Assessment is not a bad word. Though it seems that way in art education sometimes. I can empathize with folks who find the term 'exhausting.' Saying the A-word might even trigger some kind of low-grade academic PTSD for some. I think it’s because we’re so used to being abused by it, both as students and then as teachers.
But remember that at its core, assessment is simply about value. What we assess is what we look for and what we look for is what we value. What values are you promoting in your classroom assessment? Are you valuing learning over grades? There is a difference. What about dialogue over monologue? Subjectivity vs false pretenses of objectivity? Vulnerability and risk-taking vs the formulaic and the path of least resistance?
Assessment is not the same as grades. Grades at best serve expediency, but expediency is not compatible with learning any more than it is with art. Galloping through a museum to see as much art as possible is not the way to have meaningful experiences with art. Art is slow. Art is demanding. It asks the viewer to notice something,even reflect on what you notice, as opposed to the rest of daily life when we simply go and do mindlessly.
Meeting with every single student to determine grades is also slow (at least compared to a computerized test or mechanically determined grade). Assessment, if it is to be authentic, is also slow. But I believe that we should have the courage to assess face-to-face and to do so through dialogue. In this fast-paced world, we must slow down for our students’ sakes if we want them to slow down as well. We ended my class this semester with final meetings where I met with all 30 pre-service teachers in my class to assess portfolios of writing and determine a grade together.
Even though we have been graded ad nauseam for the better part of 15 to 20 years of our lives, few and far between are the instances where we share responsibility for our own evaluation or even evaluate ourselves. This seems rather strange. These future teachers will go on to emphasize grading because that is what the system demands; that is what they have been subjected to as students and all they know. But shouldn’t they get to have experiences actually grading SOMEONE before they are in a classroom ACTUALLY grading someone before student teaching? Don’t we, as a field, think that, at the very least, self-assessment might build empathy for students and expand the thinking of these future teachers BEFORE they get into the classroom when they can still ask questions and experiment safely?
I told them it would feel weird and uncomfortable, maybe because evaluation is hard and maybe because they have so little practice self-evaluating in traditional settings. Step into that discomfort. It will be over before they knew it. This semester, I used an analogy that I liked quite a lot because I thought it would be very “sticky” – the tattoo artist. Sure, my students get the logic I explained above, but will they REMEMBER when they are the teacher in charge? My answer was the tattoo artist analogy. I told them that traditionally, a prospective tattoo artist would practice drawing for a long time and maybe practice tattooing a piece of meat from the supermarket. When they wanted to graduate to become a professional, they would tattoo themselves. This has two benefits. First, is your work good enough for you to be willing to wear it? Second, you know how it feels when you do it to someone else. It builds empathy. So it makes sense to give a future teacher the opportunity to share the steering wheel when it comes to their own evaluation so that they know how it feels. The problem is, this analogy may or may not be true, because I’ve heard conflicting accounts. I’ll keep looking for one because the truth matters to me but this one may work for a time.
Some students had to mull over very difficult questions that every teacher faces. Whatever they chose would have lasting consequences. Would they evaluate themselves fairly, as they are expected to evaluate their students? Or would they take advantage of the opportunity? It seemed like an obvious teachable moment to put the ball in their courts. I believe their decisions says a lot about who they will become as teachers, and I thought they all showed character as they practiced wrestling with the tough choices every teacher faces in a less risky environment.
Fortunately, the vast majority of them did very well so I was able to relax a bit. A few conversations were tough and awkward but teachable moments on how to move through disagreement. There was no point where I had to overrule anyone, though there were occasions where I and the student came to terms with final grades that were lower than the student hoped. But there were also occasions where perhaps overly-critical students and I came to terms with grades higher than they expected as well. Nevertheless, they seemed sincere in their understanding of how those grades seemed fair. Overall, I loved the experience and it seemed like they all responded well to it. And I have some evidence to back that up. While I’ll wait until my next post to get my exit survey data, I will share that before their experience with authentic assessment in my course, 39% of the pre-service teachers said they were interested in practicing authentic assessment in their own future classrooms, but by the end of the semester, that number had increased to 68% - an increase of nearly 30%!
On Effort & Assessment
Hearing what my students talk about and write about gives me insight into what they value. What I tried to do was listen. I give my students multiple opportunities to reflect on something and may ask them about something several different ways. I tell them this is because I do not want to use only one bucket to catch a waterfall, as I explain to them. I’m looking for the learning when I’m reading and listening to and observing what my students say and do. If I only look one time, that’s like using one bucket to catch all that information. If I look for something multiple ways, then I will use several buckets and increase my chances of finding what I’m looking for, if it is there. We must be sure we find what we are looking for and not what we are hoping for, and likewise, our students should have the opportunity to prove what they have and have not learned beyond a shadow of a doubt. That is justice, and at the end of the day, that above all else must drive our decision making in the classroom just as it must drive a civil society.
One nearly universal theme I heard in students’ self-evaluations was effort being highly prized, privileged in my opinion from accomplishment or acquiring specific skills or knowledge. I’m afraid that this is something of a lowest common denominator from my point of view. Is the person expending every last ounce of their strength and effort attempting to move a boulder more admirable than the clever person that uses a lever and actually moves the stone? Not to me.
Obviously we all need to put in effort! Obviously EVERY student IDEALLY would normally be operating at the edge of their potential in order for their limitations to expand. I have a hard time imagining a single teacher promoting a lack of effort in their classroom. But how do you begin to weigh or measure it and would that be useful at all? Would everyone be successful if they just put in effort? Sounds ridiculous to me. In my opinion, effort would be a quality of the classroom culture to be valued, modeled, and practiced, rather than something academic to be evaluated. Hasn’t it been our desire to REDUCE the amount of effort required for tasks that has driven our technology? Doesn’t evolution privilege the adaptation and not the effort expended? Surely, it is this emphasis on effort above all else that makes people think that, while learning is often hard, it can also be meaningful and fun. If we measure by effort alone, surely the most dismal learning tasks are then the most beneficial, right? If a teacher doesn't grade effort, that doesn't mean no effort suddenly becomes acceptable. It seems to me we grade their effort when students are being forced to do things.
I wonder if, in practice, prizing even effort leads to a deficit view. The student quit due to their flawed character and lack of effort, not because the system is unfair or irrelevant. “They’re lazy!” is the favorite attack upon the disenfranchised. Yet here at college, after so many years of school, is what is most prized? Not first improvement? Growth? Self-fulfillment? Achievement? Surely, all this represents the institutionalized view, as nearly every high achieving student (future teachers) in my class emphasized effort. To the contrary, the best studio art classes I ever taught were guided by the mantra of a familiar green puppet: Do or do not, there is not try.
I don't look for effort, I want engagement. And I was very pleased to hear many respond very positively to their Creative Growth Goals, which honestly I had wondered if having students choose CGGs would’ve worked. And it didn’t, completely, this first semester by any means (well, I started in the Fall but it was formalized in my Spring class). I was worried because I had to remind several students which goal they had chosen at their midpoint meetings. But they seemed truly engaged in their focus on developing a skill or ability such as idea generation or uncertainty or experimentation.
It’s hard, sometimes, to know with great certainty when you are conferencing with students and reviewing their portfolios that the risk of confirmation bias is extremely STRONG when you AND the students both have a horse in the race. I think we have to weigh our judgments carefully and this is why I seek transparency with my students. But what I took away from their positive responses was not so much the specifics of it but that they responded well to being able to choose a goal that was they then were prompted to weave throughout their coursework. Additionally, much like this assignment, they really benefited from prompts to reflect back on their decisions from the beginning of the semester which they could use as a point of reference to assess growth. Students like feeling like they’re making progress, but in many classes students are not given the opportunity to reflect. Comprehensive tests and papers do not serve this function. But I was happy that the students enjoyed exercising their agency in selecting something in the course they’d like to focus on. This is something I want to more deeply engrain through the core of future classes.
Assessment is rarely easy, but for me it is one of the most important things I do in the classroom. But grades, while attractive to bureaucrats and folks that don’t know much about learning, are not the answer. I told my students at their meetings was that the objective of our final meeting was to take all of the rich experiences we’ve had this semester, the story that you have created this semester, and do our best to fit all of that into one of these odd little shapes (as I point to the OSU grade scale). We lose a lot doing this, because it is nearly impossible to reverse engineer that story out of the funny little shape. But you and I will know that there is a lot of meaning in that shape, even if it is hidden. And most importantly, it is the dialogue, reflection and choice - the essential ingredients of authentic assessment - that my students found meaningful which they will carry with them well after they leave the classroom. Paradoxically, this means slowing down and focusing on those art and creativity values, skills, and dispositions that we will practice the rest of our lives. These are the things I value and so that is what I assess.
In my next post, I’ll share the results of the exit surveys my students completed. What did they think of our time together? Tune in next time and I'll discuss the result and reveal how their data will affect my planning for next year! The challenges of change!
Lastly, thanks for your patience in waiting for this post! It's been a few weeks as I had classes ending and beginning; several major deadlines; and some personal matters all coming at the same time. I appreciate your continued support!
Our students spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at us. They probably spend more time looking at us than our loved ones. Don’t you wonder how your students see you? I know I have.
It’s hard to know how others view us. We all have those who see us lovingly, those who look at us with disapproval, and the majority who don’t see us at all. Our students see a lot of us and over the course of a semester it is possible for a student to view us from all three points of view.
It can be a risk asking others to share their view of you. You might not like what you they show you. They don’t know how you might react. You’re asking for honesty when there’s a lot of uncertainty. Such an interaction can require vulnerability on both sides.
But teaching and learning require trust. Asking students to draw you, especially early in the year, could be a tremendous bonding experience. Especially if you look at the drawings together and share in some laughs. Humor, and proving that you have a sense of humor, can be tremendous advantages in forming community.
This semester, I wanted to find out how my students see me and I found the perfect spot to swap it into my curriculum. For the last several years, I have enjoyed introducing my students to the Stages of Artistic Development. I lead several exercises that help teachers empathize with their students by helping them get into the mindset of a child drawing at different stages of artistic development. These stages can be related to those proposed by developmental psychologists Piaget and Vygotsky (who both sound correct if you ask me). I pair experiential learning in the classroom with the reading Young in Art by Craig Roland (an academic descendant of Lowenfield) and some updated info from more current research.
We start with some relaxation exercises before engaging in exercises in scribbling, pre-symbolic, symbolic, and naturalistic drawing. I’ve described these exercises in a previous post, but this time there were a couple of key differences. For realism, instead of exploring shading like we did last semester, I chose to return to leading students in learning to draw a more realistic face. We examined proportions linking our observation to math concepts, including that most anything can serve as a means of measuring in a pinch.
The part I like most about teaching drawing faces together is changing my students’ perceptions of something they thought they knew very well. When I poll the class, about 90%+ of them say that the eyes are one-third from the top of the head. However this guess is disproven easily using a pencil as shown in Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Using the pencil to measure from the eye to the top of the head and then from the eye to the chin reveals that the measurements are the same and thus the eyes are in fact in the middle of the head.
Each of them has probably looked at themselves in the mirror most everyday for nearly two decades, yet they never noticed where their own eyes rest on their faces! We rationalize this oversight by discussing how recognizing emotion in faces is critical to socializing and even survival, so our attention tends to fall only between the eyebrows and the mouth - where emotion is most obvious. The forehead and hair just aren’t as important so our brain seems to edit them out of our perception unless we observe closely.
This ‘blind spot’ tends to surprise students and is something they seem to remember for a long time after. It’s also prime time for them to employ meta-cognitive strategies to relax themselves and manage the stress that often comes when trying realistic drawing after giving it up so long ago. Many report back how helpful my coaching is during this point in the process, supporting the use of scaffolding and the zone of proximal development.
The second difference in this journey through the stages of artistic development was a twist on the symbolic stage. For an assignment in my teaching and learning class with Dr. Edmiston, we were asked to consider how we are viewed by our students and to see things from their perspective. I and another classmate decided we would go one step farther and actually ask our classes to draw us and show us how they view us.
Getting my students to draw me was something I had wanted to do for a while, ever since I saw how teacher and artist Chris Pearce, creator of Teachable Moments, would give his students extra credit on a test if they made a drawing of him. Online you can find an impressive collection of portraits created by his students.
I explained that since most of them had most likely stopped developing their drawing skills after reaching the symbolic stage that they shouldn’t worry about their drawing skills and just try to have fun. I instructed them to remain anonymous by not including their names. I wanted them to use their imaginations to caricature me or make me into a cartoon if they wanted. I told them that I wasn’t going to look at their drawings until after class and I’d share them during our critique day. I assured them that no matter what, I would have a sense of humor and not hold anything against anyone personally. I wanted them to uninhibited to be honest.
I was nervous asking the students to draw me. It’s hard for me to not take things personally. This wasn’t the first time I’ve asked a class to draw me, as I often did this for Drawing 1 when we would take turns using each other as clothed drawing models the day before our professional model arrived so that students had some practice but could also better empathize with the difficult job of our model! But I was still anxious for some reason! Maybe because this was the first time I had done this. Or maybe I was worried someone might not be so nice in their rendering of me? Or was I worried about how I’d react and that maybe I’m too sensitive for something like this.
When I taught elementary and middle school art, students would occasionally gift me a picture they had made of me or I might dig one out of a pile of doodles from free draw. These little mementos were treasures for me. Being drawn by a child is a special honor. Even though my current students are a little older, I still feel honored and love these drawings very much.
Overall, I thought my students were very sweet to me. “Art Jim” seems happy, energetic, and passionate about art. There’s some dancing, jumping, and exclaiming. Sometimes I’m pensive or lost in thought. I often appear with a camera, documenting my students and their work. Other times I’m wielding art supplies. I can identify two wonderful homages to shows like the Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation which I adore. I’m much less rounder than I expected in their drawings, and too hairy in all of them, just like real life these days. Each one is different and I love seeing the unique style that each student uses to depict me. I like how they see me. Now it’s up to me to live up to their vision of me. Life imitating art imitating life.
We enjoyed reviewing the drawings together at our critique. Students noticed how many folks chose to show my appearance but several tried to show my personality and we debated which approach was preferable. My students also wanted me to talk about taking risks and if I get uncomfortable. I shared that, as an artist, there have been many times when I have had to step into my discomfort, especially when working in public. As a teacher, I’m uncomfortable before most every class. But I have to be brave because I want my students to be brave. I’m happy that they picked up on these aspects of the assignment. We looked together. Discussed together. Laughed together. I think I’ll definitely continue this assignment in future classes.
Have you ever asked your students to depict you? How do you think you look to your students?
NOTE: While Chris Pearce’s work was one inspiration, I looked very hard for an article I thought I had read years ago about a teacher who asked his students to draw him like I did but could not find anything. If anyone knows what I’m talking about and has the link please email me! Thank you!
It can be a risk asking others to share their view of you. You might not like what you they show you. They don’t know how you might react. You’re asking for honesty when there’s a lot of uncertainty. Such an interaction can require vulnerability on both sides.
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.
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.
Part 2 of a 3 part series - Part 1 - Part 3
What do we value? “What you value, you talk about.” Walk into nearly any school across this country and chatter about grades permeates every hallway and corner. But not necessarily learning. In schools, we value grades. This has a pernicious effect on what young people and adults believe is important. Grades and testing are more distracting from actual learning than any smartphone or app on the market. I may not have mentioned this before, but I taught at a school where, every morning, along with the pledge of allegiance, every student in the school would recite the following motto out loud in lockstep to start the day:
“School X students will meet or exceed grade level standards as set forth by local, state, and national assessments!”
Talk about a lack of vision. Of values. For what purpose? What about wonder? Or learning? When I say assessment, I don’t mean grades. That is what they meant in that motto though. Students chasing success defined by scores. But the solution can’t simply be eliminating grades. In going gradeless, you can’t simply toss grades out the window without replacing them with something else or you’ll likely create a vacuum of confusion and chaos. Instead, you have to deftly swap one system for another, like Indiana Jones-style except we’re tossing out the bag of sand in favor of something with real value (and with less running hopefully!).
What is required is a culture shift. Not a change in society, at first at least, so much as a change in the culture of individual schools, which stand apart from culture at large. What we can replace grades with is dialogue. Dialogue, for me, is the foundation of assessment. Constructive criticism and care. Grades are monologic - something done to you. We’ve all felt it. That sting of an unfair grade. A 9 out of 10? For what, you nitpicky...?!? You’re subjected to the selective judgment of every teacher you;ve ever had. Compared to the teacher, police wield more physical power and potential for harm over your average person. But the teacher is, in my mind, secondary to the police officer in the amount of unchecked power over the autonomy of other humans. Keep in mind that every day, most every person age eighteen to four, can typically only go to the restroom with the permission of an adult they barely know. An unavoidable biological necessity controlled sometimes by the whims and moods of another person. Doesn’t that strike you as a little odd, philosophically? Why does compulsory attendance in a class or, later on, choosing a course because I might be interested in the subject, inherently give another person the right to judge me? Why do we simply accept that learning and being judged go hand in hand. To be clear, I’m not conflating learning HOW TO MAKE judgments with BEING judged. The latter is the one I’m skeptical skeptical of.
Dialogue, on the contrary, requires the sharing of power. There still exists, perhaps inescapable, a uneven power dynamic. But in dialogue there is a two-way street. Give and take. Dialogic teaching, while certainly time-consuming last semester, allowed me to create an open and authentic channel of communication, or feedback loop, with my students which we both used to improve and develop more complex understandings of the material, each other, and the world. I learned as much, if not more, from dialogue with my students as they learned from me. This is what assessment means to me.
One way I was able to assess my students and my teaching this semester was by using a pre and post survey. Of course, I did plenty of assessing of my students along the way, and as a result, I continually assessed my teaching and course structure overall making tweaks here and there. But it’s not until the end of the semester when my students get to fully reflect on our journey. Today, I’ll be sharing their comments from the exit survey and the SEIs (Student Evaluation of Instruction) they completed. For my survey, I received 29 out of a possible 29 responses because I required the surveys be completed prior to final meetings with students. I asked three open response questions. I’ll go over their comments in this post. In my previous post, I wrote about their quantitative responses. I’ll conclude this series in my next post by bridging last semester with the new semester, part 3: Final Meetings & New Beginnings.
First, I’ll begin with the experiences my students found most memorable. To analyze this qualitative data, I simply counted occurrences of experiences (see below). I’m proud of the thoughtful comments my students left, which were almost entirely positive, but I’m resisting the urge to copy them all below so you won’t be endlessly scrolling. If you’d like to see the comments for yourself, you can find all the results here.
Q1: Please describe your most memorable experience in this course. This experience could be positive or negative.
Total Appearances of Experiences
This data was helpful for me in planning for next semester. Essentially, anything that didn’t receive a mention here is on the chopping block, and even some of the things that were mentioned might still be eliminated from my curriculum. Despite one appearance of guest speaker, I believe based on the feedback I received immediately following our guest speaker’s visit and it’s appearance here that I will pursue a guest speaker next semester to end the course again and will probably continue that as a tradition. With one appearance, monoprinting will return with some slight tweaks as a demonstration of artistic process. However, with only one occurrence of sketchbook, along with some criticism you’ll see later in the student suggestions, I’ve decided that weekly doodles will not continue next semester. I love teaching students how to make sketchbooks, but I prefer to do that if they are going to become an important part of the course. It seemed as though most weeks, students were either rushing or creating doodles that were unrelated to what we were doing in the course. While they did get the students drawing regularly, I’m not sure they were worth the extra time commitment. We also did not have ways of naturally fitting them into class time as I had originally intended.
It seems obvious that the lesson plan presentations were extremely valuable to the students as it was mentioned most by a third of the group. Nearly another third mentioned the Creating Culture experience, followed closely by Clay on the First Day. All of these therefore seem like essential pieces of the puzzle. I only want to bother with things that will stick with students long after they leave my class. We just don’t have time for anything else. Everything else we did last semester is up for major modifications or elimination. The goal is ‘less is more.’ I have to make the response and feedback process more streamlined and efficient if I’m going to be convinced that the approach is practical for K-12 classrooms.
Q2: Please describe your most valuable takeaway from this course.
Baby’s first narrative analysis! I realize writing this that the data I collected last semester is allowing me to employ methods I’ve been learning the last year and a half in my PhD program. It’s interesting to try these out on my own data, even sort of “fun” to try different approaches and try to teach them to myself. I’m seeing how research methods could benefit classroom teachers who want more sophisticated, credible, and accurate pictures of what is going on in their classrooms. It’s disappointing though that teachers across the country aren’t permitted ample time to deeply analyze and apply their own teaching! A thought also occurs to me that it seems a little strange that I’m only employing these methods now, outside of my coursework and that I have not had any opportunity to practice these methods under the guidance of a professor. Something seems wrong about that. It reminds me that classrooms should be places of practice where we try putting things to use. Funny that I learned ABOUT so many different methods without actually learning how to DO any of them. Lots of philosophy, theory, and styles though. *Sigh*
Anyway, I attempted to code student responses the the above question. Coding, as I understand it, is a qualitative method where one searchers for occurrences of certain words, concepts, and themes. This is a mechanism of narrative analysis. First I got out my highlighters and began reading through a print out of the comments. Then I realized that I had a computing machine that might be able to help with this task. So I tried, and quickly learned, that highlighting multiple terms using multiple colors in Microsoft Word is deceptively challenging. Long story short, the “Replace With” tool was the key. In any case, I’ll share a PDF of the coded comments with the total occurrences of various words and concepts. The following categories and concepts emerged from the comments: Art; Creativity & Its Characteristics; Settings & Tools; Effects; and Audience & Agency. You can see the terms that I clustered together to create this categories and probably guess fairly well as to my reasoning for the sake of time. The most prominent terms included “I’ at 42; “art” at 38; “creat” for create, “my” at 28; creative & creativity at 21; “learn” at 22 followed closely by “class” at 21; “valu” for value & valuable at 12; “me” at 12; “lesson” at 9; “student” at 9.
My favorite phrases however were some of the following, as they resonated with my goals for the course:
I have more value than a grade.”
Beyond this, I’m not sure how much there is to be gained from this analysis. If I was to compare these results with my quantitative data from my previous post, I suppose that I would temper my excitement because here I see so many people mentioning how everyone is creative and creativity can be improved, whereas the numbers showed how a number of students seemed confused about creativity being something that is dynamic. Additionally, art was mentioned most but does that conflict with the “art is a privilege” statement that divided the class on the survey?
It’s positive that there were so many mentions of art and creativity, by every student at least once, although that is what I would hope for and even suspect. Two thirds of the group mentioned learning and class specifically so I appreciate the correlation, since the course was focused on art-integration. It seemed as though most statements involved what I would call statements of agency, like “I did this” for example. I wonder if there is a way to measure agency or if I should try to look for changes in agency from the beginning to the end of the course?
I don’t know if there is much else to interpret here. I feel like there is a deeper level of analysis or other tools I could apply but I’m not sure what right now. It was a decent amount of work to analyze the comments but a lot of that could be attributed to learning curve and troubleshooting the software. I’ll try this method again next semester and see if it is more productive. Still, the document is pretty and colorful :)
Q3: What else would you like to share about your experience in this course? This is my first time teaching this course and using some of the methods we have used so any additional feedback regarding your experience in this course would be extremely appreciated. What didn't work for you? What worked for you? What would you change or tweak? What would you keep the same? Thank you!
The last question invited feedback concerning what worked and what didn’t work from my students’ perspectives. I have to say that this was the most HELPFUL feedback I have ever received from students! I truly feel like these comments alone justify the dialogic approach. Generally speaking, this constructive criticism felt like it was coming from colleagues, as if we’re on the same page now at the end of the course. The vast majority of suggestions are things that I wish I had thought of changing or already have thought about changing! Was this the result of establishing a culture of criticality through conversation? Being vulnerable? Transparency? Did I just get lucky by having a very professional group? This is something I’ll be thinking about in the future.
I didn’t employ a specific method of analysis for this section. I simply looked for positive comments (blue), critical comments (pink), and suggested solutions (yellow). For expediency, I’m sharing a PDF of the document as I went over them and made notes by hand and I am too tired/lazy to go back and redo them digitally.
How do you think their proposed changes align with the changes I had already been thinking about? I found that keeping a running list throughout the semester helped me keep track of tweaks I wanted to make in the future. For the most part, I feel like we’re in agreement.
Finally, I would just like to wrap up this post with a little brag by including my SEIs. This is the primary evaluation instrument of the university. In total, I received 14 out of a possible 29 responses. Unfortunately, only half of my students completed them so I don’t really consider the quantitative data very valid. Ironically, THAT is the data I would be primarily judged with (and I mean judged). Though I did receive a 4.9 overall :) On the other hand, what qualitative data I did receive was very positive overall. I was happy and humbled by their kind words:
Honestly one of the best, most dedicated, and prepared instructors I have ever had."
So what do you think? Do you agree with my analysisis…is. Did you see things that I missed? Have any questions? Thinking about collecting your own data about your teaching? Have tips to share? Let me know!
As I stated previously, I will follow up this post with Part 3: Final Meetings & New Beginnings where I will bridge last semester’s final meetings with students and the beginning of a new semester with a brand new group of future teachers. Thank you for reading!"
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.