Creating Collaboratively: We Are All Learning

By Jessica Land

 Students begin their sculpture by combining individual objects to make the “core.”

Students begin their sculpture by combining individual objects to make the “core.”

This week, the seventh grade Spanish Immersion students at Kelly Middle School completed a group sculpture process that engaged them in creative collaboration and self-reflection. Each group’s mixed media sphere began with an inner “core” made of an object chosen by each student to represent their inner world. Then, they combined these to represent their support systems, both at home and at school. Building outward from the center, students identified and visually represented a personal strength, then worked together to choose a message they wanted their sculpture to convey. Each group’s message was unique; ranging from freedom of expression to the importance of recycling, and “saving the arctic” to individuality. One group chose to devote their sculpture to visually representing their class’s guiding poem, In Lak’ech, which carries a message of empathy and unity for all humans.

 Students envisioned their sculptures and reflected on the process in individual accordion sketch books.

Students envisioned their sculptures and reflected on the process in individual accordion sketch books.

During their creative process, students experienced the typical pitfalls of collaboration: group members taking over or checking out, dissimilar creative visions, varied skill levels, time limitations, personality clashes. We had several “stop-and-fix” moments, when we left the sculpture and worked on group dynamics. In one case, groups created tableaux sequences showing what they were doing well and what they needed to work on. This helped them re-focus. They returned to the sculpture understanding that the quality of their interactions have an effect on their creative process and, ultimately, the message they send out to the world.

 This group’s message was the importance of seeing that the whole is made of unique individuals.]

This group’s message was the importance of seeing that the whole is made of unique individuals.]

Working as an ArtCore Weaver—not only as a co-designer of arts-integrated curriculum in my school, but also as a member of a broader team that includes artists, teachers from other schools, administrators, researchers, and students—has engaged me in collaborative design on many levels. I have come to understand that we are all learning, all the time, and we are doing it together.

A few weeks ago, three of us from the ArtCore weaver team attended a workshop on collaborative design. As I was sitting in the workshop, learning practical tools for engaging in creative work with other adults, I began to see what my students have been teaching me, through their collaborative process:

  • Remember to “stop and fix,” when it is necessary, to address group dynamics;
  • Routinely talk about group dynamics, power, and emotional well-being;
  • Make space for all voices;
  • Consider new ways;
  • Experiment, fail, and try a new approach;
  • Sometimes connecting is more important than deciding;
  • Ultimately, choosing a course is important, too. Decisions do have to be made;
  • Sometimes deadlines are helpful, and sometimes deadlines need to be extended.

As students reflected upon their collaborative process, I heard them identifying their own areas of growth: “sharing ideas and working together,” “listening to each others’ ideas,” “communicating,” and “sharing the work.” They talked about mistakes and how they overcame them together. Perhaps most importantly, when they presented their sculptures to the class, almost all students demonstrated pride and ownership for what they had created.

When engaging in truly authentic creative collaboration, the path is rarely linear, and there is not a road map for the route a group is likely to take. This means that practicing skills that support healthy collaboration—communication, shared leadership, decision-making, failing forward, empathy—is essential.

 This group’s message is freedom of expression and Pride. They expressed wanting to hang their sculpture inside the entrance to the school so everyone who comes to Kelly Middle School will feel welcome

This group’s message is freedom of expression and Pride. They expressed wanting to hang their sculpture inside the entrance to the school so everyone who comes to Kelly Middle School will feel welcome