Opal School third graders have been exploring charcoal as a language -- a tool for thinking and expression. We began by asking: What can this material do? What colors are you finding that live inside black? As with any new material, any encounter with the unfamiliar, the children made assumptions. They were often done early in those initial explorations. They were not convinced that charcoal could do much, actually. Except make an astonishing kind of mess in a hurry. And make an absolutely spine-chilling sound if you dragged it on the paper in just the wrong way.
But as they were given (and by given I mean assigned) more time, and encouraged to dig deeper, they began to find more nuance, more possibility, and surprise. The arts may be the best tools we have to offer children a sense of possibility. And I don't only mean the possibility in making discoveries, but also the possibility in seeking discoveries. The arts can fine tune our ability to be active in our inquiries, recognizing that there is always a layer beneath our first impressions -- if we keep looking, we'll find more.
The arts allow real development of critical habits of mind such as perseverance, inquiry, flexible thinking, striving for accuracy, innovation and much more. They strengthen wonder. But they also allow us opportunity to have tangible experience with concepts that can otherwise live pretty exclusively in the abstract. Even very young children are capable of developing language sophisticated enough to speak in powerful ways about important ideas such as empathy and social justice. But the use of the arts allow us to create metaphor with our own hands. These metaphors, as any, build and bridge understanding.
After several weeks of explorations of this new materials, I asked the children to use it to help them develop their theory of how empathy works. This was a concept that we had been developing through the use of dialogue and literature and reflection on personal experience. But the charcoal in the children's hands allowed new depth of understanding.