I’m not teaching right now, but I’m doing preparatory work for three different programs simultaneously. RISD Pre-College starts in a week, so I’m getting all of the logistics in place to teach 4 classes of Design Foundations this summer. I put together a large supply order for RISD Project Open Door, which dictated that I also plan the entire year’s curriculum. Since I’ve taught at both programs before, I have a good system in place, but it still takes time.
The bulk of my preparatory work right now is writing new materials for a course I am teaching this fall called “Drawing I: Visualizing Space”, a drawing class in the RISD Illustration Department for incoming sophomores. The last time I taught this course was in 2009, and my teaching has evolved quite a bit since then. When I revisited my old course materials, I decided that only about 30% of the course is going to stay. With the exception of one homework assignment, all of the homework assignments will be new.
Brainstorming new assignments is tricky. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at this, but you never really know until the students actually come into class with the completed assignment. I’ve certainly had my fair share of failed assignments, what was I thinking when I assigned a drawing project titled “Explosion/Implosion?” I always give an assignment to two different classes before I give up on it, sometimes assignments get very different results depending on the class. If I still don’t get results after that, I pitch the assignment.
I aim to create homework assignments that strike a balance between specificity and freedom. If an assignment is too open, I have found that students tend to get lost and the class loses focus. Too much specificity can suffocate creative possibilities and frequently the projects end up looking too similar.
To test new assignments, I ask myself how I would respond to the assignment. If I can’t come up with at least 3 ideas for the project within 5 minutes, I know that my students will have a tough time. Last night I was brainstorming a new project titled “Remembered Space”, which asks students to create a drawing based on a space that they visited often during their childhood, but that they no longer visit. Immediately, 3 spaces came to my mind: 1) my piano teacher’s living room, where my mother would sit while I had my lesson. I remember the dim light in the room, the earth toned furniture, and all of the odd objects, like an oil and water toy that I found mesmerizing. 2) the tiny grocery store next to my elementary school, where my mother would buy deli meat. The store was run by 3 or 4 elderly people who my mother always chatted with when she came in. 3) the art room at my elementary school. Starting in fourth grade, art class was my favorite hour of the week at school, and I remember being completely silent during class because I wanted to concentrate on my work. The space was chaotic, bursting with art supplies, with the walls covered with art history pictures. This assignment idea passed my test, so I’ll be implementing it into my course this fall.
Once I have the basic idea in place, I start writing down requirements for the assignment, such as size and media. The way I write the assignment in the course handouts has changed significantly. I used to write long, dense paragraphs about the assignment, but through experience I’ve learned that students respond better when the language is plain and straightforward. Now, I intentionally write only 1-3 sentences about the assignment and let the students run with that.
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