This month’s interview is with NYC based artist and educator, Craig Kane. I’m particularly excited about this discussion because, while in grad school at Pratt Institute, I was assigned to observe his classroom. I loved it because I could just sit, watch and take notes while not having any of the pressures related to teaching. Craig showed me the importance of process, patience, and humor. With each project, he provided structure, but would give students space to explore on their own and take risks. The kids respected him not because he possessed an authoritative teaching style, but because he was relatable. Craig exudes a youthful spirit, emanating genuine excitement and curiosity for each project.
Craig has been teaching art at an elementary school in Manhattan for the past 13 years. He has a BFA from UC Berkeley (1987), MFA from SUNY Purchase (2004), and an Advanced Certificate in Art Ed from Pratt Institute (2005). He is a practicing artist and has a studio in Long Island City. His last solo show was at the PMW Gallery in Stamford and has another one scheduled in Connecticut for next year. Check out his website here.
Hi Craig, how was your summer? What did you do?
Summer was great. Just returned from CA with the family. Visited parents and friends, body surfed and swam and played some golf, and before that I was able to spend a lot of time in the studio. I’ve been working on a writing project and was able to make a lot of progress; got the studio organized and de-cluttered; and got back to painting some very small paintings. Unfortunately also found out that the building is up for sale and that our days are most likely numbered there, but that’s life in NY. At least these days.
But all in all a relaxing and reinvigorating summer and I’m ready for school!
Concerning the types of lessons art teachers teach, I feel as if we all fall somewhere within this spectrum: on one end the projects are very procedural and step-by-step oriented, while on the opposite end they are much more unstructured and would include choice-based art education (TAB). Where do you think you fall--more towards the procedural, TAB, or perhaps right in the middle? Do you think each side has its merits? Should we be cautious of subscribing too much to one side?
I think every teacher has a unique situation—unique in the backgrounds of their students, in class size, in resources, administrative and parent support etc. Of course each side has it’s merits. As I get older I see the benefit of teaching (and learning) technique and am incorporating more technique based lessons. This gives the students more tools and thus more freedom and choice in their work. But I also have come to see more and more how art making is about a dialogue—a conversation that each student is having with their work and thus with themselves. When working with young kids as I do I think building this dialogue can help strengthen their inner voice, that inner dialogue that we all have with ourselves about the world around us. This feels important now as kids have less time with themselves, less creative time, and more with structured activities, the internet etc.
So I work to incorporate both. I like to teach technique—brush use, paint techniques, clay skills etc—but then give the students a problem solving structure where they can make their own choices and tell their own stories.
How important do you think practice, experimentation, and play is in the art room?
That’s what art is all about. Practice: technique, creative thinking. Experimentation: try new things and, most importantly, fail a lot! Play: it’s all about play. Trying things, doing things that don’t make sense, make up new games and new rules for old games. Again that’s how we learn to interact with the world and others.
I remember how ambitious some of your projects were (stop motion animation, making pinhole cameras and building a darkroom out of cardboard are just a few). What particularly exciting projects are you looking forward to teaching this year?
Good memory! I’m looking forward to many of the same units and projects, but each year I work to dig deeper into the learning. I also work to get more clear on my own process and what I actually need to do, what they need to learn and what’s redundant etc. So with the pinhole cameras for example I’ve streamlined the process to focus more clearly on what it’s really all about, which in our case is light. As a result I’ve built a sketchbook/drawing unit around the darkroom project, one that investigates light and how light affects how we see form.
I’m looking forward to that as well as our 5th grade figure study and architecture units. Also I had a super student teacher last year who took an idea I’d been working with and really focused it. So I’m looking forward to stealing that first grade 3D unit. Also looking forward to incorporating a few more skills based lessons as unit introductions.
By this time—13 years—I have a pretty set curriculum that I feel builds from the ground up, gives a solid technical base while also allowing room for growth and creative thinking. But I’m always tweaking it and working to streamline like I said. I still like the projects and enjoy teaching them, and the students respond in kind. I never get tired of the art!
Do you think it’s important for art teachers to challenge themselves with new projects, even if it requires extra prep and the possibility of failure?
Of course. It’s easy to fall, if not into a rut, into thinking that your way is the only way. That’s why I like having student teachers. They’re generally pretty great and I try to give them a lot of freedom to experiment and try new things. Of course that opens us up for some failures, but I’m always there to help tidy things up. In the end I learn a lot that way (and hope they do too).
Speaking of ambitious projects, I know that you have had student work represented for several years at the prestigious P.S. Art juried exhibition at the Met. Could you please briefly explain this opportunity and share any memorable experiences you’ve had from it?
Well I have mixed feelings because I’m not into competition in art (maybe because I’m very competitive!). I know that each competition has it’s own set of eyes, is looking for specific things, and I also know that being accepted or not does not make one a good or bad artist. We talk in the classroom all the time about how art isn’t something to judge, how each person is “good” in their own way, about art being an individual pursuit. So the competitions don’t swing with that.
I will say, however, that it is important for me as an NYC public school art teacher to participate in things—for the sake of my career, for the visibility of our school. I’ve also found that the students who don’t get in seem to take it pretty well, and for the ones that do, and their families, it’s a very special experience. So I do it. Not all the time because I feel that I know the kind of work that is PS Art-like, and if I don’t have anything when the deadline comes near I don’t enter. But often we do and I’ve had a number of students in the show, including this photo from the year before last.
This past year I didn’t enter anything but we now have a Borough arts festival and we did have a student in that show this year. Nice feeling there as the opening is at the MoMA.
Being that you are a practicing artist, do you think it is important for art teachers to create their own work?
I do. Maybe some people don’t, and that’s fine, but I do. I came to teaching kids a little later in life, and after a long time of living as an artist, making art and having a studio. Understanding what that is about, and how art connects to my life, is important to me as a teacher and is kind of the guiding force in my classroom. We’re not learning how to make a particular kind of art, but rather how to be artists.
Knowing that you also have a family, do you have any advice on work-life balance? Teaching is an exhausting career (mentally and physically). How do you have the energy and time to teach, create meaningful art in your studio, and be present as a parent and husband?
Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing any of that well, and honestly it’s a rare and fleeting moment when I feel that everything is in balance at the same time. Usually one part or more is stressed. But I try. I’ve been making art for a long time so I kind of know how to do it, to keep it going. During the typical school week I don’t get to the studio as often as I’d like, but I do get there at least once or twice a week for a few hours. It’s built into my life and life schedule and that helps a lot. The teaching is certainly physically and emotionally taxing as I have nearly 700 students and large classes. So I’m constantly looking for ways to make things easier for myself—streamlined classroom systems, better prep and organization etc. But the students still energize me. They are always excited and engaged and that keeps me wanting to go to school every day.
As far as the family part, I’m lucky to have a great partner in my wife. She and I work together and often pick each other up when needed. But it’s never easy. So no advice really. I have to work hard to make sure I see myself and what effect I have on others. And I have to remember to put my kids and students first, then take care of myself. But taking care of me is important too. I try to stay off the processed food!
What advice would you give to a first year art teacher?
Wow—there is so much to learn! Preparation is super important. It pays to spend time preparing as best you can. Takes a lot of the stress away and allows for greater learning when you are down in the trenches. And of course listen to your students. And I mean listen with your eyes as much if not more than your ears. Are they working, engaged, distracted, having fun, getting to the teaching point? And keep it short and simple. Get down to what the lesson is really about and teach to that. Stay on target! Oh and realize that you will fail at least a little every day, but that the students are forgiving and there’s always another opportunity to try again.
Who are two art educators that you find particularly inspiring?
I don’t often get the opportunity to see other art teachers in action. We do have our professional development days here in NY, but those are spent out of the classroom. And being the only art teacher in a large school can sometimes feel isolating. So I’ve been very fortunate the past couple of years to have had Shani Perez, the art teacher at PS 51 in Manhattan, as a professional development facilitator in our Arts Mondays group. Shani is amazing in the way she is able to navigate and incorporate the structure and expectations of the DOE, and find and use what’s valuable, yet at the same time provide a unique curriculum that allows for experimentation and creativity. She is wonderfully flexible in her thinking yet clear and structured in her presentation to the students. This seems particularly relevant to her diverse population which includes a fairly high number of students in temporary housing. These kids might come with little or no background in art and only stay for a short period of time. Shani has been a great help to me in many ways. She is smart, supportive and an excellent problem solver. I had the opportunity to observe her for a day this past semester and have already brought some of her ideas on lesson structure successfully into my own classroom.
Way, way back as an undergrad out in Berkeley there was this teacher who came for a semester from New York. Stanley Whitney was a full time professor at Tyler in Philadelphia but had taken up the offer to spend the spring with us in California. I found out later that Stanley had a reputation as a great teacher, but I’ll always remember that first day of class when this guy I didn’t know looked at my painting and in front of the whole class calmly told me that I wasn’t using the right kind of paint. He said that if I wanted to play with paint then I should be using oil. Now I thought I was pretty hot stuff making my big, sloppy, bay area-looking acrylic paintings, so I just kind of laughed. But we made a deal that I would continue what I was doing but try the oil at the same time. Well after struggling deep into the night with that first oil painting I didn’t touch acrylic again for a long, long time.
Stanley was an inspiration, a mentor, and a role model. He seemed to know where I needed to go before I did, and how to guide me to find my way. Some days it was practical info, like showing me different ways to apply paint. Sometimes it was by introducing an idea, like “layering” or “edges.” But often it was just a question, like “why are you doing that?” Often that “why” would shake my whole foundation. I still think about Stanley often, both in the studio and in my classroom, thinking about how much to say, how little, and when to just ask “why?”
What are your two all-time favorite projects that you teach? Why are these your favorite?
I have a lot of favorites. I love teaching our fifth grade Figure Study unit because it does what I want it to do, year after year. It gives the students valuable tools which increase their decision making power, and it engages them through weeks of independent work. It introduces a concept that makes sense and helps the students become successful in this unit and beyond. And it’s fun for me too!
Third grade Superheroes are always great. It’s the right project at the right time. We first learn and practice technique, then apply it in a painting. This unit incorporates the notion of narrative in art, empowers the students (literally!), and results in large, colorful paintings with great depth and motion. A fan favorite!
Do you think assessment is important in the art room? What does this look like in your classroom?
Tough question. One thing I hate is grading art yet I’m required to do it—I have to give a number grade in art to 6 year olds which is pretty absurd. In the art studio we constantly stress the idea that art is subjective and that each student/artist has their unique value. So in that sense, the grading sense, I don’t see the point.
Having said that, as a teacher assessment is very important in terms of understanding my students’ needs, evaluating my own teaching practice, and in being able to give parents information about their child. Assessment also forces me to clarify my teaching point—if I have a clear point on which I am going to assess then that is what I am going to work to teach. If I am successful then assessment should be relatively easy. Did they get there? Can the students now do what we wanted them to be able to do?
The past couple of years we’ve been talking a lot about formative and summative assessment. For this I think of art as being divided into two parts—technical and creative—and this is what I’m looking at when doing summative assessment. This too can give me good information about the students and my teaching. I’d just prefer not reduce all of that to a number.
What about technology in the art room? Do you think it should be a focus?
No I don’t. I use my smart board all the time, for showing images, doing my demos on the camera, showing videos etc. I use it at some point during almost every lesson of every day. It’s a great tool and hard to remember what I did before I had one!
But as far as using technology with the kids, not so much. I do teach an animation elective but even that is more or less simple stop motion. Same with photography. Not digital, but rather pinhole cameras which get us to the core of what photography is. I think the students have enough technology in their lives and it’s super important to get to that foundation of what things are made of—stuff like texture, balance, color and weight. Young children explore the world through their senses, and this is how their brains develop. Super important. For the older kids it gives them a deeper understand of things, including the digital world, if they have an understanding of where it comes from and how it’s built.
What has been your most rewarding moment as an art teacher?
I don’t know if there is an one moment that stands out. Of course it feels good when we can see the results of our work, when there’s some kind of immediate feedback. It’s certainly rewarding when you can help a student feel good about themselves or about art or school. Those are great moments. But mostly we just keep working and doing our best and hope that in the long run it might help someone achieve their goals.
There was a little moment at the end of last year that I kept thinking about through the summer. I had observed Shani in her classroom and watched her begin the lesson on the floor. Mostly because of space and numbers this is something I stopped doing after my first year teaching. But I really liked the feeling it set, how it facilitated a certain mode and type of discussion. I went back to school and the next day had my first class, first graders, come in and sit on the floor with me. And something clicked. We connected in our discussion in a different way, with me managing things less and acting more as a facilitator, and the discussion flowed. And it flowed into the art making too. I can’t believe it’s been a dozen years since I’ve done that but that was a super moment and I’m excited to continue this practice into the new year.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve encountered within this profession and how did you navigate them?
There are challenges every day! Yes, it’s challenging—public school in New York City. Too many students, classes are too large, expectations and requirements are always changing. But that’s the job. Most of the larger challenges come from myself and my own rigidity and expectations. The best thing I can do is to try and stay humble and realize I’m going to fail at something everyday, at least a little. But as I tell my students this means I’m learning.
Is there an exciting trend happening right now in our field?
This idea of a “growth mindset” is cool because it’s what art making, art teaching, and being an artist is all about. So the idea of spreading that kind of flexible thinking throughout the school is exciting. The challenge is, of course, how to stick to it with all the other external challenges. Hard to remain flexible when you have to teach to a test and your teacher rating is based on the results!
Is there a trend that you disagree with or have mixed feelings about?
Maybe the over reliance on data. I do think it’s of the utmost importance to know the students, to know yourself and if the students are engaged and learning etc. But I think that the pendulum hasn’t necessarily swung all the way in that direction. I am constantly hearing hints of greater data collection in the arts, i.e. an art test, and that scares me a little. Also that classes are getting bigger and bigger. That’s a bad trend.
Within the profession, what issues do you think art teachers need to be talking about most right now?
I could use more time to connect with other art teachers in an unstructured way, more time and freedom to talk, to figure out how to connect and to problem solve. I’d like to have the time to figure out what it is that’s going on, what we have in common.
There has been a huge push in education over the years to implement prescribed curricula with little or no room for teacher-driven content. This seems to be more apparent with classroom teachers than with specialists, although the trend among the latter is growing. What are your thoughts on this? Do you believe art teachers should have total control over the curriculum, or should there be an established curriculum put in place by the district?
Well obviously a prescribed curriculum makes no sense to me. For one thing I don’t see how a set curriculum could meet the needs of all students, especially art students. But even more so that thinking is contrary to everything I’ve ever learned about art, and what it means to be an artist in our world today. I work very hard to promote the art studio as a place where there is no right or wrong, no one “right” way to make art, a place where each student has their own valuable voice and individual way of expressing it, and where each way is valid. In the art studio we are always looking to learn, to push the boundary of art and what art can be and say. So having a set curriculum is counterintuitive at least, and I think ultimately harmful.
Now having said that, I do see the value in teaching some common tools, the foundation of a common language, such that students can communicate. Art is indeed a language and if you don’t have the tools, don’t speak well, you can’t have a strong voice in the dialogue. I kind of like how we do it here in NY with the Blueprint. The Blueprint isn’t a curriculum, but rather a guide and a way of beginning to develop that common language. Still though there are pictures in the Blueprint, pictures of what the kid’s art might look like, and this can lead to trouble. We run the risk of teachers and students thinking that that is the right way to do it, and then everything starts looking alike. And that’s not good.