In the book Educated, Tara Westover recounts growing up in an isolated compound in Idaho with her family. She did not receive a formal education and most of her 'homeschooling' involved conspiracy theories and home-spun faith-based nonsense. She did not even sit in a classroom until she attended college which almost all of her family discouraged her from doing before and after. She is now Dr. Westover.
Teachers, if you're worried about whether or not your students are going to meet some artificial construct like "annual yearly progress" - stop it. They will not. And that is absolutely fine.
Art can still do a lot of good and can make a real difference in their lives. At the end of the day, that's the point, right? Art is important. Of course it is. But not because of standards or objectives or AYP.
I suggest adopting an 'art for life' curriculum by finding ways to make art a part of everyone's lives. To me, that means focusing on connection instead of content. Emphasize community and cooperation over craft. Grace instead of grades. As I keep coaching folks, it's time for Maslow's before Bloom's.
Tara Westover's story resonates with me because I also grew up in a situation where I came to realize I was living in an isolated and unhealthy environment also. When I was a kid, I lost nearly a year and a half of school altogether in 3 years. I spent some of my fifth and sixth grade years, the worst years of my life, living in a car with my mother who suffered from schizophrenia - not that I or anyone else knew that. I won't go into detail here - that's for my own memoir. I was kept home from school so much of my fifth grade year that I was held back and had to repeat it. It was humiliating. I barely made it to school enough the second time to be allowed to move onto the sixth grade - maybe half (so 90 days). I think they let me pass out of pity. No one at school knew what was going on at home - though some knew something was wrong. It took me years to get out and on my own. Maybe I'll be a doctor someday.
I'm not going to give you any of that 'whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger' stuff. I don't believe that. A lot of what doesn't kill you can can nevertheless maim you. Sometimes for years; sometimes for the rest of your life.
But art can help someone get through tough stuff. I know it helped me. And I didn't have an art class or art teacher to help me. Just my imagination and paper and pencils and colored pencils. And a desire to have something that was mine, that I could control and get better at. A place on paper and in my head I could escape to. Some place I could process all that stuff I couldn't put into words; wouldn't dare talk about. Things that I could only put on a page.
Your students want that too. That's what you can do this year. That's what art can do.
Not everything will be okay. But some things will. Art can help.
Assessment is not a bad word. Though it seems that way in art education sometimes. I can empathize with folks who find the term 'exhausting.' Saying the A-word might even trigger some kind of low-grade academic PTSD for some. I think it’s because we’re so used to being abused by it, both as students and then as teachers.
But remember that at its core, assessment is simply about value. What we assess is what we look for and what we look for is what we value. What values are you promoting in your classroom assessment? Are you valuing learning over grades? There is a difference. What about dialogue over monologue? Subjectivity vs false pretenses of objectivity? Vulnerability and risk-taking vs the formulaic and the path of least resistance?
Assessment is not the same as grades. Grades at best serve expediency, but expediency is not compatible with learning any more than it is with art. Galloping through a museum to see as much art as possible is not the way to have meaningful experiences with art. Art is slow. Art is demanding. It asks the viewer to notice something,even reflect on what you notice, as opposed to the rest of daily life when we simply go and do mindlessly.
Meeting with every single student to determine grades is also slow (at least compared to a computerized test or mechanically determined grade). Assessment, if it is to be authentic, is also slow. But I believe that we should have the courage to assess face-to-face and to do so through dialogue. In this fast-paced world, we must slow down for our students’ sakes if we want them to slow down as well. We ended my class this semester with final meetings where I met with all 30 pre-service teachers in my class to assess portfolios of writing and determine a grade together.
Even though we have been graded ad nauseam for the better part of 15 to 20 years of our lives, few and far between are the instances where we share responsibility for our own evaluation or even evaluate ourselves. This seems rather strange. These future teachers will go on to emphasize grading because that is what the system demands; that is what they have been subjected to as students and all they know. But shouldn’t they get to have experiences actually grading SOMEONE before they are in a classroom ACTUALLY grading someone before student teaching? Don’t we, as a field, think that, at the very least, self-assessment might build empathy for students and expand the thinking of these future teachers BEFORE they get into the classroom when they can still ask questions and experiment safely?
I told them it would feel weird and uncomfortable, maybe because evaluation is hard and maybe because they have so little practice self-evaluating in traditional settings. Step into that discomfort. It will be over before they knew it. This semester, I used an analogy that I liked quite a lot because I thought it would be very “sticky” – the tattoo artist. Sure, my students get the logic I explained above, but will they REMEMBER when they are the teacher in charge? My answer was the tattoo artist analogy. I told them that traditionally, a prospective tattoo artist would practice drawing for a long time and maybe practice tattooing a piece of meat from the supermarket. When they wanted to graduate to become a professional, they would tattoo themselves. This has two benefits. First, is your work good enough for you to be willing to wear it? Second, you know how it feels when you do it to someone else. It builds empathy. So it makes sense to give a future teacher the opportunity to share the steering wheel when it comes to their own evaluation so that they know how it feels. The problem is, this analogy may or may not be true, because I’ve heard conflicting accounts. I’ll keep looking for one because the truth matters to me but this one may work for a time.
Some students had to mull over very difficult questions that every teacher faces. Whatever they chose would have lasting consequences. Would they evaluate themselves fairly, as they are expected to evaluate their students? Or would they take advantage of the opportunity? It seemed like an obvious teachable moment to put the ball in their courts. I believe their decisions says a lot about who they will become as teachers, and I thought they all showed character as they practiced wrestling with the tough choices every teacher faces in a less risky environment.
Fortunately, the vast majority of them did very well so I was able to relax a bit. A few conversations were tough and awkward but teachable moments on how to move through disagreement. There was no point where I had to overrule anyone, though there were occasions where I and the student came to terms with final grades that were lower than the student hoped. But there were also occasions where perhaps overly-critical students and I came to terms with grades higher than they expected as well. Nevertheless, they seemed sincere in their understanding of how those grades seemed fair. Overall, I loved the experience and it seemed like they all responded well to it. And I have some evidence to back that up. While I’ll wait until my next post to get my exit survey data, I will share that before their experience with authentic assessment in my course, 39% of the pre-service teachers said they were interested in practicing authentic assessment in their own future classrooms, but by the end of the semester, that number had increased to 68% - an increase of nearly 30%!
On Effort & Assessment
Hearing what my students talk about and write about gives me insight into what they value. What I tried to do was listen. I give my students multiple opportunities to reflect on something and may ask them about something several different ways. I tell them this is because I do not want to use only one bucket to catch a waterfall, as I explain to them. I’m looking for the learning when I’m reading and listening to and observing what my students say and do. If I only look one time, that’s like using one bucket to catch all that information. If I look for something multiple ways, then I will use several buckets and increase my chances of finding what I’m looking for, if it is there. We must be sure we find what we are looking for and not what we are hoping for, and likewise, our students should have the opportunity to prove what they have and have not learned beyond a shadow of a doubt. That is justice, and at the end of the day, that above all else must drive our decision making in the classroom just as it must drive a civil society.
One nearly universal theme I heard in students’ self-evaluations was effort being highly prized, privileged in my opinion from accomplishment or acquiring specific skills or knowledge. I’m afraid that this is something of a lowest common denominator from my point of view. Is the person expending every last ounce of their strength and effort attempting to move a boulder more admirable than the clever person that uses a lever and actually moves the stone? Not to me.
Obviously we all need to put in effort! Obviously EVERY student IDEALLY would normally be operating at the edge of their potential in order for their limitations to expand. I have a hard time imagining a single teacher promoting a lack of effort in their classroom. But how do you begin to weigh or measure it and would that be useful at all? Would everyone be successful if they just put in effort? Sounds ridiculous to me. In my opinion, effort would be a quality of the classroom culture to be valued, modeled, and practiced, rather than something academic to be evaluated. Hasn’t it been our desire to REDUCE the amount of effort required for tasks that has driven our technology? Doesn’t evolution privilege the adaptation and not the effort expended? Surely, it is this emphasis on effort above all else that makes people think that, while learning is often hard, it can also be meaningful and fun. If we measure by effort alone, surely the most dismal learning tasks are then the most beneficial, right? If a teacher doesn't grade effort, that doesn't mean no effort suddenly becomes acceptable. It seems to me we grade their effort when students are being forced to do things.
I wonder if, in practice, prizing even effort leads to a deficit view. The student quit due to their flawed character and lack of effort, not because the system is unfair or irrelevant. “They’re lazy!” is the favorite attack upon the disenfranchised. Yet here at college, after so many years of school, is what is most prized? Not first improvement? Growth? Self-fulfillment? Achievement? Surely, all this represents the institutionalized view, as nearly every high achieving student (future teachers) in my class emphasized effort. To the contrary, the best studio art classes I ever taught were guided by the mantra of a familiar green puppet: Do or do not, there is not try.
I don't look for effort, I want engagement. And I was very pleased to hear many respond very positively to their Creative Growth Goals, which honestly I had wondered if having students choose CGGs would’ve worked. And it didn’t, completely, this first semester by any means (well, I started in the Fall but it was formalized in my Spring class). I was worried because I had to remind several students which goal they had chosen at their midpoint meetings. But they seemed truly engaged in their focus on developing a skill or ability such as idea generation or uncertainty or experimentation.
It’s hard, sometimes, to know with great certainty when you are conferencing with students and reviewing their portfolios that the risk of confirmation bias is extremely STRONG when you AND the students both have a horse in the race. I think we have to weigh our judgments carefully and this is why I seek transparency with my students. But what I took away from their positive responses was not so much the specifics of it but that they responded well to being able to choose a goal that was they then were prompted to weave throughout their coursework. Additionally, much like this assignment, they really benefited from prompts to reflect back on their decisions from the beginning of the semester which they could use as a point of reference to assess growth. Students like feeling like they’re making progress, but in many classes students are not given the opportunity to reflect. Comprehensive tests and papers do not serve this function. But I was happy that the students enjoyed exercising their agency in selecting something in the course they’d like to focus on. This is something I want to more deeply engrain through the core of future classes.
Assessment is rarely easy, but for me it is one of the most important things I do in the classroom. But grades, while attractive to bureaucrats and folks that don’t know much about learning, are not the answer. I told my students at their meetings was that the objective of our final meeting was to take all of the rich experiences we’ve had this semester, the story that you have created this semester, and do our best to fit all of that into one of these odd little shapes (as I point to the OSU grade scale). We lose a lot doing this, because it is nearly impossible to reverse engineer that story out of the funny little shape. But you and I will know that there is a lot of meaning in that shape, even if it is hidden. And most importantly, it is the dialogue, reflection and choice - the essential ingredients of authentic assessment - that my students found meaningful which they will carry with them well after they leave the classroom. Paradoxically, this means slowing down and focusing on those art and creativity values, skills, and dispositions that we will practice the rest of our lives. These are the things I value and so that is what I assess.
In my next post, I’ll share the results of the exit surveys my students completed. What did they think of our time together? Tune in next time and I'll discuss the result and reveal how their data will affect my planning for next year! The challenges of change!
Lastly, thanks for your patience in waiting for this post! It's been a few weeks as I had classes ending and beginning; several major deadlines; and some personal matters all coming at the same time. I appreciate your continued support!
Our students spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at us. They probably spend more time looking at us than our loved ones. Don’t you wonder how your students see you? I know I have.
It’s hard to know how others view us. We all have those who see us lovingly, those who look at us with disapproval, and the majority who don’t see us at all. Our students see a lot of us and over the course of a semester it is possible for a student to view us from all three points of view.
It can be a risk asking others to share their view of you. You might not like what you they show you. They don’t know how you might react. You’re asking for honesty when there’s a lot of uncertainty. Such an interaction can require vulnerability on both sides.
But teaching and learning require trust. Asking students to draw you, especially early in the year, could be a tremendous bonding experience. Especially if you look at the drawings together and share in some laughs. Humor, and proving that you have a sense of humor, can be tremendous advantages in forming community.
This semester, I wanted to find out how my students see me and I found the perfect spot to swap it into my curriculum. For the last several years, I have enjoyed introducing my students to the Stages of Artistic Development. I lead several exercises that help teachers empathize with their students by helping them get into the mindset of a child drawing at different stages of artistic development. These stages can be related to those proposed by developmental psychologists Piaget and Vygotsky (who both sound correct if you ask me). I pair experiential learning in the classroom with the reading Young in Art by Craig Roland (an academic descendant of Lowenfield) and some updated info from more current research.
We start with some relaxation exercises before engaging in exercises in scribbling, pre-symbolic, symbolic, and naturalistic drawing. I’ve described these exercises in a previous post, but this time there were a couple of key differences. For realism, instead of exploring shading like we did last semester, I chose to return to leading students in learning to draw a more realistic face. We examined proportions linking our observation to math concepts, including that most anything can serve as a means of measuring in a pinch.
The part I like most about teaching drawing faces together is changing my students’ perceptions of something they thought they knew very well. When I poll the class, about 90%+ of them say that the eyes are one-third from the top of the head. However this guess is disproven easily using a pencil as shown in Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Using the pencil to measure from the eye to the top of the head and then from the eye to the chin reveals that the measurements are the same and thus the eyes are in fact in the middle of the head.
Each of them has probably looked at themselves in the mirror most everyday for nearly two decades, yet they never noticed where their own eyes rest on their faces! We rationalize this oversight by discussing how recognizing emotion in faces is critical to socializing and even survival, so our attention tends to fall only between the eyebrows and the mouth - where emotion is most obvious. The forehead and hair just aren’t as important so our brain seems to edit them out of our perception unless we observe closely.
This ‘blind spot’ tends to surprise students and is something they seem to remember for a long time after. It’s also prime time for them to employ meta-cognitive strategies to relax themselves and manage the stress that often comes when trying realistic drawing after giving it up so long ago. Many report back how helpful my coaching is during this point in the process, supporting the use of scaffolding and the zone of proximal development.
The second difference in this journey through the stages of artistic development was a twist on the symbolic stage. For an assignment in my teaching and learning class with Dr. Edmiston, we were asked to consider how we are viewed by our students and to see things from their perspective. I and another classmate decided we would go one step farther and actually ask our classes to draw us and show us how they view us.
Getting my students to draw me was something I had wanted to do for a while, ever since I saw how teacher and artist Chris Pearce, creator of Teachable Moments, would give his students extra credit on a test if they made a drawing of him. Online you can find an impressive collection of portraits created by his students.
I explained that since most of them had most likely stopped developing their drawing skills after reaching the symbolic stage that they shouldn’t worry about their drawing skills and just try to have fun. I instructed them to remain anonymous by not including their names. I wanted them to use their imaginations to caricature me or make me into a cartoon if they wanted. I told them that I wasn’t going to look at their drawings until after class and I’d share them during our critique day. I assured them that no matter what, I would have a sense of humor and not hold anything against anyone personally. I wanted them to uninhibited to be honest.
I was nervous asking the students to draw me. It’s hard for me to not take things personally. This wasn’t the first time I’ve asked a class to draw me, as I often did this for Drawing 1 when we would take turns using each other as clothed drawing models the day before our professional model arrived so that students had some practice but could also better empathize with the difficult job of our model! But I was still anxious for some reason! Maybe because this was the first time I had done this. Or maybe I was worried someone might not be so nice in their rendering of me? Or was I worried about how I’d react and that maybe I’m too sensitive for something like this.
When I taught elementary and middle school art, students would occasionally gift me a picture they had made of me or I might dig one out of a pile of doodles from free draw. These little mementos were treasures for me. Being drawn by a child is a special honor. Even though my current students are a little older, I still feel honored and love these drawings very much.
Overall, I thought my students were very sweet to me. “Art Jim” seems happy, energetic, and passionate about art. There’s some dancing, jumping, and exclaiming. Sometimes I’m pensive or lost in thought. I often appear with a camera, documenting my students and their work. Other times I’m wielding art supplies. I can identify two wonderful homages to shows like the Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation which I adore. I’m much less rounder than I expected in their drawings, and too hairy in all of them, just like real life these days. Each one is different and I love seeing the unique style that each student uses to depict me. I like how they see me. Now it’s up to me to live up to their vision of me. Life imitating art imitating life.
We enjoyed reviewing the drawings together at our critique. Students noticed how many folks chose to show my appearance but several tried to show my personality and we debated which approach was preferable. My students also wanted me to talk about taking risks and if I get uncomfortable. I shared that, as an artist, there have been many times when I have had to step into my discomfort, especially when working in public. As a teacher, I’m uncomfortable before most every class. But I have to be brave because I want my students to be brave. I’m happy that they picked up on these aspects of the assignment. We looked together. Discussed together. Laughed together. I think I’ll definitely continue this assignment in future classes.
Have you ever asked your students to depict you? How do you think you look to your students?
NOTE: While Chris Pearce’s work was one inspiration, I looked very hard for an article I thought I had read years ago about a teacher who asked his students to draw him like I did but could not find anything. If anyone knows what I’m talking about and has the link please email me! Thank you!
It can be a risk asking others to share their view of you. You might not like what you they show you. They don’t know how you might react. You’re asking for honesty when there’s a lot of uncertainty. Such an interaction can require vulnerability on both sides.
I'm honored to have been asked recently to share my thoughts on teaching art & creativity by Tim Bogatz, host of Art Ed Radio, and to now be included among so many world-class and inspiring art educators and creativity leaders that I've looked up to for years! Art Ed Radio is a weekly podcast produced by The Art of Ed featuring "engaging discussions, covering the most important topics in art education." Thank you for giving the podcast a listen! #KYCW
Art Ed Should Thrive, Not Just Survive (Episode 105) with Jim O'Donnell
Art Ed Radio
The Art of Ed
Making art together is important. It can bring us joy and support us in grief. For some of us, art might be the reason we’re here. But beyond that, by coming together around art, we come to understand and accept each other a little more. After all, art is our inside - outside. The invisible made visible. And in sharing ourselves, our communities grow stronger. I love the bumper sticker quote, which I can only find attributed to either Rosabeth Moss Kanter or Glenn Hilke, stating that, “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.” I suspect that bringing different people together might just be the best possible way to make our world into the one our children deserve.
Culture and community have been recurring topics of my recent classes. A few weeks ago, I engaged my students in a Task Party, originally created by contemporary artist Oliver Herring. It’s an exciting improvisational artmaking experience. As students entered, they were asked to invent a task for another student in the class to complete, write it on a slip of paper, and drop it in a box. They then pick a task at random from the box. They can take as long or as little as they want to complete their task anyway they see fit. Afterwards, students may return to select another task and repeat. As for our materials, a few students and I were able to provide a suitable quantity of recyclables and assorted collections of household-type items. From these, students constructed vehicles, games, towers, gifts, decorations, clothing, and even a few performances, including one student who pretended to be a fish for the entire time and another student that became quite a convincing lion prowling our classroom and startling unsuspecting classmates. One of my favorite creations was a tutu fashioned from strips of plastic bags which reminded me of Degas’ Little Dancer which I shared with the class afterwards.
The first time I experienced a Task Party myself was at the 2016 NAEA Convention in NYC, where I was able to work with Oliver Herring himself. It was a huge ballroom filled with people happily interacting and making and expressing themselves. Despite how busy he was, he was extremely friendly and generous and chatted with me a bit about the event. He was more interested in my take - which is the sign of a natural teacher I think. “This is life,” I told him. “We’re exploring the world around us and ways of being and making something together.” He bowed graciously. After everything was cleaned up, a group of high school students from NYC challenged a group of high students from Provo, Utah to a game of baseball in the ballroom with a leftover tinfoil ball and tubes. It was a spontaneous, beautiful, hopeful moment I was fortunate to catch.
After my class task party, I reviewed my students responses, nearly every one of them mentioned connections with fun, spontaneity, creativity and/or socializing. Almost unanimously, they shared with me that the experience was like nothing they had experienced before. Good. That’s what we’re going for in this course. Also, the vast majority seemed to really enjoy themselves after struggling with a little anxiety, indecision, and ‘maker’s block’ and overcoming their resistance. I was proud of them. Only a few, however, seemed to recognize the possible connection to community in how we navigated and shared space and time, temporarily creating something egalitarian with shared decisions and consequences. I frequently asked students to consider how the experience might relate to “community” in my feedback as a friendly challenge to take their thinking to the next level. The next time a class has a task party, I’ll be sure to center community more explicitly for our post-discussion.
The following week, we revisited Big Ideas. In my last post, I wrote about some of the challenges my students and I experienced as I first introduced the Big Idea method of lesson planning to the class. I had spoken to my mentor and “sister-by-another-mister” Melanie Davenport, who helped me realize how, while I had thought of my content very matter-of-factly, that for my classroom, the introduction of this new way of doing things represented something of a culture clash. For some of my students, this was a significant departure from the way they thought about lesson planning. It had been a little more like oil and water for a few than peanut butter and jelly like I might’ve hoped. But that wasn’t the end of the world since struggle can be important to learning. My suspicion was somewhat validated later when a student explained to me she had been taught to always begin with a standard. But from my perspective, if you’re doing anything worth doing in the classroom, there is a standard for it - so what excites YOU?!
After our review, we transitioned to a discussion of “authenticity.” I believe students should value authenticity in creating their lesson plans. It can mean many different things, but for me, an art-integrated lesson is authentic when students are doing things that artists actually do or at least looking at the artwork they have created. This way, students are learning from actual practitioners involved in the field of visual art. If I was teaching medicine, I would want my students learning from doctors - not the amateur medic down the street 9 out of 10 times. I’m hoping more lessons will follow my lead this semester as this discipline-based / T.A.B. foundation was something I found lacking last semester. But a lesson can also be authentic when students are doing things that they want to do, making choices, and engaging meaningfully in creativity and artmaking. In that way, the learning is natural rather than forced or contrived and the students are being AND expressing themselves.
Authenticity is especially important as some students consider exploring different cultures with their students through art-integration. Whether or not you believe that cultural appropriation is a problem or not, I think any educator can agree that it is a disservice to students when teachers misrepresent or stereotype other cultures, intentionally or not. We have a responsibility to the truth as teachers. Those interested in exploring other cultures should do so with humility, as if they are entering the home of a stranger for the first time. Do not speak for people that you know little to nothing about. Speak for yourself instead. Does this mean I want my students to avoid the artwork of other cultures? Of course not! But, as an authority figure in the classroom and in the interest of intellectual honesty, it is dishonest at worst and ignorant at best to present some problematic lesson you found on the internet as if it accurately represents a group of people in anyway without doing some serious research and questioning. Don’t believe everything you read - it’s the internet for the love of gravy!!
I wholeheartedly believe teachers can teach what they do not know. We can’t know everything and studying a topic the night before your lesson does not make you an authority persay. Many might say they teach themselves first and then teach their students, but why not just learn together? Bu humble. Model curiosity and instead make that the focus. Become a community where power is shared, not centralized. Be respectful and responsible, again, as if you had were in a stranger’s home. Whenever possible, include the voices of the actual people of that community, in person or simply through video, audio or text. Invite members of that community to speak for themselves and invite your students to learn from everyone instead of only what you think about the world.
As a member of the teaching community and someone who works with aspiring teachers, I value authenticity and am practicing embracing vulnerability. I created this blog to be more transparent and make me more vulnerable. Because we must be ourselves or our students will sniff us out as phonies in a heartbeat. Teaching helps me be my best self. But I had no idea that a national tragedy would call upon me to respond with all of the authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty I could muster for the sake of my students.
On the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2018, 17 students and teachers were shot dead at Stoneman Douglas High School in Lakeland, Florida by a gunman with a semi-automatic rifle. I went to high school about 45 minutes away from there. According to conservative estimates, this was the fifth school shooting in 2018. That’s almost one incident per week. So far. This was only a few days ago. And every school and learning community in the country has been hurt in some way as a result.
When I first heard the news, I wanted to throw up. I cried. Over the next few days, I cried several times each day. Maybe I too had become desensitized to the continuous stream of mass shootings in America and it was all finally coming to a head. This seemed like something more than empathy and a loose connection to the area for me. I wasn’t expecting to react as strongly as I was. And in re-reading that sentence - how could we let things get to this point where I would say I either should’ve expected such an event or not felt so strongly? I was sick to my stomach, a little out of it, and heartbroken for those children that would no longer graduate and go on to live the rest of their promising lives. Those teachers that gave their lives to protect their students.
I couldn’t go on as usual and pretend that every teacher and every student in this country had not just been stabbed through the heart. I couldn’t process our shared grief alone. If I was experiencing such difficult emotions, then I guessed that some of my students may feel the same. Or worse. They might be asking themselves, why am I going into this field? Do I really want to become a teacher? Sure - we all had those moments. But most of us weren’t worried that we might die doing the job we love. It is most often our hearts - our love of children, the world, and learning - that bring us to this profession. That our children might be the price of our national inaction - of our shared failure to come together and make a difference again and again is appalling.
As future teachers, the real world won't stop at my students' classroom doors. And it can't stop at mine either. So I decided to change my plans. I decided to improvise. We would talk and share and make art together. And maybe, just maybe, that will make a small difference. And that’s what we did.
Asked them to check-in with themselves and try to find out how they were feeling. I told them we would be improvising and getting real and if at any point they found that our conversation was too much, they could step outside or leave at any time if that was what they needed. Then I began to open up. “I feel awful,” I said. I told them why. I feel heartbroken and angry at the same time. I described the pit in my gut, the weight on my chest, and the nausea in my stomach.
I don’t know how to talk about this,” I said, “but we’re going to talk about it anyway. I’m not a counselor. I’m not qualified. But that’s okay. And you won’t be either. And there may come a time, if it hasn’t already, that you will have to talk to your children about things they should never have to think about. But we can still do some good.”
I reminded them of the counseling services at school and the contact information I include prominently in our course syllabus. Counseling is for everyone and you don’t need to feel a certain way to see a counselor. While sometimes it takes time to find a good match, as with anything. I wanted to de-stigmatize mental health services, so I shared that in my early thirties, a cognitive psychologist helped me acquire tools that have helped me become a little bit healthier. I’ll always be grateful.
I also told them about last semester. The best friend of a student in my class had been wounded in the Las Vegas Massacre. Is that horrific event fading from our memory already? Back then, I began class by mentioning the event, telling the students about the counseling services, and after a brief period of time moving on with the scheduled lesson. Why didn’t I change my plans then? What did I think was more important? I feel a little ashamed. But tonight was going to be different.
Then I told them a story - my story. The story of a child that grew up in extreme circumstances and was part of an invisible population - namely students that are homeless and live in terrible circumstances with a dysfunctional family, in my case fueled largely by mental illness, alcohol, and shame. I told them how I had been emotionally, psychologically, and physically abused for years starting when I was 8 years old. I was held back a year simply because I wasn’t allowed to go to school for most of the year. By the time I was 12, I was an unsocialized, severely obese, unhygienic child with dirty clothes. I was a pariah, isolated at school, a mysterious but obvious target of ridicule and isolation by teachers and classmates, and completely on my own at home, trapped by the delusions of a mentally ill parent. For a long time, my shared belief that those delusions were true also imprisoned me. I was lonely, sad, confused, and above all, full of rage.
I had touched the darkness as a child. I admitted to having fantasized about my own death many times back then. How vividly I imagined everyone in my school lamenting my avoidable death. They would finally regret having ever been mean to me or excluding me I thought. I admitted how, during a particularly low point, I had fantasized about getting back at all my classmates that had hurt me by transforming into a giant robot and gunning them all down in cold-blooded revenge. Add to that I was being told that these people were my enemies and out to get me. I didn’t care who I hurt because I was hurting so badly I couldn’t feel that human connection. But eventually, I came out the other side, damaged but unbroken. No one should ever have to know those feeling I felt as a child. Those feelings are something I will have to carry with my the rest of my life. And every time another horrific shootings occur in this country, I’m back in that time of my life again, reliving all those terrible memories.
I consider myself lucky. I can’t say why or how I survived all that. Part nature, part nurture, and a lot of luck I assume. “But for a slight twist of fate,” I told my students, “I could easily have ended up in prison - or dead.” But a huge part of what helped me survive, I believe, was art. When I was younger, I escaped to my drawing. I constructed an elaborate comic book universe complete with storylines and characters, drawing and redrawing them over and over. And I gradually improved. As I got older and took charge of more and more of my life, I learned that the world could be different than I had been told. It was then that my art became a connection to others - a way of reaching out. Would you believe that by seventh grade, in the same class I described above, that I gave everyone in the class their own drawing just to thank them for being my classmates? And again in eighth grade. Art was there to help me when no one else was.
I told my students how later in high school, the first drawings I made that I considered “Art” were created one summer as I tried to process feelings resulting from an incident with a broken door, a bloody bed sheet, and a fist reeking of alcohol from another family member. I can’t remember ever being angrier in my life than I was that night. I wanted to steal a car; drive it into a tree; die; or end up in jail. I wanted to overdose (even though I’d never had a drug). I wanted to do anything I could to get back at my attacker by hurting myself. But I was isolated yet again. This time on a mountain with nothing around for miles. Instead of going for a knife, I picked up color pencils. I made art that showed the emotions that I could not articulate in words nor share with anyone.
Art, I believe can save lives. And art just doesn’t help us survive, it can help us thrive, as it enables us to process life and the world around us, even when we experience emotions to which we can’t give names or describe. I believe art brings us together and that being together is perhaps the best, most powerful thing we can do. So, for the rest of class, we painted and doodled and spent time together.
My students seem okay for the most part. But they shared several heartbreaking stories. Paranoia. Fear. Sadness. During lockdown drills, how as a student teacher, having to explain to kindergarteners why they have to pretend to hide from a bad man that has come to hurt them. My generation never experienced anything this. “This generation is resilient,” I tell them, “and don’t let any of these other generations disrespect you, because this is their mess - my mess - and we didn’t clean it up. But we have to try.” Through our sharing we became closer. Only a few spoke publicly, but everyone listened deeply. Everyone in our community was heard.
I’ve done the best I can do. That’s all any teacher can expect from themself. I was honest with my students. And I hopefully gave them an example of what to do when they do not know what to do. And moreso, maybe I gave them some hope. That, like in my life, it’s possible to turn things around. We’re not destined for an endless string of tragedies. I showed them that we can be damaged, but that doesn’t mean we have to be broken. And maybe they’ll remember that art can help us make meaning out of senselessness and bring a little order to what may sometimes seem like overwhelming chaos. That in art, whatever art is for any of us, we can find connection, strength, and healing.
I still want to cry. My eyes are welling up as I write these words. But we can either present ourselves to our students as products or processes. For their sake, I think they need to see the process, because we are all learning to live together in this world and they need to see that we all are in the same boat. We are all trying our best to figure out this thing called life. We can create and we can destroy. Our world can be a task party.
Thank you for reading. To all my teachers - readers, friends, colleagues, and those I may never know - keep being the kind, strong, brave, authentic, vulnerable beautiful creatures I know you are. We need each other more now than ever. And to everyone, take care of each other. Because that will make the world the one we want to live in and the one our students deserve. I believe we can make that world a reality. But only together.
Our last class of the semester! The last day is always bittersweet for me. It is a celebration of all we have accomplished this semester but also the last time we will all be together. The sandcastle my students and I have built will soon be washed away by the tide. In a month or so, a new one will begin. While there was nothing being turned in and nothing going on in class that day that the students would be held responsible for later, I was delighted when I saw that every student (except for two recovering from surgery) had chosen to attend! For me, this was a subtle but significant endorsement of the time we’ve spent together this semester. They were there because they wanted to be - not because I had coerced them with grades or penalties (and very very few had enough absences that missing the last day would’ve penalized them). For this, I’m grateful.
For our last day, I planned a potluck while we enjoyed a make-up presentation and completed course evaluations. I brought coffee and donut holes the first day to take the edge off our first meeting and a potluck on our last day was their chance to reciprocate. We enjoyed a wonderful sugary feast! I wanted feedback, the university wants feedback, and on top of that my department wanted feedback - and of course we all had our separate tools! Hopefully the snacks helped prevent what I’m calling ‘eval exhaustion.’
Much more importantly for our last day, I invited fabulous guest speaker. Duarte Brown is a local Columbus mixed-media artist that is passionate about working with young people and community. Mr. Brown is an artist-in-residence for the Ohio Arts Council, a publicly funded program that places artists in schools for as little as a day or as much as once a week for a semester! It is a wonderful program that enables young people to see working artists in action and a chance for artists to share their inspiration and gifts with others. Hopefully some of my students may wish to have an artist-in-residence in their future classrooms! I wish more art teachers would invite artists into their classrooms to provide real working artist role-models and create connections between the classroom and the community.
I knew that my students would love Duarte when I had the opportunity to hear him speak at the recent Ohio Art Education Association conference. He was passionate, sincere, and funny as he accepted a state award and spoke about his work with local art teachers like Melinda Staley and sharing his art with young people around Ohio. He graciously accepted my invitation to speak to my class on the spot. The day of his visit, he had left another conference just to make it to my class. As he spoke to my students, they heard that same passion, sincerity, and sense of humor I had heard weeks before. At the core of his talk was love, especially his love of making art and using it as a way of connecting with others. He spoke about resistance and challenges and the complexity surrounding race, masculinity, and trauma that permeates our students’ daily lives. And he also expressed the vulnerability required for both artmaking and teaching and spoke on the importance of being fearless and meeting our young people where they are, free of presumptions and judgments. This for me is the essential work every teacher must practice and something I continually work towards.
As future teachers, I believe Duarte’s words resonated especially strongly with them and I know that many of them found the experience moving (I won’t see their feedback until next week to know for sure). I know it resonated with me as a person who lived through a great deal of childhood trauma, was homeless and repeated 5th grade, but that went on to use art to connect with others and is now a teacher seeking a PhD. I have little doubt that he further inspired them to inspire others. I’m incredibly grateful for his selfless generosity in taking time out of his busy schedule to speak to these young teachers during this critical time in their studies. I’m thankful that they have such a memorable example of creativity in the classroom that they can draw on in their future work with young people.
Sorry this week’s post is so short, but finals are beginning this week and I’m under the gun. However, next week I’ll be back to talk about my student conferences in which we will be meeting to mutually determine each student’s final grade. Stay tuned!
We’re all familiar with the term “emotional roller coaster.” But that’s not a very helpful metaphor is it? Roller coasters have operators, safety precautions, and typically don’t crash. Our emotions, let alone our lives, are anything but a roller coaster. We can go off the rails rather regularly.
My apologies for my delay in posting this! I’ve traveled to two conferences in the last three weeks and I’ve been struggling to keep up with my class as well as my own coursework. But both conferences were wonderful opportunities to connect with new people and ideas in two very different art education communities - one primarily research and the other practice. That was the product at least. The outcome. It all sounds rather tidy. The PROCESS on the other hand, was emotional and messy. A misheard name, an awkward conversation, a feeling of not fitting in, and having to make sacrifices like staying in and working rather than going out and socializing. These were some of the bits we tend to edit out of our stories. Sort of how textbooks edit out the ugly parts of history.
Am I the only one who when first arriving at a convention, needs about a half-a-day or so to acclimate emotionally? Before that it’s like that first day of school again. I’m in a strange place with strange people. Everyone except for you seems to be mingling and catching up with each other and bustling about. It’s like this predictable re-entry process I go through each time. But those feelings don’t last (usually) and in the end it’s all worth it. I made connections with folks I hope to continue to see and attended to already established connections and left inspired and feeling closer to others that value some of the things I do. By the time I have to leave I’m sad to go! (I had to leave both early for a class I take on a few Saturdays this semester). You feel acutely vulnerable at first but you put yourself out there, give it some time, make mistakes, but also gain a great deal. This the the process of connecting with other people. And that emotional journey relates to one of my recent classes.
The topic of the day was Artist as Storyteller so we were discussing narrative art and how art can tell stories. Simple enough, right? For this class I had prepared an in depth PowerPoint showing students some artwork and materials that could help connect to literature class. Mainly, how an artwork can be used as a writing prompt and help students learn about the parts of a story while creating their own artwork using collage and drawing. We were to look at artwork and interpret it narratively, imagining what story it might tell. Afterwards students would have time in class to create mixed media artworks that told a story. I hoped that by the end we could hold a mini-critique to talk about our collages AND our monoprints which we had still not had time to critique all together. I thought I had a fantastic presentation with interesting examples and images I had used in the past, and a great art experience planned for them.
Everything went wrong.
Most if not all of my students had a positive experience overall, as far as I could tell at the time and after reading their responses (which they complete every week). Some sensed that things were a bit off with the artmaking at least. A few made astute observations and provided constructive criticism. But I knew things had not worked out and shared as much in many of my responses back. I admitted my mistake and asked what they might’ve done in that situation. All teachers know that feeling when something you thought was going to be great falls flat. The ones that care do something about it.
It’s important that we acknowledge that learning and teaching is a largely emotional endeavor, no matter how often it seems that education stops at the neck. I’m constantly trying to improve my practice as a teacher. But the failures still hurt. Losing doesn’t feel good.
Is learning about “winning”? No. I said “losing” on purpose. Did you see a problem with that like I did? Because that is the closest analogy I can think of for the feeling of a lesson falling flat. I think this is a very American thing to say probably. I feel like there is a tendency towards binary in the U.S. Win & Lose. Good & Bad. Democrat & Republican. Our education system stigmatizes failure and making mistakes therefore discouraging the tremendous opportunity for learning that mistakes offer. There is that perfectionist tendency that strangles so many children with anxiety today. “Art is never finished. Only abandoned.” - Leonardo da Vinci. I also have serious complaints about our education system’s overall neglect of emotional education. When mistakes happen, I don’t believe we are adequately prepared to manage our response in healthier ways. We are a fixed mindset nation where a first grader might tell you they are not a math person. But we can improve. And I’m teaching my teachers in the hopes that they will be able to escape these mental shackles with which I’ve grown up - that they might live freer and healthier than I have. A guy can dream, can’t he?
So it hurts when things don’t work out and there’s no do-over. So what do you do? Well, at first there is the sticky business of pushing through in the moment. The old “show must go on." You adjust and adapt and slog your way through less confidently than normal. You salvage it the best you can. You do your best to save the patient but it’s already DoA - not an unusual outcome when you relying on lesson plans. Anything that doesn’t go “according to plan” means you’re off track. I’ve been a bit off-track most of this semester on this journey. You try to shrug off the dissatisfaction as best as you can. But you screwed up and you feel like everyone saw you being a bonehead. There are many ways to react, some requiring more self-control than others. Some just require some deep breathing. But you get through it. After, I was not looking forward to their feedback on my lesson. In the end, they went pretty easy on me. They are sweet. And maybe, sadly, I wonder about their expectations of their professors. Was this still exceeding their expectations?
Next you perform the autopsy. What happened? Wrong content, wrong images, and wrong project. One artwork was not as age-appropriate (or maybe interest appropriate) as I thought it might’ve been. It didn’t engage them on the early Monday morning. Unlike Garfield, I don’t get to blame the day of the week. I knew exactly what day it was going to be and went ahead anyway. Another artwork was too complex to be adequately unpacked. It was a rich, layered, in some ways difficult work, and I treated it poorly by shoehorning it in to prove a minor point - that even a non-objective work could be read like a story...sort of. The hubris! While my own art example I shared was a mixed media collage, neither of the examples we discussed was a collage, despite the fact that we would be making them and could benefit from seeing various approaches. Additionally, my example was a very detailed, carefully rendered piece and there was no way they could do similar work in the allotted time. I wasn’t really showing them what was possible or worse, giving them an unreasonable point of comparison. It was closer to showing-off, it felt. Look what I can do under ideal circumstances with unlimited time and many years of drawing experience! Now you try! I had gotten my students started the class before cutting out images to collage but let their ultimate purpose remain a mystery in the hope that they would have to think on their feet an adapt. But that turned out not to work out. Because of the limited time, almost no one was able to finish in class. That’s not a very satisfying experience. Nor were they able to make many meaningful connections. To make it up to my students, I told them they could submit a picture of their collages rather than submitting written feedback. Not much, but something. I already knew that I would be making dramatic changes to the way I would present this topic in the future so their feedback would be somewhat redundant for me.
We also had to talk about some artwork before the end of class. So we saved twenty plus minutes to share our monoprints we had created a few weeks before. We “had to” have a mini-critique that day because we would not have another chance the rest of the semester. We also “had to” because I had assigned a reading discussing talking about student artwork and felt that my students would be mad if we didn’t apply the reading in class. And because of the short amount of time, I felt like our conversation lacked depth and several pieces worth acknowledgment went undiscussed. There were some thoughtful comments although we mostly got a lot of “that reminds me of.” And, of course, we even went slightly over time, which I hate, because I work hard to respect my students’ time. That of course is the danger of teaching (or doing anything in the classroom) because you think you “have to.” So all in all, a roller coaster wreck.
I know what you might be saying. It wasn’t THAT bad. And I get that. I’m not trying to paint this class as some kind of catastrophe. There were no fires or getting fired involved. But this was my first real bad day of teaching this semester. Teachers know how important modeling is for learning. Just imagine how extra important it is when teaching teachers! Modelling can be a double-edged sword because this was one of those days where I hope they DON’T do as I do...but they probably will :) But in all seriousness, it is important that our students see us make mistakes and that we own them. I know as a young teacher, I would have wanted to hide my mistakes. That’s what near constant overemphasis of “craftsmanship” in high school and college art courses taught me perhaps. Our students need to see us as fallible (not that they don’t already know well enough). But they can learn a tremendous amount from seeing us sitting in the hot seat. Watching HOW we deal. We should let our students see behind the curtain, rather than pretending to be wizards and witches of Oz or magicians as Nan Hathaway has said. We’re showing students how to be in the world, not how to be a good audience member, watching as the world goes by before them.
The autopsy, while intellectually satisfying, did not alleviate my emotions. I felt down. I could tell that I was feeling vulnerable. I like to brood. Like many others, I have a tendency to ‘protect’ my vulnerability with defensiveness. I related to this during my attendance at the conferences. Do you ever go to a presentation where you realize that you have been doing something wrong in your teaching? Headed in the wrong direction for a while? How do you react to that news? Despite presenting to teachers many times over the years, I only came to appreciate this nuance recently. When someone points out a better way of doing something that you have been doing or otherwise makes it clear that something you have been doing is unhelpful or even counterproductive, our logical side can appreciate the new information. Let’s implement that. On the other hand, our emotions kick in as well, don’t they? We’re halfway through the semester/year/course! I’ve been doing x wrong all this time! What have I done to my poor students! It’s not like a single mistake, but a mistake exponentially multiplied with compound interest. We feel bad. Maybe shame, the flip-side of vulnerability. Rather than appreciating the new information, part of us feels threatened. Rather than engaging with the path forward a part of us remains trapped in the loss behind us - in the mistake. We might not be ready for that info yet. Everyone reacts a little differently. For me, it takes a little time to resolve this conflict and while I know rationally that everyone makes mistakes because I have said it to students a thousand million times, I still, perhaps irrationally, feel that pain acutely. How many times, I wonder, has someone saying, “Get over it!” actually helped. We know it’s not that simple. But maybe you, like me, say this to yourself more than you would like. I simmer and stew but eventually move forward. We can’t let ourselves become the kind of teacher that doesn’t admit mistakes. I feel like I’ve made every mistake in the book. I want to own them.
Whenever I give teachers advice, I want teachers to know that I’m never shaming them. I’m not coming from a place of judgment. As I like to say, the only way I’ve ever learned anything is the hard way. I’m never better than anyone, rather just a little farther down the path. When I offer advice to teachers, it’s because I have been where they are and have and have found a way to try again. I don’t want to judge them anymore than I want to judge my students. Instead, like Craig Roland always says, I want my students to “amaze me.”
I see so many professors and teachers forget what it was like to be in their students’ shoes and forget what it was like before they knew what they know. To hold students hostage to their own impossible standards. We need to create space for our students to make mistakes. We have to address those mistakes coming from a place of caring and acknowledging the tremendous emotions involved. Just like we have to acknowledge our own emotions in our own practice and give ourselves permission to make mistakes. The best-laid plans of mice and men…
It’s just not always easy. We need constant reminding. The more aware we are of our own emotional roller coaster ride we go on when we make mistakes or things don’t go as expected, the better able we are to care for ourselves and help our students when they experience similar feelings. We have to develop healthy strategies for managing our emotions and help our students do the same. How can we care for others if we are unable to care for ourselves? I’m reminded of that famous song by Fred Rogers, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” I’m working on it, Mr. Rogers. I’m trying.
When we dedicate ourselves to teaching, we all choose the hard way. We don’t choose the path with gold and shiny things at the end. We don’t choose the path of least resistance, because we know that resistance is something we will come face-to-face with every day, not least of which in our own mirror. There is nothing easy about working - doing authentic, meaningful, life-affirming work - with people. People can be difficult. Feelings can be difficult. Difficulty is assured. But change is possible. What is heartbreaking is the teachers who look at the world, a world that seems like a scary, inhumane place to them, where they feel powerless perhaps, and decide, intentionally or not, that the best thing they can do is to get their students used to it by making their classroom a miserable place. Those teachers who like to repeat “Well in the real world...” as a bludgeon attacking resistance and potential. I choose instead a humanizing approach, to try to help my students realize how powerful they really are. That their power comes from who they are and their experiences and the people they connect with. It comes from their ability to learn from their mistakes and to try again. It comes most of all from them caring. We wouldn’t get upset if we didn’t care. So we give it some time, make changes, and get back to it.
Does this ring true for you? No two people experience anything exactly the same way. I’d love to hear about your own emotional roller coasters and crashes and how you get out of them!
Here is a link to my day 8 outline & day 9 outline
I'll mostly be blogging about my experiences teaching. I teach a class online right now called Teaching K12 Art Online where I'll be exploring art online with art teachers. I also currently teach a (formerly?) face-to-face course called Visual Culture: Investigating Diversity & Social Justice which is an art, critical writing, and research course for undergrads. Before this, I taught a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where I was experimenting with cooperative & creative teaching integrating art and "going gradeless" with preservice early childhood education majors.