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.
"Why can't my kids mix colors?" I remember thinking in my first few years of teaching. I had taught my kindergartners how to mix secondary colors just a month ago, and now it seemed like half my class had forgotten. It couldn't have been my lesson - their paintings inspired from the book Mouse Paint, complete with little cut paper mice, almost all had correctly mixed secondary colors.
It was my lesson.
I had taught the color theory and I had provided guided practice but I had stopped short of doing what needed to happen for my kids to really learn the material.
I hadn't given them a chance to apply new learning.
When I switched my elementary classroom over to TAB I worried that skills like color theory might be harder to teach. I was surprised to find that the opposite was true; students learned and retained information much better. The reason? I was now giving kids ample time to apply new learning as they worked in centers.
Kindergartners, who in years past had been unable to remember how to mix orange, easily mixed all the colors they needed from primaries in the Painting Center. I'd demo, let them practice together, then provide the opportunity to apply new learning every time they needed to mix colors.
This same formula works at high school, whether it's applying technique to draw, thinking about color theory to mix paint or using understanding of perspective to draw an anamorphic illusion.
The key to getting students to remember new learning is giving them the chance to apply content as they investigate their own ideas. This requires them to process and store information as they use it to accomplish their goals. This can't happen if your lesson doesn't go farther than kids replicating your example. We have to make learning meaningful by expecting students to apply concepts as they work to accomplish their own artistic goals.
Explaining the deep learning that comes from a TAB classroom to a teacher who hasn't tried it is hard. In fact, the first time I heard about TAB I thought it sounded impossible. My class was very teacher directed and looked like the diagram below.
Over time, my teaching style became more and more open. I kept coming back to the idea of TAB because I saw how increased levels of autonomy lit a creative fire in my students, especially the ones that were the hardest to reach. Learninging in my TAB classroom looked very different from my previous teaching.
One of the biggest differences was that the learning structure wasn't linear - it was a continuous cycle of engagement. Another was that a very organic sort of collaboration between students happened regularly. Since everyone was doing different things, kids were very interested in each other's work. Peer mentoring, working together on big ideas and conversation about artistic choices were the norm. Since I was no longer spending my time planning projects and walking kids through the steps, I spent my time differentiating support on a individual basis and talking to students about their work.
This structure changed when I moved from elementary to high school. One key difference was that students were much less confident in their ideas and needed more support in generating and developing them. The structure of my teaching changed to provide that and I developed Design Process Thinking as a scaffold for teaching creative thinking.
When comparing a TAB structure to one with less student choice there is a key difference is the application of ideas. It was missing in my pre-TAB classroom. When the teacher plans the project and teaches it in steps, the students only copy a model. This sort of replication creates little lasting learning because information doesn't have to be remembered, processed or applied in other contexts. However, when students are asked to come up with their own ideas or select from a range of options, without the crunch that the teacher model presents, we really get to see what kids can do.
The sort of teaching I was doing pre-TAB has a place in art ed - as a skill-teaching precursor to an experience where student can apply knowledge. To see what our students really know and can do we can't list the steps for them. To develop student's creativity and voice we can't plan what they are going to say - instead, we have to give them space to say it.
How do you know when your instruction has been successful? In my Art 1 classes, the time for reckoning is always at the first Artistic Behavior Unit. Prior to that, I'm laying the foundation by introducing media and technique in Bootcamps. Just as importantly (and maybe more so) I'm scaffolding independence by teaching kids how to use Design Process Thinking to plan and make their own work.
I wonder, after weeks of Bootcamps, are they ready to pick media and develop ideas? I start slow.
Our first unit is Artists Understand Space. We begin with a series of mini-lessons, used to examine the the element of Space - which I define as "how an artist uses or manipulates length, width and height, or our perception of them" - from multiple perspectives. We spend a day with forced perspective, playing with compressing space.
Next, we spend a day on one point perspective creating realistic space. Kids work in groups to draw the hallway, which helps them understand the process in a short time.
On day 3 we make geometric tape murals. (lesson plan here)
Next comes the part I hold my breath for. Mini lessons are done and it's time for students to investigate Space in a work of their choice. I review what we've covered in mini-lessons and show a few examples of artists that use Space in their work.
"Okay", I say, referencing my Design Process Thinking model. "There is your Inspiration. Now Design in the way that works best for your needs."
I do attendance, then look up 10 minutes later and see kids experimenting with anamorphic drawings, planning to use forced perspective in stop motion films and brainstorming where in the school might be best for an architectural drawing.
All on their own. That's when I know my instruction has been successful.
"What if art was taught not with absolutes, but with questions?
What if we gave choices instead of steps to follow?
What if we gave suggestions instead of answers?
In my high school Art 1 class, I start the year with Bootcamps, designed to develop skill with media and process. This week we worked through drawing. I gave students short experiences with a variety of drawing materials, with a group activity, independent work and "Draw Around the Room" (inspired by Diane Jaquith), where kids rotated through centers to experiment with different media.
I started the week with a question, asking students to spend the next two days deciding what drawing media they wanted to explore in a longer, finished artwork.
I included choice in demonstrations and process charts by giving examples of techniques and asking them to try a few.
When students had questions about how to do something I pointed them to the design section of Design Process Thinking. "Which of these options could help you here?" I asked.
Interesting things, things I couldn't have expected, started to happen. Fingerprints were used to fill in a background and chalk was filed to make a sky filled with stars. My students thought creativity and worked in individual styles as they experiment to find answers to the questions they need answered.
What happens when the teacher model is taken away?
Printmaking is always a challenge to teach and include the level of student choice I like to. It takes a while for even high school students to understand the process, plus the whole image reversal thing complicates it all. Taking the time to teach one printmaking process is a commitment, but I wanted to teach three without spending weeks.
The answer was flipping.
I linked videos and a slide show about block printing, screen printing and monoprinting on my website (I'm still building this, so excuse the mess!). Next, I made some short quizzes with Google Forms about key concepts essential to each process. These quizzes were not for a grade - instead they served as a check and balance. Kids could take them as many times as they wanted but they had to pass before they printed.
This worked wonderfully. Students really payed attention to the steps in the videos, talking notes or watching them multiple times. Taking the quiz let them see what they still needed to know and review at the same time.
I wondered - would the video/ quiz combo prepare them to follow multi-step processes correctly? Yes, it did, and better than my traditional lessons. I had far less questions about what to do next and, if I was working with another student, I could easily direct anyone who needed help back to to video. Instead of spending days teaching processes it was done in under a class period. True, each kid didn't learn every type of printmaking, but they were exposed to each one and they can easily access the steps when they're ready to try it.
I'm all about packing as much knowledge into as little time as possible. Who wants to spend weeks on color theory? Not me and certainly not my students. Applying knowledge in student directed artwork is how I want my kids to spend the limited hours we're given together.
Enter the color mixing challenge.
I start by telling the class that we'll be having a group challenge and that they'll need to know the following information to help their team. Next, I spend 5 minutes going over some basic color theory while they take notes. I cover primary, secondary and complementary colors, plus how to mix tints and shades.
Then it's time for the challenge.
Each group gets a palette of primaries and white, plus a magazine page. The challenge is to match as many colors from the magazine as possible.
They talk and mix beautifully complex colors, applying vocabulary and processing new information as the do it. Colors that are created are matched right on the magazine page for immediate feedback. It's easy to set up, quick and fun, plus it creates the needed foundation of knowledge for further paint exploration - my idea of the perfect lesson.
What would your students do if they had class time in art to focus on something they were passionate about? This summer I listened to teacher and author Kevin Brookhouser speak about he uses 20Time in his high school classes and I knew I had to try it. The concept is inspired by Google, which gives it's employees 20% of their time to work on any project they want to. Kevin does this with his students and the results are amazing.
My kids have quite a bit of choice in my TAB classroom, but it's mostly centered around themes and topics that I select. I want my students to have the opportunity to really focus on pursuing the things they are passionate about. I also want to give them a space to investigate how art can intersect or support other subjects.
I want my class to provide the type of learning experience that is remembered for a lifetime.
I decided on the following criteria for 20Time:
I was excited and a little nervous when I shared this idea with my Art 1 classes yesterday. Would they get it? Would they be able to come up with ideas?
I presented the information above and had them identify one of the three project categories that they connected with. I saw them sit up a little taller as I talked, eyes bright with interest.
Next, they got in groups based on the category they selected and did a brainstorming activity. I asked them to list possibilities for projects without considering the cost, feasibility or their ability level, to tap into creative, out of the box thinking.
Next, I had kids fill out this planning sheet on my website. Some chose to work alone, other in groups. I was amazed at some of their ideas. Here are a few I'm excited about:
Building a website for a current business selling used xboxes.
Worldbuilding for a novel being written.
Character development for a future graphic novel.
Exploring watercolor technique.
Designing a toy drive for a local animal shelter.
Writing a smartphone app.
And this was just week one! I'm very much looking forward to next Friday.
I'm a firm believer that the tone we set in the first week of school can influence the whole course. When planning what that time period would look like in my room this year, I wanted to accomplish the following:
- Create a culture of collaboration.
- Foster a problem-solving mindset.
- Intro my Design Process Thinking model.
- Start a conversation about originality that will be revisited in every lesson.
On day one I skip the rules and syllabus review. Instead, we played one of my favorite games - "What's in the Bag?". The task was to create an object that could shoot a projectile at least three feet. I love the moment I tell students we're doing this - I watch their eyes go from glazed over with boredom to alive and curious. It's a fun activity for kids but it's also an effective way to preview what the class will look like in terms of student responsibility for making decisions.
The next day, we started a short assignment about re-purposing ideas. The task: each group remixed an old master painting. The big idea I wanted my kids to take away from this experience is that artists need to be collectors of ideas that they have on file to use and adapt. It's a big paradigm shift that needs to happen to get where I want them to go.
Next week, it's on to Bootcamps. My goal is to fit more information in a shorter timespan by using a combo of flipping and google forms. Stay tuned!
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.