In the book Educated, Tara Westover recounts growing up in an isolated compound in Idaho with her family. She did not receive a formal education and most of her 'homeschooling' involved conspiracy theories and home-spun faith-based nonsense. She did not even sit in a classroom until she attended college which almost all of her family discouraged her from doing before and after. She is now Dr. Westover.
Teachers, if you're worried about whether or not your students are going to meet some artificial construct like "annual yearly progress" - stop it. They will not. And that is absolutely fine.
Art can still do a lot of good and can make a real difference in their lives. At the end of the day, that's the point, right? Art is important. Of course it is. But not because of standards or objectives or AYP.
I suggest adopting an 'art for life' curriculum by finding ways to make art a part of everyone's lives. To me, that means focusing on connection instead of content. Emphasize community and cooperation over craft. Grace instead of grades. As I keep coaching folks, it's time for Maslow's before Bloom's.
Tara Westover's story resonates with me because I also grew up in a situation where I came to realize I was living in a situation where I was also isolated and unhealthy situation. When I was a kid, I lost nearly a year and a half of school altogether in 3 years. I spent some of my fifth and sixth grade years, the worst years of my life, living in a car with my mother who suffered from schizophrenia - not that I or anyone else knew that. I won't go into detail here - that's for my own memoir. I was kept home from school so much of my fifth grade year that I was held back and had to repeat it. It was humiliating. I barely made it to school enough the second time to be allowed to move onto the sixth grade - maybe half (so 90 days). I think they let me pass out of pity. No one at school knew what was going on at home - though some knew something was wrong. It took me years to get out and on my own. Maybe I'll be a doctor someday.
I'm not going to give you any of that 'whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger' stuff. I don't believe that. A lot of what doesn't kill you can can nevertheless maim you. Sometimes for years; sometimes for the rest of your life.
But art can help someone get through tough stuff. I know it helped me. And I didn't have an art class or art teacher to help me. Just my imagination and paper and pencils and colored pencils. And a desire to have something that was mine, that I could control and get better at. A place on paper and in my head I could escape to. Some place I could process all that stuff I couldn't put into words; wouldn't dare talk about. Things that I could only put on a page.
Your students want that too. That's what you can do this year. That's what art can do.
Not everything will be okay. But some things will. Art can help.
I've been thinking about this diagram a lot lately, especially since moving to teaching online, aka The Great Transition, aka The Online Odyssey. This diagram never came up in my education program and not a single supervisor or administrator has referred to it that I can recall. But I think it speaks to an incredibly important point at the core of our collective vision of teaching.
The diagram is known as the project management triangle, a decidely not-creative name for something that definitely applies to creative work like artmaking or teaching, though one of its aliases is the "iron triangle" which is much cooler but iron isn't really our go to in contemporary society. There are many versions but I like this one because it uses the CMYK color wheel (subtractive color) used for printing so it's a more artful representation of the concept. The point of the triangle is to illustrate that every project or endeavor has constraints and these constraints are linked like fingers playing Cat's Cradle. The elemental constraints of a project according to the triangle are time, cost, and scope or quality. In graphic design, for example, I've seen this diagram used to relate how clients often demand Utopia, meaning they want a quality product produced cheaply and quickly. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant has probably come across people with this attitude towards their food order on a regular basis. To counter such attitudes and help manage client expectations, the iron triangle may be invoked: "Choose two". As a result, the client can better understand that under normal circumstances, something quickly and cheaply produced will likely be low quality (e.g. your plastic spoon), while someone that is produced cheaply and of high quality will be expensive (e.g., an overnite delivery), and finally that it is possible to produce something of high quality cheaply, but it will take time. It is an insufficient model, ultimately, as it is not perfectly realistic. Trading between constraints is not always possible depending on the situation and external factors not shown can influence results. Nevertheless, it is a useful starting point for understanding our recent global transition to online teaching and learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As teachers, we know that folks often have unrealistic expectations of us, especially right now. There seemed to be a general perception that pivoting an entire education system overnite would actually go smoothly, despite the lack of support, preparation, and resources. Over and over, the expectation seemed to be that this transition should be fast, cheap, and, above all, good. But that was impossible. Nevertheless, we often internalize those expectations, adopting these unrealistic expectations for ourselves. Do we turn around and do that to our students? There is a difference between thinking 'the impossible is possible' versus 'the impossible is probable' or 'practical'.
I call this "100% thinking" but perfectionism works just as well. It's implied every time you hear that 'gOtTa GiVe 110%!!!' mentality. Obviously, utopian thinking can be harmful if not outright dangerous for both to us and our Ss. Utopia is not just a place that doesn't exist - it SHOULDN'T EXIST. After all, any one person's utopia might be another person's dystopia. But it seems like utopian thinking is the norm in education - often encouraged if not demanded by our workplaces and field in general. It can seem even cultish at times. We're told over and over that teaching is a calling, and of course, if it's a calling (a religious concept rooted in self-sacrifice), then sacrificing everything is not only 'good' but expected. After all, most if not all of us got into this career to do good, right? So we burn the candle at both ends, thinking that's what it means to do 'a good job' while giving everything we have and ending up not keeping enough for ourselves, just to end burning out or worse. Of course teaching cannot be selfish. It's not about me. But we also can't afford to be completely selfless - for our own and our family's sake's. It has to be about us - all of us, which includes caring for ourselves as well as others. And unrealistic expectations help no one. I don't think we talk about this enough as teachers - that we have two little hands, 24 hours in a day, and only so much energy to give. These are our creative constraints. We can do a lot with that. Perhaps more than most could dream of. But we still have our limits. After all, a painting has boundaries. We should as well. Because after all, art is about being human and humanity, ours as well as our students', must be at the core of what we do. We can do so much! But we can only do so much!! Can't we take pride in all the good we do, without feeling like it is never enough? Because we are enough. We're here. We're trying.
What do you think? Have you been guilty of trying to provide teaching that is good, fast, and cheap? Have you backed off of utopian thinking in favor of more realistic aspirations? How do you practice self-care and maintain realistic expectations for yourself and others?
Hello! It’s been a while! Sorry about that. How about a quick update?
It’s May 2020. I was supposed to be analyzing data and working on finishing my dissertation. Now I’m not. We all had other plans.
The vast majority of art teachers never planned on teaching online either. 2020 has been full of surprises so far. For now, much of the world congregates mainly online instead of in public, ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’ as we wait for the day when we can launch ourselves from our burrows like hyperactive meerkats getting shot out of cannons. But who knows what life will be like even after the COVID-19 storm passes? Will we be back to school in the Fall? Will we still have our jobs in a few months or another year from now? Will there be a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion this year? Despite our everyday lives becoming mostly virtual, it feels somehow even less futuristic than Neuromancer, Snow Fall, or the Matrix might’ve led us to believe.
I missed blogging since I’ve been away. It’s great to have a place for more recreational writing. But I had been forgivably absorbed in my dissertating. Now because of our current circumstances, it looks like I might need to figure out how to completely redesign my study since there may or may not be classes to visit and make art with in the immediate future. What form exactly my study design will take is still yet to be seen. For the time being, I’ve shifted my focus to designing a course on teaching K12 art online for art teachers. My ulterior motive is that this slight detour will help me get back on course.
We’re all trying to figure out distance learning right now, among other things. Around the globe art teachers are rethinking the role of art and technology and doing it post haste. Many art teachers are struggling, having received little to no training or preparation, while others feel disconnected and unsupported as their schools go all in on their classroom or ‘more important’ subjects. Yet there are also many ‘American Ninja-ing’ up that steep technology learning curve and flourishing online in unexpected ways. Many more are somewhere in the middle just trying to, in the immortal words of Tim Gunn, make it work.
As teachers, we’re all used to ‘building the plane and flying it too’, but this is more like building the plane 50,000 feet up while desperately flipping through the pages of Baby’s First Flight Manual to find the Table of Contents. It’s been rough is what I’m trying to say. Many of these teachers are not only trying to teach other people’s children, but doing all this simultaneously while supervising their own children. The situation is less than ideal. Our students could be anywhere, anytime, if they show up at all, and might have no art materials. It might feel like teaching art via message in a bottle.
All our daily lives have been turned upside-down. Coping with fear, anxiety, and stress can be difficult as we hunker down through this uncertain crisis with an invisible threat. We depend on the Internet for so much of our lives right now. I can’t help but be grateful at least to be trapped indoors in a time where so many have unprecedented access to a near endless stream of entertainment and information online. Video chat is something commonplace. You can download most any video game you want or if you don’t feel like playing, watch a live-streamer play it for you. We can waste infinite hours and kilowatts scrolling through memes and shopping at Amazon. With all this time indoors, I can’t help but reflect on the current state of the world and how we got here. Where the heck are we going?
How did I end up designing and teaching art teachers how to teach online?
I’m far from some tech guru or the end-all-be-all of distance learning. I had grown up with names like Atari, Nintendo, and Sega at home and the irradiated green pixels of Oregon Trail or Number Muncher on the single classroom computer relegated to the corner of the room. In high school I loaded Doom from a floppy disk of shareware and sent instant messages to kids my age across the country on America Online. I created my first digital artworks in MS Paint. The height of our hacking capabilities was figuring out how to use our graphing calculators to play Snake.
It was 2002 when I built my first website as an art project in Dr. Craig Roland’s Art Education & Technology course at the University of Florida. I still remember every project and what I made for each. We created funny animated gifs using famous artwork, self-portraits in Adobe PhotoShop 6.0 & 7.0 with real-world objects and images on flatbed scanners, tried some basic html coding, built a creative website using Macromedia Dreamweaver, and made a collaborative art ed webquest for our future students. The artwork we made was alive, interactive, and out there for the whole world wide web to see. My old college website is still floating out there, a relic of a more DIY Internet, bravely refusing to be deleted after all these years. I built more than a dozen or two creative and professional websites since then, along with a number of digital and web-based projects. Why don’t I make neat, weird things online like that anymore?
It was my experience in Craig’s class and the skills that I learned there that allowed me to get a job working at the Center for Instructional Training & Technology (CITT) on campus. I remember the office was on the second story just past the potato and above the french fries. If you went to UF you’ll know these landmarks. It was exciting that folks thought my background in art and education was a plus, and that even though I may not have been technically advanced, they believed they could work with the skills I had and that I could learn the technology as necessary. But they couldn’t teach me to think like an artist and a teacher. This point would be echoed 15 years later by a local business leader speaking about why he prefers to hire art majors and creative thinkers to work at his tech startup rather than people with only a technical background.
My job was fairly straightforward and often boring. But it was also a pretty relaxed and fun place to work as a young person in college while also gaining a ton of marketable skills. It was my job to edit and sync Microsoft PowerPoint slides with audio for a distance learning program in the Gerontology department. I should’ve walked away with a minor in gerontology after all those hours of listening to lectures from professors and healthcare professionals and guest speakers. It did nevertheless instill a very long-term perspective of learning into me during my pre-service teaching career. Maybe that’s partly what influenced me to emphasize art and creativity for a person’s entire life. Similarly, partially because it was a university using public funds and grants, there was a keen awareness of digital accessibility. I had never considered accessibility really before that job and the kinds of questions we would have to answer and the diversity of user experiences we would consider is something that I’ve tried to retain to this day. Craig's class expanded my own expressive abilities, while CITT expanded my awareness of audience and difference.
Looking back, there were lots of other bits of discrete knowledge I picked up while at CITT. For example, I was also implicitly learning how to chunk learning in ways ideally suited to the structure of online courses. That was the first time I saw those alien words “module” (aka unit) and “course shell” (aka classroom) that online teachers know so well. The format is as old as formal education. Basically, the gerontology courses were closer to online textbooks brought to life through timed slides and recorded audio. Including video was well beyond our capabilities back then and YouTube didn’t really exist yet. I wasn’t involved in the class discussions or grading or anything once the classes went live. The behind the scenes content development was interesting but also rather mechanical. It wasn’t anything like the experimental, artistic creations from Craig’s class. I wanted more of that and would spend my down-time tinkering with creative websites and animations destined to become flotsam on hard drives and servers. But it was fun and today I don’t come across a lot of unusual websites like you did back in the early 00s and before. I know they’re still out there, but maybe we’re less likely to wander from the well-tread path now.
I remember how I constantly experienced imposter syndrome while I worked at CITT. I was ‘faking it until I made it’ constantly and to be honest, I never felt like I ever ‘made it’. I wasn’t an especially competent html coder, could barely ActionScript in Flash, I didn’t know how to program much more than some Excel functions and Word macros, could hardly cobble together a style sheet, the latest web innovation becoming standardized, and I didn’t know any other programming languages. I had taken a Business Computing course a couple years before where we built a faux company with a complete faux employee database and wrestled with formulas in Excel until our eyes bled. That had also been a tremendous learning experience, but mostly in troubleshooting, resilience, and brute force. My strengths at work was software, amateur art & design, novice pedagogy, and not a whole lot else. I was constantly afraid I’d be exposed as the charlatan I was but somehow I managed to get away with the whole charade by learning things. And also looking busy. I always recommend that students ‘punch above their weight’ meaning they should go for the jobs and apply for the opportunities that they feel at least a little underqualified for. You’ll grow more; stretch more, I think. Everyone feels like an imposter at some point anyway when taking on a new role. Might as well mean it. I imagine some of the art teachers I’ll be working with in the distance learning class might feel similarly these days.
It was a nice setup at CITT. They hired folks with the understanding that the job was also a learning opportunity and we were able to teach ourselves on an as-needed basis for projects. It was cool working at a place that respected independence and actively encouraged their employees to improve themselves. Surprisingly, I worked at several schools much less concerned with giving teachers the time, money, space, and yes, trust, to learn on their own. I read a lot of Flash for Dummies, Dreamweaver for Dummies, and HTML for Dummies. There were LOTS of tutorials online. All the time I was there I kept making artistic little websites, watching tutorials, and grinding Runescape in the background. I eventually learned some Flash animation. I collaborated on the storyboarding and writing, character and background design, animation, and game design for a neat public health project intended for children with PKU condition that you might find on the Wayback Machine but otherwise is gone from online. It was about a boy meeting an alien from outer space, ensuing hijinks, etc. I’m not sure if the project ever came to fruition, but I did revisit it later and found a lot of my work intact and a lot discarded and re-designed. Such is the cut-throat world of public health cartooning. I save everything though and maybe I'll post some of the animations but just for now here is the background art I created.
When I was at UF I also became involved in our local NAEA student chapter where I became president and not coincidentally webmaster, again putting to use my skills from Craig’s class. Eventually I went on to become a national student chapter president, where I redesigned that website. The other student presidents and I held honorary board seats and in that role we were able to show off our website to the rest of the leadership, many of whom were impressed by our outreach and tech savvy, would eventually insist on a long-overdue update to the NAEA website. An ad hoc committee was organized to provide recommendations on which I served with Craig. There I was, helping shape the digital face of art education in America.
All of that happened directly because of the opportunities I had in Craig’s class. This is the epitome of relevance. Ever since then, I’ve tried to dedicate myself to ensuring students can take what they do in my class directly out into the world afterward. How can I set them up for success outside of class, immediately, as a result of our time together? I was able to thrive AND survive because I gained expressive AND professional skills. In other words:
Ask not what you can do for Art, ask what your art can do for YOU!
How can I provide my students with their own Ruby Slipper moments, where there is no telling where they might go with the skills and abilities they acquire?
My mirror experiences in Craig’s Art Ed Technology class and working at CITT is the perfect example of the “Adapt versus Adopt” dichotomy Craig talks about in his essay Art Ed 2.0 Manifesto (reprinted below with author’s permission) which can be traced back to Presnky (2005) and is echoed in Delacruz (2009). In Craig’s class, he invited us to adopt new approaches resulting in new processes and products - something unexpected and unique with a global audience and unlimited potential. At work at CITT, I manufactured content on a digital assembly line where I adapted old approaches and products like slide lectures to a new format, an automated slide lecture online, that was nevertheless extending the reach of the university and therefore extending opportunity and making higher learning more inclusive and accessible.
Five years after I graduated from UF, I was in my fourth year of teaching art and at the NAEA conference in 2009 when he presented this foundational piece. Now the world is very different than it was two months ago, let alone 10 years ago when this was originally presented. And yet the ideas are even more relevant now. Like it or not, whether you’re a technophile or neophyte, the distance between art teaching and technology has collapsed for better or worse. As I contemplate where we will go from here as art teachers and as a field, I find myself returning to Roland’s vision for the future of art education.
I’m fortunate to have been able to work under a digital art education pioneer. He asked us to figure out what we could do with the tools we were handed. He asked us to not stare into screens and punch keys alone but to play and blend the digital and analog by using our hands and objects and processes, like a dolphin jumping between air and water but between virtual and actual, engaged in new ways of thinking and making, like an artist. From drawing to scan to screen to print to film and back again ad infinitum. That is what I think of when I think of an art education that, as Craig puts it, is “High Tech & High Touch”. This, I believe, is what the future demands of artists and is what I hope my students will also take away from their time with me as well.
I fully appreciate now how rare of a treat Craig’s class was and how far ahead of the curve he put his students. I tried multiple times to replicate elements of that class but never to the same level of success. For one reason or another, I myself never managed to create my own stand-alone art and technology course. For what it’s worth, I felt like in most of my teaching tenures after, both K12 and Higher Ed, it was always a fight just to get my Ss access to technology labs and devices. I knew of colleagues in art education doing really cool stuff online with their students or creating maker spaces, but I had $900 to start an entire K5 art program from scratch, for example, and didn’t have much high tech work to showcase myself. I’m sure a lot of my students feel the same way, saying things like “I wish” or “if only”. At my first teaching job, ironically on a technology magnet campus, I couldn’t get a digital projector but instead had to use an overhead projector and a sheet of dry erase board hooked over a chalkboard with a broken wheel with some crude wire hooks. The principal, an excellent example of the Adapt mindset, thought simply typing using word processor software was being a digital content creator. Smh. I remember how the mostly white, mostly well-off minority of bussed in academy students learned to build websites and edit photos while our mostly black local students only used computers for typing and testing drills - no longer the Digital Gap but the Digital Divide, where class and race determines not just what technology you have access to but also dictates your technical aspirations. I understood how frustrating it was for many students to feel like they had to unplug as they entered the school building and felt like they were stepping back in time. Now teaching this class online, I will finally have a fully-integrated art ed and technology class, so to speak, just not the way I had originally imagined. That’s life. How can I create a space where creativity and equity are centered rather than marginalized?
Speaking of life, we like to think we’re more immersed in technology now than ever before in the history of humankind. But as I like to remind my students, a pencil is technology. A simple graphite pencil was a cutting-edge innovation for hundreds of years. But just like the apps in smartphones that older generations assume young people wield like adept magicians, most folks simply pick it up and use it without sophistication or awareness of the creative possibilities. Yet every art teacher has taught their students how to hold a pencil and how to manipulate it to achieve desired effects. It’s the same with a mouse, a finger-swipe, and whatever comes after. Now it’s vectors and pixels. In the past it was pigment and clay. In the past the technology was vastly different but our dependence was not. This has been true since we discovered fire and its ability to cook our food, warm our bodies, light the darkness, harm our enemies, and produce drawing supplies, ie charcoal. Technology has been fundamental to our evolution as humans and art has always been there. Since the beginning, our tendency towards innovation has provided us with the means to not only survive but also thrive creatively. Technology is the very mechanism of our evolution. While some fear that with each step embracing technology more, that we lose a bit of our humanity, but with each incremental advancement, it is the inescapable presence of art that at the same time retains what makes us human. We cannot have one without the other.
Art teachers have always been tech teachers. While the latest advancements may frustrate us momentarily, that too shall pass. Our tech legacy is as old as our species, and while it is important to pause and take stock of where we have been and what we already know, it is even more important to ask where are we going? I very much want to help my students to successfully adapt to this new normal and whatever follows. Times of disruption are also times of possibility. So the silver-lining may be that we have been given the opportunity to rethink the way we do things. Our collective relocation to the Internet temporarily might provoke us to re-imagine what art education looks like. What does art do for people in their daily lives, especially during tense times? What can we do with our students online that isn’t possible in the classroom? What will post-Internet art education become? Will we just go back to the way things were or will there be some new artistic path laid out before us?
Now that I have the privilege of designing and teaching a distance learning class for art teachers starting this week, these questions have been at the forefront of my thoughts these last few weeks. So I’m back here at my blog, thinking out loud with you as I try to guide art teachers navigating this new online frontier we’ve all suddenly found ourselves in. As I’ve stressed over and over again, I believe vulnerability is a fundamental but too little acknowledged component of creativity, teaching, and learning. Many of my students, I imagine, are probably feeling vulnerable as well. Naturally, if you are doing something you don’t know how to do, that you haven’t necessarily been trained to do, you too would probably feel off-balance. Remember back to your Maslow’s Hierarchy and pretend it’s that “You Are Here” map from the mall. Where is that arrow pointing right now? The old self-actualization summit can seem like it might as well be in space compared to what a lot of folks are worrying about right now - safety and security. Belonging can feel tough too as we distance ourselves physically and our communities are dispersed. In many cases our very identities feel threatened - we’re all first year teachers again. There are lots of folks looking for advice and support these days. I hope I can help. Nothing is normal.
What will that mean for my students? What will that mean for their students? What will that mean for any of us? Fecho’s concept of wobbling, introduced to me by Dr. Brian Edmiston at OSU, is an appropriate analogy. We’re all feeling wobbly these days. That wobble can be productive, though it may not necessarily feel that way in the moment as it signals the presence of a possible new path - a chance for change. Like a sailor or a skateboarder, we can become more comfortable with wobble, even becoming at home in it. In a classroom, we want our wobbling to develop into swaying, where we mindfully bring together our cognitive and emotional sides, our elephants and riders, as Edmiston would remind us. Will a 3 week long class be long enough for my students and I to learn how to sway together with our elephants?
This will be my first time teaching a distance learning course about distance learning. I always enjoy a good meta. The first time you do anything is not going to be your best performance possible, I tell myself. And that’s fine, especially now. But at the same time, I feel such a tremendous responsibility to my teachers, for helping them feel more confident and successful. I need to find my own balance between these extremes, allowing the pressure to productively push me without letting it punish. Accept that we are in survival mode, but perhaps acknowledging that we can survive in style. We can keep an eye on the horizon and an eye out for gopher holes. As I approach this new experience, I have to remember my “why” just as I do in any class and as I always tell my students to do.
How can we make the most meaning possible?
It’s easy to lose sight of meaning in chaos and turmoil. But meaning is purpose. Meaning is hope. Meaning is beauty. Artmaking is meaning making, regardless of whether you’re a professional artist or amateur. When we make meaning in the world, that is art. And boy, do we need meaning - in our daily lives, in our relationships, and for the future of our society. We MUST have art. Why are we here? Other than to kick ass and chew bubblegum.? We are here to make meaning. How do we make meaning? Have you tried making art?
Join me as I embark on this virtual adventure into teaching K12 art teachers online and possibly even, one day, a completed dissertation. More on that last part soon - hopefully. For now, it seems like a good time to revisit Craig’s seminal essay, Art Ed 2.0 Manifesto. I want to comb through his writing in a little more depth having only briefly touched on some of its ideas here. I’ll discuss how this foundational reading has influenced my teaching and continues to inspire me in my next post and update you about how the class progresses. Until then, we’ll be together, apart. Thank you for reading.
NEXT POST: Art Ed 2.0 2020
Read Art Ed 2.0 Manifesto (2009)
*Since I’m publishing this post coincidentally during Teacher Appreciation Week - thanks, Craig!*
I'll mostly be blogging about my experiences teaching. I teach a class online right now called Teaching K12 Art Online where I'll be exploring art online with art teachers. I also currently teach a (formerly?) face-to-face course called Visual Culture: Investigating Diversity & Social Justice which is an art, critical writing, and research course for undergrads. Before this, I taught a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where I was experimenting with cooperative & creative teaching integrating art and "going gradeless" with preservice early childhood education majors.