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."
Learning about the art of the past becomes distinctly memorable when we help kids connect what they've learned to their lives today.
So, what would Prehistoric art look like today?
To help my art history students think about this we started by identifying limitations. Prehistoric artists, we agreed, faced the following challenges:
- They were limited to materials they could find in their environments.
- They had to design ways to apply these materials or use their hands.
- They had limited time and resources to dedicate to artmaking, so they focused their imagery on things that were really important to them.
With these limitations in mind, I asked my kids to bring in non-art materials that could be used to mark on paper, as well as a means to apply them. On challenge day we had a range of media, including pesto, carmex, hair dye and sprinkles, although the less prepared had to forage for mulch on the school grounds.
There were no bison or fertility goddesses in our creations! Netflix, iphones, pets and favorite foods were popular images.
Drawing with chapstick worked surprisingly well, but suspending food dye in vaseline and painting with peanut butter were less successful.
This beloved pet was created with the contrasting combo of honey mustard and jelly.
At the end of it all, we learned that making art is hard and sometimes messy when you have to forage for your own supplies. My kids left this experience with a new sense of how much time and skill it took early humans to form images, and how important it must have been for them to dedicate their limited resources to creating.
Also, my classroom still smells like pesto .
I taught art history for the first time last winter. It's a subject matter I'm oh so passionate about but I found that teaching it sucked much of the joy away. Part of it was the hours and hours of preparation - I had no text book, like many teachers in my state that has cut the budget for materials again and again - so I was spending hours compiling my own materials and creating all my own assignment.
This type of work was exhausting, but more that that, I realized that I didn't like what I was teaching.
It was all about me.
I was selecting the artists to focus on and doing all the heavy lifting of researching, summarizing and adding historical context so I could present what I deemed important to my lovely students, who took diligent notes.
The focus of the class was on what I did and what I said. My students were, for the most part, in a passive role, taking notes. How could this create deep, lasting learning or foster a love of the subject? I realized that I needed to stop doing all the work. Instead, I started to plan how my class could look like this:
I wanted the class to look like me briefly introducing the unit or topic, then students spending the majority of time working in groups to research, analyze and present content.
This is giving up a lot of control, but with control comes ownership. I wanted this content to be ours, not just mine.
However, I needed a way to give direction to students' research and consistently focus presentations on key concepts. I turned to the AP art curriculum framework and found exactly what I was looking for with these three essential questions.
From these big ideas and the individual standards that follow, I identified six areas where my class could focus their learning:
Content, Context, Form, Function, Tradition and Change.
We spent the first few days of class learning about what these ways of viewing art mean, then I asked student groups to apply their knowledge by creating presentations about how these ideas were present in a range of Western art periods. This activity, I hoped, would give students a preview of content that we'd later learn in depth, but more importantly, give them an opportunity to apply what they'd learned about the six categories that make up the foundation of the class. So students watched videos from Khan Academy Art 1010 to provide an overview of their assigned period and used the Heilbrunn Timeline to research in more detail and find images to use.
Here are some examples of slides one group created.
As I listened to the presentations I noticed that the approach I used helped the groups take a complex subject and make sense of it. I liked how this structure allowed students to identify the information that was important to them instead of being limited to my interpretations and preferences. I also noticed that some students needed a bit more support to understand what I'm looking for in each category. To help make what I'm looking for clear, I'm planning to create a research and note taking document.
All in all, I'm excited about how this new class structure will impact student learning.
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'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.