My name is Jeff Morrow and I am a kindergarten art critic. Wow. I’ve got to admit that it feels good to get that off my chest. Quick disclaimer: It’s possible that the next few paragraphs could make it seem like I’m not a fan of kids’ artwork. I know that I am already on thin ice, having admitted in an earlier blog post that I don’t like Disneyland. I also know that this space isn’t exclusively a vehicle to unpack all of my own baggage. This isn’t Festivus and there will be no airing of grievances. However, as the father of a kindergarten student, I have occasion to evaluate 5-6 pieces of “art” every week; and, since I’m not the curator of a freaking museum, nor do I have unlimited space, hard choices must often be made and recycling must be executed. Let me start by saying that all cut and paste projects are not created equal. Don’t bring me di-cut sloppily pasted on white paper. I don’t even get out of bed for 2D black and white projects. Pencil passed as coloring? Please. I look for use of color, patterns, texture, and 3D. I want to see creative uses of seeds, corn, pipe cleaners, and macaroni. It needs to be thematic. And, for God’ sake, please have an idea of where a specific project fits in your overall artistic arc. Is it consistent with your creative narrative? I feel like these are questions that my five year old should be able to answer. Am I overreaching? Maybe. But some days I want to give our elementary art teacher a pep talk. Something along the lines of, “Come on baby. You’re better than that! You’ve got budding artistic geniuses on your hands. Don’t use JV projects when you’ve got a varsity team. Opportunity is knocking. Don’t phone it in. Seize it!”
Ok, you’ve indulged me enough and you deserve some kind of explanation as to how this is applicable to counseling or college admission. My high school students and my kindergartner have much in common, including, but not limited to, an intense attachment to things that they have created. They have trouble letting go of anything they have created, written, or even thought. They attach themselves to schools of thought or ideologies and cling to them like grim death. I mentioned that, in my house, hard choices have to be made and recycling of art work sometimes has to be done. But it’s rarely simple. We try and talk through which projects are worth keeping and which are simply examples of her experimenting with whatever. The project cannot be recycled in the house, because it will be reclaimed by her and squirrelled away in her bedroom. No, the chosen project must be taken to the outside recycling can and then buried several layers deep. I’m not proud of the fact that I have been caught by the little scamp, up to my shoulders in the trash can, burying a Thanksgiving turkey project. I sometimes lack the conviction or guts to face her. We can’t make the same mistake with our students.
I have the same conversations with my own students. One of our jobs is help shape the narrative of their applications. In the process of their education, some projects will be home runs. Others won’t. We can provide the gift of discernment to our students. It’s okay to think critically about ideas, words, and art. Critical thinking ensures that our students will always be learning, changing, growing. It’s the subtle art of encouraging risk taking, while being honest about the results. I want my students (as well as my daughter) to know that there is always value in trying, in giving your best effort. But success is a process, and effort does not entitle success. At the same time, you rarely have success without extraordinary effort. I like the process of deciding which activities have been most impactful while filling out the Common App, because it encourages young people to reflect on the ways that they have grown. I like the process of editing and refining essays. I love to see a consistency of message through a student’s narrative.
I hope that your process of counseling is much less pragmatic than my kindergarten art dilemma. Counsel with honesty, empathy, and compassion. Strive to be a trusted voice of reason. In counseling and parenting, I often miss the mark, but I understand how that voice of encouragement and, sometimes, constructive criticism is so important. It’s an honor to participate.
So….if you need someone to tell your five year old that her art project is bird cage liner, I’m your Huckleberry.
By Jeff Morrow