Coping with Death and Grief in the Secondary Art Classroom

[from the playful to the deadly serious]

by Mary Stokrocki


In Klein, S. (2003). Teaching Art in Context: Case Studies for Preservice Art Educationn

(pp.91-93). Reston, VA: NAEA.



How does a teacher deal with new students who have had little art training? Many teachers start in a highly structured way. Others use convincing arguments such as right brain theory. Still others incorporate playful strategies with real life problems. This study describes the instructional strategies of one art teacher dealing with beginners, many of whom are minority (30%). The context is a rapidly growing suburban city outside of Phoenix. The city changed from an agricultural to a manufacturing base. Both well-to-do suburban students and bilingual immigrants attend this new middle school. Students have no previous art training. The teacher tackles instruction with humor, fast paced instruction, and multiple motivations. Since the school system outlawed observance of Halloween (a censorship issue), she still appeals to student holiday and existential interests. As part of a lettering unit, she assigns an anti-drinking poster for all holidays to include the concepts of a contour bone drawing, good lettering, overlapping shapes, and making patterns in the background. Usually frustrated about their realistic drawing abilities, beginners seem less anxious about drawing the contour of a simple bone. She then transforms the lesson into a collage with reflections. For art history, she introduces Georgia O'Keefe's bone paintings. Finally, she encourages students to cope with a shocking real life problem--the death of a fellow student through art. Art instruction needs to deal with such existential concerns and to balance the playful and the deadly serious.



The best instructional practices exist in combination, depending on the goals. For beginners, instruction still seems to be multi-modal, experiential, and sequential. Most educators agree that task analysis is beneficial depended on the task type. Simple tasks are quite complex, and learning ranges from simple associations to higher order thinking (Kowalchuk, 1996).

Guidelines for instruction, however, are usually presented from a review of theoretical literature and lack the insights of everyday life. Participant observation research results offer instructional strategies that seem more vivid, believable, and appropriate to context; for example, the necessity to adopt multiple roles and fast pacing at the middle school level (Stokrocki, 1996).



Good instruction also demands good content and art education has a plethora of disciplines and activities from which to choose. In this chapter, I am more concerned about exploring issues of interest to middle school students, especially their rites of passage (Stokrocki, 1997) and existential concerns (Burton, 1981). These issues can include different cultural ways of commemorating the dead. Another middle school teacher, Larry Woodson involved students in serious study of tribal masks and had them view the video "Death, the Trip of a Lifetime" (Stokrocki, 1996). Good instruction involves the expansion of students' sensibilities "to help make connections between their cultures and life experiences and the world of art" (National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 1994, p. 27).

Context and participants. A rapidly growing suburban city outside of Phoenix built a new middle school. Within 10 years, the city changed from an agricultural to a manufacturing base with INTEL computers as a major employer. Students from well-to-do suburbs attended school with bilingual immigrants (30% of school population). Students had no previous art training in this typical middle-class city. The observed instructor, Minnie Fisher, used her commercial art background and her zesty sense of humor to motivate students. Twenty-six students (16 female & 10 male) comprised the class; Six of the students were Mexican-American. Minnie taught eight (45 minute) classes a day. With over 25 years experience, she taught in this school for five years.


The Holiday Poster Lesson

At the beginning of the year, Minnie spent a week reviewing elements and then concentrated on a lettering unit (name tag, enlarged initial, transferred initial onto clay relief, and now poster design). She already outlined the principles of good lettering and spacing. Since the school system outlawed observance of Halloween, Minnie assigned an anti-drinking poster on holidays to include the concepts of a contour bone drawing, lettering, overlapping shapes, and making patterns in the background. Starting with drawing of one simple object, such as a bone, was less threatening for beginners who were frustrated about their realistic drawing abilities (Stokrocki, 1990). This selection insures that students learn to perceive the contour of an object. She clarified the assignment as involving many choices: subject matter and media (7 min. intro.). The poster lesson involved several fast-paced instructional strategies and intense learning.


Multiple Motivations and Modes

HIV for teens. Minnie started her lesson early during a TV program on HIV for teens. Students were shocked to learn that nearly 50% of world's population was infected with HIV virus. They discussed the transmission of the virus via tattooing, blood sharing, and sex. They also discussed other deadly habits of teens, such as drinking and smoking. Minnie asked them to list holidays when these deadly things are problematic and they responded with Christmas, Halloween, Fourth of July, and St. Patrick's Day (5 min.).

Bone auction. Since students had previously been contour drawing, she reviewed the concept with them and told students that they would be drawing bones of her "skeleton pal" with them. She took apart the bones from the skeleton (borrowed from the science department) and distributed them out in a playful way--by auctioning them. She teased, "Who wants a finger? A foot? She then removed the leg bones and began twirling them, reminding students that only she was allowed to do this. Finally, she held the skull in her hand and sighed about loosing her friend (8 min.).

Charades. She then started the game of charades for idea generation. She probed, "What is this a sign of?" as she lifted the skull and crossed the bones. Everyone shouted "POISON!" Then she lifted a leg bone diagonally and asked them what it meant with a circle around it. Students guessed the "no smoking" sign. Students enjoyed playing the game and feeling the smooth surface of the (plastic) bones (7 min.).

O'Keefe video. She followed this playful segment with a 10-minute video segment on O'Keefe (Adato, 1977). The class was extremely attentive and one boy felt that O'Keefe's skull was "awesome." Similar reactions came from Wolfe's (1997) middle school students. Minnie thought that video segment ended at the right spot--with O'Keefe's painting of a (USA) patriotic skull. Minnie summarized, "After death, what is there?" (See Time Sampling at end of this article).

Pointing out details in paintings. While students were sketching their bones (10 min.), Minnie monitored their work with suggestions for improvement and expansion--in-process appraisal. She walked around with other bone painting reproductions by O'Keefe and examples of patterns to put in their background. Students were surprised that she painted flowers and bones--life and death images.

Frequent in process appraisals. Minnie gave additional suggestions, "Add a few smaller bones for contrast in size, overlap that shape with a bone, so it doesn't dominate the work, that burst is wonderful so outline the bone (to show up), that's great contrast with black in background, now add a pattern" (40 min.; 10/28/93).

Transformation collage and reflective sayings. Later, Minnie added another dimension to the project. She asked students to cut out their bone and make a poster collage by adding holiday symbols. She asked students to repeat colors, add background patterns, and include some good lettering. Since students already had a lesson on lettering, she looked forward to some "reflective sayings." As an example, she crooned, "Don't be a bonehead and end up dead!"

The unexpected playful interlude. Finally, in order to get students to loosen-up creatively, Minnie suggested some confetti and threw some across the room. Some students actually glued the confetti to their work and others added dot patterns.

Written self-evaluations. At the end of the project, Minnie asked students to complete a simple questionnaire about their work: describe their images, analyze their shapes (geometric or organic, both), communicate their mood, and judge how they would improve it.

Portfolio and artist statement. Similar to Wolfe (1997), who taught the artistically gifted, Minnie directed students to place their evolving work from the lettering unit in a process portfolio and write short artist statements. These were displayed on parents' night. Mainstream students can also complete these reflection assignments as well.



Realistic & schematic imagery: All students used the anti-drinking theme and cut out their drawn bones. The skull and hand with fingers were popular bone choices. No one used the hipbones. Students, who selected the skull, seemed to painstakingly draw the details. Another contour example was a long arm with bony fingers holding a cup See Figure 1). Both of these examples showed evidence of perceptual care. Some students even exaggerated the length of the fingers and legs to make the message more "comical." No student complained about drawing seemingly because the drawing task was simplified to meet the students' lack of practice. Sketching bones may not be as difficult as drawing an entire skeleton or a still life arrangement and considered unrealistic--not very threatening to draw. Students seemed to enjoy this offbeat subject matter. Wolfe's (1997) also responded to O'Keefe's bones.

Other students translated their bone into a simpler schema. Olea, for instance, imitated her friend Rosie by drawing a simplified leg bone and including all the holiday symbols: Christmas tree, flag, little pumpkin, and shamrock (See Figure 2). She arranged her symbols differently with the bone in the middle. Later, I discovered that Olea was new, non-English speaking, and had no art training. Mexican students, who cannot speak English, may imitate a classmate's schema in the beginning. The poster idea may also suggest quick and recognizable signs, often including stereotypes.

Multimedia: Nearly all students used cut out paper collage but added details in magic markers (mostly black) as a contrast solution. On unusual example was Stephanie, who photo copied her skull drawing large and several some ones. She titled hers as "The Dreamer." Stephanie commented, "He [the skull] has a broken heart and his dreams are sailing away. I am added a trail [photocopied string] of memories" (See Figure 3).

Lettering. Lettering abilities varied with most students taking time to clearly communicate their message. Other students realized that their lettering needed improvement. One girl wrote, "Don't step on the gas or you will cras---h!" Another student added captions and bubbles to make his skull talk, "This is NOT my lucky day!" At the bottom, he added the postscript, "Just ask Bob what happens when you drink and drive. I don't think that he will be going anywhere for the holidays" (See Figure 4). Later, Minnie suggested that his lettering could be neater but Pete felt that his "skull looked upset and my lettering fit the mood," an expressive interpretation. Not every student will follow a teacher's criteria (from an earlier lesson using lines for evenness and good spacing).

Most students overlapped images. All students understood the concept of overlap. Mindy, for example, seemed to use it the most. In her collage, she enlarged the American flag in the background, covered it with a tree, pumpkin, and spider web. She finally overlapped and centrally placed her skull drawing (See Figure 5). On the other hand, some students arranged forms floating with little overlap. A teacher could use this result to further discuss the idea of radial or circular composition.

Background patterns. Many students incorporated a flag pattern or diagonal bars in their backgrounds, while others used the confetti idea. Other diverse examples were a shaded or black background to suggest gloom (according to the student), a dot pattern to resemble confetti, and solid bright colors for "festivity" (responded another).

Cultural interpretations. While students worked, they offered various comments. One girl mentioned, "The drawing was hard but get your point across." Another girl confessed that she "messed-up" and "needed to make the glass bigger and the fingers longer." Another girl found her message upsetting, "because it reminded me of drinking friends." Minnie reported great success and an appropriate transition to her next lesson on cartooning.


Real Life: Deadly Results

Several weeks after this lesson, one of the students in the class was killed in a car accident where people were drinking. Students were stunned and extremely upset. They sat around for days in mourning. Finally, Minnie suggested a memorial to their friend would help them. They were already involved in a clay lesson working with an artist-in-residence. He had been working on a large abstract figure and students were assisting him. He invited them to attach written clay messages to their friend on the figure's body (See Figure 6). Students took this clay tile idea seriously and carefully lettered and connected (scored and slipped) their tiles to the clay figure that was later fired. One such message stated, "Why didn't you listen?" The communal clay experience helped them get through a difficult time and enhanced their learning experience.

Serious and sincere versus playful messages. All students found the project communicated "serious and playful" warning signs. Some Caucasian students were upset because the poster reminded them of their deceased friend. In contrast, Mexican-American students regarded the project as more playful and festive. Halloween is simultaneous with their Day of the Dead celebration which occurs during the following week. The Day of the Dead is a time for celebrating one's dead ancestors and friends (Pomar, 1987). One student mentioned, "It's a crazy mood. Sure we are sad, but we celebrate our friend's memory."


Conclusions and Future Implications for Instruction

Many teachers still use holiday occasions to teach. Given the conservative climate, teachers can interface students' love of the absurd and macabre on Halloween with serious reminders of consequences of real life play--"drinking while driving." In this way, teachers inculcate holiday images with seriously concerns.

Good teachers break up their formal or substantive instruction to include multiple motivations and a variety of instructional resources (television program, example art reproductions and a short segment of a video on one artist, game strategies, and some commercial art techniques--tracing papers). They also use frequent informal appraisals and manage discipline tightly through rules (not discussed in this study). Teaching beginners, no matter what age or stage of their development, necessitates starting basic instructional techniques (contour drawing of one object) and simple lettering guidelines. Even suggesting some shading for volume is a simple task for students with attention limits. Arranging a lesson with several tasks is a way of extending the lesson and showing how an artist can transform an idea or a symbol for different effects. Teachers can grade each part separately to insure student success, document the evolving artwork by photocopying it at different stages, synthesize results in a final project (collage), direct students to keep a portfolio, and exhibit results on parents' night.

At this point, I will suggest how teachers can extend the lesson further with aesthetic instruction. A teacher also can point out the aesthetic dimensions of the project: 1) how realistic drawing is used for representational purposes, as in the medical field or criminal justice, 2) such terms as "overlap, contrast, and pattern" are important for formalistic purposes--creating exciting forms; 3) for expressive purposes--to communicate "deadly serious concerns with symbols and moods and colors; 4) for functional purposes that sell products and in this case, ideas; 5) and how art serves the purpose of healing and commemorating the dead. Posters serve to educate the public about important social issues--social criticism--anti drinking messages. Teachers need to discuss how different cultures, such as the Mexican-American students, commemorate the dead by mixing the playful and seriousness.

Adolescence is a time of mystery and compassion. To liven the seriousness of art, teachers deliberately add humor and satire in their teaching. Such teaching requires confidence, student trust, appropriateness, and good timing. Such play is part of outside of normal routines. Huizina (1955) explains playtime "beyond or outside the time which measures secular processes and routines" (p. 10). During play something transcends the immediate and imparts new meaning. In this case, the teacher took the opportunity for satiric play on different levels 1) the ban on holiday art, 2) the foibles of too much holiday drink, 3) attempts to get students to take artistic risks, and 4) finally what happens after too many (existential) risks are taken. Teachers may allow and even instigate such play to break the monotony and tensions of everyday instruction (Wilson, 1977). Play is important for alleviating grief as well. Every teacher, however, needs to balance the serious with the playful.



Adato, P. M. (Dir.). (1977). O'Keefe: Portrait of an artist #1. MA: NET/Thirteen, Home Vision.

Huizinga, J. (1950). Homo ludens: A study of play elements in culture. Boston: Beacon.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (1994). Early adolescence through young adulthood/art. Standards for National Board Certification. Reston, VA: NAEA

Kowalchuk, E. (1996). Promoting higher order teaching and understanding in art education. Translations, 6(1). Reston, VA: NAEA.

Pomar, M. T. The life of the dead in Mexican folk art. Fort Worth, TX: Fort Worth Art Museum.

Stokrocki, M. (1990). A cross-site analysis: Problems in teaching preadolescents. Studies in Art Education, 31, 106-117.

Stokrocki, M. (1997). Rites of passage for middle school students. Art Education, 50(3), 48-55.

Stokrocki, M. (1996). A participant observation study of how a middle school art teacher integrates multicultural art history with art making. In C. Henry (Ed.). Middle school art: Issues of curriculum and instruction (pp. 35-55). Reston, VA: NAEA.

Wilson, M. (1977). Passage through communitas: An interpretive analysis of enculturation in art education (Doctoral dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 1977). Dissertation Abstracts International, 38(5) Microfilm # 77-23, 291, p. 2496-A.

Wolfe, P. (1997). A really good art teacher would be like you, Mrs. C: A qualitative study of a teacher and her artistically gifted middle school students. Studies in Art Education, 38(4), 232-245


List of Figures (Not inserted yet)

1. An example of contour drawing was a long arm with bony fingers holding a cup.

2. Mexican students, who cannot speak English, may imitate a classmate's schema in the beginning.

3. Another student interprets her anti-drinking poster, "He [the skull] has a broken heart and his dreams are sailing away. I am added a trail [photocopied string] of memories" (See Figure )

4. One student felt that his skull looked "upset and my lettering fit the mood," an expressive interpretation.

5. One student exhibited understanding of multiple overlap as she enlarged the American flag in the background, covered it with a tree, pumpkin, and spider web. She finally overlapped and centrally placed her skull drawing.

6. On the other hand, some students arranged forms floating with little overlap.

Students attach written clay messages to their deceased friend, a victim of drinking while driving, on the body of an figural clay memorial at school.

Time Sampling Example

Class on Designing Anti-Drinking Bone Poster

O'Keefe Video Motivation


Substantive Managerial Appraisal Nonfunc. Total

10/26/93 5TVprogram 7bone dist. 10sketch


10 video-O'Keefe

22min. 8min. 10min. 5min. 45min.


Poster Continued

Substantive Managerial Appraisal Nonfunc. Total

10/28/93 5attend 40 in-process

&display setup

0min. 5min. 40min. 0min. 45min.


10/28/93 Poster (Cont.)