Whiteboard Drawings: Empowering Children as Artists
An Article by David Rufo
A Humble Beginning
The morning of February 14, 2011 a handful of students decided to draw a smattering of Valentine decorations on our classroom whiteboard. By the end of the day, the students’ marks had grown into a frenetic vista that expanded my personal vision as an artist and my professional vision as a teacher.
I work as general fourth grade educator at an independent day school and a few years back I made a commitment to develop a child-centered classroom. I wanted my students to actively participate in their own learning and felt that they could achieve this if they had equal ownership, not only of procedures and rules of conduct, but also of the physical space within the classroom. I felt strongly about giving the students proprietorship of the classroom environment and intentionally left the walls blank at the start of the year, allowing them to determine what would be displayed over the course of the school year. By the end of the first semester, the classroom began to acquire the bricolage  of a child’s playroom. Yet the whiteboard remained within the teacher’s domain; an austere reminder of the hierarchical function of schooling practices.
Whiteboards & Blackboards
As a teacher I had license to use the whiteboard to write messages, directives, and schedules, but the students needed permission before they were allowed to make marks on the whiteboard. Unsurprisingly, my students approached the whiteboard as a sacrosanct object delimited by expressions of academic rigor. Even the placement of these expansive, pristine white surfaces at the front of classrooms signaled an authoritative presence.
Before the advent of whiteboards, blackboards had been icons of the American classroom, first appearing at the West Point Military Academy in 1817 . Blackboards eventually became a standard part of classroom instruction  and an extension of the teacher who symbolized ‘a central source of power and knowledge’ . Teachers operated as gatekeepers, allowing students access to the blackboard only through explicit invitation. Blackboards were also used as classroom management tools and as a way to facilitate control over students. The most unfortunate use for blackboards has been their use as tools in ‘degradation rituals’  and as implements for discipline and punishment.
In early February a few students approached me asking if we were going to have a Valentine’s Day party. In my opinion, very little learning takes place during school sanctioned holiday celebrations. Valentine’s Day mandates the ritual exchange of mass-produced mini-cards and cheap candies, which is particularly unproductive. But staying true to my belief that students should contribute to the governance of the classroom, I held a vote, and the class overwhelmingly elected to have a Valentine’s Day celebration.
On February 14th I put my morning lessons on hold so the students could take part in the events they had planned, which included access to the whiteboard for decorative purposes. Within the first hour only a few students drew heart designs with the phrase: ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’. Over the course of the day, more students continued to add to the montage until the whiteboard was completely covered in marks. By 3pm, the whiteboard bore a roiling concoction of words, cartoon faces, stick figures, lines, dashes, stars, and hearts composed in a bewildering array of black, blue, and red ink. The compositional effect was reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s ‘interwoven skeins’ of paint . The profusion of visual information caused the words to become abstracted and operate as a mode of drawing, similar to the work of artists Cy Twombly  and Jean-Michel Basquiat .
The whiteboard creations served as an apropos metaphor for the raw energy commonly produced by classroom holiday parties. The triad of colors created a palpitating rhythm, while the repetitive words and symbols coalesced to produce a manic visual buzz. Upon closer inspection, it became evident that words and phrases such as Sugar, Sugar Rush, and Happy Valentine’s Day scattered throughout the composition acted as visual anchors that created an underlying web-like structure to the picture plane. The children artists transformed the whiteboard similar to the way Pollock, Twombly, and Basquiat, transformed not only their canvases, but the act of painting itself.
Children and Creativity
Kids do not need instruction in creativity. From my observations it is evident that child-generated artwork is full of wit, humor, warmth, and visual acuity. Children need a safe place to express themselves and in my classroom I saw how this approach led to a collaborative whiteboard drawing which began as a ‘slow building up in rhythm and intensity’ and ended as a ‘climactic cathartic release of tension’ . Over the course of the day the whiteboard drawing morphed, developed, and changed, revealing the expressions of different individuals who participated in its creation.
The ephemeral nature of the work encouraged a playful interaction, ushering in a whole new space and support for creativity within our classroom. The activity became a conceptual exercise, shifting the way in which art is conceived. It became a mode that was not wholly focused on the final product. The transference from teacher-directed to student-initiated and the change in emphasis from product to process had an empowering effect on the teacher and his students. The whiteboard served as a staging area to foster a child-centered curriculum on a deeper level.
Dewey stated, ‘We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment’  and this is best accomplished if we begin to put our traditional schooling expectations aside in order to better support the self-initiated creativity of children.
 Rolling, J. H. (2010). Art education at the turn of the tide: The utility of narrative in curriculum-making and education research. Art Education 63(3), 6-12.
 Good, H.G. & Teller, J.D. (1973). A history of American education. New York: Macmillan.
 Glynn, E.L. & Thomas, J.D. (1974). Effect of cueing on self-control of classroom behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 7(2), 299-306.
 Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1880-1990 (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
 Chappell, D., Chappell, S., & Margolis, E. (2011). School as ceremony and ritual: How photography illuminates performances of ideological transfer. Qualitative Inquiry, 17(1), 56-73.
 Landau, E.G. (1989). Jackson Pollock. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc.
 Serota, N. (2008). Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons. London: Tate Publishing.
 Steiner, W. (2001). Venus in exile: The rejection of beauty in 20th century art. New York: The Free Press.
 Dissanayake, E. (1988). What is art for? Seattle: University of Washington.
 Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: The MacMillan Company.
David Rufo is an artist/teacher/researcher working on his PhD at Syracuse University in Art Education. With seventeen years experience as a general classroom fourth grade teacher, David’s current research interest is the self-initiated creativity of children in a child-centered environment. In addition to being a full-time teacher, David is also an instructor at Syracuse University where he has created and taught courses titled, Art Educators as Contemporary Artists and Art in the Classroom. His most recent article titled, ‘bUzZ: A Guide to Authentic and Joyful Creative Learning’ was published in the June 2013 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Power and Education. His current paintings incorporate watercolor, ink, house paint and antique letterpress to examine children’s literature.