Drawing people is hard. It's so easy to skew proportions and one little mistake throws off the whole effect, leaving the work looking silly instead of representational. Kids feel real pressure from portraits, but mastering the figure opens up a world of potential material for art. In planning for this semester I knew I wanted my Art 3 students to leave the class with the ability to use the figure in personally meaningful, self directed work, so I planned to get them there in the best way I knew: a Bootcamp.
Formulating a Bootcamp for this group was a challenge - they'd learned different things in previous classes, about a third had taken an additional drawing class and, for four of the students, this was their first high school art class. To plan something that would meet everyone's needs, I started by collecting some data.
"Draw a face or a person" I said. "You have half an hour."
As they drew, I look for ability to plan out the face, knowledge about drawing features and use of proportion. From my observations, and from what the group told me about what they wanted to learn, I planned an investigation of figurative work.
We started with some optional small group lessons - reviewing (or learning for the first time) how to draw facial features, facial proportions and how to approach drawing the face from the front. The whole class worked on drawing the face from the side and from an angle.
Next we moved onto the figure, learning body proportions, then spending a few days on a combination of gesture drawings of different lengths and longer drawings. For gesture drawings, I took their pencils, asking them to try pen or marker or charcoal instead. This was terrifying for many, but the loss of the ability to erase freed them from obsessing about mistakes.
To finish the unit I asked them to complete a figurative work, in any media, that did two things:
- Showed what they'd learned.
- Used the face or figure expressively.
And they did!
This student did a series of portraits on sticky notes, with the goal of drawing the face from different angles and the body in challenging positions.
Realistic proportions were a struggle for this kid (who's never taken a high school art class until now), but he was able to wonderfully blend what he learned about realism with his anime inspired style.
Megan painted on plexiglass, so these images show the two sides of her piece about anxiety.
Complaining is something high schoolers excel at. However, making art out of it is a different story! I showed my Art 3 kids this episode of The Art Assignment and had them use the theme of complaining in their own work. Complaints ranged from serious to small but they were all personal and students did an excellent job with the hard part - figuring out how to visually communicate complex ideas.
Working with a new group of students is challenging. The first order of business has to be getting to know them, as people and as artists. This prismacolor bootcamp with Art 3, I'm finding, is giving me the opportunity to do just that.
I like to start new classes with skill building, then application of new technique because it allows me to assess where students are in terms of confidence, comfort working independently and technical ability.
We started our prisma bootcamp with a quick overview of how prismas, which are high end colored pencils, work. Next I asked students to select three images with interesting textures from magazines. The goal of this Texture Challenge was to draw three small sections of interesting texture. Next, demonstrated a range of approaches to working with this medium.
I see my role as the provider of information and it's my goal to give students the ability to make choices that work best for the artists they are, not just pass on my own preferences.
I liked this assignment because of the built in differentiation it has, which was more that I initially thought it would be. I asked students to pick images of things they would like to learn about drawing or that were challenging. Their image selection showed me quite a bit about their interests and confidence level. Some students found it challenging to pick an image independently, asked what I thought they should pick.
It became quickly apparent that the kids in my class had a range of prior knowledge. It's tough for students when they have never used a material and they are setting next to someone who is a master. It's also hard to ignore differences in skill - the work is right there on the table for everyone to compare.
The focus of these sort of activities has to be what I refer to "leveling up". I tell my students - frequently - that they must compare their growth to their previous work. Having classes select a wide variety of images supports this because work becomes less about comparison than it would be if everyone was drawing the same thing.
I helped everyone level up during this activity by doing a lot of one on one conferring and demonstrations. Some kids only needed me to ask them to step back from their work to notice a lack of contrast, or to point out that blue might help a shadow recede. Others needed me to sit and draw the image they work working on, modeling my thinking out loud about how I compose, select color and thing about mark making.
Next up: students will apply new learning in drawing of their choice.
It's been a busy start to second semester, between finishing edits on my book and teaching two new classes. However, a few weeks in and things are starting to calm down. I've finished my first lesson with Art 3 - the Un-Trite Challenge. I'm not going to go into details about the lesson because I wrote a whole article about it that will be published on Art of Ed this week (which you should read!), but, in a nutshell, students had to pick a trite symbol and make it feel fresh and original. I loved the lesson and was so impressed by how my kids responded!
Can you guess the symbol each student picked? Answers are at the bottom.
1. Yin Yang. 2. light bulb as used to symbolize ideas. 3. The feminism symbol with some Georgia O'Keefe thrown in. 4. The corner sun!
Did you know Art 1 students can fly? I'm happy, more so this year than ever, because my students are working as confident, independent artists. They've learned the Artistic Thinking Process we’ve spent months working through, and they can apply it to develop and pursue their own ideas. The responsibility for content and direction has shifted; my role is now to be a sounding board, a cheerleader and a constructive-criticism giver - which is exactly where I want to be.
The Inspiration for this project was the the Elements of Art. It started with presentations, where groups researched and shared examples about an Element. During these presentations, students were responsible for selecting an Element to focus on in a work of art. They took notes or sketched to help organize new information.
Makeing artwork inspired by an Element was the only parameter: all other decisions were left up to students. They selected an Element, the process of which made them really realize how connected they are. Next, they choose and completed a minimum of three Development activities, with the focus on preparing themselves to make their artistic vision a reality, not jumping through hoops to meet a requirement for a grade. When they decided they were ready they created their artwork. I conferenced with them daily, discussing their process, providing feedback and asking questions.
Seeing my students use this process to interpret such a wide-open theme is incredibly fulfilling - for both them and me. The next few weeks will be even more fun, as students start working on creating work for a totally self-directed collection of three pieces. They’ll pick a theme or subject to explore, spread their wings and fly.
Teenagers have opinions and ideas for miles and, if you set it up the right way, they can do amazing things with them. I love my Artists Take a Stand Unit, because kids are so engaged in the process and invested in their work. To get them to this place, we spent weeks learning about Design Process Thinking, the framework I teach students to use as they independently plan, problem-solve and create work. We also studied a range of media and techniques in Bootcamps and went through four Artistic Behavior inspired units. All this teaching and learning has paid off. My kids are able to take a complex theme and figure out what to do with it mostly on their own.
All the work below is about political or social issues. Students made this on their own - they selected an issue to focus on, picked the media that would work best to express it, decided how to plan their work and what the finished product would look like. All the work is from Art 1 - most students are high school freshmen.
In her presentation, this student shared how this work was motivated by her personal experience with cyberbullying. Many kids in the class connected with it, asking the artist if they could take pictures of her work to share on social media.
This sculpture was a made by a group of three and address loss of childhood due to war, violence and hunger. The barbed wire around the hands is in the form of the child's game cat's cradle.
What if we view mental illness like we do physical disabilities? This question was the focus of this student's work.
This piece address climate change through a sci-fi narrative of a future where plants are rare and the atmosphere is toxic.
I was so proud of how this student took a personal tragedy and made it into a beautiful work about transgender suicide.
This student had a clear idea - his opinion that liberal protesters were being hypocritical with violent protests. It took him all week to come up with the right way to say what he wanted to.
The best part of this unit was the presentations at the end. Students shared what their work was about and how they communicated their message. The group listened and responded thoughtfully. It was clear everyone felt they were part of something important, which is exactly where I want us to be.
My feelings about the Elements of Art have changed over the years. As a new teacher I thought they were THE MOST IMPORTANT THING, and had to be addresses in every lesson. However, as I began to grow as a professional and develop my own teaching style I started to become disillusioned with them. Were they as important as I thought? I wondered if the Elements were worthy of so much of my student's time.
My Guideline for Teaching the Elements of Art
- The Elements are hard to understand when they are isolated. To encourage deep thinking, students should be encouraged to develop their own opinions about what Elements stand out to them when they examine artwork.
- The Elements are one of many ways to approach art. They should go hand in hand with explaining personal connections and emotional response to artwork.
- The Elements are a great introduction to modern art and how art has evolved through time.
- To really understand and learn vocabulary, kids have to talk, analyze and make personal connections to the Elements.
Teaching the Elements
To teach the Elements to my high school Art 1 students, I set up an experience where they will have to analyze, form opinions, use vocabulary in conversations and apply new learning. I start with assigning group presentations, where students have to define their assigned Element, find examples and make a game the reviews the information covered. As groups present, the class takes notes and develops ideas for their own artwork, which can be inspired by any Element. Next each student makes artwork inspired by an Element of their choice. This unit is deep and comprehensive, but it doesn't take more than a week of two. It's a way to teach the Elements that feels real and valuable.
Read more about this unit here
It's been hard to deal with the hostility that has permeated out political discourse for the last year and a half. I hoped that the election would mitigate it, but the world woke up to the unexpected the next day. Since then, our country has been in the grip of something dark, made up of fear of the unknown and a lack of tolerance on both sides of the political spectrum. I refuse to believe that half our our country is made up of xenophobic bigots, but there is a very present threat of hate and intolerance coming from those who will lead us.
Part of me wants to give up, to tune it out, but I can't. It's a teachable moment.
I tell my students that my classroom is a place where their ideas will be respected and valued but that right ends where other's right to feel safe begins. I tell them we can disagree while still seeing the humanity in each other and that what we make must advocate our point of view, not attack others.
Then I challenge them to make art that advocates for an issue they believe in.
And they do it. They think through their position and create powerful images. They treat one another with respect, even though they have differences. They listen instead of yell. They give me hope for the future.
Whose art gets made in an art classroom? If we're not careful it's the teacher's art. Avoiding that and fostering self expression are important to me, so I ask students to make as many decisions as possible themselves. This includes decisions about craftsmanship. What we refer to as "craftsmanship" often refers to stylistic preferences. If I make these important choices for my kids I'm robbing them of a great learning opportunity.
This, of course, doesn't mean that I skip craftsmanship or ignore it.
It means I differentiate.
Craftsmanship isn't a directive in my classroom. It's a conversation.
My Art 1 students are working on a pixel/pointillism assignment as part of our Artists Solve Problems unit. The unit starts by looking at some amazing art inspired by pointillism, then practicing traditional stippling. Some of the spheres I asked then to create in out 15 minute mini-lesson were sloppy, some were lovely.
"What" I asked the class "makes this work well?"
We talked about it and the class came up with a range of suggestions.
Next I presented an array of pixel/ pointillism inspired ideas and challenged them to make their own work. Some choose to stick with stippling.
Some decided to expand on the idea of making points.
Many branched out, bring in their own supplies - like soda tabs, cups, matches, M&Ms, salt or even oats.
There were no issues with sloppiness in the student directed section of my lesson, unlike in my stippling mini-lesson.
The difference was ownership.
Because students were working to accomplish their visions on their own terms they took pride in their work and strived for excellence, doing things like hand gluing individual grains of salt or spending hours coloring soda tabs black. Not just some students. Virtually all.
Any conversations during this work in progress, all done on Friday, were about how to communicate vision. "Would the image work better with more salt?" I asked, or "Could this be part of a series?". My role was not that of quality enforcer, but partner in creation. That makes all the difference in the quality of the final product and the learning that happens in getting there.
This was one of my first realizations about my high school Art 1 classes. When I presented an interesting assignment with lots of choice, many shut down. They asked me to just tell them what to. They wanted steps to check off when I'd planned an adventure.
This, of course, makes sense. Our educational system doesn't teach children to question or imagine, it teaches them to be compliant. So, by the time kids get to high school many have lost their love of learning. They don't remember how to play and explore.
Bootcamps, which I only do with Art 1, follow this format:
- Teach a concrete skill quickly by asking kids to apply new knowledge as they use it to accomplish close-ended tasks in groups.
- Use the newly learned skill as a jumping off point to teach kids a framework for creative decision making (I use a format called Design Process Thinking) by asking them to apply what they've learned in an independent, open-ended task.
Example: learn a bit about how a range of drawing materials work, then pick one, plan and complete your own drawing.
Bootcamps are the bridge between compliance and independent thinking.
Bootcamps level the playing field by teaching general information about a range of media.
During Bootcamps, kids re-learn how to explore and play, to enjoy the adventure that learning should be. After a few weeks, I can introduce a unit like "Artist Take a Stand" and my Art 1 kids can tackle it with excitement and confidence. No terror.
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.