iOS as an Art Teacher

Dad disclaimer

This blog is entitled nashworld for a reason. You can’t see the subtitle in this stripped-down theme I chose, but it reads: “to teach, to learn, to empower, this is my world.” It was only intended years ago as a place where I would share the reflections of my learning as a dad, as a teacher, as now as an instructional technology specialist. It is a quest to share my learning. In that quest, I have typically blogged about education, technology as used within our schools, and the roots of learning as it plays out in my classroom, the classrooms of my peers, others across the globe, and in the informal spaces of my home.

I have always been cautious of reading too much into the learning of my own children. They are, in some ways, an anomaly. They are growing up in the home of two devoted public educators. Therefore, their learning experiences in many ways are not typical. I try hard to separate this from my daily work. To me, this is an important distinction. If my decisions as a district employee weigh too heavily upon what happens at home, I am not acting as a representative of the 11,000+ learners in our district. Plenty of times I have seen the drawbacks of reading too much into happenings at home… and protracting that into decisions made for the masses. I am probably overcareful of that. I suppose that is my classically-trained scientific mind reflecting on the reality of such data.

The meat

Given these facts, there are still those times where open eyes at home allow insight into the workings of little brains as they make their way about our world. Today, an image my wife posted to Instagram took me back a couple of years to a learning experience by our then three-year-old that I once spilled upon this blog. You really do need to read that piece to understand the rest of this post. Go do that now, the rest of this post can wait…

Erin posted the above image including words from Delaney, our now five year old, that read: “This reminds me of that game… you know… Jackson Pollock.” This was in reference to her backyard creation of a twisted stick plunged into the top of an errant smoke bomb left over from the 4th of July.

In 2010, I wrote of her sitting upon my lap and finger scribbling within an app on my iPhone. At the time, I tied the experience to her early understanding of science concepts via an experience with music. Today I’m stopping by to record the latest in this saga… and it relates full-circle back to art and design. Yes, the above image shows a stick emerging from a smoke bomb. Big deal. And yet, the mere mention of this “creation” as something that reminded her of Jackson Pollock seemed pretty interesting to me. Something in this spontaneous little creation actually reminded her of that two-year-old experience… an experience she pinned to the artist. Do the twisted shapes of this little sculpture really mirror that of the artist’s work? Perhaps not. But in my opinion, this connection is pretty interesting for a five year old. I’m certainly intrigued.

Further, it’s not like that was the only connection to have happened since 2010. Just this past June 8th, I took Delaney and Neve to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. In the course of that rather eventful day, we happened upon a painting in the “contemporary art” section that made her jump excitedly. Strangely enough, she ran from my hand to the painting above and read most of the display aloud. She remarked: “Wow… that’s Jackson Pollock, the app where I can paint.” Of course, I tweeted it. Actually, that particularly early Pollock painting held few of the familiar abstract paint streaks of the iOS app.  It features a bit more structure than his later works. She connected nothing of the “cells” discussion of two years ago, but she did remember the name. At the time I was impressed that she merely connected the name. Apparently, she conected perhaps a but more than the name alone.

iOS as an assistant

When young kids rummage about the yard you don’t imagine they have the names…. or the particular style of key artists… at the forefront of their brains. And yet, somehow she connected the design of this odd little yard sculpture to that of one of the many artists she has seen in the past few years. If that was an authentic connection, and it seems to have been, then I am definitely impressed by the string of experiences that led to this.

This all started with an iOS app on my phone. Did the app allow her to understand the core design nuances of Jackson Pollock? Perhaps not. I’m not much of a nuts and bolts art teacher. Do iOS apps “teach art” in a way we’ve never been able to before? I’d say no. A big, fat no. Come on, the title of this post was meant to be a little provocative. And yet, something is going on here. Something that certainly didn’t happen for me as a kid. I didn’t know who Jackson Pollock was until Art 101 as a Senior in college. Do iOS (iPhone & iPad) apps “teach” more effectively than conventional methods? Of. Course. Not. Do they quickly and easily allow access to a world the adults in the equation can take advantage of? I’d say they do. If you think this micro case study has value, then you must ask yourself: where was the turning point that led to the added value in this instance?

To me, there is little doubt that the value here lies within the synergy between attuned educator and iOS app. Would this have happened with books alone? No. Would it have happened with books + interested parent-teachers? Perhaps. However, the simple detracting fact here is that I don’t have any books that really feature the work of Jackson Pollock. Nor do we possess any titles that do a good job on abstract expressionism. We’re biology teachers for heaven’s sake. We have a pretty respectable and eclectic library at home, but it’s not the Library of Congress. Our phones, however, are windows to the world. And well, we aren’t the most unattentive parents on the planet. I don’t know, is this something?


She Might Be Jackson Pollock

They might be heroes

Prepare for awesome.  Whatever it is you do for that…  do it.  I have no idea what you may have thought of They Might Be Giants prior to this post.  If you are unfamiliar, prepare for awesome.  You are hereby twice warned.

This band had a few airplay successes prior to becoming an educational boon for children far and wide.  Moreover, if you teach science or math to little ones, you owe yourself a catch-up weekend with these guys.  Delaney, our three year old, is a huge fan.  She’d tell you so, but you’d probably rather hear her sing.  Her all-time favorites:  Cells, The Bloodmobile, Photosynthesis, Science Is Real, Meet The Elements, Electric Car, Number Two, and Roy G. Biv.  There are many more she’s loved in the past couple of years, but really…  wouldn’t it be cool if a group this edgy would have something like  -oh, I dont know-  a wiki to organize all of this awesomeness?  Yep-  you guessed it:  This Might Be a Wiki.  Dig it.

So today I’d like to highlight an amazing band, a slick iPhone application, and a bit of the early-childhood learning fallout resulting from a clash of the two.

Today while Mommy was away, Delaney sat upon my lap for about an hour floating fingers through digital space…  spilling paint ala Jackson Pollock (one of my faves), all in the name of science influenced by TMBG.  As I sat in my chair piddling about with a new app, Delaney quickly came up to sit on my lap.  She’s used to occasionally plunking about with learning apps on Erin’s phone, but rarely gets that chance on mine.  Today, she watched me scribble about for something like 20 seconds before wanting to “…do it Daddy…  can I pwease?”  What do you think I said?

crappie jig I

Can you guess where my mind is in Midwestern March after 1) a very long and precipitous winter, and 2) flailing out the above image?  It is here that I have to warn you: the remainder of this post may contain mushy dadspeak.  If you can’t hang, bail now.


Delaney quickly said…  can I do it?  After a shake of the phone, and a clear of the screen. I asked her what color she wanted to use.  She promptly chose bwack… and after a circumnavigation of the screen with her sweet little finger, she starter chattering quasi-intelligibly about cells.  “What did you say?  What is that?  “It’s a cell Daddy…  cells are inside of all of us, it’s a blood cell.”  I had heard that much before.  But from there it got a bit more fun…

a cell

From there she whipped out an interior circle of sorts which she called the “nutrients” (smart me quickly realized this to be the nucleus) that “…has DNA in it.”  Now, a biology-teacher dad like me might be completely freaked out at this point if he hadn’t known of his daughter’s exploits with the TMBG songs and videos residing in Mommy’s iTunes closet.

She went on to tell me that, “DNA makes brown hair… and eyes… and boys and girls.”  If I wasn’t already in love with this little lap critter as my own little girl, I would have soon been hooked.

Who says this sort of thing when three?  As an instructional coach, I pay a great a great deal of attention to academic background knowledge.  Setting aside for a moment my deep beliefs in a rather constructivist approach to learning, we all know the benefit of children beginning any new learning with a prior set of relevant experiences…  or at the very least some of the vocabulary that goes with it.  How does Freshman biology change when these basics roll of the tongue like Schoolhouse Rock did for me?

cell number two

This cool little app allowed her to select new colors with the flick of a tiny finger.  I pointed out which buttons did what, and she quickly drank it in like it was the tricky block atop the Lego tower.  She then cranked out a few more cells and ended with, “Daddy, it’s your turn… you do it,” as a plea for modeling some fun.  What did I do?  Not much more than what she had already done.  It’s a bit tough trying to squeeze in a mitochondria with big kid fingertips.  All I did was to ask questions along the way.  I asked if she would tell me what I needed to do next.  I let her run the show.  I tried to roll with what she already thought was important.  She’s three.  Not fourteen.

trees and birds in the rainforest

After tiring of cells, she wanted to make ” a tree.”  She shook the phone to get a blank white slate, and then begged me to “draw too.”  She implored me to begin and I quickly drew in the brown trunk and branches.  After grabbing it away, the rest was all her.  Of course the tree needed “green leaves” and a line of “grass” beneath, and then a flock of “birds” above.  The black scribbles of birds in the image above are the birds in “the rainforest.”  Birds and coyotes… in the rainforest.  Who knew?


It all came flooding in to me as I remembered the lyrics regarding cells, the bloodmobile, etc…  I sat in my chair with my girlie atop my lap, piloting my little phone through her rich imagination.  A post with all of her descriptions would fill this page.  I won’t do that to you.  What I will do is ask you to think about the efficacy of a touchscreen in the hands of a toddler.  Full disclosure:  I love paper.  I adore the smell of crayons.  I love sitting down at the table with her and having her pick out colors for me and bossing me around the page, telling me what to color next.  I do not think it is a good idea to passively babysit kids with electronics, or anything else for that matter.  Just because they take to it like a fish to water…  doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a good thing.

For me though, herein lies the difference in today’s experience:  it wasn’t anything close to passive.  The size of this device allowed her to be fully seated within my arms and legs for some serious one on one time.  Close is good.  After all we are humans, not computers.  We were snuggled up.  We were storytelling.  We could get away with whispering.  So I’m reflecting on the synthesis of a touchscreen loosely emulating the style of Jackson Pollock, the musical genius of They Might Be Giants, and playtime that involves close physical touch with Dad.  The fun of all of this spilled out upon my lap this dark, rainy day in March.  When does a silly phone become a handheld learning tool… a creative tool… a play toy?  Think about that.  This was fun.

Artwork credits

*”A crappy crappie jig” ~  me.
*”Cell number one” ~ Delaney
*”Cell number six” ~  Delaney
*”Rainforest with birds and coyotes” ~  Delaney & I.