There is a pervasive preference in art education for realism. This school year I'm taking steps to end it in my classroom.
I only recently realized how the choices we make as a teachers communicate to students that representational work is better. I noticed, again and again, kids in my classes with the attitude that the less close work is to realistic the less talent it takes - even students who excel at stylistic expression. Where, I wondered, does this mindset come from?
It starts with the skills we teach. Students need a foundation to support more independent work, we think, so we show them how to capture what they see. Proportion, perspective, value, shading, mixing the correct colors - all of these important things require time and attention. It’s important to learn the rules before we break them, we think.
Once they know enough, maybe then we can ask our students what they want to make, but by then it’s too late for many, who’ve given up because their value gradation was lacking or because they just got bored.
What if, instead (or at least along with) we taught other skills, skills like independent thinking and questioning? Instead of showing students “the right way” what if we asked them what the possibilities are? Sure, we could include some traditional technical skills but they need to be in their proper place for the contemporary art world. Not in front, but instead to the side, driven by how they can support the artists' intent and meaning. If we taught this way our students would start to see talent not just as who can paint the most realistic apple, they'd see in in something innate in all of us.
Of course, we teachers have to believe that first.
On the first day I always provide an overview of the class, but I don't do it by reading from a syllabus - I do it by setting up an interactive team challenge that introduces students to my Artistic Thinking Process.
This year's learning challenge was modified from this lesson from the North Carolina Museum of Art's NCMALearn, which is full of amazing resources that I learned about this summer as part of the museum's Fellowship for Collaborative Teaching.
Inspiration & Development
I started the activity by challenging groups to make a kinetic sculptures. I asked them to develop an idea by observing Vollis Simpson's Wind Machine through the video below. Students looked carefully, writing down observations about how they observed the sculpture moving.
Next, I asked groups to dig a bit deeper by researching kinetic artwork on This is Colossal. Groups used the search function to find related artwork, then presented a work that inspired them to the class. Theo Jensen's work was a favorite.
I passed out bins of materials from the dollar store that contained cups, styrofoam trays, brads, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, cardboard and long strips of paper.
As students worked to have work ready to present in 45 minutes, I observed them at work and prompted groups to test their ideas at the wind station, were a blow dryer was set up, and to reflect on what they noticed. Kids worked, tested, revised and refined!
Students spent the last few minutes of class presenting their work by demonstrating how it moved in front of the class. The goals were:
Some student work:
The ability to create is innate in us all, but many students unlearn it as they go about learning how to be "good students" in school. Often, schooling teaches kids more about how to pick the right answer than to ask the right questions.
In order to teach student how to think creatively, we have to show them what the process looks like, step by step. To make it flexible enough to apply to diverse ideas, we have to teach a range of customizable options and the skill to select the ones that work best. This is what that process looks like in my high school art room.
Acquiring a new set of skills takes time and effort from both teacher and learner. To give our kids the information they need to improve and grow as they navigate an unfamiliar way of thinking, we have to provide clear feedback. I've been giving some thought to what that might look like in my classroom this year, for my students. My plan is to give students feedback on something I'm calling observable creative actions. These are actions taken from my Artistic Thinking Process that demonstrate the creative thinking I'm looking for and that I can observe in class through what I can see or student's verbal description in response to questions.
In my experience, where some students struggle with creative actions is that they are not sure exactly what they look like. Often, they confuse activities that are pre-creative with actual creativity. For example, copying an image instead of combining elements to create a more original one. It makes sense that children would go to activities like copying and re-creating the familiar when challenged with open-ended tasks; that is what our school system often asks them to do. Even in art class students are often asked to re-create a teacher's model.
My hope is that sharing observable creative actions and pre-creative actions with my students will help increase understanding. I'll also use these to evaluate where student are in developing the ability to think creatively and, by comparing the actions I observe to the actions that are the end goal, give clear and specific feedback.
Creativity is a learned skill that is accessible to everyone. We just have to teach it the right way.
I had a moment of clarity yesterday. It involved what I feel like is the most important structure of my teaching, my Artistic Thinking Process. I realized that it sucks, or at least could be improved upon.
The big issue - I'd been teaching steps where I needed to teach kids what questions to ask.
To back up - the Artistic Thinking Process, or ATP, is the structure my entire curriculum is based on. It's a process and set of strategies I use to teach creativity. It's the process I have students follow in every art experience I plan for them, starting out the year with me selecting the strategies used in each stage of the process and constantly scaffolding to ending the year with students using the process independently.
Here is how it looked as of yesterday:
I realized two big things:
Here's the new and improved version:
I am now sooooooooo excited for this school year!!!!
Saying "no" is something teachers are used to to. It's a part of the job that happens again and again.
One "no", however, has stuck with me for years. It might not have had so much impact on me, except for the child I said it to. Jose was a sweet, kind boy, who loved me and loved art. When he came into the room that day and asked me what we were making I thought he’d be excited to finish the collage he’d started the week before. Instead, he looked at the floor and quietly said he hoped we could use paint. He wanted to paint flowers for his mother.
No, I said sadly. Not today.
We went on with the lesson but I felt deflated. It felt wrong to tell a student that they couldn’t make the art they were excited about because we had to finish a project I’d planned. wish I could say that I stopped saying no to original art right then and there, but the truth is it took years change my teaching. I felt the pressure so many art teachers feel - pressure to decorate the walls, pressure to teach skills, pressure to make work that adults consider art.
The problem with work like this, work I was having my students make, doesn’t actually teach art.
It teaches projects.
Those skills I thought I was incorporating? My students couldn’t reproduce them without me planning the steps.
What I now know is that there is little value in teaching projects. I want to make artists, so I need to have my students do the work of artists. I plan everything I do to make sure that each child I teach uses their own ideas to make meaningful art.
I say YES to students.
There are so many things we can do to make room in our space for students to learn to be artists:
As summer winds down and I prepare to go back to the work I love, I’m committed to continue to say YES to student directed art!
I've had a delightful week hanging out at my favorite museum! This year I'm participating in the North Carolina Museum of Art's Fellowship for Collaborative Teaching, along with my school's media specialist, Heather. Heather and I joined an awesome group of teacher pairs from around the state for three days of learning and exploring the museum's collection.
We learned lots of fun ways for students to look at art, like the activity pictured here. Our facilitators had a stack of terms from the NC visual arts standards printed on slips of paper. With a partner, we walked around the gallery and placed the slips near artworks that we connected them with, then talked as a group about some of the artworks with the words participants had selected.
Heather and I decided that we wanted to focus on developing professional development for teachers at our high school that would highlight using art as primary sources across subject areas.
We were interested in work like Tightrope 9, which has connections to a variety of subject areas. It looks like a map but on close inspection is created out of circuit boards. The artist, Elias Sime, uses electronic waste as his material, collected from a market in Addis Ababa where it is shipped from all over the world. This work could be a great starting point for learning about issues surrounding sustainability, globalization or geography.
One thing I love about the idea of using art with students is that it can inject diverse points of view in our classes, which can have a tendency to be heavy on viewpoints that are male and white.
We've planned some PD I'm really excited about for this year, including inviting teachers to meet us at the museum after work in September!
Another idea I'm excited about - having my high school art history class pair with an elementary class to give students a tour of the museum. Any NC teachers interested? I have funds for a bus!
If you are interested in arts integration, check out the free, online resources the museum has created on NCMALearn. They will also be offering this online course this fall, which I'll be taking. The description: "Visual Literacy: Making Connections with Works of Art: This online course will introduce a variety of engagement strategies to facilitate deeper inquiry into works of art. Teachers can receive 10 hours of participation (1 CEU) in Art or Literacy upon completion."
There is an argument in art ed that goes something like this: to teach creative thinking we have to give students problems to solve. We, the teachers, spend quite a bit of time devising problems for our students.
- Fill this pre cut shape with different types of lines.
- Design and draw a themed color wheel.
- Repeat an object, with overlapping, to fill the picture plane.
- Make an artwork using only recycled objects.
The problems we pose have a range; some are so narrow in scope that little room is left for interpretation, other are big and wide open with space for individuality. I have mixed feelings about these sorts of tasks. My primary issue is that they make a big assumption - that kids need that sort of hand holding to make art. Children are born creators. In preschool, in kindergarten, everything is a toy to be explored and creativity is unbridled. When we catch children at this age they need no limitations from us, just a safe space to make and help with understanding new processes and procedures.
Any need for limitation is for the ones we miss, the ones who learn that making art is about following a teacher's plan. Limitations can have a role in helping them unlearn the bad habit of needing an assignment, of needing decisions made for them, until they can make their own plans again.
The limitation, no matter how interesting or open-ended it may be, is not the end goal. That has to be for our kids not to need us to make art.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is missing the point.
Me in the past:
This is charcoal. Here are some things you can do with it.
(students try the things)
Now make art with charcoal.
This was the essence of a charcoal Bootcamp. The idea was to have to have a short period of teacher-directed learning that would, in theory, give students the information they needed to explore and create on their own.
But I've been thinking - how does teacher-directed instruction support independence, inquiry and experimentation? Does it elicit deep understanding of media and divergent thinking?
What if, instead, I said:
Here are a few types of charcoal, here is paper. How are the types of charcoal different? How are they similar? What happens if you add these colored chalk pastels to the charcoal?
(students work in groups to figure it out, record answers, then share findings with the group)
Here is some huge paper. Make a drawing, using what you've learned, that incorporates symmetry. What questions will you need to find answers to before you start?
This is all hypothetical now, but I'm excited to see how it impacts student learning in my classroom this fall. I'm planning student-directed investigations for all media that will replace my Bootcamps. I'm calling them Explorations.
From the beginning, my students will explore and find their own answers. They will have support from me in at the start, especially in the form of guiding questions, but over time the responsibility for developing questions will shift from me to students.
I think this will change everything,
When I think of creativity, I used to think exclusively of open exploration where new ideas can organically manifest. However, the reality of my high school classroom is such that free and wide space can suffocate creativity just as much as it creates room for it. Some students thrive on freedom, while others are stifled by fear. Creative thinking can be like a chemical reaction that occurs with the right ingredients, but it's also a teachable, learnable skill. My students are the most successful when I consider both aspects of creativity in my teaching.
There are two approaches that I've found to be effective in supporting the student-directed learning, exploration and creative thinking I want for my students: environmental and structural.
The environmental approach involves setting up the classroom in a way that intentionally elicits divergent thinking. This includes everything from having an array of enticing art-making materials easily available to accessible information about the use and care of them. For my high school students, the environmental aspect of the classroom is especially powerful for those who already have an inclination toward independent learning or who come to me with ideas they are motivated to explore.
The structural approach, on the other hand, involves putting structures in place that support students’ as they navigate the creative process. The structure I’ve created for my classroom, the Artistic Thinking Process (ATP), is essentially a menu of choices for steps along the creative process that I teach my students piece by piece until each is able to develop an idea from thought to art independently. This structure is especially important for students who are uncomfortable with self-directed work, who would otherwise struggle and flounder for weeks without it. These are the students who might struggle and shut down when challenged with independent work. The ATP structure gives these kids a safety net, and for them, the limits I place to teach each step of it promote creativity.
That free and wide space I used to see as integral for creativity? I now see it as a learning preference or personality type. Some students flourish with free reign, other falter, though all can learn to navigate it successfully. When I include both structures and environment that support creativity in my teaching, I can support all my students as they learn, investigate and express on their own terms.
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.
I'm interested in creating a student student centered space for my high school students through choice and abundant opportunity for self expression. I'm also a writer for SchoolArts co-author of The Open Art Room.