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.
"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.
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.