'What's the point of art class?
The answer probably depends on the teacher. As part of a three person department that represents different philosophical viewpoints and goals I realized that it's very important for me to let my kids know what my educational values are.
So I started my new classes with a question:
What is good art?
"Good" is such a weak-kneed, watered down term for an opinion, in my estimation. I hear "good" used in the context of art and what art should be all the time from students. Is it good, they ask, often wondering if it's realistic enough or if it's finished enough or if I like it.
"Good" is problematic, but it's the word I most often hear, so we spent the first part of the first class unpacking it. I asked each table group to make a mindmap of their thinking about what defines good art. The responses (see above and below) were diverse and thoughtful, defining "good" anywhere from aesthetically pleasing, by stylistic/content preferences or by ability to provoke thought and emotion.
During this discussion I realized something important; I had been operating under the misconception that many of my students were defining "good" as representational. Based on their responses I realized this was obviously wrong. Maybe, I realized, "good" meant what they thought I wanted from them.
Next I shared some of the art I personally enjoy, pictured below. I briefly talked about the personal connection that I have to each one and how they'd been impactful to me. They saw that "good" for me could be a lot of different things.
Then I ended the discussion by telling my students that what I want most for them to do during their time with me is to make the art that they want to make, whatever that is.
My job, I said, is to help and support you in achieving your artistic goals.
Then gave them each a 6x8 paper and asked them to fill it. They did!
This lesson felt like a really positive start in a discussion that needs to be ongoing, a discussion where I'm absolutely clear about my goals as a teacher and I listen to the goals my students have. It makes sense that this needs to happen because my kids have had many different visual arts teachers with a range of goals. Some of those teachers are far away in the elementary school past while other are right down the hall. I can't control differences in philosophy but I can make sure I'm clear with students about the how and why of mine.
Identity is my favorite theme to teach. I am constantly trying new ideas in my classroom but year after year, identity is something I make time for (see here and here) because it's powerful, personal and wonderfully open-ended. My students are invested in it for the same reasons, and because identity is such a prevalent force in their lives in high school, as they deal deciding who they are and who they will become.
This year I introduced identity differently than I have in the past. On a recommendation by our school's equity coach I started the unit by unpacking the concept of identity by looking at it through different lenses. Students filled out Identity Wheels developed by the University of Michigan, pictured and linked below.
After reviewing expectations for the discussion (which important discussions can't happen fairly for everyone without!) I introduced both the Personal and Social wheels, taking time to explain the difference between terms on the Social wheel like "race" and "ethnicity" , as well as "sex", "gender" and "sexual orientation". I asked students to fill out the Personal wheel and the think about the Social wheel as part of planning and processing, filling it out or not based on their comfort level.
Next, we discussed the work of three artists (pictured below) using my favorite Visual Thinking Strategy of asking students "What do you see?" and going around the classroom with each person naming something they notice. This open-ended, student directed tool leads to students actively creating meaning based on their personal experiences and connections. After looking, we discussed how the facets of identity depicted on the wheels related to the artwork.
This activity hinges on thoughtfully chosen artworks. I always use my "rule of three" when selecting artworks to show my students - two non-white and or non-male artists for every white, male artist whose work I show. I also intentionally featured work that addresses many facets of the Social wheel These works lead to thoughtful discussions about race, ethnicity, gender and how we connect with/ experience disconnect from the objects in our lives.
I noticed that students this year understood the concept of identity more fully and were able to speak to social factors of identity, as well as personal ones, with increased confidence. To end this experience each student shared their work in a presentation to their table group, which gave us all the opportunity to learn from and celebrate each other.
Working with the theme of identity provides a challenging art experience, but maybe more importantly, it provides an opportunity for students to explore who they are and understand a little more about others and how their life experiences may be different from their own. In a society that is often politically polarized and clouded by bias and assumption, building tolerance is powerful.
I assess daily with a million informal conversations where I give my high school students valuable information through the exchange of conversation. I decided to use this model for more formal, summative conferences to assess the learning that's happened as kids make art around themes I've set. These one-on-one conferences, focused on the art-making process, involve students sharing evidence of learning in three main areas: communication of theme, originality and artistic growth. For an additional 10% of the final grade I ask for evidence about two Studio Habits of Mind; Engage and Persist and Stretch and explore. This is the checklist I've created to capture this.
I've noticed many areas of unexpected impact that I find delighting, over the month this assessment has been in place. One change is in communication. I've stated much more clearly what I want as well as what I value from students. They, in turn, understand clearly about what they are being asked to do as they develop their own ideas in the studio using my Artistic Thinking Process. Conversations are shifting from "is this done?" to "is this original?" or "have I communicate my theme?". As they're working in the studio kids are reflecting on how they're progressing towards mastering the learning goals captured in the checklist!
Where I've seen the most impact is with students who were struggling with learning goals. These two drawings were created by the same student for the theme "Persuade Me". I had talked to him many times as his work was in progress, but when we sat down for our assessment conference and he saw that he was unable to provide evidence that his work was original, that it communicated the theme or that he showed growth it became clear to him that needed to do more. The second image shows huge growth - he's visually stating an argument for guns as protection and it's much more original that his previous work because he's combined resource images.
I've also noticed a huge shift with motivation in students who previously stopped when they achieved "good enough" or encountered challenges. The student who created the image above changed his work habits drastically after our first conference. He pushed himself by learning the new process of creating a stencil and spray painting. Then, when the final image wasn't what he hoped he problem solved and took a risk to make improvements, creating a work he was truly proud of.
This new assessment has given me the tools to clearly explain to students what achievement looks like in my TAB classroom in a way that supports investing the the process and making independent decisions. I thought I was developing a way to grade, but what has happened has gone much beyond that and shaped the culture of our studio into a place where artists are empowered to follow ideas on a journey.
I firmly believe that to be a good teacher you have to constantly question your practice. Over the last year, I've been questioning how my teaching supports equity - which I see as creating equal opportunity for all students in the classroom. For me - and, just to be clear, I'm only going to address my personal experience here - to understand how to support equity in my classroom I have to examine what makes it unequal. A big part of that is the legacy of colonization on both visual art and on schools.
What I learned in that class was impactful and important, but so much that I needed to know as a teacher was missing. As a new teacher I felt pressure to teach about the important artists I'd learned about and there didn't seem like there was room for much else. I also included art from non-western cultures in my teaching, but I did not have the understanding or breath of knowledge to do it well. Additionally, the art we did learn about was an incomplete story. We talked about Greek art, for example, but not about how so much of it ended up in the British Museum when Lord Elgin literally sawed freizes off the Parthenon while Greece was under occupation. We learned about great white, male artists - but not about the societal barriers that kept women from participating in the arts. We certainly didn't learn about the women who, against all odds, were there.
Years later, things are changing. Places like Greece, Nigeria and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) have been asking for art that was taken under colonial rule to be given back for decades. In the last month, first the French government, then the British have agreed to give back the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. These works of art were taken from the Edo people of Benin in 1897 when the British sacked Benin city, destroyed the royal palace and looted the kingdom's vast wealth - including over 2,500 works of art that can be found today in museums around the world.
Addressing colonialism in the classroom
Part of legacy of colonialism is that the history of art taught in schools is skewed towards Western Art, mostly made by white males. This isn't a fair picture of art history. Fortunately, curriculums like AP Art History, which I use my art history classes, now have a global focus.
In my visual arts classes I make sure to give my kids access to diverse art by following my rule of 3; for every white male artist I show, I show two artists who are not. This was hard when I first started doing it, but it seems easy now because contemporary art is truly global.
In this image, from an article I wrote for the Art of Education, you see an example of my rule of three. Image 1 is Caravaggio, image 2 is his near contemporary Artemisia Gentileschi and image 3 is by contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley. All three works are versions of the same subject - the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. Studying all three points of view together adds depth and meaning.
Including more than western art in the classroom is a good first step, but I've realized to truly address equity in my classroom I need to also teach about the issues that make our society unequal. So when I talk about Greek art I talk about the achievements of Greek democracy, but I also talk about the women and non-citizens who were left out. When my art history class learns about African art we learn about objects and culture, but we also talk about how many of those objects ended up in western museums. My job is not just to teach students to appreciate, but to understand and to question - that includes the legacy of colonization. We have to address it to move past it.
Grading is a thing I think about - a lot. I've been thinking about how to grade students' art experience in a way that is meaningful and valuable to them since I started thinking about how to make TAB work at the high school level in 2013. I've tried lots of things that mostly involved minimizing and simplifying grading.
There are lots of good ways to grade, as well as to teach, but simplifying grading did not work for me. When I simplified grading, giving all students who met expectation the same grade, it did not feel like I was recognizing or reinforcing their individual learning experiences. It made the grade feel arbitrary and worked against the intrinsic motivation I was trying to foster.
Many kids figured out that if they finished some art and did their blog posts, they'd be fine. I didn't want students who stopped at "fine" - I wanted more.
So this school year I've been thinking about how to personalize grading.
Moving Away From Blog Posts.
I like the idea of blog posts; students reflecting, putting their ideas in writing and compiling a digital portfolio. All great in theory, but less so in practice. There were two big drawbacks from blog posts that I noticed:
- It was challenging for me to give kids the timely feedback they needed to clearly express their thoughts.
- Due reading articles like this and this - about the negative impact technology has on children, I've been realizing that I want to be more intentional about how students use technology and increase face to face interaction.
I plan to still have students create a digital portfolio, but they will spend a few weeks working on it at the end of the course, not posting weekly. In lieu of weekly blog posts, I've been grading through face-to-face conferences with students.
Grading through conferences has helped me get know students on a deeper level and understand their work/ work process better. It's also given me an opportunity teach the thinking I often noticed was missing in student writing; how to use evidence to support claims about what they've learned.
Three Stages of Learning
This year, I've separated my beginning class into three stages: Explorations, Themes and Portfolio. The focus of each stage is different, with end goal of all students able to use their studio to make the art they independently envision. I grade the work in each stage by conferencing with students, who are responsible for presenting evidence of meeting learning goals. The evidence they select includes finished artwork and development materials like sketches, research and experimentation. After we review the evidence if they haven't meet specific goals (and therefore have a lower grade), we problem solve, together, what they can do to meet them. Students can provide evidence for a higher grade at any time during the course, with no penalty.
I talk with students about their work and process daily in informal conversation that happen during work time. Grading conferences are more formal and private. I sit at my desk and the student brings their work and evidence over. It's a bit removed from where the class is working and much easier to have a few uninterrupted minutes.
What students learn and have to provide evidence of in each stage:
Stage 1, Explorations.
Students learn about a range of media and process through a combination of experimentation and self-directed work. Media is sleselected by me or is limited to a few options (example - acrylic or watercolor paint in the painting exploration) ATP is introduced and directly taught.
Stage 2, Themes
Students experience generating ideas, selecting media/ processes and developing concepts from thought to finished product through working with themes selected by me.
Stage 3, Portfolio
Students apply everything they've learned in this stage. They independently select a theme or learning goal for the focus of a collection of work. This work is posted to a digital portfolio, created with weebly, along with work that shows evidence of what they've learned during the class, with a focus of showing evidence of growth.
So far, I'm noticing that the grades students and I arrive at through conferences feel both meaningful and personal. I find that the quality of evidence that supports students' claims about what they've learned is vastly improved by my ability to ask clarifying questions on the spot. When they are unable to provide evidence they understand where they fell short and know what to do to fix it.
Having this conversation face to face has been delightful for me. It's helped me understand where my students are in their learning and made it easy to provide individualised support. I'm also beginning to notice a shift in work ethic since I've started tying 10% of each grade to the Studio Habits of Engage & Persist and Stretch & Explore. Students have to persuade me that they've earned some or all of these extra points, which has resulted in lots of reflection of past and current studio practice.
Overheard last week:
Student 1 - That drawing looks good.
Student 2- The face shapes not right. I'm redoing it. (Yelling) MS PURTEE I'M PERSISTING!
I used to think look in at an image was like trying to figure out a puzzle - If I was smart enough I could figure out the meaning. I brought this understanding to my teaching in the form on lessons based on specific artists and the formal qualities of art. I'd show Van Gogh and talk about line and texture and color, then have my kids "study" the work by making child friendly replicas.
I use the term "study" in quotation marks because I now realize that there was little studying going on and a lot of listing to me and following my directions.
Later, though my approach to art-making became much more student directed, I brought a similar approach as before to looking at art with my high school students, especially in my art history classes. I'd make bulleted lists on my slide show presentations of all the important information they needed to know, then I'd tell them about it.
My approach now is so, so different and much more impactful.
Instead of starting with me, I start with them.
What do you see? I ask, then wait. They do the rest.
I learned this visual thinking strategy, as well as many more as part of the Fellowship for Collaborative Teaching I'm participating in this school year with the North Carolina Museum of Art.
In the image above, of the Aztec Sun Stone, my students, just by looking at the image with no context from me, were able to pick out almost all the important aspects of the work I'd address myself. Some were comments were in the form of prior knowledge - "I've seen this in Mexico City! It's bigger than the wall!". Some were in the form of observation based in the work - "The sun looks like a skull". Some were questions - "Why does the skull have hands?"
All these contributions to the discussion work together to make collective meaning much deeper than I could make on my own. When I did discuss my knowledge of the work the students were curious and engaged, waiting to find out what the artist's intent and the cultural significance of the work were.
What I've realized this school year, through putting what I've learned during the NCMA Fellowship into practice, is that personal context is a powerful lense to approach images from. It's inclusive, engaging and welcoming.
Art is not a puzzle to figure out and teaching it can't be just about what I know it means. Looking at art with students is a journey that works best when I start with them.
This year I'm trying something new with my high school beginning visual art class. I've broken the instructional time down to three main phases.
I consider this structure TAB, or Teaching for Artistic Behavior, because it is very intentionally designed to support the student as an artist, and ends with all students knowing how to have an idea and use the resources of the studio to pursue it.
Two weeks ago we started the first theme of phase two. I was excited to introduce the theme, "The Things we Fear", but noticed two issues - students were skipping steps of the Artistic Thinking Process and everyone was using graphite.
For our next theme I knew I needed to better support students as they navigated the art-making process I'd taught them in the Exploration phase. I modified a form I'd used before and printed one for every student, passing them out during the introduction of the theme "Persuade Me".
For this theme I asked students to pick something that they had and opinion about and visually persuade the viewer to their point of view. It's a big theme and the success of the work hinges on a clear understanding of the issue student chooses to focus on. The form I created was very effective with helping students develop their ideas and decide on what to say.
I decided to add one limitation to the experience - no graphite drawing for the final work. Over 90% of students selected graphite as the media for their first thematic work and I wanted to force them to branch out. Including this limitation at this moment was right for my kids because it caused them to examine different media instead of picking what felt the most familiar.
See one students' process below.
And more work, some still in progress.
It's been a good week!
Students spent part of one class investigating how to create photos inspired by the theme of "Things We Fear". This exercise was a short, group project intended to serve as a inspiration/ development stage activity to help students work through ideas for self-directed work with the theme.
We started this mini lesson by looking at Hoffine's work to identify important element of images that include an element of fear: the unknown, dramatic angles and heightened contrast were all on our list. I asked groups to create an image to share in 30 minutes, and required that they used a prop and edited the images.
Some groups easily created effective images with no help from me. Other groups needed more support. The most effective part of this experience for students came when I conferenced with groups that had images that needed editing. I was able to ask them questions that helped guide them to better communicating the theme.
"Do you need so much of the wall above the figure?"
"I notice you're smiling in the image - does that communicate what you'd like it to?"
"I wonder how adding more contrast would impact the mood?"
I loved how students were easily able to edit photos and see how much these changes impacted the image. Composition is something that students often struggle with and this activity made the impact of compositional changes very tangible in a way that sketching ideas for a drawing or painting can't. Next year, instead of a mini lesson, this will be a multi day experience, with groups having a few days to create props and stage scenes to create a series of images that tell a story. I think it will be a perfect bridge between learning about media and processed in Explorations and the more open ended, self- directed work I'm asking for in addressing themes.
If you ask high school students what they think the requirements for original artwork are, chances are that you'll get some version of the artist-as-genius argument. Original art, this line of thinking follows, is totally unique and has never been seen before.
When I have this conversation with my Art 1 students, I say sure, like Picasso.
Yes, they agree, because he's one of the artists most of them have heard of.
I go on to talk about how he played a central role in developing a new way of depicting images - cubism - and revolutionized the western art word.
Totally innovative - except for the fact that breaking objects into geometric shapes wasn't new - artists from around the world had been doing it since forever.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, by Picasso, and a statue from the Vili people pf central Africa, which was owned by Matisse. This work had a huge impact on 24 year old Picasso. Read here for more in depth information.
Picasso genius wasn't in creating something totally new, it was in combining inspiration drawn from other artistic traditions with his own knowledge. This idea of originality, as something approachable that we can all do, is what my students need.
We try this out in a short group exercise. I share a list of some ways to remix the familiar, including juxtaposition, changing a fundamental element, the addition of text and using unexpected media, then show some Dorina Lynde and some Yung Jake.
Next, I share a list of iconic artworks, and challenge groups to use digital media to reimagine one. They have around 30 minutes to create before presenting what they make to the class. They run with it (see student work below) using some apps I've heard of, but others I haven't. I've taught this lesson before, but this is the first time I've required digital media. It makes for a much better experience, because it requires students to consider the art-making potential of technology they use everyday, plus the ease in which these images can be created is very conducive to the sort of play that gives the images below life.
I love this art-making experience because it challenges kids to think about what originality really means, as well as to examine the creative potential of digital tools as they create with images that are culturally relevant to them as individuals. It creates the perfect reference point for the first time someone wants to copy an image from Pinterest or draw copyrighted material.
Plus, it's fun.
Like many art teachers, I feel like I should teach a set of skills that haven't changed much since the Renaissance and I start with those. My thinking has been to "build a foundation to support choice". That foundation, I've slowly realized, doesn't support what I think it does. Instead, it reinforces outdated notions about what makes art worthwhile. Also, the skills I feel pressured to focus on show a western art centered bias - one I'd like to think I don't have.
El Anatsui, Lines that Link Humanity - literally made out of discarded bottle caps.
This is art, I say on the first day. We play an awesome, creative, stimulating game. My class seems fun, they think - then they come in the second day and start with drawing or painting Bootcamp. These are well designed experiences, and most kids enjoy them, but they reinforce an understanding that's probably been building since they first walked into an art room (unless they got lucky and had a TAB teacher) - that realistic art is good and their value as an artist is directly related to their ability to render.
This message is the exact opposite from what they need to hear.
What I need to show them, with what I teach as well as my actions and words, is that everyone can make successful art, that good art is as varied as the individual humans that make it and that they - each and every one - have something important to say.
Just getting started: working with wind, collage and exploring clay technique.
So, this year we aren't drawing until well into October.
The class started with kinetic sculptures. then moved to collage and now clay. As a high school level beginning art teacher, I have to start with a media overview, and and these are all open-ended explorations that have multiple avenues to success. I'll teach a variety of drawing and painting processes this year in a similar format, but I'll do it later, when my kids have started to all see themselves as successful artists.
As for any skill I feel like I "need" to teach, I'll reflect on these words, shared with me by Stacy:
"If someone says to you, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” Ask yourself, whose rule is that? And, how has that rule served to silence those who don’t fit the dominant paradigm?…Standards were developed by people. By sincere people reflecting their best understanding of the arts and culture at that time. Times change. It is our job as contemporary artist educators to teach the most useful, complex, artistically sophisticated version of art education that we can now imagine."
- Olivia Gude, Meaningful Making: Why We Need New School Art Styles
Here's to a year of amplifying student voices and making rules that best fit their needs.
I'm interested in creating a student student centered space for my high school students through choice and abundant opportunity for self expression. I'm also a writer for SchoolArts co-author of The Open Art Room.