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Leah Thomas

Mia (pseudonym) drags a pine green colored-pencil across an empty expanse of paper in a long, slow arc. Near the end of her trajectory, her pencil slips and the line goes jagged – this flower will have a crooked stem.

Before I can blink, Mia has crumpled her paper into a ragged ball and pushed it to the edge of her desk.

“I’m not good at drawing. I know, I really suck at it.”

Mia is only eight years old, and already it is a struggle to convince her otherwise. I hear this sort of declaration often, almost daily, from my elementary school students in Chula Vista, but it doesn’t get easier to listen to. The idea that children start to devalue their own creativity before they even learn to long-divide is disheartening.

Where does this lack of confidence come from? Surely students aren’t born with an innate lack of self-worth. But it’s hard to say that anyone would intentionally convince a child that she or he isn’t creative. True, a lot of a child’s personality is informed by peers at this age, and perhaps it only takes one student dismissing a doodle to plant the seeds of this insidious notion.

But how can we, as teachers and art educators, counteract this idea in a way that is genuine? Of course there are some students who are endowed with more traditional artistic ability than others; denying this would be like denying that children come in all shapes and sizes.

It’s important to stress that art is the furthest thing from a black and white concept; a piece of work need not be beautiful to have value. Fostering this idea in the classroom contributes to a more comfortable atmosphere for creative work. But how to foster this, when we can’t change what students already believe about themselves and their artistic ability?

My two cents: the focus on specific and effective praise in the classroom has to carry over into creative work. Rather than complimenting work that looks “nice”in general terms (i.e. “Wow, that’s beautiful!”), it’s better to dig into the meat of student thinking, regardless of aesthetics. Ask students what inspired their work, the thoughts that went into it, and often you find that a lot of consideration has been put into squiggly lines and crooked shapes. Compliment a student for inventive or unusual choices, and ask questions: “The facial expressions you drew are really interesting; why is this character frowning?” or “Why did you decide to use those colors?”

I wish Mia hadn’t crumpled up her drawing so quickly. If she hadn’t, I’d have had a chance to specifically praise her focus, her choice of color, and perhaps most importantly, the thoughtfulness that motivated the art: drawing her mother a bouquet of flowers for her birthday.

If kids learn to crumple before they learn to finish, imagine all the thoughts we’ll never know about. Imagine all the imagination we’ll be missing.