High schoolers hate ambiguity. When it comes to school, the familiar is safe and comfortable. But I want my students to direct their own path of learning, which is the opposite of familiar.
So I start with baby steps. Things that feel like familiar assignments, like Bootcamps, that teach them the Artistic Thinking Process (ATP).
Next I move on to themes with open media choice. This still feels safe because they've learned how to develop ideas with ATP. They hardly even notice that they are selecting media from a dizzying array of options and interpreting increasingly complex ideas, but they are.
Here is where I've struggled. It's a big gap from where they are, interpreting themes I've set, to where I want them to be - working on 100% self-directed art.
I think I've found a good bridge - the learning challenge.
I've done related things before, but I made some important changes that have really improved the outcome of this challenge. The first is establishing a baseline - which involves students independently creating work before they dive into the learning of new content.
To teach students how to do this on their own, I modeled what I wanted them to do through a drawing activity. This started with asking the whole class to draw an eye prior to any instruction. We looked at the drawings and kids listed things that they observed that they wanted to improve on. Next, I lead the whole class, step by step, through a demonstration on drawing eyes in graphite. After this learning experience I asked them to create a drawing, in any media, that showed what they learned. We discussed how the baseline they created compared to the drawing at the end, and how comparing the two is helpful when analyzing growth.
The second important change I made to this challenge was being extremely clear about what the learning component would look like and how long it would take. Asking kids to spend multiple days with step three and giving them some example tasks helped all my kids really show growth during this challenge.
My kids are interested, focused and making %100 of their artistic decisions independently.
I see reflection as an essential part of learning in my classroom but I don't always like the way I teach it. I've been doing some form of student blogs for years. When I get kids who like to write or are good at writing, the results are wonderful and reading blog posts is like having a window into their souls, highlighting both thought process and analytical ability in a particularly illuminating way.
But not all my kids like to write.
Not all my kids have the skills to easily write.
Many of my kids are uncomfortable with technology.
In fact, many of my students absolutely hate writing blog posts. Like, hate it enough to not do it, or whine about it a lot, or put it off again and again. All of these things both drive me crazy and show that what I'm doing isn't working.
So I experiment with solutions, my goal being to provide options that make it possible for every student to succeed in creating a digital portfolio of work with high quality, written reflection. There two issues that I see occurring again and again. The first is that the writing of some students is low quality; general, vague and not really about anything real or of importance. The second is the negativity many kids feel about writing reflective blog post.
It seems like my options are to punish poor writing with bad grades or to accept lower quality writing than I'd prefer. I don't like either of those choices.
I've been trying something totally simple and easy over the last few weeks that has made my kids' writing better and resulted in much higher comfort level with reflective writing: vocabulary lists. The first time I tried this, for our optical illusion challenge, I generated a list of around ten words, with definitions, listed them on the board, then asked kids to use at least three in their writing. I did this instead of assigning a writing prompt as I typically would, like "Write about how you used optical illusion in your work".
I just asked them to write about their work using three words from the list. It had a big impact on the quality of writing I received. The examples below are from a student's blog and show his writing before I tried listing vocabulary as well as after. Check out how much more specific his writing gets!
Before the vocabulary list
Pretty cool, isn't it!
The next reflection I assigned was about the theme of Identity. I listed two vocabulary words: identity and symbolism. Below is a before and after of a student who loves to write but hates blog posts.
I've noticed pretty consistent improvement across the board with the quality of writing. I've also observed a distinct drop in whining and procrastinating. The takeaway, for me, is a suspicion that a list of vocabulary feels easier to my kids than the writing prompts I've been using. The vocabulary gives them structure for reflection and is, at the same time, open ended enough to apply to kids' diverse interpretations of the themes and challenges I use in my teaching.
I'm realizing more and more this year that I need to simplify, support and be specific with my instruction to create an environment that all my kids can be successful in.
Listing vocabulary is a fairly simple step for me and supports student learning by specifically showing them what I what them to reflect on.
My instruction with Art 1 progresses from small and safe to big and open. We start slow, building courage and capacity, with weeks of Bootcamps, then on to themes, where there are countless decisions to be made. This week, we're finishing work related to the theme of Optical Illusion.
Optical Illusion can seem like a narrow sort of concept at first, but I introduced the theme by asking kids to investigate it in a very broad sense by sharing worked related to linear perspective, impossible shapes, metamorphosis and linear perspective.
The work my kids made in response to this theme was interesting and diverse.
I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to support excellence in all my students and one area I’ve noticed I needed to think about was reflection. My kids pick from blog posts or class presentations to reflect on learning, and I’ve noticed that some writing is shallow and lacking analysis.
Maybe I needed to be more specific about what I wanted them to write about.
I put a vocabulary list of words related to optical illusion on the board with definitions, reviewed the terms and asked kids to practice using the vocabulary to analyze their work in group. Then I asked them to use at least three of the words in their reflections. As I rotated around the room, checking in with each student, I asked to make sure each one had identified the vocabulary they planned to use.
This was easy and made a huge impact on the quality of reflections. Sometimes it's easy for me to assume that all kids know how to do something, but my teaching is so much better when I think about ways to support those who may not.
Student reflection from the notes of their slideshow presentation: "We used repetition of triangle shapes and colors to create the illusion of a never ending three dimensional object. The illusion we created uses depth to make the one color appear in front of another when in reality they are on the same plane."
We all have them. Kids who sit, unworking, as the rest of the class creates, or students who ask question after question, continually unsure. I've always had these students in my classes, but this year, because of larger class sizes, I'm impacted by them more. It's been feeling like there are not enough minutes in class to spend the time I need with everyone.
This week I went to a short PD session at my school about supporting kids that struggle within the general education classroom. One point that really stuck with me was that some kids need help organizing the steps of a task. I do this, a lot, but as one of our special education teachers described a student with his head down, avoiding a task not because he doesn't care but because he doesn't know what to do, I saw a few of my kid this year in her description. I realized that the resources I have in place to help kids follow the art-making process may not be enough for all my students.
She talked about how people who tend to be successful at school make mental "buckets" to group and store information. I realized that I needed to help some of my kids with organizing the steps of the Artistic Thinking Process we use as the foundation of all the work in class. So I made this form.
*Read more about what the Artistic Thinking Process is here. *
I created it on Thursday, thinking I would occasionally use it with a few students when I introduce new content, printing them out so kids could have individual copies of the process I write on the board.
I ended up using the form seven times the next day - and I wasn't introducing anything new.
The first student I tried it with has been a kid who's done little in my class this year. He's been suspended multiple times and has missed a lot of content, plus he often just seems unwilling to work. I constantly have to ask him to turn off his phone, remind him what he should be working on and redirect him. Often he just gives up when he doesn't draw something perfectly the first time. Other times he won't even try. I've worked hard to build a relationship with him but it hasn't translated into engaged participation yet.
I saw him with his head down, looking at his phone and not doing anything close to the assignment at hand. I brought over a printed copy of the form and told him that I wanted to make sure he knew what to do. I sat there and filled it out with him, making sure to help him identify the materials he needed and where they were.
He worked for the whole class, independently, and finished what he'd planned to make.
That he was able to do this is beyond huge to me and, I'm sure, to him.
I used the form with six other students who exhibited qualities of being unsure of the next steps. It helped students identify what development activities would work best to give them the information they needed to start their artwork and to keep a very accessible record of what they needed to do next.
The thing about it I loved was that it proved enough support for each of the students I used it with that they were able to work independently for the rest of class, when typically that would have needed support from me multiple times to stay on task.
An optical illusion of a 3D staircase created by a student. He was ready to give up after making the image on the left. I filled out the form with him, which helped him identify that he could ask me for a demonstration as a development strategy. The image on the right is what he was able to draw after.
I'm a firm believer that all students can be successful with the right support and if they won't or can't do a task it's my job to figure out how to help them. I'm really excited about how this resource has already started to make content in my class more accessible and how using it has impacted comprehension and engagement for kids who've been struggling.
If you'd like to try it, find it here.
I didn't know what to expect last week when I planned and taught a new challenge about original symbols. I hoped that my Art 1 classes of mostly freshman would leave the experience knowing a bit more about how to avoid trite symbols. I did not expect that so much of the work would be deeply personal, or that kids would be so open with their peers as they presented the work.
I was struck by how much of themselves my kids put into these works and how honest they were. Sharing their art in presentations was a powerful way to end the experience and it allowed them to connect with each other. Sometimes it's easy for me to forget all the serious issues that high school students deal with daily. I wonder how much they never share with anyone.
I love being done with Bootcamps. My Art 1 students have spent the last four weeks learning about painting, drawing, printmaking and collage. More importantly, they've learned how to confidently make decisions and move from finding an idea to a finished work of art using my Artistic Thinking Process.
Now that the foundation is in place, the fun begins!
This week I challenged my kids to make artwork using original symbolism. As I told them about this, their eyes got big and they looked ready to run. It's a challenging thing, to be original.
To make sure they understood the difference between overused, conventional symbols and original or personal symbols, I lead an exploratory group challenge. I gave them a series of four words and asked the groups to list or draw as many symbols as they could that were related to the word. They shared after each round and we discussed how some common symbols were listed by everyone.
,The words I used - love, patriotism, freedom and mortality, in that order - worked well because they were organized from less challenging to more. Plus, the are all ideas that have many possibilities for complex interpretation. Additionally, they let me introduce my expectation that everyone's beliefs are respected. There were very different interpretations of patriotism listed in some groups, which addressed a range of opinions on gun ownership and standing or kneeling for the pledge, which lead to important conversations. By the time we got to listing symbols for "morality" students were thinking allegorically, identifying groups of symbols that worked together to communicate meaning.
On day two I shared four examples of artwork and asked students to write down any ideas or connections they had as we talked. I started with Running Horned Woman, then The Two Fridas, Remembering, by Ai Weiwei, and ending with Flint, By Ti-Rock Moore (pictured below).
"Flint" is a powerful work that's impossible to really understand without background knowledge. I gave each of my table group and aspect of the Flint water crisis to research and had them report what they'd found. Going through this process to identify how Ti-Rock Moore used imagery from segregation to call out modern-day racism was a powerful experience for my kids.
Still, on the next day as I asked them to use the Artistic Thinking Process to work through their ideas, I wondered if I was asking too much. Would these kids, many of them just 14, be able to do what I was asking?
I gave them the directions below, then began conferencing with each of my table groups.
Almost everyone had an idea.
Work is still in progress, but I want to share a few examples of what I'm seeing. Each of this students is a high school freshman.
I'm so proud of the work coming out of my Art 1 classes right now and excited about what's next.
I've been annoyed for the past few weeks because I'm out of clay and materials for screen printing. Since I didn't have the materials I needed to teach the clay and printmaking Bootcamps I wanted to use in my Art 1 class, I had to rethink my plans. I decided to teach a short Bootcamp that combined collage and printmaking.
Collage and Printmaking Bootcamp
Day 1: Engage and Explore
I started this Bootcamp by asking kids to think about their previous experiences with collage and printmaking. My students remembered formulaic lessons from elementary school - things like handprint turkeys and gluing together pre-cut shapes. So when I showed them this video their peridigm shifted, which was my goal.
As kids watched the video, I had them list techniques and materials they saw the artist use. Next, I showed the class this presentation, as we continued listing and discussing the approaches the featured artists used.
We identified the following techniques:
- Combining small parts to create a new image.
- Juxtaposing large images to make new meaning.
- Using magazine images.
- Cutting paper or painted paper.
- Tearing and combining drawings.
- Layering with paint, drawing or printmaking.
Next, I had the class rotate through four centers, spending around 15 minutes at each, with the goal of research different collage methods as part of planning their own work.
*These kids are familiar with this style of learning, which allows me to shorten the time spent at centers.
Days 2 and 3
I started day two with a short group activity. Kids shared what they were inspired by dring day 1, as well as any plans they had for the self-directed collage they would start work on today. I assigned group roles for this activity - a facilitator to make sure everyone shares, a recorder to summarize the conversation and one or two reporters who presented a summary of the group's conversation with the whole class at the end.
After this quick planning activity the class got to work on collages of their own design.
I'm proud of the results from this Bootcamp. The work made was personal, diverse and interesting, but the shift in how my kids think is just as important. It's our third and last Bootcamp of Art 1 and my students have learned how to use the Artistic Thinking Process (ATP) to work independently to create art. I've been extremely consistent with using the language and structure of ATP in all we've done so far and it's resulting in almost universal confidence. Over the last few days I saw everyone invest in the experimentation I offered in centers, then easily apply what they discovered to their own work. Next week we'll start what i've designed everything to support; investigating broad themes with open choice of media and process.
Bootcamps are a simple and effective concept. The idea is to compress essential instruction into a short amount of time, creating a strong enough foundation for students to be successful working independently.
In practice, Bootcamps can be tweaked endlessly. This year I added a few components to my Art 1 Painting Bootcamp, where students learn the basics of color theory and how to use watercolor and acrylic paint. All the painting described below is done with color mixing from warm and cool primaries, plus white and brown. All my teaching is organized by my Artistic Thinking Process.
My Painting Bootcamp
Day 1: Color theory and setup with acrylic.
I start by asking kids to make a chart that they will use compare and contrast acrylic paint, pictured above. I ask them to take notes about the materials needed for each as I describe the setup and procedures we use as pass out materials.
Next, I ask my table groups, which have 3 to 4 students, to select a page from a magazine. Then I tell them about the color mixing challenge and overview basic color theory. Groups have half an hour to mix matches for as many colors in their chosen magazine page as they can. They get immediate feedback by placing the paint right on the page in the area they are trying to match. If the color is exact, they circle it and add it to their total. If it's off, the group problem solves about what they need to change or add to get it right. When time is up each group shares their total number of matched colors, along with something that they learned during the activity.
I leave lots of time at the end of this first class to teach clean up procedures and check for mastery. Then, if time allows I ask students to write what they think about acrylic paint in the +/- section of their comparison chart.
Day 2 and 3: Acrylic and Watercolor Techniques
I teach the techniques for watercolor and acrylic over two days by demonstrating then having students try. For acrylic I teach smooth gradient, painting with visible texture, layering and dry brush. For watercolor I teach dry brush, wash, layering and wet on wet. I discuss the basics of atmospheric perspective as I demo layering in each medium. I frequently mention that they are collecting information that will help them decide which type of paint to use in the summative assignment, which is to create a landscape painting .
Days 4 - 7: Development and Creation
I ask students to create a landscape painting for the summative artwork for this Bootcamp because:
For the Development stage I ask students to pick three of the following tasks:
- Search for and combine reference images (I require students who do not have a photo they've taken to compile at least two online images with a compositional sketch).
Students spend at least a full 90 minute class on Development, sometimes two. At this point in the year I am still establishing my expectations for ownership and this part of the process needs to make abundantly clear that the student needs to put in the work to build an artwork. I do not give them answers - they make their own path.
After Development, students move on to Creation, which we'll finish early next week. I'm excited to see how these birch trees turn out. :)
How do you make the slow, tedious work of colored pencil drawing fast?
Last year, when I taught my Art 3 students a colored pencil Bootcamp, I didn't. We spent two weeks with prisma technique and producing finished work. The work was pretty and highly polished, but there was an over emphasis on realism. Many of my kids really, really wanted to make drawings that looked just like their photo references - even the kids who typically had a very different style.
This didn't sit well with me. I'd agreed when asked by my department to include colored pencil instruction in Art 3, so skipping this Bootcamp wasn't an option. This year, my goal was to make it better.
I had two things I wanted to accomplish:
Broaden students' view of success beyond representational work and shortening the timeframe to no more than a week.
One way I set about meeting my goal was introducing the work of two colored pencil artists; Marco Mazzoni and Lui Ferreyra, work pictured above. Examining and discussing their worked helped expand students' assumptions about what colored pencil work can and should look like. I wanted them to play around with different styles and to try something other than replicating an image perfectly.
I decide to start class with drawing tasks so short that my kids would have to draw without over thinking.
10 Minute Challenges
Day 1: Cup in arbitrary color.
Day 2: Plants. I had students select a palette of three colors first, then got out the plants to force them to "make it work".
Day 3 and 4: Word illustration. I handed out words on slips of paper as kids entered the room. They had 2 minutes to plan, then 10 minutes to draw. At the end groups switched tables and tried to match other groups images with the word they depicted. On day 4 I passed out the words again, only this time they had to illustrate the opposite of the word's meaning.
Colored pencil is not my favorite medium and realism is not my favorite style. However, some of my students like both. Many are doing very realistic drawings for their summative drawing for this Bootcamp, and that's fine, because they know that there are other options out there that are also valuable. I'm happy with how this Bootcamp turned out because it became more open and supported a range of styles. Plus, quite a few of my kids are taking lessons they learned in the 10 minute challenges and applying them, which goes to show that deep learning can quickly!
I start Art 1 with Bootcamps because they do two vital things very well:
Bootcamps are my version of opening centers. Once the weeks of Bootcamps are over, students know how to use, as well as have access to, a broad range of media. The trick, for me, is to keep the Bootcamps short in order to provide the challenge of choice and the deep learning that comes with it for the maximum amount of time. In my experience, students bring a range of capabilities for independence to my class. Some are ready to generate their own ideas from day 1, while others are unsure and need to learn the steps of ATP to feel confident with self directed work. To support the needs of both extremes, as well as all those who fall between, I make sure to plan Bootcamps to include both open ended options for work, as well as more concrete options.
My drawing Bootcamp this year took 5 days. I told students at the beginning to few the first two days as a time to collect ideas, as they would be expected to apply new learning to plan and create an original drawing in the media of their choice. I frame the exploration stage of the Bootcamp as research, which helps kids shift their mindset from expecting answers to knowing they will be in charge of important decisions.
Day 1: value in graphite and charcoal, with a short whole class demo of shading a sphere with graphite, followed by the group challenge pictured above in charcoal.
Day 2: Draw Around the Room, inspired Diane Jaquith and Cynthia Gaub, with centers set up that students rotate through for chalk, oil pastel, colored pencil and pen.
Day 3: Development starts for the summative drawing students will create in a drawing media they'd like to explore further. Students complete two Development activities from the Artistic Thinking Process.
Days 4 and 5: work time with a gallery walk at the end of the last day.
This year's drawing Bootcamp went well, in large part because I was very consistent in referencing the ATP for every stage. I see the shift I'm looking for happening already; students are starting to view the tasks I assign as a way to collect information, not steps to complete for a grade. They are starting to consider their personal goals and needs instead on focusing on what they need to do to earn an A.
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.