Tearing It Up

Tear Art

We’re exactly two weeks into the new school year, and things in AP World and AP U.S. History have started off about as well as one might expect, given the many interruptions and the wide variety of skill levels and content-knowledge gathered together in each section.

They may be talented teenagers, but they’re still, you know… teenagers.

Last year was a bit rocky at times, and it was important to me that this year start strong. I’m not claiming anything particularly magical has occurred, but so far it’s been a decent balance of high expectations and just enough compassion for those finding the learning curve a bit steeper than they’re used to. Overall, though, I’ve been damn near legit. (I’ll even go out on a limb and say that, as a general rule, feeling like you more or less know what you’re doing is quite a bit more enjoyable than feeling like you’re in over your head and are probably ruining the future in a dramatic, easily-traceable-to-you fashion.)

And then it happened.

I was being all pedagogical, sitting in my classroom at the end of the day and pondering options for the morrow, when the most ridiculous, artsy-fartsy revelation popped into my head.

We should do tear art!

For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, tear art involves stacks of variously-colored construction paper and plenty of cheap glue sticks. Students are given a time period or range of topics, and – without revealing their choices to anyone around them – use their little hearts, minds, and hands to tear out shapes and glue them onto a base page, or to one another.

No scissors allowed. No rulers. No compasses, staples, astrolabes – not even a hole punch. And no numerals or letters – you cannot write on your tear art with any form of pen, pencil, or marker, nor can you tear the paper into alphanumeric figures. It’s shapes and colors and glue, baby – working together to convey knowledge, insight, and understanding.

It’s great for certain age groups or types of students. It lends itself well to topics involving social movements, artistic expressions, strong emotions, or other intangibles best represented impressionistically. (One of my girls asked me suspiciously today where I’d come up with the idea, eventually sharing that her mom used it with her in-patients at a local “psych ward” – which I’m pretty sure is teenager code for some sort of mental health care facility for young people in the area.)

But for reviewing initial European contact with Amerindians or the various approaches of the Spanish, French, and English towards colonization?

Not so much, surely.

I toyed with the idea a bit, and repeatedly discarded it. We weren’t at a logical point for breaking our serious, focused, AP-momentum just yet. The strengths of the activity didn’t really fit this type of content. And, while I prefer not to admit it, I’m to some extent still trying to prove myself in some way I can’t quite put my finger on – a sensation no doubt rooted in my own needs and dysfunctions rather than anything external.

So, no – not tear art. Not now. Not here.

But it just kept coming back to mind.

I eventually made the mistake of checking my supply closet and had plenty of construction paper – although I have no recollection as to why. (I haven’t done the activity in years.) I’d need a few more glue sticks, but those are cheap and Wal-Mart still has all their school supplies on—

NO! LOOK, SELF… you’ve already put together the close reading thing with those colonial documents and that “City on a Hill” excerpts, and they’re just starting to get the hang of primary sources. Save the artsy-fartsy for, I don’t know… some other time. Some time it makes more sense.

Not that playing with colored paper and glue really fits anywhere in the AP curriculum, but still...


As an over-thinker, the dilemma quickly evolved. Soon it was no longer about sticking to the orthodox stuff vs. trying the artsy-fartsy – it became, in my mind, about whether or not I was going to follow my gut and do something that might look stupid (hell, it might be stupid), or go with the perfectly good alternative lesson plan that was entirely justifiable and appropriate for the theoretical confines of the course and wouldn’t look severely weird if someone were to drop in for a visit in the middle of things.

It became about whether or not I was going to take a risk based on twenty years of trying weird crap that sometimes turns out to be brilliant, sometimes turns out to be *SHRUG*, and sometimes completely wastes 72 minutes of our collective lives that can never be recovered or redeemed. It became about whether or not I was willing to fail this early in the year, practically on purpose, when it was so very important to me not to – at least not now. Not this soon. Not after last year.

It sounds far more noble writing about it after the fact – like my face at some point transformed into a beacon of resolve and understanding, my hair blowing majestically as I gaze up and to the right of the camera, smirking heroically until we cut to commercial. There was still a very real chance that the whole idea was still going to be stupid and would not only waste an entire class period but undercut some of the momentum and credibility I’d started to build with this group. That’s not even taking into account how common it is for peers or evaluating administrators to drop in this time of year to observe. (What’s the code on the rubric for “looks like it’s all going to pedagogical hell in a badly torn-and-glued basket”?)

We did the tear art. It wasn’t a disaster. I mean, it was a bit messy, but that was to be expected. And I hadn’t covered ‘glue etiquette’ in my syllabus.

But most students enjoyed it. The traditionally excellent were pushed a bit out of their comfort zone, but they managed (no surprise there). The majority seemed to find it cathartic. The ones who committed themselves to it actually learned a few things, as did those who remained attentive as each class member in turn held up their final product and the rest of the class guessed what it represented.

So it wasn’t an utter embarrassment. That’s good.

But was it a great use of time? I’m not sure. I think so, but I couldn’t back it up with data or anything. Based on informal feedback, a number of them reworked and rethought the material, making it stickier and more meaningful. Others, not so much.

But even if the only accomplishment was that it was kinda fun while still reinforcing content, I’m comfortable with that in moderation. So many things impact how well students will work for you, learn for you, most of them completely out of our control. Maybe it was a release, or a rapport-builder, or some other intangible that will make tomorrow (when we get to those primary sources I’m so genuinely excited about) more effective, more meaningful. Maybe it helped pull back the rubber band of learning before snapping the arm of ignorance.

Or maybe we just played with glue for an hour in the name of college-level history. I’m still not 100% certain.

So this is not a heroic story, let alone a promo for tear art. What it is, I think, is my small effort to confirm whatever it is your gut is telling you. It’s very unlikely I’ll do anything truly crazy – I’m not against shattering paradigms, but that’s just not me. I believe very much in balancing what I think sounds “interesting” with what’s fundamentally sound – useful, professional, appropriate. I started my career twenty years ago relying almost exclusively on energetic good intentions and a modicum of wit; I like to think that over time I’ve learned some of the science of the gig, and that I go to that proverbial “tool box” before leaping once again off the cliff after that demented muse who for some reason still taunts me from time to time.

But I hope my need to play it safe, or my desire to maintain credibility with peers or others, never completely overrides the recklessness of that first decade or so, or those random moments of “what if?” More than that, I hope you, my Eleven Faithful Followers, will take a moment to ponder whatever it was that convinced you to educate the spawn of others for a living (already a crazy concept). Whatever it was that you envisioned or tried or did before “reality” set in, or test results were posted, or your peers got that look on their faces, I hope you’ll consider trying it again, or chasing that weird new idea you had over the summer, or nailing down that stupid “we should really” you and that one colleague keep kicking around.

It might be stupid, but it might be brilliant. It might fall somewhere in between. But you’ll pick up such colorful scraps, and may even find yourself smirking a bit as you scrub the glue off your podium. 

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We always had a 'right brain art day' during our literature units...usually at the end. We called them 'crayon days.' One boy was thrilled on the day we were visualizing color images in RED BADGE...told the class he'd always been suspended for the other days.

I loved to stand back and see who struggled and who excelled. The academic kids hated the loosey-goosey directions...they wanted step-by-step!! But we all muddled through and we all thought with our whole brain. Never did tear art tho! Glad you gave it a try


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