First, I’d like to brag on my students a little bit. The last two classes have been presentation days for their art-integrated lesson plans that they’ve been working on since the middle of the semester and they did a wonderful job! It was fantastic getting to see them performing what we had been practicing and connecting and sharing with each other. This was also the first time I attempted the ‘three-ring circus’ method and I thought it was a big success!
Allow me to explain. I have 29 students total which meant 15 presentations each day. How do you fit 15 lesson plan presentations into 110 minutes? Fifteen 7-minute presentations? NOPE! I divided the room into three parts with display boards and had five rounds of three simultaneous 15-20 minute presentations, each to a third of the class! The students LOVED it! Many of them shared in their feedback how much they enjoyed seeing several shorter presentations and commented about how interesting it was to see several different approaches throughout the day. It’s definitely messier than your typical whole class one-after-another presentation format but those can be sooooo boring! I like the extra mess. It gives the presentations a little more edge since they have to adapt to distractions like not being the only one talking in the room.
Once upon a time, when I first worked with aspiring teachers in the small art education classes I taught, each student had an entire hour to present their lesson to the class. I now think that was probably a waste of class time. They didn’t learn a lot about how young people would react to the lesson based on their peers playing along. Overall I found them somewhat tedious. Since then, I’ve decided that shorter is better when it comes to presenting plans. I think teachers can and should be able to fill in the blanks with their social imagination and experience. Now I favor a short 15-30 minute ‘preview’ or presentation of the lesson.
But do these simulations translate to the future classroom? It’s important to breakdown complex tasks like teaching into chunks to be practiced. You have to practice the hard parts in order to improve. What are the hard parts they practice through a lesson planning process? Aligning ends with means. Curriculum design. Intentionality. Goal-setting. How do these parts relate to creativity? It’s something I need to think about.
To be able to grow as teachers, we need to have the knowledge and skills necessary to reflect, evaluate, and improve. For that, I believe one needs critical thinking and an awareness of possibility. To that end, I wonder if I’m really enabling my students to be critical of their performance so that they can improve. I will know a little bit more after I read their reflections. Already though, in the future I would like to try having them record themselves so that they have something to critique after they present. But how helpful would it be for them to record themselves presenting in an undergrad class? The reality is that college students make TOO IDEAL an audience for practicing teachers. They don’t misbehave. They do as they’re asked. They tend to be pretty nice and leave almost entirely positive comments. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does make their presentations fairly painless and unrealistic when compared to the typical classroom. It would be wonderful if I could get a panel of classroom teachers to critique them, but that seems a little unrealistic as well. So does getting them access to groups of children as student guinea pigs. The next best thing may be if they are in small groups reviewing each other’s videos. They tend to rise to the occasion when performing for their peers and might take greater critical license if I encourage them to offer constructive comments for each other. In my opinion, one of the best ways to ensure that an assignment is completed without grades is to tell them that they’ll be presenting or sharing with each other. In addition, they’ll have to record their K-12 teaching for their EdTPA portfolios in the future. For now, I believe a video would give them an opportunity to think about the way they structure their lessons even if it has minimal benefits for their class management.
I’ve regularly required my art education students to watch videos of themselves in the past but for whatever reason I never asked them to review them with partners or in a small peer group. The idea for intimate critiques only occurred to me after seeing Dr. Craig Roland at the University of Florida do just that with grad students teaching studio art classes. I need to work harder to empower my students to become better self-evaluators and develop habits like criticality and seeking feedback from peers. They had opportunities to review each other’s lesson plans online as they developed their drafts but I realize I didn’t give them enough tools to help them critique themselves and each other in more sophisticated ways. For example, I didn’t have a resource available in advance such as this super helpful version of Bloom’s Taxonomy showing specific language that is perfect for planning objectives. But they didn’t have this. I knew that some of them had not had experience writing lesson plans, but I wasn’t sure how many or where most of them were in regard to their studies. I had a couple that are graduating this semester and some just starting.
I’ve provided them feedback on two drafts and am waiting on their third and final drafts so my hindsight is 20/20. I expected things that I had no right to expect. Objective writing was something I commented on almost across the board. Over and over it was: How do you make learning visible? Be clear and specific. “Learn” and “know” don’t mean anything. How do you want them to show what they know? But they didn’t necessarily have access to those words on their own because we hadn’t gone over them. Big Ideas or Essential Questions was another area that I commented on across the board. We had talked briefly about Big Ideas in class and they should be familiar with essential questions (“should” - one of the most dangerous words in the English language). Both provide the focus or theme of the lesson. In retrospect, I had not provided them with lists or sources for these explicitly. Nor had I thought ahead to consider finding resources for Big Ideas across subjects for them to combine. Now I have lists of Big Ideas from science, literature, math, social studies and other subjects. They should have had these resources from the beginning. Their research sections also generally needed a lot of work. A comment I wrote over and over again was that there are many ways to learn something and that they needed to justify why their way is a good way. I shared with them that EdTPA evaluators would be looking for very strong theory sections. But again, this was a defect on my part. They didn’t have access to those resources, like this incredible resource which lists a number of learning theories and their various proponents. I was so focused on creativity this semester that I ignored the basic building blocks they needed to help them develop their lesson plans. I didn’t want the class to be about lesson planning. I just wanted the lesson planning to be a part of the course. That was a mistake. I should have focused them more on building the strong structure upon which they could feel secure in taking risks and practicing creativity. Instead I’m afraid my approach was disjointed.
Have I told you that I like to practice juggling in my spare time? It’s true. Each day I seem to drop the ball a little less. This gives me hope. One day, I hope, to not drop the ball.
Obviously, based on the above, I have a ways to go. In a lot of ways, I wanted to see where they were and what they could do on their own, but I know now that without the guiding resources above to scaffold them, they will instead depend on materials found online and rely too heavily on my suggestions. Some, I could tell, were pre-packaged internet fare. I imagine I’m a master chef, teaching future chefs, but instead of providing them with gourmet ingredients with which to work, I have left them to their own devices and some have had to do with whatever they could find - junk food from the internet or low-hanging fruit of my own advice. How do I know that some of them relied on my advice? Because there were at least three presentations that were essentially the same. I don’t want that to happen again. I gave them suggestions at our midpoint meetings for ways they could address their creative goals with various art exercises. Maybe next time I need to keep my mouth shut.
Instead, I feel like if I had shown them these building blocks that they could have constructed the lessons that demonstrated more ownership. With those resources I mentioned, they would have shared points of reference from which to critique each other more constructively. With videos of their teaching, they would have had objective evidence to review beyond their own experience and if they had been able to review this with each other they would hold each other accountable. Additionally, one thing I had done in the past was try to purposely misinterpret or find obstacles with the lesson in order to show presenters where their students might struggle. Most people tend to approach their plans optimistically, assuming success rather than failure, so most of us miss the built in problems. Knowing in advance that someone might be trying to ‘break’ their lesson could keep them on their toes and make them aware of their blind spots. These are all ways that I might try to enhance the critical thinking involved in their lesson planning in the future.
Yes, this is JUST a two credit course I’m teaching through the Art Education Department in the College of Arts & Sciences. Yes, I’m supposed to be focusing on art-integration. No, it’s not technically my job to show them how to write a lesson plan. Yes, they’ll probably have plenty more opportunities in their education classes in the College of Education to improve their planning. Do I trust that? Should I?
Lesson planning. How does one teach lesson planning without making the class ABOUT lesson planning? Does lesson planning reveal a teacher’s thinking or is lesson planning an obstacle to authentic teaching? Reviewing lesson plans can be a real slog sometimes. They aren’t exactly fun to read or light reading. Should they be? As any good teacher in a teacher preparation program, I have logged countless hours reading the lesson plans of students training to become teachers. And like anyone neck-deep in student plans, I find myself asking: Is there a point? I think there is, but this is question that makes me “wobble” every semester. Shouldn’t they just be out there, being mentored by teachers out in the field from day 1?
Lesson planning is the crux of any teacher preparation program it seems. Mastering lesson planning is a skill not only required by most programs, but defacto mandated by high-stakes teacher evaluation programs such as EdTPA. For a student’s EdTPA portfolio they must complete three essential tasks: plan a lesson, video themselves teaching the lesson, and reflection. So there are very real incentives for prospective teachers to ‘get good’ at lesson planning if they’d like to obtain certification.
Once employed, many if not most teachers will be required to submit lesson plans to their administrators or at least to make them available for the possible pop-in of an administrator there to observe your class. The lesson planning that most students practice in preparation programs is different than that required by most school administrators. For expedience, administrators tend to ask for very simplified plans, sometimes requiring the teacher to show little more what objectives their students are working towards, what standards those objectives are meeting, and perhaps an overarching essential question. Teachers are told to have many things available and prominently displayed JUST IN CASE.
When I was new teacher, struggling just to stay a day (if that!) ahead of my students most of the time, the requirement to submit lesson plans of any sort beforehand felt like a tremendous burden! No one seemed to read them. Rather, they seemed to fall into a bureaucratic black hole of busy work. Many of my early plans were built with bulleted lists on Post-It notes and scraps of paper. My attendance books and my logs were always up-to-date and correct - you don’t really have a choice when seeing 150 middle schoolers a day. But for your average art teacher, who probably teaches several different classes a day with several different age groups - the demands of lesson plans was one task too much. It’s tedious and another example of the autonomy that is forbidden teachers today. It is difficult to imagine any scenario where a principal would be called upon to tell someone exactly what standard is being taught in a given classroom on a given day or time. It became my tiny rebellion to resist the mandate to submit copies of my plans. Over the course of three years, three principals, and two schools, I barely turned in any. Occasional and sporadic requests were deflected with an ‘Oh, right! I’ll get right on that!’ The lack of interest in the art curriculum by the higher ups can be a double-edged sword. Eventually, I succumbed - but even then I make no guarantees as to the accuracy of those plans.
I was trained to create lesson plans as an undergraduate. Everything was so overwhelming at first - I didn’t know where to begin. Now I think I can write a pretty good one. I enjoy curriculum design a great deal. It’s possible that my plans are just okay. Maybe I’m like the cocky athlete that never quite mastered the fundamentals. I look at the template I give my students. Do I start class with a launch? Something provocative to engage their curiosity or confuse them? Admittedly, not as much as I should. Often, we just start with announcements. Do I end class with closure? If you’ve been reading, then you know I run out of time regularly. Sometimes I feel like being a teacher teacher is like being a basketball coach, except you’re in the game and expected to play better than the players. I feel like when I don’t demonstrate best practices that I’m not practicing what I preach and that I’m modeling bad behavior for my teachers that they’ll replicate.
Then again, I’m not really aware of evidence that says the traditional launch, instruction, application, and closure combo is ideal for learning. There is another part of me that wonders if traditional lesson planning hasn’t held me back in some way. Possibly made me more conservative as a teacher. As I mentioned, the Task Party our first day of class this semester was a huge success but required no formal lesson plan. It was merely a material with a prompt and time to work and reflect. Space, constrained materials, and choices. I’ve only realized recently the incredible power of temporary, process-based, community-driven artmaking constrained by limited materials (though I’ve been flirting with things like choice-based art for years). When I’ve witnessed student-teachers struggling with a class that was flagrantly disengaged, trudging painfully slowly ahead with their detailed and highly-structured plan, I know they are fighting a losing battle. Why not just give the students a material, give them a challenge, and turn their imaginations loose? Would it be any worse? Would the student-teacher be any unhappier? Would they be ‘learning’ less? The lesson plan only grants an illusion of control in some cases. The more complicated the plan, however, the more ways it can fail, I tell them. This is more a reminder for me to keep my own ambitions in check.
Even with a task party, I could still probably throw a dart at a list of the visual art standards and hit something that might apply to the learning at hand. Like I’ve told my students, if you’re doing anything right at all, you’re probably hitting several standards. It’s not that I’m against standards-based assessment but I share some of Alfie Kohn’s skepticism towards them. In many cases they are arbitrary. As standards are practiced, it’s lowest common denominator teaching. What is the alternative - no standards? Who the hell teaches without any standards? When do standards mean something? I will probably write more on standards in a future post.
When I talk to colleagues about teaching lesson planning, I tend to agree with them. We feel like the extensive lesson plans students are asked to prepare in college help them identify and practice the many working parts of a teacher’s plan. While they won’t be asked to create comprehensive plans in their careers, knowing the basic structure of a lesson plan will ultimately improve their future teaching. Will it? Am I deluding myself into accepting a banking model of education? I push back against that when I see this view in their plans...I really hate the banking model.
Next semester I’m going to center lesson planning more throughout the course. One of my main arguments is that, in order to increase the likelihood that classroom teachers will integrate art into their future teaching, they need to have a lesson plan of their own design ready to go. They need to have created and used a lesson plan integrating art in the past. It seems logical and fair that, one tangible product of our process-based course should be a fully-functional lesson involving art.
Ultimately, did I get creative lesson plans? Overall, I’m not sure. Creativity is like a wild animal. In the dark. Inside your tent. How does one plan for creativity and have my students figured that out? I’m proud of the work my students put into their lessons and I think they represented gains and changes in attitude for many of them. They performed well despite my shortcomings and I stand by the work we’ve done together professionally. But this wobble will continue to be a tension of my course. A tension between the teaching lesson planning, representative of school systems and structure inherent in most teaching, and creativity, that unpredictable and unruly beast, on the other hand. How can I empower my students so that they are successful with the content but in a way that my class does not become merely about content. How can they balance what they’re comfortable with and what is traditional with trying something new or risky? This of course, reflects the struggle I face every day and the struggle my students will face in their future classrooms. It’s a good struggle and one I will continue. I can do better. And my future students will too.
As you know, my nemesis is the “school art style.” This term was introduced in the 1970s by art educator Arthur Efland. It represents everything I am against in art education. Bland, prescribed, superficial, “cookie-cutter” forgeries, created en masse by class after class, year after year, to meet the expectations of parents and satisfy antiquated notions of artmaking as individualistic, teacher-driven time-fillers with little room for choice or meaningful exploration. Canned art. Guaranteed to succeed. My mascot, Carl the Color Wheel, stands for my feelings about that kind of paint-by-number anti-creativity too common in artrooms across America. It is inauthentic. Opposed to this meaningless mimicry, I want my future teachers to involve art authentically in their classrooms. Debbie Clement is a great example of the difference during the younger years, as she writes a great post about authentic vs inauthentic artmaking. Below is an example from her blog of the dreaded “school art style.”
I don’t believe that some art is better than no art. If the teaching promotes misconceptions and is anti-art, I would rather there be a void of artmaking in their classroom thank you very much. On the other hand, very responsible teachers sometimes avoid artmaking exactly because of their anxiety about possibly “doing it wrong.” Good intentions are not enough and real harm can be done unintentionally by well-intentioned people. Instead, we can do our best to prepare our students to be as authentic as possible, proceeding with respect, evidence, and sensitivity.
In the last few weeks of class, my students and I have been exploring some broader issues that relate to arti-integration and classroom creativity. How does art relate to culture? Art and culture have been inseparable since long before there were words for either one. To talk about art outside of culture and its complicated network of connections to people with relationships in a society is to try to understand a fish without knowing anything about the existence of water. Authenticity is critical to both artmaking and culture. They are participatory and dynamic, not fixed and passive. They both intimately involve creating and making.
To provide my students with a strong foundation for exploring art and culture authentically, we first began with authentic artmaking experiences, such as the monoprinting we did in class a few weeks ago. Then two weeks ago I lead the class in a discussion on the topic of “Authenticity v Inauthenticity.” Each student began by thinking of or Googling examples of each and then sharing their examples with a partner before we sharing with the entire group. We then wrote down the various meanings and words the group associated with each word in an effort to come to a communal understanding. We often think a word has one meaning to everyone, but they don’t do they? That is a simple lesson that I feel like has taken me a long time to learn. So unpacking a word in class and what it means to everyone is not only something a constructivist educator would do, it’s something I think is important to do so that we know whether or not we are speaking the same language. It’s a way of determining shared values. We had a variety of ideas along the spectrum between the two terms as well as examples. My favorite was probably the three students who brought up the example of the Mona Lisa and a forgery, just because they made the art connection. Still, I would be lying to myself if I believed every student would make the connection between a copy of an artwork and paint-by-numbers. Beliefs are hard to shake and for some, I’m sure, paint-by-numbers matches their idea of art. Personally, I don’t think they have any place in any classroom - except perhaps for the one Andy Warhol did. It was probably our longest discussion of the semester and it was one in which the whole class seemed engaged and interested, which was reflected in many responses as well. I saw that in just a few cases students seemed to conflate “authenticity” with “originality” which I would say is a related idea, but very different. I did do a little bit of reteaching in pointing this out in my responses to their feedback. You can find all of their responses here.
After this discussion, students read an article by OSU AAEP professor Dr. Acuff titled (Mis)Information Highways: A Critique of Online Resources for Multicultural Art Education and were assigned to participate in an online discussion afterwards. For the discussion, students were asked to respond to the following prompt:
What are some multicultural mistakes to avoid?
The students brought up a number of strong examples with a lot of crossover. I was extremely satisfied by their demonstration of their understanding of the reading and the connections they had made to examples from their own educations and found lessons. I feel that this exercise is a vital part of the course because it meets the students where they are. “In an impromptu surveying of my class of 27 art education pre-service teachers at the University of North Texas (UNT), in Denton, Texas, USA, 100 per cent claim to always use or frequently use the Internet to find lesson plans or ideas for curriculum development” (Acuff, 2014). The vast majority of teachers today will look online for teaching materials. Acuff asks them to be critical of the materials they find that they otherwise might take for granted. The internet can just as easily perpetuate ill-informed and harmful teaching practices as it can disseminate more empowering and humane approaches. “There is no way to control information disseminated online, nor verify its authenticity or accuracy. Therefore, art teacher educators must be proactive in engaging in dialogue and frank conversations with their art education, preservice students about online content and its place in teaching, pedagogical construction and curriculum development” (Acuff, 2014). For students who had not yet been able to view many lessons with a critical lens or even think of many examples, I feel that the discussion presented them with examples they might not have otherwise considered and may have revealed the pervasiveness of problematic practices. If you would like to see their discussion posts and responses, I’ve copied the entire online discussion here (as of 11/12/2017). All student names have been removed.
At this point, I felt that the students had a strong enough knowledge base in which to proceed with an interdisciplinary artmaking experience that directly connects culture and artmaking. The project was first inspired by an article I read as an undergraduate written by my then professor Dr. Melanie Davenport titled Using Simulations to Ground Intercultural Inquiry in the Art Classroom (2003). “Becoming members of distinct, emergent communities, constructing shared cultural understandings through dialogue within the group, creating artifacts of both practical and aesthetic use, and finally, dealing with problems of interpretation and evaluation provides students the scaffolding to construct further understandings about the intercultural processes that contribute to the evolution of visual culture over time” (Davenport, 2003). In her article, Davenport discusses how simulation can be a helpful tool for exploring cultures in a way that invites students to walk in another’s shoes while enabling the maker to better understand their own shoes. “Viewing the visual world through an intercultural lens adds a much needed cosmopolitan perspective (Appiah, 1998) to the consideration of the visual manifestations of culture, past and present, and the interactional processes that shape our world” (Davenport, 2003).
Another student in Dr. Davenport’s class, my friend Laura Hein, an art teacher in North Carolina, took Melanie’s idea and ran with it in a fun way. She groups her students together and gives each group odd materials with which they are asked to construct an original culture which culminates in the sharing of objects and stories from each group. One example I remember was a culture that worshipped chickens because they had received feathers as one of their materials. She inspired me to design my own lesson based on Davenport’s article. In my case, I wanted to constrain my students not just with materials, but with a realistic scenario as well. I had recently discovered Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs & Steel and had loved it. Diamond wishes to understand modern day disparities between cultures by tracing back the most significant catalysts for change throughout time. What advantages enabled some cultures to gain power and influence over others and is it possible to identify the origins of those advantages? Was it differences between the people? Or was it a difference of circumstance? As you can guess from the title of the book, Diamond identifies circumstance and not inherent difference as the key. This isn't to say that cultural forces like colonialism and racism didn't drive these disparities, but its that technological factors such as the invention of guns and steel are what allowed the latter to spread around the world, as well as biological factors such as germs which accompanied globalization, as having played some of the most significant roles in human history. But beyond these factors, well beyond recorded history, Diamond identifies that luck, essentially where you were born including your geography and resources, as being the earliest factors that contributed to the growth and spread of some communities and the later challenges of others. Being at the crossroads of trade also brought invention and developing beasts of burden as an energy source eased labor which allowed for surplus and more advanced tools and weapons.
As a K-12 art teacher, I liked multicultural lessons where students would explore how a “Big Idea,” like love or death, might be depicted in various cultures around the world. Or a lesson where a teacher might provide students with examples of an object like a piece of clothing or a mask or a tool and explore how the context, use, meaning, and appearance changes from place to place. Like many, if not all, students in America, I made my fair share of “art” things that were just culture knock-offs and crappy copies. Like a lot of kids, I’m almost positive I made some construction-paper feathered headdresses and some artifacts with a paper towel tube. It’s hard to recall when or what now. Those were examples of disposable culture. Culture as superficiality. Viewing culture through the lens of a gift shop. I detest lessons like that but I’m afraid that some still see culture as sombreros and boomerangs.
Why are toilet tube totem poles so problematic? There are so many writers who do so much better a job unpacking this than I can. I would just briefly ask: Why do you think copying an object from a culture will help students understand the people of that culture? How does copying an idea, but using completely different materials and for completely different reasons under completely different circumstances, help students connect in any way shape or form with the specific time or place or people that created the original? I do believe that you can gain inspiration from objects from other cultures but that inspiration should be authentic. WHY was this object made? How do YOU, today in your specific time and place, answer that same “Why” question? I don’t accept that you, 21st century person, would answer the question the creators of that artifact were trying to answer in exactly the same way. If you do, that seems like simple plagiarizing, which is academically, artistically, and morally dishonest. Can you not learn from copying? Of course you can. But you sure as hell aren’t copying anything if you’re using a cardboard tube to mimic a religious artifact. Instead of copying a dreamcatcher, for example, is there anything that you could create to catch your own dreams or make them come true?
I wanted to create a multicultural lesson that not only was the opposite of such cultural mimicry but was also more ambitious that the average example of examining an idea or object as it appears in various places or times. I wanted something experiential that would stick. I wanted to instigate not only authentic artmaking and greater understanding for what it might have been like to have lived in a different time and place. I also wished to utilize various aspects of creativity during this lesson, engaging students in play through roleplay, collaboration, questioning, uncertainty, risk taking, and, of course, making. I believe the purpose of a constructive multicultural lesson is to build an appreciation for diversity, greater understanding of different points of view, and greater empathy towards different people. I developed Creating Culture and it is a lesson I have shared with students over the years of what I hope is a good example of the potential of multicultural inquiry.
The idea was simple. Split the class into two and separate them as much as possible, recreating geographical distance mentally. With little more effort, this plants the seeds for group identity, as supported by literature in Social Psychology. I researched the locations and resources of two civilizations which existed at the same time but because of essential differences were very different technologically and which were examples Diamond had cited as evidence of his theory. One inspiration was the Fertile Crescent region and the other was Papau New Guinea. In each case, students were given information about the conditions in which they might’ve lived and their resources and materials, intended to be as close as possible approximations to the materials each culture would have had access to at the time. Because the original materials are not always available or safe or cost effective for the average classroom to use, such as stone carving, substitutions can be made, like soap in place of stone, for example. It is important however that these substitutions be made explicit for each group so they can apply a little imagination to surpass these real world limitations. The key, however, is that neither group knew what culture their scenario was based on or what materials the other group had. Instead, each group only knew what people would have known at the time, namely their immediate surroundings. Everything else was up to them to create. Each group set about deciding what their culture would be like and creating objects and artifacts that they would use in their shared culture.
Inevitably, cultures come into contact with other cultures. This is the “interculturality” that Davenport describes in her article. To provide this experience with students, I surprised each group with a message that people in another land had been recently found. At the time, there was no written alphabet or communication, so this forced each group to communicate visually through their objects. And this also left the door open for uncertainty, predictions, and misunderstandings. They must now interact with this unknown outgroup by sending objects back and forth. Will they trade or not? What will they offer? What do they wish to communicate? What are the intentions of the other group? In the end, we reunite the groups and discuss the cultures and objects they created and discuss the perceptions and misconceptions they had of each other and the their implications.
I’ve shared this lesson with several classes of art education students and art educators at conferences over the years. With each presentation the project has improved. This was my first opportunity to share it with classroom teachers and I was impressed with what they created together. One object that was a show stopper was a working bow and arrow one culture would have used to hunt created from mostly sticks and rafi! No matter how many times I’ve done this lesson, I’m fascinated by the differences of the objects from year to year - none are ever exactly the same - and how the interactions between the groups change each time. Some groups enter into conflict while others establish mutually beneficial relations. I would love to see a class combine my lesson and John Hunter’s World Peace Game and therefore connecting the past and the future with imagination and community. What I love about this exercise is that students see first-hand the connection between art and culture. It’s about specificity and possibility.
Here are some of the responses I received from students about the experience:
Not only were we encouraged to think about art in a new way, we were forced to be thoughtful with our decisions in a way which we might not typically think. Furthermore, it felt as if our group really came together over this assignment and we wanted to create resources which would be fitting for the entire community.
What happened next was unexpected. After the lesson was over, I stored the objects the students had constructed on a shelf against the wall, put the extra lesson plans I had provided for my students away in my drawer, and left the classroom I share with several other teachers. We are currently waiting on storage shelves which will be used to store the work from the various classes that share the room, so for now everything has to fit on a couple of small shelves out in the open. It had not been my intention to display the objects, but I was also proud of my students and had not thought much about leaving them out. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I received a message later. “Is that a teepee?” A co-worker accused me of cultural mimicry. It wasn't a teepee. It was somewhere between a pyramid and a tent structure. No, it’s an original creation. “Is that a headdress?” It’s a headdress for an invented culture. It’s not based on any existing culture. Nevertheless, my explanations weren't sufficient and I was subsequently forced to explain myself and my students' work. I provided the materials I've included in this post. This evidence seemed satisfactory and so it appears I’m no longer under suspicion of culturally insensitive or racist teaching. The solution offered was that I should’ve had a lesson plan displayed along with the objects. This is fair, as they were visible even though my intention was mostly to store them rather than display them. Would less visibility have prevented any of this conflict? I’m not sure. The accusation was not accompanied by interest in my plans or rationale.
The incident in question was the impetus for this longer than usual post. We often don’t have all of the work and thought that goes into a project or assignment at our finger-tips to answer our critics. So here it is. Years of research and planning and practice. Weeks of exercises, discussions, readings, and projects. And all of that can come down to a difference of perception. I was shocked and upset that everything I had put into this project had come down to a misunderstanding. Do I allow or encourage my students to make shoddy reproductions of objects from other cultures? No. No I don’t. Here’s an example of me saying exactly that to a student in fact when reviewing a lesson plan they had submitted to present to the class. I can imagine how someone outside of my department, seeing these objects together without any explanation or context and without knowing me, could assume the worst. What disappoints me though about this incident is not that I might be asked to explain what my students do. I think being able to justify what you're doing is important. But when the question is accompanied by a presumption of guilt, I don't think that helps anyone. We all know there's plenty of culturally insensitive teaching to go around. And there are multiple ways to approach any situation. As a teacher, this motivates me to ask "What was the rationale behind this decision?" so that I can try and understand where there coming from before I give my notes. A lot of the times we're just not seeing the same thing. I want to recognize the disproportionate privilege and authority I earn as a white male teacher and recognize the distinction between the question "Is that a tee-pee?" and "What was your class working on?" I'll want to be a culturally responsive teacher and open to being challenged while also sitting with the discomfort of being professionally misjudged. That is a part of the ecosystem in which teachers operate and we must be prepared for it.
There are of course three takeaways from this. The first is tough, because it cannot always be possible to see things the way someone else does. Acknowledging difference means acknowledging different experience. I saw a four-corner pyramidal structure with a woven netting cover created for a tropical environment. I didn't imagine the specific way someone else might interpret these objects as they lay piled on a shelf. Others are justified to be vigilant and sensitive to problematic imagery. If I had simply provided a copy of my lesson plan near the offending objects, that may have prevented this miscommunication and it may not have. I wouldn't say that this situation resolved productively for anyone involved and is a pretty minor incident in any day to day. But it's the kind of thing that can also snowball and can cause someone to back off of doing culturally informed classroom work. Maybe that's better in some cases. But I don't think that's learning. How can we reduce harm while allowing for experimentation?
I don't want teachers to avoid teaching and learning about cultures with their students. And I believe they can do work with students that engages students in meaningful cultural inquiry but that mistakes and misunderstandings will occur. I can continually reaffirm my embracing of difference and do the work of becoming a better informed teacher.
The lesson for my future teachers? Be thoughtful and keep good records. Document EVERYTHING. Record responses. Record feedback. Record responses to responses. Create plans. Review plans. Take photos. Record video. Do everything and anything you can do to capture the amazing things that happen in your classroom. And one day you may need some of that documentation as evidence to protect yourself from people on the outside of what you’re creating in your class together with your students. And more importantly: Know WHY! Why are you doing what you’re doing? Do you have evidence for what you’re doing? Could you defend it if you had to? Always be sure, not in the appearance of the products that your students will create, for that leads to the standardized, mechanized, dead pedagogy plaguing so many schools. Instead be sure of the process, the WHY, behind what you’re doing. Be mindful of different perspectives but be aware that some perspectives might just be wrong. That doesn't mean you can just ignore them. Always display contextual information with work. Next time, I'll create a QR Code linking to this post.
We will not create safe cookie-cutter copies and meaningless things with our students. Meaning is messy, like people and the differences between them. We must create learning that lives and breathes. We must never give in to allowing our work to become another example of the “school art style” while also working extra hard to provide culturally informed learning that doesn't just replicate the stereotypical and racist homecrafts of the past. We must constantly support our students in authentic making and exploration and commit to doing the same. And we must do this knowing that we will make mistakes and that's how we learn.
You may download my lesson packet Creating Culture here.
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.