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 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.