I've participated if in few conversations this week that have caused me to spend quite a bit of time thinking about quality in my classroom. It's a hard thing, quality, because I define it one way (I'll get to that later) and many adults define it mainly by appearance.
If we judge artwork by appearance, we're missing so much.
Both of these drawings were made by students in my advanced class. Both represent years of learning, both students picked challenging subjects, struggled and grew during the process of making these works. To me, they are both of the highest quality because I'm evaluating the students who made them as individuals on a journey, not in terms of an arbitrary list of qualities that advanced work should have .
These are two of the most powerful works made in my classroom this school year.
The top work was made by a kid who came into my beginning class oozing distrust. It took me weeks to get him to open up enough to ask for help if he needed it, to even try to work through Bootcamps with the class. The image he made was in response to the theme of "identity". He traced the hand, then spent days printing and cutting deeply personal lyrics with my dull exacto knife and proudly presented the work to the whole class, telling us it was about his life.
The second work was made by one of the most technically talented students I've worked with. No tracing here - he drew from observation, combining the portraiture he'd been working on in drawing class with arbitrary color and abstracted figures to make this image that so clearly expresses who I know him to be.
Both of these images exemplify what I hope for my students to be able to do, without my help, at then end of their time with me - to have an idea and follow it to produce a work of art. Some students come into my classroom able to do this. Others, like the student who created the image of the hand, need lots of support to get there, because by the time some kids get to high school they've gone a long time without being asked to have an idea and do something with it.
Quality, then, in my classroom, is students who function as artists, defining quality for themselves.
To get them all to a place where they can take the risks required to do this I have to make a space where they feel safe. Part of that is the skill teaching I do in Bootcamps, part of it is making it okay for them to fail, to be less than perfect. That's why quality in my classroom is never defined by my adult expectations about what their work should look like, but by the journey we take together.
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.