"What if art was taught not with absolutes, but with questions?
What if we gave choices instead of steps to follow?
What if we gave suggestions instead of answers?
In my high school Art 1 class, I start the year with Bootcamps, designed to develop skill with media and process. This week we worked through drawing. I gave students short experiences with a variety of drawing materials, with a group activity, independent work and "Draw Around the Room" (inspired by Diane Jaquith), where kids rotated through centers to experiment with different media.
I started the week with a question, asking students to spend the next two days deciding what drawing media they wanted to explore in a longer, finished artwork.
I included choice in demonstrations and process charts by giving examples of techniques and asking them to try a few.
When students had questions about how to do something I pointed them to the design section of Design Process Thinking. "Which of these options could help you here?" I asked.
Interesting things, things I couldn't have expected, started to happen. Fingerprints were used to fill in a background and chalk was filed to make a sky filled with stars. My students thought creativity and worked in individual styles as they experiment to find answers to the questions they need answered.
What happens when the teacher model is taken away?
Printmaking is always a challenge to teach and include the level of student choice I like to. It takes a while for even high school students to understand the process, plus the whole image reversal thing complicates it all. Taking the time to teach one printmaking process is a commitment, but I wanted to teach three without spending weeks.
The answer was flipping.
I linked videos and a slide show about block printing, screen printing and monoprinting on my website (I'm still building this, so excuse the mess!). Next, I made some short quizzes with Google Forms about key concepts essential to each process. These quizzes were not for a grade - instead they served as a check and balance. Kids could take them as many times as they wanted but they had to pass before they printed.
This worked wonderfully. Students really payed attention to the steps in the videos, talking notes or watching them multiple times. Taking the quiz let them see what they still needed to know and review at the same time.
I wondered - would the video/ quiz combo prepare them to follow multi-step processes correctly? Yes, it did, and better than my traditional lessons. I had far less questions about what to do next and, if I was working with another student, I could easily direct anyone who needed help back to to video. Instead of spending days teaching processes it was done in under a class period. True, each kid didn't learn every type of printmaking, but they were exposed to each one and they can easily access the steps when they're ready to try it.
I'm all about packing as much knowledge into as little time as possible. Who wants to spend weeks on color theory? Not me and certainly not my students. Applying knowledge in student directed artwork is how I want my kids to spend the limited hours we're given together.
Enter the color mixing challenge.
I start by telling the class that we'll be having a group challenge and that they'll need to know the following information to help their team. Next, I spend 5 minutes going over some basic color theory while they take notes. I cover primary, secondary and complementary colors, plus how to mix tints and shades.
Then it's time for the challenge.
Each group gets a palette of primaries and white, plus a magazine page. The challenge is to match as many colors from the magazine as possible.
They talk and mix beautifully complex colors, applying vocabulary and processing new information as the do it. Colors that are created are matched right on the magazine page for immediate feedback. It's easy to set up, quick and fun, plus it creates the needed foundation of knowledge for further paint exploration - my idea of the perfect lesson.
What would your students do if they had class time in art to focus on something they were passionate about? This summer I listened to teacher and author Kevin Brookhouser speak about he uses 20Time in his high school classes and I knew I had to try it. The concept is inspired by Google, which gives it's employees 20% of their time to work on any project they want to. Kevin does this with his students and the results are amazing.
My kids have quite a bit of choice in my TAB classroom, but it's mostly centered around themes and topics that I select. I want my students to have the opportunity to really focus on pursuing the things they are passionate about. I also want to give them a space to investigate how art can intersect or support other subjects.
I want my class to provide the type of learning experience that is remembered for a lifetime.
I decided on the following criteria for 20Time:
I was excited and a little nervous when I shared this idea with my Art 1 classes yesterday. Would they get it? Would they be able to come up with ideas?
I presented the information above and had them identify one of the three project categories that they connected with. I saw them sit up a little taller as I talked, eyes bright with interest.
Next, they got in groups based on the category they selected and did a brainstorming activity. I asked them to list possibilities for projects without considering the cost, feasibility or their ability level, to tap into creative, out of the box thinking.
Next, I had kids fill out this planning sheet on my website. Some chose to work alone, other in groups. I was amazed at some of their ideas. Here are a few I'm excited about:
Building a website for a current business selling used xboxes.
Worldbuilding for a novel being written.
Character development for a future graphic novel.
Exploring watercolor technique.
Designing a toy drive for a local animal shelter.
Writing a smartphone app.
And this was just week one! I'm very much looking forward to next Friday.
I'm a firm believer that the tone we set in the first week of school can influence the whole course. When planning what that time period would look like in my room this year, I wanted to accomplish the following:
- Create a culture of collaboration.
- Foster a problem-solving mindset.
- Intro my Design Process Thinking model.
- Start a conversation about originality that will be revisited in every lesson.
On day one I skip the rules and syllabus review. Instead, we played one of my favorite games - "What's in the Bag?". The task was to create an object that could shoot a projectile at least three feet. I love the moment I tell students we're doing this - I watch their eyes go from glazed over with boredom to alive and curious. It's a fun activity for kids but it's also an effective way to preview what the class will look like in terms of student responsibility for making decisions.
The next day, we started a short assignment about re-purposing ideas. The task: each group remixed an old master painting. The big idea I wanted my kids to take away from this experience is that artists need to be collectors of ideas that they have on file to use and adapt. It's a big paradigm shift that needs to happen to get where I want them to go.
Next week, it's on to Bootcamps. My goal is to fit more information in a shorter timespan by using a combo of flipping and google forms. Stay tuned!
How can I remove the barriers that exist for my students?
This question has been rolling around in my head for a week, after my superintendent, Dr. James Merrill, asked it during our South West Area Kickoff (which was some really excellent PD).
There are three types of barriers I see for my students: social, personal and academic.
I try to remove social barriers by being really intentional about making all students feel welcome in my classroom. I want my kids to feel safe and included from the moment they come through the door, so I make it a point to post images that represent different cultures and points of view. This continues every time select artists to share - we have to include the diverse contemporary artists of today if we want our content to be relevant and accessible to our kids.
I also leave much of the walls empty. This is not a space I want to be a hommage to my art skills - it's for the community that we build together.
I try to remove personal barriers by building a relationship with my students. I make it a point to get to know them individually, asking them questions and figuring out what's important to them. When I notice a student is resistant to following behavioral expectations I start by asking questions, not lecturing or punishing.
"It seems like you're having trouble following the rules today. Is everything okay?" always gets me further than "I'll see you at lunch detention."
I remove academic barriers by making content personal and relevant for my students. I teach them to use their own ideas, differentiating content and support individually to make sure that happens. Instead of planning what they'll make and showing them the steps I teach them to be the decision makers.
All these things work together to make a classroom culture that's student centered, positive and empowering.
Ah, back to school. It's right around the corner and I'm getting excited about new courses and new ideas. You might be too. If you're an elementary teacher who's interested in TAB (what is TAB?) I've written some lesson plans for the Art of Education that might be helpful. Of course, TAB is a read-the book-kind of venture, so If you haven't had the chance, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Engaging Learners Through Artmaking. Joining groups of like-minded educators is also helpful. TAB has a great website, with lots of resources. Also, if you are on Facebook, make sure to join Mid West TAB-Choice Art Teachers.
TAB Lesson Plan Links
It's gotten to the point where I dread seeing the news. Mass shootings, terrorist attacks and police brutality have filled this summer, all set against the backdrop of the most polarized, hate filled presidential campaign in memory. It's senseless and it makes me question the collective humanity of the world. But even more, it makes me want to take action.
As teachers, I believe that we have the opportunity to help shape the lives we have the gift of being part of.
We can teach tolerance and respect, both with the way we treat our students and how we expect them to interact with each other. This involves talking to students and getting to know them as unique individuals and setting expectations for the classroom environment. When you hear students using racist, sexist or homophobic language, address it by naming what happened and offering an alternative behavior. For example: "Tom, when you call something you don't like "gay" it sounds like you are saying that being gay is bad. Could you please pick a different word to use?"
We can teach about diversity with the examples we use. The time where it's acceptable to mainly include white artists in your classroom is long since over. Make it a point to include a diverse group of artists in work you show students - not just during Black History Month, but all year long. You can easily find contemporary artists to highlight through resources like thisiscollossal or hifructose.
We can teach kids to respect the opinions of others by opening our classrooms to the investigation of social and political issues. Your students know about what's going on in the world and they need a place to discuss it. I do this in projects like Artists Take a Stand and Artists Communicate, where students choose issues that are important to them to make art about. I've never had any issues with these projects because I teach the expectation that people and ideas are respected in my classroom. When kids fall short I address it. As work is planned and created, ask kids what they want to say and help them find imagery that communicates their idea and meets your expectations for content.
Providing a place for students to process the issues of our world and talk through ideas respectfully teaches them to be tolerant of one another. We need more tolerance, discussion and respect in our world, so include teaching them in your classroom. What would happen if we did?
When should student work be censored? Last week Ian Sands and Andrew McCormick talked about this important subject on Art Ed Radio, and their conversation made me reflect on my own teaching.
How should we balance fostering student voice with following a school's expectations for appropriate content? How do we create a classroom climate that celebrates and respects differences?
These are issues I deal with quite a bit, because I teach students to use their own ideas and I value art that makes a point, so I plan and teach projects like Artists Communicate, where I ask my kids to make work about political or social issues that are important to them.
When I work with my kids to make decisions about content I think of it as a series of decisions we make together. I give advice based on my experience but the final decision is up to the student. In my opinion, we don't need to censor as much as inform and support.
It's not everyday you see one of your best students spelling "cunt" with letters cut from magazines, but when this happened I was totally fine with it. Her work was about the relationship that insults and self harm have with each other. When this work was in the planning stages it started with the hand and I asked if she'd considered something in the background. Text was one of the solutions she came up with, and adding it made this piece much more powerful, so I supported her. The challenge came when she wanted to enter in in a show. I was worried that the gallery might reject it. We talked about it and she decided to mat it in a way that cut off part of the text on the edges, making the language still present but more subtle. She decided that lowering the risk of the show rejecting it was worth a bit of editing.
"Mrs. Purtee, I want to make artwork about drugs" was the statement that started this final portfolio collection. I was tempted to "just say no" (ha ha ha), but instead I asked her to tell me more. What we figured out through conversation over a few classes, was that she was inspired by psychedelic artwork, not necessarily drug use. We talked about the counterculture elements of surrealism and about how music in the 1960's referenced drugs in a much more discrete way than the music of today. She ended up with a very strong body of work that avoided trite symbolism. Most importantly she was happy with it.
A few more examples:
Figuring out how to express challenging ideas visually is motivating and challenging at the same time - perfect fodder for the classroom. Conversation is the key when students are making art that could be controversial. When I talk to kids about their work I always try to respect their ideas and help them figure out how to say what they want while understanding the boundaries that are part of being a student.
The other type of conversation that has to take place is with the whole class. From the first day on, I let my students know that my room is a place where ideas and opinions are respected. I model this in how I interact with kids and I remind them when they slip up. For example, when I hear racist or sexist language I always address it in a polite and direct way. I intentionally work to create an atmosphere where it's safe to express ideas. My students rise to the challenge - I remember one instance where there were works in progress at one table about religion, feminism, sexual assault, a pro-life view on abortion and trans rights. Everyone just rolled with it.
Motivation is a slippery thing. Some students have it in spades, working outside of class, coming in at lunch and always challenging themselves. Others do the bare minimum, or decidedly less.
How can we help unmotivated students find their passion?
In a TAB classroom, one obstacle to motivation is the unknown. It makes sense - a student in our educational system's teach to the test culture can easily have almost no experience with generating and developing independent ideas. When we ask students to do this it's uncomfortable. It's so uncomfortable for some that they shut down instead of running the risk in investing in a task they perceive as hard. These students need a framework. The one I use is Design Process Thinking.
I created Design Process Thinking, or DPT, to scaffold working through the creative process. I use it as the structure for all my lessons, building skills and independence incrementally. Early on in a course I teach the options under each category, later students decide what will work best for their creative needs and preferences. When students are stuck, which most often happens in the Inspiration and Design phases, I refer to DPT in conversations with them. We read through the options and talk through possible next steps. Using DPT makes the design process tangible and accessible instead of overwhelming.
Emma, a student that I had in Art 2, is a good example of how DPT can be used to scaffold for creative independence. She was frequently stuck in class. I'd often find her not working. Instead, she was on her phone or doing homework, which looked like she was unmotivated. However, when we talked I realized she was stuck and had no idea going about making decisions. She had an idea - to make a watercolor painting for our sequence of events project - but she had never used watercolor and had no idea what to do next.
After talking, we decided that she needed some new skills, so I did technique demo for her. Next, after talking it through with me, she decided to find resource images of sunsets, then experiment with technique. After lots of practice and support from me she ended up creating a successful painting. More importantly, she learned a process to make decisions with through our DPT conversations. By the end of Art 2 she was able to do this mostly on her own. Sometimes what looks like motivation is just having the right skill set.
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 soon to be published book The Open Art Room. In my free time I love to garden, cook and jog - all while chasing two boys under four!