Guest Post: Marta Cabral, Teachers College, New York: Being in Wonder

This week I’m joined by an exceptional arts educator, Marta Cabral of Teachers College at New York’s Columbia University. Marta supports young children in creating art which is then exhibited in a gallery space, allowing her students to experience the roles of artist, curator, and exhibition guide. Her passion for student-directed learning and supporting the artistic expression of even the very youngest children is exceptional.

Here’s Marta on “Being in Wonder (Wonderings and Wanderings of an Early Childhood Studio Teacher)”:

Marta Cabral at MoMa NYC
Marta Cabral at MoMa NYC

I can’t tell you how lucky I am. I have my dream job. Seriously, I do have my dream job (or one of them, since I can see myself being happy doing a number of different things…), and I am well aware of the privilege it is to be able to say so. I’m a lucky gal.

I currently run the art program in an early childhood education center nested in a graduate school of education in NYC. At the Center, I play and explore materials with young kids, and spend my days covered in stuff like paint, clay, or glue. At the university, I teach graduate students in the teaching of art to young children, and supervise them in their student-teaching. Bottom line, I teach infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and grad students, and I can’t decide which I like best.

The way I see it, my job as a studio teacher is to think and to explore with my children, to listen to them as they question and discover the world, to assist them in their inquiries, and to prompt them with possibilities and techniques to take those explorations further. I strive to teach my children that play is good, that inquiry is key, and that more than answers to be found there are questions to be created. I work to help them sustaining a spirit of wonder as they do just the same for me, marveling with possibilities in the world and the beauty of small things in life: the magic way colors just mix together, the joyful dance of that tiny bug on the park bench, or the way an unexpected fall makes the whole room sparkle with silver glitter.

If in early childhood education much of the teaching should be about exploring and experimenting, art education holds a privileged position. As a studio teacher, it is my job to create places for my young students to ask questions and to make sense of the world around them, using the many materials available or others they can find. As we go about our days, I try to teach my children ways of using materials and of exploring the possibilities they offer; I suggest that different materials can help us thinking about different things and making different discoveries; and I encourage them to explore our studio to think about stuff – their stuff.

One of the many perks of having the early childhood center physically located in a university campus, is that by asking here and there I can make available many resources for my children: over my years at the Center, the children and I have been exploring the painting, sculpture, and photography studios, and are presently engaged in experimentations with digital media such as 3D designing and printing. Another one of these many resources that are part of our daily lives is the graduate school’s art gallery. Being the physical core of the art and art education program, this gallery features many exhibitions by different artists, showing an immense variety of media and techniques. The preschoolers and I visit this space very often, and by the age of 5 most of these children have interacted with more artworks then many adults I can think of. Once a year I curate an exhibition of my young students’ work in this same gallery. But this time, it’s special – it’s our art.

Our art exhibition is a unique and exciting occasion. The process of creating and putting up the show is much richer than what I can explain in the words I have available here, but can maybe be summarized by saying that my young students and I work together as artists, curators, and tour-guides. As the main curator, I am well aware of the unavoidable influence of my role, and of the importance of being honest about that: I am curating according to my view of the children and their explorations, and it is my own story that I am writing.* As much as I make every effort for the children to be present in their own voices, with their own ideas, and according to their own agenda – and I believe they are indeed – I’m still the one who brings all of these together through my own eyes.

But there are many ways in which I try to create the space for children to own the exhibition and to make their voices heard. For example, the choice of what to show and of what information to share about it; the artist statements that the older children dictate for me to write; my choice to display artifacts that some infants may recognize as theirs and interact with, owning the exhibition as well; or the scheduled guided tours that toddlers and preschoolers lead for casual visitors to the exhibition. The exhibition’s opening reception is another important day, when we welcome families and friends, and the children guide the adults in art projects that they are familiar with, sharing their knowledge and their enthusiasm of and for materials and techniques.

The art exhibition is a high point of the year, but it is also just that – a point. A point that is connected to many others drawn by the children and I in our day-to-day explorations. It is an exhibition in its own right, and it is one showing of who the children are, and how I see them going about their artistic explorations. And I usually see them with joy, enthusiasm, and curiosity. It’s not difficult to be in wonder when your daily life involves art materials and a handful of inquisitive kids in a supportive environment. And that is why I love my dream job – being in wonder is a wonderful way to be.

Exhibition at Teachers College


*Ah, and as I praise the joys and delights of writing with no references or APA, I can’t help but to quote at least, at the very least, Catherine Riessman. If “stories don’t fall from the sky” (Riessman, C. K. (2008). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc, p.105.), I also don’t live the (inexistent) land of the epistemologically unattached…

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