it’s impossible to not find inspiration in what others do.

All photos courtesy of Dennis Fediw.