A Mobile App: Teaching as Art

Lobster Trap and Fish Tail by Alexander Calder

By Peggy Wuenstel — I have always been a fan of Alexander Calder, the sculptor credited with elevating the mobile to high art.

Among my favorite aspects of viewing this genre is the way that movement, even the slightest air current, changes the way that we are able to view the same components. I also have fond memories of watching the mobiles that dangled above the cribs of my children and grandchildren. I have even tried to construct a few on occasion. That activity, along with untangling one that had inadvertently become snarled, proved quite a “balancing act”.

It reminds me a great deal of my teaching job and the many ways to view my chosen profession.

About twenty years ago I attended a conference at Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah, where one of the speakers used the analogy of a mobile to describe the intricate changes that occur in family dynamics. The framework of strings and crossbars supports dangling items much like the home, jobs, and resources that support a family unit. Artfully or haphazardly arranged, many families are like works of art.

I have thought about this analogy many times over the years, and like so many things in educational practice, I am uncertain which were part of the original presentation and which are my own additions.  It has been interesting to observe the evolution of my own internal mobile.  Sometimes the impacts are happy, the addition of a child to the family unit, a promotion, a new home, significant improvements in financial circumstances. But even with the joy, the balance of the mobile changes.

Little Spider by Alexander Calder

Some alterations are the result of challenges, losses, illness, or violence.  Cutting off an important aspect of family life through death, divorce, losing security due to job loss, abuse or neglect can send the mobile that is family life teetering into chaos. The changes when we disrupt the mobile start out dramatically and gradually diminish as time passes. The mobile, and the lives that they may be used to represent eventually come to rest, but they do not look like they did before we added, subtracted or altered its components. The new normal might be discordant, artistically composed, or just plain bizarre. Often the things that precipitate this kind of change are sudden, even violent. The amplitude of their impacts on a family and the individuals within the unit can be huge. The careful work of creating the mobile can be undone by accident or by design in a split second. The impacts are often permanent.

I have found that this model also works when we apply it to the make-up of an individual student. It also seems to explain that thing we sometimes call “artistic temperament”.  When some component of a person is heavily weighted;  their ego, a specific talent, ability to focus, or specific academic skill (the math whiz) often something else is in short supply. This might be patience, social skills, self-control, or another academic area. This artistic composition is and will always be work in progress, a moveable piece of art that reflects both what is attached by the tethers and how the environment acts upon it. A mobile spins slowly in a quiet room, and when well designed by an artist like Calder, it appeals from all angles. On a breezy porch, it may circle gently and invite our interest. In a storm like hurricane Sandy it shudders and gyrates, reflecting and creating tension, concern and potential damage.

As teachers we sometimes can control the environment that the children before us are interacting in. We may not be able to control the wind, but we can adjust the sails, either adding to or moderating the force that is applied. We can be the windbreak that shelters our students from some of the storms in their lives. We can also provide the gentle nudge to set their dreams into motion. Most of what we do to change how children see and are seen by the world comes gradually. The mobile changes over time without the dramatic shifts and seesawing in response to pressure applied or elements lost or added.

Flamingo by Alexander Calder

There are many forms of art, teaching among them. All invite individual interpretations. Most inspire appreciation for the talent of the artist and the best invite that finest form of flattery, the desire to imitate, to reproduce, and make one’s own. Planning the changes we would like to see in the delicate mobiles that are the children we teach, we can minimize the upheaval that change creates. There is room for trials and errors. What happens if we add a bit here, shave off a bit there? We take steps forward and fall back to regroup. At each stage, the art will look a bit different.

Like so many things in the classroom, the most beautiful, long-lasting creations, the finest examples of the teaching virtuosity, are the things that we create in concert with our students, and art that not only accepts change, but invites it.

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