I was wondering what to write about this summer when the perfect focal point came in the mail. I first read Engaging Learners Through Artmaking years ago and it's not an exaggeration to say it changed my life. I was tired - of dealing with behavior issues and the impact of poverty on my student’s lives. I was ready to quit teaching when TAB filled my days at work with excitement and joy. Engaging Learners provided the roadmap and the motivation for this change.
Time has moved on since my first reading. I spent 3 years teaching TAB at the elementary level, then moved to high school where I’ve just finished my fifth year. I’m currently at a place, as I tend to be every summer, where I need to reflect on the year past and plan new content from what I’ve learned. Reading the second edition of Engaging Learners, published just this year, is a perfect fit for where I am right now. I plan to read, then reflect on how what I’m reading connects to my own practice. My plan for this week was to read chapter one, but I got stuck on the first few pages with something I need to think about!
"The Child is the Artist." Douglas & Jaquith, 2018
This idea, so central to TAB, is deeply powerful. All art teachers think of their students as artists, but it isn’t always the case. Artists find ideas and plan how to take them from thought to tangible. Student artists, all too often, are tasked with taking their teacher’s idea and recreating it. The idea that students are the artists, not the teacher, is revolutionary, because it asks us to stop teaching to the project and instead focus on each individual student.
“Students need time to explore materials, techniques and concepts in meaningful ways, and teachers need to connect the art curriculum to the lives and interests of children, This requires rethinking the art program." - Douglas and Jaquith, 2018, p 3
In my life, rethinking my elementary art room was powerful. I set up centers and taught students how they were used. Week after week students came in and worked as artists, planning artwork from beginning to end. The next year they took what they’d learned to new levels, building on the year past. We were a community, with standards and norms that everyone knew and used.
When I moved to high school, that changed. I was no longer responsible for the visual art standards and norms. Instead, I was one of a department of four and we all did things differently. I felt less impact from this the first few years because I only taught beginning students. I was so excited when I learned that I’d be teaching Art 3, an advanced class. I pictured opened ended, confident work. What I got instead were a group of very talented artists who didn’t know much about independent creation.
How do I treat my students as artists when they have unlearned how to create independently?
This question is central to secondary TAB. Many high schoolers have learned creative helplessness and are deeply uncomfortable when asked to plan content or make their own artistic decisions. Working as part of a department that is not all TAB makes this even more difficult because instruction is not consistent.
For me, this means I have to plan content that scaffolds choice, always with the goal of moving students from a place of discomfort to the role of artist. The way I scaffold choice in my classroom is with my Artistic Thinking Process. This year I’ve come to realize that my advanced students need it even more that my beginning ones and I plan to rethink my teaching this summer with that in mind.
In my classroom, "the child is the artist" looks like planning specific experiences based on each individual. I do this by asking students about what they already know at the start of the year and observing them closely, planning next steps based on continual formative assessment, a process I will be more intentional about next year. I ask them to play and experiment with exploration and challenges, which I want to add to in the future with increased focus on learning through discovery. I also provide flexibility in all that I teach - room for those who are able to take ownership of their artmaking, as well as support for those who need it. By the end, which could be anywhere from the last two months to the last two weeks, the goal is for everyone to be working independently.
Art shows are fun, but who ends up going? If the show is after school, especially if it's at a venue other than the school, the people who attend are most often art students, their friends and family. This makes a good event, but it tends to not reach students who don't already know about the art program. Last year I had an idea - bring the art show to the school when the kids are there and try to attract students and staff who might not otherwise attend an art show. The Pop Up Art Show was born.
Ellen's collection, above, focused on family
Three of the images from Kayla's series. From her artist statement "Throughout this semester, I've not only been trying to branch out to really find the art style that works for me, but I've also been trying to discern who I am as a person and, with the help of my art, I believe that I've managed to do so, or at least crack the surface."
I have to give credit to my amazing local museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art. I've been to many incredible events there, but the one that really inspired me was the Monster Drawing Rally, which included artists working on site while the audience watched. I told my students about this and challenged them to make our event filled with active audience engagement. This time around we chose micro drawing, which were free, mini drawings that were drawn on request. We also included face painting and onsite screen-printing.
I decided to include my art history class in the show this year by having them work in groups to make art history themed carnival games (inspired by some guy). I'm not going to lie, initially they were resistant ("We seriously have to do this?") but they pushed through some intense senioritis and made some delightful games, including a version of the game Operation featuring the Vitruvian Man, pin the ear on van Gogh and a Scream inspired ball toss.
The Pop Up runs for just one day during lunch. We set up in the media center in the morning and welcomed the crowd during lunch. The games were very popular, as were the drawing activities and face painting. It was like an art show, but instead of standing around looking, the audience was participating actively. The audience was still art students and their friends, but kids were there who would have never come after school, which is a huge win for the sort of art program I want to build. AND THE ART! My kids' collections were amazing. I'm so proud of all my students and that my school is the kind of place where the media center welcomes and supports this sort of event.
The key to a successful learning experience is deep, lasting learning - the sort of knowledge that comes from discovery. With this in mind, I've been exploring new ideas for introducing content in my classroom. This week I planned and taught what I'm calling an Exploration in my Art 1 class with the idea of creating the right conditions for students to build understanding through discovery and collaboration.
What that sort of assignment was missing, I realized, was an opportunity for students to work independently. Instead of being challenged to understand how clay works well enough to plan and create using their own ideas, they were following the steps I taught them.
What was needed was an opportunity to experiment, to discover, to learn first hand how the process works.
After thinking, researching, talking to colleagues and being inspired by Jean and Liz's TAB in the Single Media Classroom presentation at NAEA, I developed a plan. I decided to have students create slab sculptures, which is limited enough to teach the whole group new skills and process together, but open enough to require the independent planning and research that will elicit lasting understanding.
The first day of learning started with two centers. At the first I placed clay in four different stages - slip, plastic, leather hard and bone dry. Kids at this center were asked to compare and contrast the different stages, then work to write a description of each stage. Next, students moved to the second center, where I showed them how to roll a slab with plastic clay and add texture. Then I talked about templates, and showed the group how to use one to cut a leather hard slab to form a bowl. Students spent the remaining time rolling slabs and experimenting with textures.
These two centers worked well together to build knowledge. Students learned a lot by touching and talking about the stages of clay at the first center. This knowledge absolutely helped them understand the process I taught at the second center, where understand the stages of clay was essential information. My kids asked thoughtful questions about process the next day when my colleague's students brought in ceramic boxes they created and shared them with my class. These experience were a good foundation for next week's challenge: researching and designing a template then creating an original slab sculpture.
Thanks to Kim, Jean and Liz for help and inspiration.
Over the last week I've run into a few different sweeping judgements of TAB teachers. We're pushy, I read, and aggressive. In the past I would have been upset about these sort of classifications and written an angry response straight away.
I didn't. Not even a comment, but I've been thinking about it since and come to some conclusions.
What it comes down to is this; TAB represents change and that makes us uncomfortable.
TAB, or Teaching for Artistic Behavior, is a philosophy centered around a three sentence curriculum:
These ideas represent a profound change in art education and have been deeply transformative for many TAB teachers. For me, TAB provided the change I needed at a time where I was considering leaving education. I was able to transform my classroom, in a Title 1 school where I had constantly struggled with managing behavior, to a place where all my students were creatively engaged.
The issue with TAB teachers is that many of us have seen the other side of art education and rejected it. We've had DBAE classrooms where we planned the work our students would create. Then we experienced the opposite - teaching students to plan and create their own work with their own ideas - and realized that the rest isn't needed and gets in the way of actual art-making. Many feel strongly enough about the experiences we've had to advocate for change in art education from a teacher-centered approach to a student-centered one.
As women, which so many teachers are, we were raised to be nice, polite and get along. Strongly advocating for a teaching philosophy, even disagreeing with the pedagogy of others, challenges this expectation. We could call this behavior "aggressive" or "pushy" but also "passionate" or "dedicated".
Art education is better when we question how it's taught and debate best practices. We need passionate teachers who deeply believe in what they're doing and who work for change to continue to grow and evolve as a profession, both inside the TAB community and in art education as a whole. If that makes me pushy, I'll take the label.
I had such a wonderful experience presenting about Bootcamps at NAEA 2018 in Seattle this week. The teachers who came to the workshop were amazing, from helping me set up the space in the beginning to graciously allowing me to film them presenting the content they created.
The session started with a short presentation that I've linked below. In it, I talked about how I develop content, starting with the goal of providing the knowledge and practice that will support students' independent use of the classroom studio. I modeled about my thinking process as I plan and create a Bootcamp, then showed two examples.
Next, participants worked in small groups to create their own Bootcamp activity, which were then shared by each table presenting to the whole room. Below is the colored pencil group presenting the mark-making exploration they created.
The watercolor table came up with an exploratory set of tasks that really inspired me to include more student lead discovery in my instruction. See Kristina present what they developed in the video below.
This workshop reminded me how valuable it is to collaborate with colleagues. I really appreciate the content developed in the session. It was fun and investigative and all different from what I would have come up with on my own, which gave me ideas for my own practice. It was wonderful to meet and collaborate with this group. Images of the resources the group created are in the slideshow below.
In the spirit of sharing and collaboration, I've created a Bootcamp section here on the blog that I'll continue to add to as I create new resources. If you're interested in reading more about Bootcamps, check it out.
I've participated if in few conversations this week that have caused me to spend quite a bit of time thinking about quality in my classroom. It's a hard thing, quality, because I define it one way (I'll get to that later) and many adults define it mainly by appearance.
If we judge artwork by appearance, we're missing so much.
Both of these drawings were made by students in my advanced class. Both represent years of learning, both students picked challenging subjects, struggled and grew during the process of making these works. To me, they are both of the highest quality because I'm evaluating the students who made them as individuals on a journey, not in terms of an arbitrary list of qualities that advanced work should have .
These are two of the most powerful works made in my classroom this school year.
The top work was made by a kid who came into my beginning class oozing distrust. It took me weeks to get him to open up enough to ask for help if he needed it, to even try to work through Bootcamps with the class. The image he made was in response to the theme of "identity". He traced the hand, then spent days printing and cutting deeply personal lyrics with my dull exacto knife and proudly presented the work to the whole class, telling us it was about his life.
The second work was made by one of the most technically talented students I've worked with. No tracing here - he drew from observation, combining the portraiture he'd been working on in drawing class with arbitrary color and abstracted figures to make this image that so clearly expresses who I know him to be.
Both of these images exemplify what I hope for my students to be able to do, without my help, at then end of their time with me - to have an idea and follow it to produce a work of art. Some students come into my classroom able to do this. Others, like the student who created the image of the hand, need lots of support to get there, because by the time some kids get to high school they've gone a long time without being asked to have an idea and do something with it.
Quality, then, in my classroom, is students who function as artists, defining quality for themselves.
To get them all to a place where they can take the risks required to do this I have to make a space where they feel safe. Part of that is the skill teaching I do in Bootcamps, part of it is making it okay for them to fail, to be less than perfect. That's why quality in my classroom is never defined by my adult expectations about what their work should look like, but by the journey we take together.
Learning is work, at least the deep sort that kids internalize is. When kids get new content right away, it doesn't mean they're learning - it means that they already knew it or that it was too easy. Conversely, if work is too challenging students get frustrated and can don't make much progress. The space between these two extremes - not to easy and not overwhelmingly hard - is what I try to create for everyone of my students when I plan instruction.
In mathematics instruction, the term for this sort of content, and the required searching for solutions that goes with it is "productive struggle". The idea is that students solve challenging problems independently, or in groups, where they are not given a process to use or a set of steps - instead, they use their knowledge of mathematical content to figure out how to solve the problem, often through trial and error. When I first heard this term during professional development I was excited, because it captures so much of what I believe creates a valuable learning experience.
Productive Struggle in My Classroom
I plan for and support productive struggle in my classroom with open ended tasks. I use challenges and themes with no set outcome regularly in my teaching, which range from "make work that shows your knowledge of acrylic paint technique" to "create a collection of artwork that shows who you are as an artist". These sorts of tasks require students to interpret, plan and experiment. However, this is challenging stuff, and it can be overwhelming for some students. That's where support comes in
I teach students how to use the Artistic Thinking Process, a decision making process for planning and creating artwork. The Development stage is especially helpful for student when they don't know where to go next. When they look to me for answers, I point them to the chart and help them use it to find their own answers.
Some students need more support, however, and that's where conferencing comes in. I try to talk to each student, every day, about where they are in their art-making process. When students are stuck, I have an Artistic Thinking Process planning form that often helps. If you're interested in what that looks like, check out this article.
If you're interested in making your classroom a place of productive struggle, I recommend learning about TAB.
I use Bootcamps in my teaching to support student choice. Basically, I spend a consolidated amount of time teaching skills, techniques and processes in order for my high school students to have the knowledge needed to make informed choices about media. Recently, however, I realized that my Bootcamps only explicitly taught realism and this was contributing to the value students' placed on art that was the most realistic.
I want my kids to try on different modes of expression to find what works best for them, so I have to show them how.
I've been re-tooling Bootcamps to reinforce a range of art-making styles as well as teaching the techniques and skills that will give my kids foundational knowledge. This week I taught a refreshed painting Bootcamp to my beginning students. I started the same way I always do - with a paint mixing challenge, although I decided to focus on only acrylic paint.
The big difference was in the development stage.
I used This is Colossal to show students a range of artists' styles in acrylic painting, from photo realism to different degrees of abstraction. We talked about how the artists "added more than the observable" by doing things like using arbitrary color, playing with space, adding patterning or inserting imagitave elements.
When it came time for students to develop their ideas, I asked them to do two sketches in paint, each in a different style. Many resisted this - they felt like they knew what they wanted to do and didn't need to explore. However, almost everyone made discoveries in the second sketch, which ranged from finding a color that worked better to rethinking their whole plan.
I noticed that the work produced was higher quality than in the past and much more expressive. The work was varied and felt original, which made the definition of success diverse and inclusive.
Some students made art that was very representational, while others experimented with color and texture .
Others explored symbolism.
I'm so happy with how this Bootcamp turned out!!!!
I've noticed, for years, a preference towards realism in the students I teach. I've blamed this on a number of things - the way society views art, other teachers, even the kids themselves. But then I started thinking and I realized that the majority of Bootcamps I teach focus mainly on the observable.
If I want kids to know something, it's my job to make sure they do. By modeling mainly making art from observation at the the beginning of the course, in my drawing and painting Bootcamps I've been the one setting the preference for realism. In trying to make sure they learned the "skills" that I felt like I should teach them I was setting a preference for realism. Suggesting or supporting other styles later was falling short for many of my students.
The primary skill I want my kids to leave with is making the art they want to make. So I've come up with a new rule for myself: when I teach and model realistic art, I also have to directly teach methods artists use to go beyond what is directly observable. I can't assume students know or will try on their own. My job is to open as many doors as I can.
This realization came at the perfect time. My Art 3 class is working on figurative art, all proportion and sight measuring and composition so far. As they finished pieces in progress this week, I started class with three days of short challenges designed to elicit thinking beyond the observable, featuring student artists as experts.
Day 1: Symbolism
In my Art 3 class I have three independent study students who excel at using the figure as a basis for abstraction. I asked these kids to share how they add to the figure as the basis of the challenges. First was the artist pictured above, who talked about how he adds symbolism to his figures, based on feelings or emotions.
Day 1 Challenge: Open the social media platform of your choice and draw the first figure you see with added symbolism for 10 minutes.
Day 2: Patterning and Color
For day 2, Bre talked about how she abstracts the figure, adding patterns and bold color or value.
Day 2 Challenge: Pick one image from a magazine and draw it, adding arbitrary color/ patterns. Draw with marker for 10 minutes.
Day 3, Proportion
On day 3, Kayla talked about her amazing, cartoon-inspired style and how she plays with the proportions of both humans and animals.
Day 3 Challenge: Play with proportions to draw a 10 minute self portrait.
These three challenges were short, but, in my opinion, very powerful. They each represented a new way at looking at the figure, a possibility with potential. Potential was there for me, too. I've realized that I need to adapt all my Bootcamps to include experimenting with style and I've started thinking about how that will look as Art 1 is introduced to acrylic paint next week. I'm excited about what's next.
Drawing the figure is kind of a big deal. It's often a huge challenge, even for kids in advanced classes, to master. Plus, the figure is so central to multiple forms and styles of art.
But is seems hard and it's scary, which makes figurative art the perfect place for my advanced class to start.
They do, I've decided, need to start somewhere. With three teachers who all do things differently in my school, it's not feasible for me (or them) to start the course with all the doors open. We build up to that together.
So, we start with figure drawing, and spend a few weeks there. I use it as a foil for introducing a variety of media through figure drawing sessions, which helps me really get a feel for who my new students are and what they know.
We focus on proportion and sight measuring in these figure drawing sessions and I limit the use of pencil to help kids focus on seeing, not erasing.
Here is a list of drawing challenges we start class with, typically spending between 10 to 20 minutes and having students take turns modeling.
On Monday, I'll challenge them to add non-observable elements to the figure, like expressive color, non-human features or to abstract the body. I notice that when I directly teach realism I also have to directly teach how to use that knowledge in less realistic ways or many kids never try.
We also work on longer drawings. I started the class with a short, mixed media hand study. This gave me the opportunity to evaluate how each student drew and painted, information that helped my plan the rest of the unit as well as other experiences. Next, kids spent a class or two drawing a huge image with a partner to investigate proportion, creating in whatever media they wanted. This took longer than I expected, but provided focused conversations, full of analysis about proportion, which made it time well spent. Also, this year we visited the drama class, who modeled for my students, acting out the words my kids planned to illustrate in any media. These expressive portraits are in progress and wonderful.
The start of an expressive drawing. On her blog, she writes this: "We've spent the last two weeks focusing on composition and proportions, as well as using the figure expressively. I've become much more confident in drawing realistically, which is something I've never really explored. I feel much less intimidated in Art 3 and like I'm on a more level playing field than i thought i would 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.