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.
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?
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers for undergrads planning on becoming classroom teachers. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while experimenting with more effective approaches to teaching visual art integration.