The start of a school year always feels like New Year's Eve to me. It's exciting to have a fresh start to try out new ideas and build on past successes. I'm especially excited for this year, because, after 4 years of teaching in pretty challenging conditions and having to share storage with multiple other teachers, I have my own brand new space. I'm looking so forward to not having constant challenges to deal with from the physical structure of my teaching space but what I have big plans for is building the intangible - community, culture and the capability of my students.
3 Exciting Ideas I'm Working On
1. Developing participatory art opportunities for my school community.
Why can't an art show be more like a concert or sporting event? I want to expand on the successful Pop Up Art show my Art 3 kids put together last year. I'm also inspired by the Art-o-Mat I got to check out at my local and amazing North Carolina Museum of Art, as well as their upcoming Monster Drawing Rally. What would a drawing rally during the intermission of a play or half time of a game look and feel like? I don't know, but I'm excited about figuring out, with my students, ways to make art fun, inclusive and participatory for everyone in our school.
2. Building TAB community.
I'm totally jealous of the Michigan TAB teachers. They have TABstock every summer and have built a community where they can collaborate, support each other and share ideas. In person. I want that for my school district and state, so I sent out an email about forming a PLC (Professional Learning Community) to the art teachers in my district. I wondered if anyone would respond, but 12 did!! I'm really looking forward to meeting with teachers from all levels once a month this school year and I hope it's the start of something really powerful.
3. Tackling Tough Subjects
A huge part of the value of the art is it's power to address complicated themes and challenge subjects. I want to take on the subject of stereotypes as part of a unit this year. It's something I've been interested in addressing but wasn't quite sure how until I saw this perfect resource posted. I want to create a space this year where my students can examine challenging issues and express diverse opinions visually.
Last year was a busy one for me. Between finishing The Open Art Room, writing for the Art of Education and working on National Boards (okay, it was a little much, I see that now) and teaching two new classes I felt like I couldn't give enough attention to anything. The one thing that demanded my attention, constantly, was my art history class.
I approached it chronologically, and spent hours researching everything from Assyrian Lamassu (and their destruction by the Islamic State) to medieval church architecture. I had students take notes in visual journals, planned group activities, made sure to include discussion about marginalized groups and experimented with student directed content. Over the span of the course I noticed some elements that worked better than others. My students agreed, and gave me great end of the year feedback.
My Re-designed Art History Class
Work by Kirchner, an artist whose life and life's work was destroyed by Hitler.
My goal for this school year is to develop an art history class that is global and student directed in content, that connects to culture, current events and social justice and that uses museums and themes as base for exploration. I'm excited!
I have art show issues. When our department's had them after school much of the student body misses out. The kids who come are often art students or their friends. Those who have jobs or don't have transportation miss out. This has bothered me for years. Instead, I wanted an art show that's aimed at the general student population, at those students who've maybe never considered an art class. I also wanted something that everyone can attend.
Last year I tried setting up a one day show in the media center. Teachers signed up to bring classes and it was well attended, but still lacking the passion and energy I wanted to create. Lucky for me a colleague staged a field day in the school's courtyard during lunch a few months ago with a DJ and games. YES - this was the energy I was looking for!
The next day I asked my Art 3 students to brainstorm - what kinds of activities could we include in our show? We decided on henna tattoos, free BYOS (bring your own shirt) screen printing and micro drawings. The kids were excited about bringing people to the event during lunch and used social media to get the word out.
We scrambled to set everything on the big day, wondering if people would come. When the bell rang for first lunch a herd of girls with t shirts poured through the media center doors. The henna line stretched forever and the micro drawing table was busy as well. Tons of students and staff wandered around and looked at the amazing art we'd spend months making and were duly impressed. "You should sign up for Art 1", I'd say.
Next year will be even better.
Grading is something I’ve always hated. How can teachers be asked to determine what’s meaningful about a child’s academic journey, then rate it and rank it? Of course, the realities of teaching dictate that all teachers are asked to do just this, daily. Grades, in theory, should capture what a student knows and can do and communicate that information to interested parties. The reality of grading often falls quite short of this ideal and frequently serves much less noble purposes. All too often we use grades to encourage compliance.
We use grades to punish, taking off points when work is late or when students’ leave off their names or, god forbid, vear from our project’s intended direction.
Because we have to quantify our teaching, we base grades on arbitrary requirements, defining what “good” application of technique looks like, when the one thing that art history tell us is that “good” is a moving target that’s always in flux.
Grading like this seems at best a waste of time and at worst lacking the moral compass that should govern our interactions with children. Instead, we need to develop grading systems that reflect our values as educators.
What are those values? I'll start with my goals:
I want students who make decisions instead of following the steps I sent.
I want students who experiment, take risks and grow into independent artists.
For me, a grading system that reflects these goals and values looks like, in part giving students a weekly grade that reinforces their use of the Artistic Thinking Process as they create original art during class.
I've been capturing grades like this, along with grades at the end of units and a final portfolio grade the the end of the course, for a year at this point. I've found that grading this way aligns with my value system and reinforces the artistic behaviors I want to foster in my students.
Drawing people is hard. It's so easy to skew proportions and one little mistake throws off the whole effect, leaving the work looking silly instead of representational. Kids feel real pressure from portraits, but mastering the figure opens up a world of potential material for art. In planning for this semester I knew I wanted my Art 3 students to leave the class with the ability to use the figure in personally meaningful, self directed work, so I planned to get them there in the best way I knew: a Bootcamp.
Formulating a Bootcamp for this group was a challenge - they'd learned different things in previous classes, about a third had taken an additional drawing class and, for four of the students, this was their first high school art class. To plan something that would meet everyone's needs, I started by collecting some data.
"Draw a face or a person" I said. "You have half an hour."
As they drew, I look for ability to plan out the face, knowledge about drawing features and use of proportion. From my observations, and from what the group told me about what they wanted to learn, I planned an investigation of figurative work.
We started with some optional small group lessons - reviewing (or learning for the first time) how to draw facial features, facial proportions and how to approach drawing the face from the front. The whole class worked on drawing the face from the side and from an angle.
Next we moved onto the figure, learning body proportions, then spending a few days on a combination of gesture drawings of different lengths and longer drawings. For gesture drawings, I took their pencils, asking them to try pen or marker or charcoal instead. This was terrifying for many, but the loss of the ability to erase freed them from obsessing about mistakes.
To finish the unit I asked them to complete a figurative work, in any media, that did two things:
- Showed what they'd learned.
- Used the face or figure expressively.
And they did!
This student did a series of portraits on sticky notes, with the goal of drawing the face from different angles and the body in challenging positions.
Realistic proportions were a struggle for this kid (who's never taken a high school art class until now), but he was able to wonderfully blend what he learned about realism with his anime inspired style.
Megan painted on plexiglass, so these images show the two sides of her piece about anxiety.
Complaining is something high schoolers excel at. However, making art out of it is a different story! I showed my Art 3 kids this episode of The Art Assignment and had them use the theme of complaining in their own work. Complaints ranged from serious to small but they were all personal and students did an excellent job with the hard part - figuring out how to visually communicate complex ideas.
Working with a new group of students is challenging. The first order of business has to be getting to know them, as people and as artists. This prismacolor bootcamp with Art 3, I'm finding, is giving me the opportunity to do just that.
I like to start new classes with skill building, then application of new technique because it allows me to assess where students are in terms of confidence, comfort working independently and technical ability.
We started our prisma bootcamp with a quick overview of how prismas, which are high end colored pencils, work. Next I asked students to select three images with interesting textures from magazines. The goal of this Texture Challenge was to draw three small sections of interesting texture. Next, demonstrated a range of approaches to working with this medium.
I see my role as the provider of information and it's my goal to give students the ability to make choices that work best for the artists they are, not just pass on my own preferences.
I liked this assignment because of the built in differentiation it has, which was more that I initially thought it would be. I asked students to pick images of things they would like to learn about drawing or that were challenging. Their image selection showed me quite a bit about their interests and confidence level. Some students found it challenging to pick an image independently, asked what I thought they should pick.
It became quickly apparent that the kids in my class had a range of prior knowledge. It's tough for students when they have never used a material and they are setting next to someone who is a master. It's also hard to ignore differences in skill - the work is right there on the table for everyone to compare.
The focus of these sort of activities has to be what I refer to "leveling up". I tell my students - frequently - that they must compare their growth to their previous work. Having classes select a wide variety of images supports this because work becomes less about comparison than it would be if everyone was drawing the same thing.
I helped everyone level up during this activity by doing a lot of one on one conferring and demonstrations. Some kids only needed me to ask them to step back from their work to notice a lack of contrast, or to point out that blue might help a shadow recede. Others needed me to sit and draw the image they work working on, modeling my thinking out loud about how I compose, select color and thing about mark making.
Next up: students will apply new learning in drawing of their choice.
It's been a busy start to second semester, between finishing edits on my book and teaching two new classes. However, a few weeks in and things are starting to calm down. I've finished my first lesson with Art 3 - the Un-Trite Challenge. I'm not going to go into details about the lesson because I wrote a whole article about it that will be published on Art of Ed this week (which you should read!), but, in a nutshell, students had to pick a trite symbol and make it feel fresh and original. I loved the lesson and was so impressed by how my kids responded!
Can you guess the symbol each student picked? Answers are at the bottom.
1. Yin Yang. 2. light bulb as used to symbolize ideas. 3. The feminism symbol with some Georgia O'Keefe thrown in. 4. The corner sun!
Did you know Art 1 students can fly? I'm happy, more so this year than ever, because my students are working as confident, independent artists. They've learned the Artistic Thinking Process we’ve spent months working through, and they can apply it to develop and pursue their own ideas. The responsibility for content and direction has shifted; my role is now to be a sounding board, a cheerleader and a constructive-criticism giver - which is exactly where I want to be.
The Inspiration for this project was the the Elements of Art. It started with presentations, where groups researched and shared examples about an Element. During these presentations, students were responsible for selecting an Element to focus on in a work of art. They took notes or sketched to help organize new information.
Makeing artwork inspired by an Element was the only parameter: all other decisions were left up to students. They selected an Element, the process of which made them really realize how connected they are. Next, they choose and completed a minimum of three Development activities, with the focus on preparing themselves to make their artistic vision a reality, not jumping through hoops to meet a requirement for a grade. When they decided they were ready they created their artwork. I conferenced with them daily, discussing their process, providing feedback and asking questions.
Seeing my students use this process to interpret such a wide-open theme is incredibly fulfilling - for both them and me. The next few weeks will be even more fun, as students start working on creating work for a totally self-directed collection of three pieces. They’ll pick a theme or subject to explore, spread their wings and fly.
Teenagers have opinions and ideas for miles and, if you set it up the right way, they can do amazing things with them. I love my Artists Take a Stand Unit, because kids are so engaged in the process and invested in their work. To get them to this place, we spent weeks learning about Design Process Thinking, the framework I teach students to use as they independently plan, problem-solve and create work. We also studied a range of media and techniques in Bootcamps and went through four Artistic Behavior inspired units. All this teaching and learning has paid off. My kids are able to take a complex theme and figure out what to do with it mostly on their own.
All the work below is about political or social issues. Students made this on their own - they selected an issue to focus on, picked the media that would work best to express it, decided how to plan their work and what the finished product would look like. All the work is from Art 1 - most students are high school freshmen.
In her presentation, this student shared how this work was motivated by her personal experience with cyberbullying. Many kids in the class connected with it, asking the artist if they could take pictures of her work to share on social media.
This sculpture was a made by a group of three and address loss of childhood due to war, violence and hunger. The barbed wire around the hands is in the form of the child's game cat's cradle.
What if we view mental illness like we do physical disabilities? This question was the focus of this student's work.
This piece address climate change through a sci-fi narrative of a future where plants are rare and the atmosphere is toxic.
I was so proud of how this student took a personal tragedy and made it into a beautiful work about transgender suicide.
This student had a clear idea - his opinion that liberal protesters were being hypocritical with violent protests. It took him all week to come up with the right way to say what he wanted to.
The best part of this unit was the presentations at the end. Students shared what their work was about and how they communicated their message. The group listened and responded thoughtfully. It was clear everyone felt they were part of something important, which is exactly where I want us to be.
I'm an high school art teacher who's really interested in student choice and creating opportunities for self expression. I'm also a writer for The Art of Education and co-author of The Open Art Room.