In some ways it probably seems a bit old fashioned to talk about “truth,” especially when it comes to art. Within contemporary art circles keen on postmodern practices that reject essentializing truths, an artist or viewer hanging their hat on truth probably would seem quaint, even laughable.
After all, “truth” has often been a weapon wielded by the powerful over those they would dominate or destroy. Acknowledging the ways the truth can be abused and distorted has been the project of artists like Jenny Holzer with her “truisms” and entertainers like Stephen Colbert who coined the term “truthiness” in 2005.
In perhaps a small way, I can relate to those who have been harmed by those claiming to know the truth. As a young person, I was forced to reject ‘truths’ which I had been taught and raised to believe - ‘truths’ that had come from the one person on this planet I trusted more than anyone else. Children are more likely to confuse what is real and not real, but this ability improves as they mature. Some kids believe in Santa Claus, only to eventually figure out that their parents weren’t being completely honest with them. Instead, I believed I lived in a world that didn’t really exist. It may be difficult to understand, but as a child of a mentally ill single parent suffering from untreated schizophrenia, I inhabited the same strange and horrifying ‘reality’ as my mother. I had to discover on my own, painfully slowly, that our isolated, hidden world was not real, but a shadow cast by my suffering mother’s delusions and fueled by media, especially politics and televangelism. For a long time I was intensely angry, thinking I had been lied to and I blamed her for our struggles. It wouldn’t be for many years that I would understand that it wasn’t her fault and forgive her and myself.
Perhaps these formative experiences determining the nature of reality, and perhaps my own curious nature, have lead me to value skepticism, evidence, and logic. And I don’t see these values as irreconcilable with my artistic values of subjectivity, ambiguity, and irrationality. I love reality and all of its complicated and confusing paradoxes and tensions. I’ve learned enough about the world to know that I don’t know much. I can live in a world with more than one truth, even many sometimes conflicting truths. What I cannot and will not do, is live in a world where “Truth isn’t truth.” Truth may be an ideal towards which we are constantly striving and forever failing and yet can never relent from that ambition. Yet our reality is increasingly influenced by our belief in what we see. Our contemporary politics demonstrate not our ability to think critically as individuals perhaps as much as the persistent power of propaganda and populism to move the masses. But as we have been shown again and again in history, only disaster is the consequence when truth conform to the whims of power. Truth must always trump power. The truth has to matter.
Thanks to the Internet, our current mass media revolution, the creation and distribution of manipulated and fabricated images has exploded. Photo trickery once reserved for celebrities and models in magazines and advertisements is now in the palm of people’s hands thanks to Instagram and Snapchat filters. Pursuit of “the perfect body” has essentially been weaponized. Anyone can portray an idealized version of themselves in exchange for clicks of validation and attention. Those clicks translate to addictive chemical signals in the brain as well as cash money. While fact checking and gatekeeping may still be the purvey of reputable news outlets, web publishing has all but eliminated any barriers to entry. The tools and means to manipulate photos is at the fingertips of billions. Soon, the same will be true of video. For now, there is still an underlying reality - even if it is beneath layers and filters or just beyond the frame. It is a distortion but not a simulation - yet.
Are these photo manipulators artists? Are the creators of the filters? Are they creating a lie to help us realize a truth, as Picasso stated? Are these examples of Photoshopping and filtering similar or different from other examples of image manipulation? Do you think there are negative consequences when the public is constantly exposed to these kinds of images?
Since the days humans first manipulated fire light to tell epic tales with shadows cast on cave walls, we have used illusion to entertain and embellish, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Since the development of computer-generated imagery (CGI), filmmakers have become incredibly adept at creating reality-defying special effects resulting in unprecedented spectacles like this year’s Avengers: Infinity War and past blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and the Matrix. Over the years, special effects technology has gradually become cheaper and more accessible, granting amateurs abilities film studios once dreamed of. For example, a fan-made modified version of the 2018 film Solo: A Star Wars Story was recently released online with the lead actor’s face replaced by that of a CG Harrison Ford, the actor who originally brought the character to life, realizing a fantasy of some franchise fans.
In fact, there is an entire hilarious genre of replacing the faces of other actors with that of cult-favorite Nicholas Cage. We’re a long way away from Méliès and Harryhausen.
Already, fake images and hoax stories can go viral and spread across the globe in an instant. In contrast to the 5,000 copies of a rhino print in the 1500s, a hoax image can be seen by millions in seconds. It’s possible for “fake news” to influence elections here and elsewhere.
And what does the future hold? For a truly sobering vision of the future of altered video, the following research demonstration shows how it is currently possible to puppeteer the faces of a world leaders. This increased access and ease raises serious questions and concerns. Perhaps you too can imagine some of the terrifying scenarios such technology could cause? Oh dear.
As I write this post, I can barely even keep up with current events let alone make predictions. Just this November, the Chinese government unveiled a realistic AI newscaster to ‘inform’ the public.
Pretty impressive when compared to the most advanced foax-caster of just 10 years ago. Indeed, today AI can create people out of thin air. Welcome to the simulation.
Are we still in the realm of art, you might wonder? Below is an AI generated artwork, the first to be sold at auction. Do you think this is art? Do you think AI could be a new artistic medium? Who is the artist? Is it the AI, the programmer, or the person who came up with the idea? Can a machine be an artist? Are you excited for the possibilities of humans and machines collaborating on artwork? Do you think machines will eventually take over making art from artists? In the future, do you think it will matter if a human or AI made an artwork? If this is art, are the modified movies art? Are the puppet politicians and newscasters art? Why or why not?
"The boys and girls now in our classes have grown up with technology since infancy. They live in a world of speed and change and mechanization. What is quite often incredible to their teachers they can accept as a matter of course!" These words, written in 1966 by art educator Vincent Lanier sound like they could've been referring to students today. Lanier was an early advocate for studying visual culture and new media, which at the time was television, and starting where students are. While positive steps have been made in the last 50 or so years, are we really any better as a field at confronting the questions raised by popular media and technology? Are we helping our students live critically in today's (and presumably tomorrow's) media saturated world?
Is it time for artists and art teachers to engage seriously with the idea of truth once again? If you are placing your faith in the current generation’s ability to discern the difference between real and fake images, I have some bad news. A Stanford study released in 2016 examined the ability of middle, high, and college students to evaluate evidence online. 15 assessments were given to thousands of students asking them to identify the differences between news and ads, reliable and unreliable sources, and good and bad information. The researchers described the results as “dismaying,” “bleak,” and “[a] threat to democracy.” I can confirm Stanford’s results anecdotally. I gave some of the same assessments to almost 50 students in two of my classes this semester. My results mirrored Stanford’s. Interestingly, three semesters ago when I gave my early childhood students the choice of which topic we would skip, critical thinking was at the top of their list (behind STEAM/Design Thinking). Does that imply those of us wanting to teach critical thinking to our students will have a more difficult time engaging them in the topic? Would you try giving the Stanford civic online learning assessments to your students?
In response, I asked my early childhood educators to tackle critical thinking head-on in one of their art-integration mini-lessons this semester. They were required use art making or looking to teach their peer groups (organized by desired grade levels) how to tell the difference between fact and fiction, real and fake, or subjective and objective; or about common misconceptions or misunderstanding (and how common they are) in their subject areas. To prepare, we discussed many of the examples I’ve mentioned so far here and Part 1 and practiced some critical thinking strategies for kids, especially questioning strategies. Afterwards, students broke into groups based on preferred subject to watch videos on questioning strategies and practice with each other (links at the end).
When they shared their lessons, I saw an impressive variety of topics and strategies intended to help their future students improve their critical thinking skills. Their ideas gave me hope and encouraged me further to continue to explore critical looking in future classes. But we need to do more. What can we do in our classes to help our students look more critically? Part of the answer are some of the things we already do to help our students learn to use their eyes, but perhaps with an extra dash of skepticism. If I had to come up with an arbitrary list to help us have more thoughtful experiences with images, it might go something like this.
For more reputable suggestions on how to improve encounters with artwork and images, you might prefer consulting several works by Jame Elkins, including How to Use Your Eyes, or perhaps the classic Ways of Seeing by John Berger.
But perhaps it’s impossible to improve on the elegant simplicity three questions popularized by art educator Terry Barrett that I learned when I was studying to become an art teacher:
We can also look to the work of artists and media critics whom try to expose the workings of popular media. Many engage in parody and satire such as organizations like Adbusters. But I'm increasingly interested in can be found in the work of performance artist Joey Skaggs and his use of pranks
Do you use strategies to improve critical thinking in your classroom? Which strategies work for you? How do you approach this topic?
People being fooled is as old as time, and as long as there have been images, they have probably been used to fool and mislead. The ability to trick is rooted in our cleverness and can be used to catch a meal (or mark) in a trap or delight the eye in a trompe l’oeil painting. But as technology increasingly improves our deceptive capabilities, we must be cautious with our observations and reserve judgment rather than jumping to conclusions. We must make decisions based on the best evidence possible and maintain a healthy skepticism so that we resist being easily fooled but are not debilitated by constant doubt. We must lead with honesty and integrity and demand the same from our institutions and leaders. We must all open our eyes and see more carefully.
I reject “post-truth.” I reject those that might think critical thinking is not important for their grade level, subject, or classroom (or students in general). I reject the idea that after 13 or more long years of education we as a society can accept an inability to think critically from our graduates. What is the point of all of this education if our students aren’t able to make informed decisions based on good evidence? And while every teacher can claim they are developing some part of the brain, the eyes are the art teacher’s domain. In what other classes and how often are children being taught how to see? If we don’t teach critical looking, who will? If our students can’t discern between fact and fabrication, how safe will any of us be, let alone the truth? It might not be the job some of us signed up for as art teachers, but can we afford to ignore that responsibility when our basic values may be threatened?
We will undoubtedly continue to struggle to learn that there must be more to believing than simply seeing. We can never fully prepare our students for what the future has in store. But I believe we can help our students by teaching them the tools necessary for critical looking and thinking. We can teach our students how their brains work while dispelling myths and misconceptions. It is up to educators, and especially art educators, to ensure that our students have opportunities to develop critical looking and thinking skills. All our futures may depend on it.
Compared to all this, those color wheels just don't seem that important.
Continued from Part 1: What is Real?
Questioning Strategies for Teachers*:
Bloom’s Taxonomy List of Q Words*
Question words for critical thinking
What's Going On in This Picture? from The New York Times
"Intriguing images stripped of their captions and an invitation to students to discuss them live." (Thank you Kimberly!)
An imaginative YouTuber devoted to skepticism and debunking Internet hoaxes while educating and entertaining
*Links primarily for K-5 as I’m currently teaching Early Childhood majors. I’d appreciate any links you could share to middle and high school critical thinking resources!
Thank you for reading! If you like what you read, please like & share!
#criticalthinking #medialiteracy #visualliteracy #art #arted #arthistory #artfuture #teacherprep #teaching #learning #technology #truth #posttruth #truthoverpower
Albrecht Durer’s Rhinoceros print from 1515 is one of the most influential animal images of all time. In Durer’s lifetime, 4-5,000 copies were probably sold. This was remarkable in a time when most people in Europe were illiterate. Some argue that, at the dawn of mass media, the demand for images like Durer’s may have outpaced that for texts.
The print was created to capitalize on the sensational appearance of the first live rhinoceros to be seen in Europe in nearly 1,000 years, a gift to the king of Portugal from an Indian sultan. For the majority of people across the continent, Durer’s print was the only opportunity they would ever have to see the exotic creature.
Notice anything off about Durer’s Rhinoceros? For comparison, here’s some photos of your average Joe (or Josephine)-rhino for comparison.
Did you notice that Durer’s rhinoceros’ body appears like it’s covered in rigid plates like armor? Or the scales on its legs? Or maybe that extra little horn on its back? A real Indian rhinoceros doesn’t have those characteristics. These inaccurate details might be due to the fact that Durer never actually saw the famous rhinoceros himself. Instead, he had to rely on a drawing created, ironically, by an artist unknown today.
For centuries, Durer’s rendition was taken to be a true representation of the rhinoceros, apparently even appearing in German science textbooks as late as 1930. Do you think Durer told his audience he had never actually seen a rhino? See that text at the top of the print? It’s an inscription which among other things states, “This is an accurate representation.” Instead of being upfront possible mistakes, Durer doubled-down by explicitly telling his unsuspecting audience his image represented the truth. Was the motive for Durer’s inaccuracy mere misunderstanding, creative embellishment, or an intentional fabrication to drive up sales?
Fortunately, people don’t get fooled so easily by pictures anymore...
While we’re talking about important animal images, let’s fast forward and look at a more contemporary example. Below is a photograph of a 49 meter long giant squid that washed up on a shore in Santa Monica, California a few years ago.
Giant squids such as the one pictured above were once considered more myth, imagined by sailors and fishers, reported to be capable of dragging entire ships beneath the water with ease.
Scientists now confirm that giant squids do exist. But not because of a photo like the one above. That photo is fake. Below are the original images that were edited together to trick the viewer.
Here are two photos of an actual giant squid that washed ashore in New Zealand.
Still impressive, but this squid is probably not going to be taking down the Nautilus anytime soon. Certainly not as dramatic in comparison to the previous photo. Here at the dawn of a new type of mass media known as social media, the creator of this super-sized squid image may have suspected that a more fantastic image would be more likely to go viral. In this case they were right as it gained enough attention to be debunked by National Georgraphic, a reputable naturalist magazine.
Would you call the person that made this image an “artist?” Why or why not? What do you think are is the motivation for the creator of a hoax image? Sometimes the 'creators of these images remain completely unknown and other times they are quickly forgotten. In some cases, the creators are able to profit from their images but that often requires denying their images are fake. Is it a desire for attention, a penchant for mischief, an enjoyment for manipulating others, a joke, guerrilla advertising, or just a quick buck? Is it harmless or harmful?
Consider these images - all hoaxes. Why do you think the creators made these hoax images? Would you consider the creators of these images “artists?” Why or why not? Are these images different from the giant squid hoax? Could any of these images have negative consequences? Do you think altering reality is an artistic goal? Would you ever create a hoax image? Why or why not?
Do you think artists have any responsibility to truth?"
Did you know that one of the first photos in history was a hoax? In the early 19th century, there was a rivalry between two pioneers, Louis Daguerre and Hippolyte Bayard. The former would eventually be called “the father of photography,” while the latter claimed to have actually invented photography. Bayard, after developing his photographic process, intended to share his discovery with the French Academy of Sciences. But Francois Arago, secretary of the academy, convinced Bayard to wait. In the meantime, Arago’s friend, Daguerre, was able to announce his own photographic process and thereby gained fame and riches. Bayard received the consolation of a small cash prize for equipment. Perhaps in anger or protest or self-pity, Bayard set up his camera and posed limp and lifelessly for a self-portrait in 1840 titled “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man.” He released the photo to the public with text claiming he had committed suicide due to his unfair treatment. It began, "The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you."
Bayard did not give up however and would continue to invent, going on to create the process of combination printing, a means of photo manipulation allowing the artist to create scenes that didn’t really exist by combining parts of different photo exposure. This process was the predecessor of the photomontage, a technique popularized in recent years by Photoshop, widely available photo editing software. An especially effective example of photomontage would be "Leap Into the Void," 1960, by artist Yves Klein.
The photo was published in a fake newspaper created by Klein called "Dimanche - Le Journal d'un Seul Jour," which translates to "Sunday - The Newspaper for Only One Day." The photo shows the artist apparently leaping from a roof and falling towards the street below, his arms outstretched and face seemingly elated, as if he believes he can fly, in stark contrast to the implications of gravity and the hard pavement below. The image seems to allude to popular notions of artists as 'free spirited' risk-takers, 'rebels' that defy the rules, or impractical dreamers. That seems contrasted with 'the tortured artist' archetype, or at least a tragic conclusion, as the viewer considers the harsh reality moments away for the plummeting artist. Unless, of course, you the viewer believes that people can fly.
Picasso famously said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Do you agree with Picasso? Do you think Yves Klein made a lie that makes us realize a truth? If so, what truth? Was Bayard lying to tell a truth also? Was Durer? Do you think this was an effective approach?
Does it make a difference that in each of these cases the creators wrote or said that they were really telling the truth? Do you think this was a necessary part of the illusion, like a magician claiming they are performing "real" magic, or are they just liars? Do you think they cared if anyone figured out the truth or not? If we reverse Picasso's quote, is it also possible to tell a lie with the truth? Can you think of an example?
Of course, the ability to manipulate photos is not only of interest to artists, the mischievous, and profiteers. When the powerful and political wish to manipulate the public, they too turn to technology. Similar techniques that allowed Klein to make his impossible image would also allow Stalin's oppressive regime to try to alter not just reality, but history, by erasing individuals from photos and documents in an attempt to eliminate not only dissent but the very existence of dissenters. Censors were able to make it as though they had never even been born. Would something like that still be possible today? What, if any, is the difference between Yves Klein's photomontage and the censored photos of the Stalinist Soviet Union?
Among artists one can easily find at least two camps of thought - luddites that reject technological advances in favor of more traditional media and techniques, and technophiles that experiment with the possibilities and challenges of new media and approaches. Interestingly, Klein seems somewhere between the two. On the one hand, Klein was using advances in photography to create his artwork. On the other hand, Klein apparently used the photo as demonstration of his outlandish claim that he could travel to the moon under his own power. He called the folks at NASA fools. Klein both used science to his advantage while simultaneously denouncing scientific progress represented by the space agency. How do you make sense of this apparent conflict? Is it common for people to maintain such contradictory views?
History, I would say, proved Klein the fool 9 years later in 1969 when American astronaut Neil Armstrong took a photograph of fellow astronaut 'Buzz' Aldrin standing on the surface of the moon - one of the most famous and important photographs in history. Ironically, today conspiracy theorists claim that the photos, as well as the entire moon landing, was a hoax. They're wrong.
Clearly we have some issues telling what is real and what is fake in our modern world. Indeed, we always have it seems. But while disbelief in this case might simply represent a fringe view, belief in conspiracies from 'flat earth' to 'chem trails' seems to be increasingly prevalent. Once this may have been due to lack of information but today we exist immersed in a glut of information. Like any human endeavor, technology is a double-edged sword. Fire can cook food, provide warmth, and illuminate the darkness. But fire can also burn, maim, and kill. The same advances in photography that allow for the creation of incredible and amazing images can also be used to manipulate and control.
Contemporary artist John Baldessari says, "If anybody believes a photgraph is telling the truth they are living in the dark ages." But is it really that simple? Dismissing all photos as untrue doesn't seem that much more helpful than claiming all photographs are true. This of course seems to be our post-postmodern dilemma - avoiding throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Is it possible to see with nuance?
What, if any, responsibility does the artist have for the images they create and their impact? What role should society and the government play when it comes to spread of false information, including images? What is our individual responsibility when it comes to being able to tell what is real and fake? What is our role as visual art teachers in ensuring that our students are media literate?
Join me in a couple weeks for Critical Looking - Part 2: The Future of Truth, where we'll continue to investigate these questions and more as we venture into the future of images and our role in media literacy. Thank you as always for reading!
Hello! For those of you that are new here, welcome! Thank you for visiting and I hope you enjoy your time here! And for returning readers, a very special welcome back! I don’t know about you all but this seemed like the summer that never was to me! It flew by so quickly, I can hardly believe that classes are right around the corner (and many of you heroes have already started back!)
The beginning of the year is a great time to revisit your values and reaffirm your beliefs to prepare and get energized for the work ahead. Since several of you are new Color Wheel Killers, I think it’s especially appropriate to share why I’m here and hopefully that will resonate with you and this community will be something you want to continue to be a part of. Together we can advance the field of visual art learning.
I started this blog a year ago as a challenge to myself to be more transparent in my teaching and therefore more vulnerable - to share what I was doing with others struggling with how to teach better and more creatively. I wanted a place where I could share my thoughts about teaching and the things going on in my classroom. It was a risk I’m glad I’ve taken and has since helped me to think more deeply and meaningfully about my teaching practice and research. I’ve taken (mischievous) pleasure knowing that my provocative title has connected with you and others as we think about how better to connect our students to their own creativity through encounters with contemporary art.
So why is my (in)famous logo, poor Carl the Color Wheel, getting dispatched in such gruesome fashion? Well, because blood is cool, obviously. But yes, I know it's not so much the gore but my call for eliminating color wheels that can elicit gasps among some of my colleagues, even accusations of blasphemy. ‘YOU MONSTER!! HOW COULD YOU?!? HOW ELSE CAN STUDENTS LEARN TO APPRECIATE COLOR?!? The color wheel is precious and every child must know it, use it, memorize it, and love it. Blue and red make purple! Yellow and purple complement each other! This is critical art stuff here!’ I worry how some of my colleagues seem to so strongly identify with this tool or see it somehow as endemic of all of art education. I'm not attacking anyone - just an idea.
What do I have against color wheels, the art teacher’s beloved class accessory? For the record, I like color and I think color theory is really interesting. like rainbows. I’m not opposed to circular rainbows.
I consider myself to be in good company in my disdain for the color wheel. Art educator Olivia Gude, whom I’ve followed for years, has likewise repeatedly called for an end to the antiquated practice of making color wheels:
And HS Art teacher Amelia Hernandez recalls an Olivia Gude anti-color wheel presentation from a recent NAEA convention in Chicago where Gude says, “If you still get the urge to teach a color wheel assignment, just lie down on the ground and wait until the feeling passes.”
While I might see similarities between my thinking and that of one of the top movers-and-shakers in our field, I’m definitely not trying to claim superiority by any means. How do I know color wheels are a waste of time? Because I’ve made classrooms full of students paint color wheels (but we made them into flowers, so that’s better right?!? No? No.) I deeply regret it. If you have done this too, I’m not judging you. But if you don’t have a darn good reason for doing it after reading this, then I might.
What is most important about art? This is a question my mentor Craig Roland would ask his students. What’s the one thing you want them to remember about their time in your art class?
Our time is so short with our students and therefore even more precious. Every student doesn’t take art, isn’t required or doesn’t have access to take visual art in school. Will they go throughout their lives with the secret shame of never having made a wheel of colors of their very own? Will they have some disadvantage in life which you could point to? In the typical visual art class, not every student is going to be an artist. In fact, this is most likely true for the vast majority of them. How does the color wheel improve the life of the dentist? The auto mechanic? The garbage person? The postal worker? How will the color wheel help them encounter a contemporary work of art or engage an object in an artful way.
Of course, I’m sure everyone thinks what they’re teaching is important. I didn’t think I was wasting my student’s time as they spent class after class filling in the colors. But why is the color wheel important? Is it important beyond itself? Some call it an important tool. But is the use of a tool in it’s form or in it’s purpose? Certainly, a pencil can be beautiful - but isn’t the beauty of the pencil found in the purpose in which it is employed? An elegant equation? A poignant sentence? An expressive line?
But surely the color wheel has some purpose! I grant you that. I see no doubt that the color wheel serves the painter better than most. It’s a little less useful already for other visual art forms however, say for example the sculptor that works in earthtones or the digital artist whose color palette is based on an entirely different wheel of color based on light rather than pigment. For every person that claims how useful the color wheel was to them, I wonder if I couldn’t find 100 that would say not a day has gone by that they have occupied their thoughts with wheels of color?
Understanding the color wheel will help students see better! They will appreciate color more! First, I’d like to see the evidence for this. Seriously. I’m unaware of any research that demonstrates that an intervention involving color wheel training is correlated with subsequent reports of significantly higher levels of aesthetic satisfaction. Secondly, do you really think the color wheel is the best, or only, way to produce that satisfaction?
Is there a right way to use color? Color wheels allegedly teach students “ideal” ways to choose colors. This must certainly refer to some of the so-called “rules” some art teachers must be referring to when they state that “you must first learn the rules before you can break the rules.” But color preference is personal, cultural, and contextual. The color wheel can tell you what colors might look “pretty” or “nice” together (according to a particular socio-cultural viewpoint) and encourages encourage a formulaic or prescriptive application of color. “Step 1: Follow directions; Step 2: Use at least 1 color and its complement; Step 3: Clean up after...” Sound familiar? Much like a disgruntled older woman in search of beef in the 80s, I can’t help but ask: “Where’s the meaing?”
Color is important to me when it is meaningful. Color is important when it helps us create and understand meaning around us. How do I perceive color? What colors create which effects? What colors might best portray a feeling I’m going for? How do certain colors make me feel? How can I use color to affect my mood or that of others? None of these questions are answered by the color wheel.
I see the color wheel in good company with the elements and principles of art. They are the grammar of art, but not the message. They are they HOW, not the WHY or even WHAT. Humans are naturally driven by meaning and purpose and that is not supplied by grammar but comes from the heart. Certainly not useless, but moreso overemphasized if anything. More sophistication does not necessarily imply more meaning. Greater sophistication comes with practice and practice comes with inclination. Interest can be sparked by a good teacher, but not if we are focusing on what isn’t meaningful. To privilege the mechanical aspects of art over the meaningful aspects is pointless to me. We must always begin with the meaning. We must engage ourselves with the purposes of art and go beyond the superficial aspects.
We are all attached to the past in one way or another. Call it tradition, nostalgia, or sentiment. We all have things we either don’t want or are afraid to let go. But when those things get in the way of learning, when those things reduce what we do in art to the lowest common denominator so it can become a multiple choice question on some irrelevant test, then we must challenge ourselves to abandon those things holding us back. If I was a writing teacher, my site might be called, “Kill Your Cursive.” It’s not the style so much as the substantive role art and creativity can have in the lives of everyday people today and have had throughout history.
If you came out of an art education without ever seeing a color wheel, I think it would still be possible for you to live a long and happy life. I believe you’d still be able to enjoy the colors of a sunset or a butterfly’s wing or a Van Gogh.
We live in an age where we can’t believe our eyes. The majority of young people and adults can’t tell the difference between a fake image or news story and a real one. How have we supposedly helped our students “see” if they cannot even see the difference between what is real and what’s fake? How does this prepare them for an unforeseen future as a fully-functional citizen? Will memorizing a color wheel somehow better aid them participate in the society of the future than critical thinking skills or the ability to consider multiple interpretations, build empathy, or make meaning? Because looking at art can help develop those skills. Reproducing colors in a circle don’t.
To grow, we must be prepared to abandon the old ways of doing things and leave behind the things we may once have found useful, even loved, but that no longer serve us. Kill Your Color Wheels is a reminder to focus on what's important: How can art make a real difference in our students’ lives? Plus, killing a color wheel is silly - and I like silly.
If you are as interested in answering that question as I am, then I hope you’ll continue to revisit my blog from time to time and refresh your own thinking with my writing and research. What old habits or ideas are YOU trying to let go?
Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll continue to practice and call for more meaningful, creative, contemporary visual art learning!
For more on my views on color wheels, as well some thoughts on art education and creativity, check out the following podcasts:
Art Class Curator Episode 09 Killing Your Color Wheels with Jim O’Donnell: https://artclasscurator.com/09-killing-your-color-wheels-with-jim-odonnell/
Art Ed Radio: Episode 105 Art Ed Should Thrive, Not Just Survive: https://www.theartofed.com/podcasts/art-ed-thrive-not-just-survive-ep-105/
For a similar take on the elements and principles and their role in art education, please check out Cindy Ingram’s excellent blog post at: https://artclasscurator.com/why-i-hate-the-elements-and-principles-of-art-but-teach-them-anyway/
For more interesting ways to think about color, and more picking on the color wheel, see Olivia Gude’s articles
“Color Coding”: http://www.academia.edu/7339685/Color_Coding
Want to learn more about color and perception? Check out this amazing TED Talk by neuroscientist Beau Lotto: https://www.ted.com/talks/beau_lotto_optical_illusions_show_how_we_see
Want to learn even more about color and perception? Check out “relative color”: http://colorisrelative.com/color/
Want to learn even more more about color and perception? More relative color at: http://purplepwny.com/blog/color_relativity_color_theory_beyond_the_wheel.html
“Especially as a beginner, it can be very tempting to look towards mathematical formulas and rigid step-by-step approaches to picking your colors. Unfortunately, there isn’t any one formula that will work for every situation.”
Note: Sorry once again for the delay of my post! Like I said before, this has been whirlwind of a summer! I can’t believe that a new school year is here already! There are so many things I want to share with you, like the wonderful time spent talking to Art Class Curator Cindy Ingram for her new podcast, my lovely first experience working with the Art of Ed creating my first video presentation for their summer conference, my phenomenal experience working with high school creatives during the 31st annual Art-All State Massachusetts as an Artist-Mentor, my trip to Wichita Kansas to present at the regional USSEA Conference where I shared insights gained examining the potential connections between burns, creativity, my classroom community, and finally the art projects I completed, such as a 90 page creative non-fiction novelette about growing up with a mother suffering severe mental illness, which took me 8 years off and on to complete, as well as some other pieces! Phew!!! Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to weave those experiences into future blog posts for you all! In the meantime I'll have classes to teach and a dissertation proposal that will need approving so please expect 1-2 posts a month for the immediate future! Thanks again for your continued support!
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!
Can playing games together help us move toward inclusive teaching? How can we use games to center those students that might otherwise be on the periphery of the classroom community?
When I taught elementary and middle school, I enjoyed playing critique games. Some favorites included a game Harn Museum Educator Bonne Bernau had shared with my undergraduate class called Token Response and a game I made up like “Read My Mind” (a variation on Blind Man’s Bluff). But over the years working in the college setting I admit that, while I feel my critiques are engaging conversations filled with analysis and constructive feedback, they may have been lacking the fun of those elementary school critiques.
“You can’t say ‘you can’t play’” is Dr. Edmiston’s rule when it comes to his students playing games. In our education class, we had recently discussed how playing games together can be powerful tools for community-building and engagement. He asked us to be especially attentive towards how we might meaningfully include those students that we feel may be at risk of being on the fringe of the group. This may be our quieter and more introverted students, those who may have had difficulty fitting in or those that might be more resistant, or students whose culture or background might differ from the majority, like international students. I had planned a critique day for our next class so that we could display and discuss the artwork we had created this semester. Why not livin up our class critique with some games?
I wanted to begin by sharing an experience with my students that I remember affecting the way I looked at art when I was an undergraduate with the added bonus of helping them see some of the most famous art in the world in a new way. We played a game I call “Living Statues.”
Me: Sometimes to understand a work of art we need to become that work of art. Tonight we’re going to play a game that I call Living Statues but you can call it whatever you want. In this game, we’ll be recreating famous works of art. We’ll have statues who will be the models that the sculptors physically pose to match an artwork as closely as possible. Only the sculptors know what the artwork looks like so the statue just has to do his/her best to hold the pose as long as possible. Let’s practice on me. I’ll be the statue and I want to see if you all can help pose me like an artwork I’m thinking of.
Embodying a figure in an artwork is probably one of the most powerful ways to try to understand its subject matter. I love this example because my undergraduate professor Craig Roland introduced it in our methods class many years ago and it has always stuck with me. A few years ago, I was extremely fortunate to be able to chaperone an undergraduate trip to France (occasionally, academia has its perks). While there, I finally had the opportunity to see The Thinker in person at Rodin’s museum in France. As I sat with the pensive statue sketching it in the gardens, I was grateful for the insight that this short activity had impressed upon me.
I’m a huge fan of modeling for students. It is probably one of our most powerful tools as not only teachers but as a species. ‘Monkey see, monkey do’ is how we got here. Imitation AND innovation. Our ability to watch and copy but also to empathize and connect with the experience of others is incredible. For this we can thank our “mirror neuron system” in the brain. For example, “about one-fifth of the neurons that fire in the premotor cortex when we perform an action (say, kicking a ball) also fire at the sight of somebody else performing that action.” If you’re interested, there is some fascinating research on how our brain and senses are built for empathy as seen in both sports as well as art.
BUT this activity also exposes how much of that empathic power we waste on a regular basis by making assumptions based on incorrect observations and assumptions. We look but do not see! I love playing dumb - probably because I take to it so naturally. By purposely doing something “wrong,” as in my pose, I give power to the students to correct me and essentially swap roles with me as the teacher. They get to learn by teaching me how to do the pose correctly. So we swapped authority back and forth and I feel that giving students the chance to correct you, as the authority figure, is great modeling for how they might correct each other without judgment or meanness.
After this modeling of the Thinker on my part (both artistic and academic), we played three rounds. I called for three volunteers to come up and act out our next famous artwork for the class - we needed two sculptors and one statue. I handed the sculptors a folder with an image of the artwork to recreate so only they could see it - the Mona Lisa. Then they tried to manually pose the statue as best they could. The class then got a chance to guess what artwork had been recreated and the class guessed the Mona Lisa successfully. The next group required two sculptors and two statues to recreate American Gothic. We chatted briefly about how posing like these figures might’ve helped them empathize with the subjects of the paintings, but in retrospect these poses are fairly static and I think more dynamic poses might be better candidates for creating empathy with the subjects. On the other hand, we could’ve discussed how the static poses might relate to those stiff family portraits and school photos we all have suffered through.
For the final artwork, I wanted more of a challenge so I chose an artwork without figures! The last artwork to reproduce was A Starry Night. Would they be able to recreate a landscape? By this point, I was calling on students to purposely include some of my quieter students. I felt a group of five would provide them sufficient safety in numbers so it would not feel quite as risky performing. I gave them a few minutes to scheme together discreetly in the back of the room which allowed me to share stories about the artworks we had recognized so far, the group took the stage.
AND THEY DID IT! One person formed the iconic cypress tree piercing the night sky. Another became the moon. And in between three joined hands to create a rolling wave motion that brought the wavy lines of the background to life. From the photo, you can see big smiles and I believe those smiles are all the assessment I need for evidence of a successful collaboration. I think everyone understood these artworks more as a result of our purposeful play. Students who might’ve gone overlooked in most other college classes had experienced being meaningful and memorable parts of our learning!
When students have to improvise, I feel there can be a leveling effect on their relationships that re-orients them all as equals. The structure of having an image chosen for them takes away the power involved in one person possibly getting to choose WHAT they all do together. Since this was already decided, the tension was HOW to do it. Having a clearly defined purpose seemed to help avoid confusion and apathy that might arise from having too many options or a power struggle. With a very limited time frame, there was urgency and so they had to jump right in without time to overthink. Regardless of whether they were introverts or extroverts, they could all contribute to the idea as each one was going to have to physically use their own body to express the different elements in the painting. The fact that it was a landscape but they were figures meant that there needed to be a transformation - turning people into objects and actions - that they all had to figure out together.
While there are times students need to listen and times they need to talk, it is critical that all our students also have the opportunity to DO and to MAKE and to ACT. The rest of the class critique proceeded smoothly although more rushed than I would’ve wanted but I also felt that everyone was a little more relaxed after playing together. If we had only spoken and written, the students I aimed to involve in our games would most likely have remained quiet once again. Ultimately, I was happy to sacrifice some of our discussion time for greater inclusivity.
Games can be egalitarian, as everyone agrees to play, to observe the same rules, and to play their part however they want within those shared constraints. While many games have winners or losers, we can choose to play games that include rather than exclude. We can play games in the classroom that focus on process rather than product so that everyone can win by gradually improving and working together rather than against each other in competition.
Do you use games in your teaching? Which ones work for you?
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.
Why are we doing this? Is this question meant to be horrifying? Has something gone terribly wrong? A connection not made? There are doubts being raised just as the difficulty begins to incline. Or is it a question we should encourage our students to ask all the time? To keep us accountable and make sure what we’re doing is relevant? Skepticism is healthy. Can “trust me” be a valid response? Have I not been explicit or have I overestimated their knowledge gap?
This week was step 1. In class I introduced the topic of “Big Ideas” which is a method of curriculum design where teachers begin by identifying an important, universal or at least essential concept at the heart of a discipline, topic, or even inquiry. I was introduced to the method in my undergraduate art education courses. Our textbooks, Sydney Walker’s Teaching Meaning in Art Making and subsequent Rethinking Curriculum in Art with Marilyn Stewart, were like art education bibles for me because of their marrying of artistic practice with curriculum design. It was an idea I certainly wrestled with at times, and continue to do so. But it also deeply resonated with me as both an artist and a teacher. For me, it’s basically like a theme. What is a theme or “Big Idea” in art? Artists explore identity. Artists explore culture. Artists explore love. Artists explore power. Family. Diversity. Heroes. A "Big Idea" is something that affects humans all over the world and are at the core of any way of knowing it seems. Of course, artists are inspired by all sorts of things and for all sorts of reasons. No artists work can be reduced to a single idea. However, by tracing a single strand of an idea through an artist’s enables one with a deeper understanding of that artist’s work and how it relates to the world at large and connects to the work of other artist who are exploring similar problems. Rather than reductive, Big Ideas should be seen as connective, offering viewers a point of entry. And Big Ideas can help any age group relate to the work of artists - attempting to answer the simple question: “Why did they do that?”
In preparation for this new semester, I was able to identify and collect Big Idea lists and resources for art and some of the most common disciplines like social studies, science, math, and literature, which I provide students online. I think Big Ideas relate naturally with Backwards Design and that is usually how I begin planning a course. I start at the end. What kind of person do I want to leave my classroom? What do I want them to know and be able to do? What do I hope they will notice about the world? How will they see it differently? What dispositions will they internalize? And then I go backwards from there. I’ve tended to favor a view of education that is long term. Built to last. What kind of person will you be on your deathbed? Let’s reverse engineer that. What do we need to do to get there? All that is step 2. That’s the lesson plan - the HOW. We’ll get there soon, but all I want right now is the WHY.
It’s a new class, a new semester, a new group, and a newish me. The course title is definitely the same. For those of you just joining us, it is Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers. It’s a course for students intending to become teachers and is one of their choices for studying art-integration. The “Why” for me is creativity. I want my students to demonstrate artistic thinking and to grow creatively - to at least not be afraid of it or avoid it. And to do that, they must experience creativity for themselves.
So far this semester has been tremendous, but tremendously busy before it even started! Maybe you can relate? But I’ve stripped down the course to fewer more essential elements - forcing myself to kill a few darlings along the way. Probably a few more could use elimination, but I’m a greedy teacher always thinking we can do more than we really can. And the pacing is dramatically more reasonable!
My major goal for this new class was to include more art experiences and we have definitely done that! Each class so far has been at least half artmaking! Art takes time. Experiences take time. So aside from more art, my biggest practical goal was to not fall behind the calendar on the first day of class again. And we did it! For TWO whole classes this time! It’s true. By the third day, it was clear there wouldn’t be time to cover all the readings and viewings in class. But maybe that’s not a bad thing? Maybe their responses with me is enough? I have a feeling that this course is likely to be the ONLY course of training in VISUAL art-integration that these teachers may ever have. Perhaps one day they’ll have arts-integration as a focus of some PD or an in-service - the lucky ones. But some unlucky ones may never have another opportunity to learn from a visual artist and about what it means to make art, be creative, and see the world through an artistic lens. So I squeeze in some things in and let them make the connections on their own.
We have class for one hour and fifty minutes once a week and the first three classes have featured clay-on-the-first-day, followed by Sumi Ink Club, then collaging with the Big Idea of Identity. This week’s class, the 4th one, was no different. This week students were invited to a Task Party inspired by artist Oliver Herring and they it was fantastic! My students have responded beautifully and I’ve been very happy to see them gain confidence in their creative abilities. Each art experience was slightly different but shared the qualities of open-endedness, socializing, and thinking through materials and media. One of my main artistic goals is for students to see how art can bring people together and help them connect with each other. We’re building community.
The first day, the goal for the second half of class was reviewing the syllabus and trying to get the students to buy into the going gradeless approach, which is critical. The next day, I introduced our main project, creating and presenting an art-integrated lesson. We reviewed the guidelines and the provided template. The third day, we discussed creativity during the second half of class. I’m seeing in their reflections how much they are getting out of our creative experiences and some are already noting changes in their thinking and creative growth. They’re coming up with great takeaways and we’re working on thinking of ways they can use the material in their futures. It’s been much smoother than last semester so far!
This week we continued our discussion on creativity and dived into Big Ideas. And we hit our first bump in the road. When I introduced the lesson plan and the idea of art-integration, I challenged them to imagine their lesson as the Colossus of Rhodes with one foot firmly planted in the subject they’re most interested in and another foot planted in art. I reminded them of the analogy and told them that their assignment this week would simply be to choose a Big Idea from the art world and the non-art world using the lists provided. We review that they explored the Big Idea Identity as they worked on their collages the previous week. We go into the Lesson Plan Resources folder to pull out examples and practice combining them. I choose one from science - that all matter in the Universe is composed of tiny particles - that things are composed of smaller parts - and ask the class to see if they can connect it to a Big Idea from art from a list I display. They mention community and family.
Then we move to literature and we mention how we can look at a painting and then read a story related.
"But a children’s book will have pictures…"
"Well, not if you’re teaching high school," I mention. What I wish I had said, and will say next time, is how students of course can create their own illustrations for books.
But the student seems lost. Not seeing how Big Ideas connect or why they’re relevant. Is their conception of learning always start with a bit of content rather than a concept as so many do? Pick a thing and teach it. Are they grasping for standards to tell them the “what” to teach before they’ve ever considered the “why?”
"Do you want us to teach an art lesson like what we’ve been doing in class?"
"No, of course not! I don’t want you to be art teachers, unless you want to become art teachers - in which case you’re welcome to join the Art Education program. But I want you to teach a lesson that combines art with a subject you love."
"Do you have an example of a finished lesson plan?"
They’re desperate for the how. Maybe they feel like I’ve given them a tuna and a light bulb and asked them to put them together.
"No. I don’t want you to see the answers yet. And more importantly, we didn’t start this way last time. I’m not asking you to know what you’re going to teach or what it needs to look like in the template. I’m just asking you to pick two Big Ideas that interest you. You don’t have to know how you might combine them. Just as long as long as YOU can see a connection."
I know the impulse is to go online to find a ready-made lesson plan. But in those lessons, all the choices have already been made for you. In the textbook, all the choices have already been made for you. But I want YOU to make the choices - to make the connections for yourselves. It’s uncomfortable to not know the answer. To not know the destination - but that is part of being creative. To be uncertain and able to move forward. To step into discomfort. To make something, when it is easier to copy or just give up.
There was some tension this class. Confusion. We’ve crossed into creative territory. And almost immediately, the “I don’t want to mess up” sentiment appears. It is a common anxiety among my students based on their responses. Am I battling against perfectionism? I’m definitely shaking my fist at the gilded temple of perfectionism and its golden calf ideal of the 100%. I know my writing is.
Afterwards I felt deflated. I wasn’t expecting the struggle to begin right off the bat with Big Ideas. Then I remember back to the first art education class I taught. I wanted my art education undergrads to use Big Ideas for planning their lessons just like I’d learned to do. I remember introducing the concept in a way that I thought was clear and straightforward, telling them they would be designing their lessons using Big Ideas. And then the tears.
I was completely caught off guard. I had never imagined that this would cause tears. But change can be hard. The students had never been asked to do something like this before and a couple that were further along in the program were experiencing a tiny breakdown about learning a new approach. This would not do - but we had to work through their emotions first. I had to calm their elephants before their riders could listen. After a lot of talking, reassurance and practice, they got it.
But I saw the necessity for a better approach. I had seen where the bar was before I had arrived. When I was reviewing the Portfolios that had been submitted by prior student teachers - I was floored. I found binders stuffed with lessons printed directly from the internet. Dear god - they didn’t know how to plan a lesson themselves! This is one reason why I didn’t resent the implementation of EdTPA portfolios across the country like so many of my colleagues. They saw a loss of autonomy whereas I saw a raising of standards. Effective programs were already asking their students to create lessons and record videos of themselves and assess those plans and reflect upon their performance in the classroom. But not all teacher prep programs were requiring their students to perform these basic teaching tasks. What I did resent was how the cost was passed onto the students and how coordinators had no say in the process.
The concept of Big Ideas is new to them. I had asked for a head count of anyone that had been used Big Ideas for curriculum design in the past. None had. So this is completely new for them. Maybe I haven’t framed it right yet? How much of the puzzle do I put together for them? This is a continual struggle for me. Is see the connections - when will they? What if they don’t?
Next time I will add this:
Why have we been engaging in these artistic experiences if we’re not to teach like that? Because many of my students have few if any experiences being creative in school to draw upon in your planning. I want you all to experience creative conditions. You must FEEL creativity. I can't just tell you what it is like. You can't just read about it. You will understand the highs and lows of the creative process because you have lived them. This is how you will know if your students are being creative and if you are being creative in your planning - because you know what creativity feels like. What I want most from you is to help your students show and not just tell. I want you to help them make knowledge and not just regurgitate. To build with their hands and look with their eyes while you move their hearts and engage their minds."
Maybe it will just take time. There’s that uncertainty again - that essential ingredient of the creative process. When we meet next, we will take some of the Big Ideas folks have selected and see if we can’t play with combing a few of them in different ways before they head to their grade level groups to brainstorm. Show them how a Big Idea can serve as a starting point for Backwards Design. I’m hoping that through this experience, they’ll begin to see planning and curriculum design as a creative process.
So do I show them an example when I want them to surpass it? When it was created using a different process and timeframe? I think I may withhold examples until after I receive the first draft. I think this will ultimately allow them to show more growth by allowing them to start with only what they know on their own. If they then have an example to scaffold them before the second draft, I believe they will feel as though they’re making even more significant progress. They have a template. They have guidelines. They have resources. They have the SUCCESs model. They have the Thinking Like An Artist dispositions. They have all the tools they need - it’s time to start putting them together.
While my students last semester put a tremendous amount of work into their lessons and grew tremendously, I want lessons that are more creative and blend together art and other subjects even more deeply. Last time, I received some problematic lesson plans that made me want to rethink how we had approached the planning process. And I have. Now I have to trust in the process I’ve established and see it through. And I’m optimistic this group will step up.
So we’ve crossed the creative threshold. The struggle is becoming real. But I believe they will engage and persist. We’ll see what they do with it. As Chip and Dan Heath say, we’re at the “Huh.” Will the “Aha!” be far behind?
Part 3 of a 3 part series - Part 1 - Part 2
What did it all mean? What is my biggest takeaway? How will I put what I’ve learned to use? These are some of the questions on my mind as I reflect on the Final Meetings with my students and re-imagine my course for a new group and a new semester.
Evidence is important to me. The beginning of learning is the ability to empirically observe a phenomenon, analyze it, and apply that knowledge to our lives. As an artist, of course I’m interested in the subjective and the objective. The artistic endeavor is transforming the subjective, like a thought or a feeling, into something objective, like a painting. Art lives on that edge between ways of knowing. At the heart of creativity is both the qualitative and the quantitative. As a teacher and a researcher, I’m interested in both kinds of evidence as well. The tricky part is that two reasonable people can look at the same evidence and draw two different conclusions. So why not include our students in the grading process?
This class was not the first time I had met with students at the end of the semester. However this was the first time that I had not decided their grade ahead of time. In retrospect, what was important to me in those past meetings was making sure my students understood how I had determined their grade. I wanted them to know what I was looking for. Above all, I think I wanted to be perceived as fair. But everything else was worked backwards from what grade I had decided the student deserved in advance. Was it just an elaborate way to make sure they didn’t disregard my comments? Was I just making sure they heard me? Was I failing to give them a chance to be heard?
For this round of meetings, I found it was helpful to provide students with an introductory framework that explained how we would proceed and what the student might expect. Of course I had discussed the meetings in class but I found that performing this ritual individually helped light the path forward for each new participant. After some small talk and taking our seats at table in the archive room, I gained permission to audio record of each meeting. My ritual shpiel went something like this:
Thanks for being here. This meeting is probably different from what you’ve experienced in most other classes so it may seem strange at first. Our goal today is to determine together what grade you’ve earned in this course. Nothing is decided until you walk out the door.
Many students expressed fear and discomfort with the process. I found that the vast majority graded themselves fairly. Generally speaking, we were on the same page. Despite my de-emphasis of grading, fears that students would just give themselves A’s like kids in a candy store turned out to be untrue. In fact, several students graded themselves more harshly than I did, reducing their grades for things that weren’t criteria such as lateness. Many wanted to give themselves some wiggle room, often saying they probably ended up somewhere between an “A or A-,” or “B to A-,” which I found interesting. They wanted to resist pinning themselves down. I feel like a part of them might be more comfortable with me just telling them their grade. But I want actors, not receivers. And their future students wouldn’t have that option a nice big window. They had to be exact. A big part of the course is embracing uncertainty and stepping into discomfort and that’s what I expected them to do here - turn the subjective into the objective. Is there something artistic about assessment? Somewhere out there past me is barfing.
The meetings gave me the opportunity to gauge student understandings that might not have come across otherwise in their writing or submissions. At times I was listening for certain clues that would demonstrate learning they had not yet demonstrated in their portfolio. In some of those cases my evaluation was changed on the spot. In other cases, I was pleasantly surprised by how our conversation gave my assessment more clarity. In a few cases, as this was the first semester, I gave students the opportunity to revise and resubmit. I will try to avoid this in the future, stressing instead the finality of the decision we reach in the meeting together. But in this first go-around, it seemed fair to offer a mulligan. Permissive would be a fair accusation. Was I subject to confirmation bias, since I wanted them to be successful and therefore prove my own effectiveness as a teacher? I wouldn’t doubt it. I don’t think a confirmation bias is avoidable regardless of what tool we use. So why not err on behalf of the student?
I imagine our students are water. We often only see them in one state. One context. But they are much much more than most of us can ever see at once. How can we reduce all of this life and experience down to a letter or number? Take that letter to the store - what will it get you? Take it to the interview - what will it do for you? You are not a letter or a number. Little that we do can be represented adequately using a letter or a number - why pretend that it does? Better artificial control than natural growth? Grades are for meats and slopes. I want students who are open to change or simply able their minds when presented with new information so I must at least try to be that type of person. Teaching, for many reasons, helps me be the best version of myself. Either way, I feel like it’s important that students don’t feel like grades are something done TO them. I have no desire to sit and pass judgment on my students. I’m only interested in helping people become more creative, collaborative, and critical healthy human beings.
Because I had not conducted portfolios outside of studio art courses and did not have examples of the kind of authentic assessment I was attempting, I did not have examples to show my students beforehand. This could be a positive and negative thing, as I heard a desire for more clarity as to what I was looking for, even though I honestly wasn’t even completely sure what I was looking for either until it was in front of me. In two cases, students discovered ways of presenting evidence that will become examples for students in the future. One student had gone through their documents with highlighters to find specific examples of the objectives which was very helpful for both of us. Another student used the portfolio form I provided to self-evaluate her portfolio. In the future I will require that to help us get on the same page.
In looking back, a few things stand out to me about the Final Meetings overall. First, I loved conversing with my students and getting to hear things from their perspective. Whatever I had to say I had to say to their faces. I didn’t get a single email the day grades came out. That peace is priceless. But I got so much out of hearing their sides of the story and I learned things that I wouldn’t have known if I had only looked at their portfolios so I would encourage folks thinking about using portfolios and authentic assessment to include individual meetings to make sure you’re both on the same page. All of that richness would have been lost without these meetings! We chatted about future plans and the class overall following our official business in some cases. It was important to me that I got to know my students and I achieved that.
I hope I create a place where my students can pleasantly surprise me, like Craig Roland used to tell me. My students impressed me this past semester. I really asked them to do way way too much and in retrospect I’m lucky not to have had a mutiny on my hands. I’m thrilled by how they all stepped up to the challenge with barely any griping. That group of (mostly) future teachers was not messing around. I’m glad everyone had the opportunity to embrace uncertainty while achieving overall high grades through our meetings.
I would be misleading you however if I failed to mention that the approach of determining grades during a final meeting worked for all of my students. It was clear from their written comments that at least one or two students weren’t convinced. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in future groups as well. Below is one comment I want to speak back to before I approach a new semester:
I liked the layout of the course with the responses, feedback, class, content, and activities. I liked the responses and feedback because it was different then the normal discussion board post ideas. You really took the time to read what we had to say and responded. I liked the content and activities because they were interesting and fun and things I may use in the future. What I did not like is the gradeless approach and feeling the need to defend my grade with the work I have already worked so hard on, peer reviews, and organization. Also, I would have liked the modules to be posted at least two in advance so I can anticipate or work ahead. I do not like the gradeless approach because it gives me anxiety that even though I have worked so hard in the course, I still have to talk about what grade I deserve. I do not like peer reviews because it took my focus away from other work that was more beneficial. Lastly, as previously mentioned I would have liked more access to content material ahead of time.”
This is an unfortunate view in my opinion. It suggests an unrealistic view of the word - that hard work always pays off. Now, I’m not saying that hard work is not important. But hard work never has and never will guarantee success. Effort is not the same thing as learning and chance is always involved. One can perform a task quite tirelessly, to the point of near exhaustion, and still not make much progress. A person can work hard and still fail. Another can make great progress relatively effortlessly. Do we judge these two the same? What I was evaluating this semester were growth and mastery. Hard work, ideally, is involved in both. It’s disappointing that the student above felt that they were defending their grade. If I led my students to believe this was a courtroom drama, this was unintentional. This was a search for “truth.” This was an examination of evidence. This was the building of a case. BUT this was meant to be a mutual decision. A sharing of power, not an attack. I wasn’t trying to steal their high grade. This I fear is the product of a grade-based mentality. Is it a deficit view? I understand why people are averse to chance. It sucks when things don’t work out. Believe me, I know. But anyone who has tried to grow vegetables for the first time knows that hard work doesn’t always pay off. But we’ll give it a shot again this year. Live and learn. Hopefully the next time we’ll work smarter and not just harder.
Life is not a simple formula and students shouldn’t be lead to believe it is. It’s never as simple as ‘do good things and good things will happen to you.’ Job learned that the hard way, yet no one seems to remember his example. You hear this when people talk about karma. Put good into the world and good will return to you. As if the universe is keeping score. There is no supernatural incentive program to get humans to do the right thing. My mother, for example, did nothing to deserve the schizophrenia that ravaged her mind, body, and soul. She did nothing to deserve the cervical cancer that took her life. She didn’t deserve to die at the age of 46. I did nothing to deserve losing my mother that summer I was 17 (technically 9 years earlier due to her mental illness). Her birthday is this month. She would have been 67.
While it may seem out of place to bring such dramatic and personal life experience to bear on curriculum design, our teaching is inextricably shaped by our life experiences. In this case, as Forrest Gump taught us - shit happens. This is one of the few certainties in life. We don’t know what to expect. In response, I prefer a diverse portfolio of practices to improve my chances at success, like hard work of course, but also self-discipline, creativity, curiosity, flexibility, problem-solving, critical thinking, and comfort with uncertainty. We can’t just construct an imaginary snow globe around ourselves to protect ourselves from reality. That only distorts our view of the world around us. Perhaps it would be better to seek strategies to manage our inevitable anxiety, rather than seeking to avoid anxiety all together. Anxiety proceeds any new experience, any solution, any moment of growth. Anxiety is not our enemy. An inability to confront it is.
As I look ahead to a new semester with a new group, I don’t know what to expect. The only certainty is that it will be different. While I begin to plan, I’m reminded of three things from my meetings: How important our words are; How important my relationships with my students are; and Less is almost always more. As you read in a previous post, I am a chronic over-planner. And while I would much rather have too much planned than too little, I failed to kill enough of my darlings. As I revisit material and assignments from last semester, I’m even more impressed at how hard my students works and how much they achieved in such a short amount of time. But I’m lucky I didn’t inspire a mutiny. Oops. I knew I was asking a lot, but it was really way too much. Drastic cuts must be made if I want my students to thrive. Goal #1 - I am NOT falling behind on Day 1. No way, no how! That threw a monkey wrench into my whole semester last time. Less is more (not that you could tell from the length of these posts).
I would estimate that you have to teach a course three times (or three years for most classroom teachers) before you really start to figure out what you’re doing. This will only be my second go. So I know that there will be dramatic improvements this semester but also new challenges. Live and learn. Fortunately, as you’ve seen in my previous two posts, I have plenty of information and feedback to guide my revisions. So here is to an exciting new semester! Success will depend on a great number of variables, including my choices, attitudes, and beliefs; the choices, attitudes, and beliefs of 28 other people all interacting, the content, the weather, and a laundry list of things foreseeable and unforeseeable. This is teaching. This is art. This is creativity.
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.