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 an isolated and unhealthy environment also. 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?
Assessment is not a bad word. Though it seems that way in art education sometimes. I can empathize with folks who find the term 'exhausting.' Saying the A-word might even trigger some kind of low-grade academic PTSD for some. I think it’s because we’re so used to being abused by it, both as students and then as teachers.
But remember that at its core, assessment is simply about value. What we assess is what we look for and what we look for is what we value. What values are you promoting in your classroom assessment? Are you valuing learning over grades? There is a difference. What about dialogue over monologue? Subjectivity vs false pretenses of objectivity? Vulnerability and risk-taking vs the formulaic and the path of least resistance?
Assessment is not the same as grades. Grades at best serve expediency, but expediency is not compatible with learning any more than it is with art. Galloping through a museum to see as much art as possible is not the way to have meaningful experiences with art. Art is slow. Art is demanding. It asks the viewer to notice something,even reflect on what you notice, as opposed to the rest of daily life when we simply go and do mindlessly.
Meeting with every single student to determine grades is also slow (at least compared to a computerized test or mechanically determined grade). Assessment, if it is to be authentic, is also slow. But I believe that we should have the courage to assess face-to-face and to do so through dialogue. In this fast-paced world, we must slow down for our students’ sakes if we want them to slow down as well. We ended my class this semester with final meetings where I met with all 30 pre-service teachers in my class to assess portfolios of writing and determine a grade together.
Even though we have been graded ad nauseam for the better part of 15 to 20 years of our lives, few and far between are the instances where we share responsibility for our own evaluation or even evaluate ourselves. This seems rather strange. These future teachers will go on to emphasize grading because that is what the system demands; that is what they have been subjected to as students and all they know. But shouldn’t they get to have experiences actually grading SOMEONE before they are in a classroom ACTUALLY grading someone before student teaching? Don’t we, as a field, think that, at the very least, self-assessment might build empathy for students and expand the thinking of these future teachers BEFORE they get into the classroom when they can still ask questions and experiment safely?
I told them it would feel weird and uncomfortable, maybe because evaluation is hard and maybe because they have so little practice self-evaluating in traditional settings. Step into that discomfort. It will be over before they knew it. This semester, I used an analogy that I liked quite a lot because I thought it would be very “sticky” – the tattoo artist. Sure, my students get the logic I explained above, but will they REMEMBER when they are the teacher in charge? My answer was the tattoo artist analogy. I told them that traditionally, a prospective tattoo artist would practice drawing for a long time and maybe practice tattooing a piece of meat from the supermarket. When they wanted to graduate to become a professional, they would tattoo themselves. This has two benefits. First, is your work good enough for you to be willing to wear it? Second, you know how it feels when you do it to someone else. It builds empathy. So it makes sense to give a future teacher the opportunity to share the steering wheel when it comes to their own evaluation so that they know how it feels. The problem is, this analogy may or may not be true, because I’ve heard conflicting accounts. I’ll keep looking for one because the truth matters to me but this one may work for a time.
Some students had to mull over very difficult questions that every teacher faces. Whatever they chose would have lasting consequences. Would they evaluate themselves fairly, as they are expected to evaluate their students? Or would they take advantage of the opportunity? It seemed like an obvious teachable moment to put the ball in their courts. I believe their decisions says a lot about who they will become as teachers, and I thought they all showed character as they practiced wrestling with the tough choices every teacher faces in a less risky environment.
Fortunately, the vast majority of them did very well so I was able to relax a bit. A few conversations were tough and awkward but teachable moments on how to move through disagreement. There was no point where I had to overrule anyone, though there were occasions where I and the student came to terms with final grades that were lower than the student hoped. But there were also occasions where perhaps overly-critical students and I came to terms with grades higher than they expected as well. Nevertheless, they seemed sincere in their understanding of how those grades seemed fair. Overall, I loved the experience and it seemed like they all responded well to it. And I have some evidence to back that up. While I’ll wait until my next post to get my exit survey data, I will share that before their experience with authentic assessment in my course, 39% of the pre-service teachers said they were interested in practicing authentic assessment in their own future classrooms, but by the end of the semester, that number had increased to 68% - an increase of nearly 30%!
On Effort & Assessment
Hearing what my students talk about and write about gives me insight into what they value. What I tried to do was listen. I give my students multiple opportunities to reflect on something and may ask them about something several different ways. I tell them this is because I do not want to use only one bucket to catch a waterfall, as I explain to them. I’m looking for the learning when I’m reading and listening to and observing what my students say and do. If I only look one time, that’s like using one bucket to catch all that information. If I look for something multiple ways, then I will use several buckets and increase my chances of finding what I’m looking for, if it is there. We must be sure we find what we are looking for and not what we are hoping for, and likewise, our students should have the opportunity to prove what they have and have not learned beyond a shadow of a doubt. That is justice, and at the end of the day, that above all else must drive our decision making in the classroom just as it must drive a civil society.
One nearly universal theme I heard in students’ self-evaluations was effort being highly prized, privileged in my opinion from accomplishment or acquiring specific skills or knowledge. I’m afraid that this is something of a lowest common denominator from my point of view. Is the person expending every last ounce of their strength and effort attempting to move a boulder more admirable than the clever person that uses a lever and actually moves the stone? Not to me.
Obviously we all need to put in effort! Obviously EVERY student IDEALLY would normally be operating at the edge of their potential in order for their limitations to expand. I have a hard time imagining a single teacher promoting a lack of effort in their classroom. But how do you begin to weigh or measure it and would that be useful at all? Would everyone be successful if they just put in effort? Sounds ridiculous to me. In my opinion, effort would be a quality of the classroom culture to be valued, modeled, and practiced, rather than something academic to be evaluated. Hasn’t it been our desire to REDUCE the amount of effort required for tasks that has driven our technology? Doesn’t evolution privilege the adaptation and not the effort expended? Surely, it is this emphasis on effort above all else that makes people think that, while learning is often hard, it can also be meaningful and fun. If we measure by effort alone, surely the most dismal learning tasks are then the most beneficial, right? If a teacher doesn't grade effort, that doesn't mean no effort suddenly becomes acceptable. It seems to me we grade their effort when students are being forced to do things.
I wonder if, in practice, prizing even effort leads to a deficit view. The student quit due to their flawed character and lack of effort, not because the system is unfair or irrelevant. “They’re lazy!” is the favorite attack upon the disenfranchised. Yet here at college, after so many years of school, is what is most prized? Not first improvement? Growth? Self-fulfillment? Achievement? Surely, all this represents the institutionalized view, as nearly every high achieving student (future teachers) in my class emphasized effort. To the contrary, the best studio art classes I ever taught were guided by the mantra of a familiar green puppet: Do or do not, there is not try.
I don't look for effort, I want engagement. And I was very pleased to hear many respond very positively to their Creative Growth Goals, which honestly I had wondered if having students choose CGGs would’ve worked. And it didn’t, completely, this first semester by any means (well, I started in the Fall but it was formalized in my Spring class). I was worried because I had to remind several students which goal they had chosen at their midpoint meetings. But they seemed truly engaged in their focus on developing a skill or ability such as idea generation or uncertainty or experimentation.
It’s hard, sometimes, to know with great certainty when you are conferencing with students and reviewing their portfolios that the risk of confirmation bias is extremely STRONG when you AND the students both have a horse in the race. I think we have to weigh our judgments carefully and this is why I seek transparency with my students. But what I took away from their positive responses was not so much the specifics of it but that they responded well to being able to choose a goal that was they then were prompted to weave throughout their coursework. Additionally, much like this assignment, they really benefited from prompts to reflect back on their decisions from the beginning of the semester which they could use as a point of reference to assess growth. Students like feeling like they’re making progress, but in many classes students are not given the opportunity to reflect. Comprehensive tests and papers do not serve this function. But I was happy that the students enjoyed exercising their agency in selecting something in the course they’d like to focus on. This is something I want to more deeply engrain through the core of future classes.
Assessment is rarely easy, but for me it is one of the most important things I do in the classroom. But grades, while attractive to bureaucrats and folks that don’t know much about learning, are not the answer. I told my students at their meetings was that the objective of our final meeting was to take all of the rich experiences we’ve had this semester, the story that you have created this semester, and do our best to fit all of that into one of these odd little shapes (as I point to the OSU grade scale). We lose a lot doing this, because it is nearly impossible to reverse engineer that story out of the funny little shape. But you and I will know that there is a lot of meaning in that shape, even if it is hidden. And most importantly, it is the dialogue, reflection and choice - the essential ingredients of authentic assessment - that my students found meaningful which they will carry with them well after they leave the classroom. Paradoxically, this means slowing down and focusing on those art and creativity values, skills, and dispositions that we will practice the rest of our lives. These are the things I value and so that is what I assess.
In my next post, I’ll share the results of the exit surveys my students completed. What did they think of our time together? Tune in next time and I'll discuss the result and reveal how their data will affect my planning for next year! The challenges of change!
Lastly, thanks for your patience in waiting for this post! It's been a few weeks as I had classes ending and beginning; several major deadlines; and some personal matters all coming at the same time. I appreciate your continued support!
Can playing games together help us move toward inclusive teaching? How can we use games to center those students that might otherwise be on the periphery of the classroom community?
When I taught elementary and middle school, I enjoyed playing critique games. Some favorites included a game Harn Museum Educator Bonne Bernau had shared with my undergraduate class called Token Response and a game I made up like “Read My Mind” (a variation on Blind Man’s Bluff). But over the years working in the college setting I admit that, while I feel my critiques are engaging conversations filled with analysis and constructive feedback, they may have been lacking the fun of those elementary school critiques.
“You can’t say ‘you can’t play’” is Dr. Edmiston’s rule when it comes to his students playing games. In our education class, we had recently discussed how playing games together can be powerful tools for community-building and engagement. He asked us to be especially attentive towards how we might meaningfully include those students that we feel may be at risk of being on the fringe of the group. This may be our quieter and more introverted students, those who may have had difficulty fitting in or those that might be more resistant, or students whose culture or background might differ from the majority, like international students. I had planned a critique day for our next class so that we could display and discuss the artwork we had created this semester. Why not livin up our class critique with some games?
I wanted to begin by sharing an experience with my students that I remember affecting the way I looked at art when I was an undergraduate with the added bonus of helping them see some of the most famous art in the world in a new way. We played a game I call “Living Statues.”
Me: Sometimes to understand a work of art we need to become that work of art. Tonight we’re going to play a game that I call Living Statues but you can call it whatever you want. In this game, we’ll be recreating famous works of art. We’ll have statues who will be the models that the sculptors physically pose to match an artwork as closely as possible. Only the sculptors know what the artwork looks like so the statue just has to do his/her best to hold the pose as long as possible. Let’s practice on me. I’ll be the statue and I want to see if you all can help pose me like an artwork I’m thinking of.
Embodying a figure in an artwork is probably one of the most powerful ways to try to understand its subject matter. I love this example because my undergraduate professor Craig Roland introduced it in our methods class many years ago and it has always stuck with me. A few years ago, I was extremely fortunate to be able to chaperone an undergraduate trip to France (occasionally, academia has its perks). While there, I finally had the opportunity to see The Thinker in person at Rodin’s museum in France. As I sat with the pensive statue sketching it in the gardens, I was grateful for the insight that this short activity had impressed upon me.
I’m a huge fan of modeling for students. It is probably one of our most powerful tools as not only teachers but as a species. ‘Monkey see, monkey do’ is how we got here. Imitation AND innovation. Our ability to watch and copy but also to empathize and connect with the experience of others is incredible. For this we can thank our “mirror neuron system” in the brain. For example, “about one-fifth of the neurons that fire in the premotor cortex when we perform an action (say, kicking a ball) also fire at the sight of somebody else performing that action.” If you’re interested, there is some fascinating research on how our brain and senses are built for empathy as seen in both sports as well as art.
BUT this activity also exposes how much of that empathic power we waste on a regular basis by making assumptions based on incorrect observations and assumptions. We look but do not see! I love playing dumb - probably because I take to it so naturally. By purposely doing something “wrong,” as in my pose, I give power to the students to correct me and essentially swap roles with me as the teacher. They get to learn by teaching me how to do the pose correctly. So we swapped authority back and forth and I feel that giving students the chance to correct you, as the authority figure, is great modeling for how they might correct each other without judgment or meanness.
After this modeling of the Thinker on my part (both artistic and academic), we played three rounds. I called for three volunteers to come up and act out our next famous artwork for the class - we needed two sculptors and one statue. I handed the sculptors a folder with an image of the artwork to recreate so only they could see it - the Mona Lisa. Then they tried to manually pose the statue as best they could. The class then got a chance to guess what artwork had been recreated and the class guessed the Mona Lisa successfully. The next group required two sculptors and two statues to recreate American Gothic. We chatted briefly about how posing like these figures might’ve helped them empathize with the subjects of the paintings, but in retrospect these poses are fairly static and I think more dynamic poses might be better candidates for creating empathy with the subjects. On the other hand, we could’ve discussed how the static poses might relate to those stiff family portraits and school photos we all have suffered through.
For the final artwork, I wanted more of a challenge so I chose an artwork without figures! The last artwork to reproduce was A Starry Night. Would they be able to recreate a landscape? By this point, I was calling on students to purposely include some of my quieter students. I felt a group of five would provide them sufficient safety in numbers so it would not feel quite as risky performing. I gave them a few minutes to scheme together discreetly in the back of the room which allowed me to share stories about the artworks we had recognized so far, the group took the stage.
AND THEY DID IT! One person formed the iconic cypress tree piercing the night sky. Another became the moon. And in between three joined hands to create a rolling wave motion that brought the wavy lines of the background to life. From the photo, you can see big smiles and I believe those smiles are all the assessment I need for evidence of a successful collaboration. I think everyone understood these artworks more as a result of our purposeful play. Students who might’ve gone overlooked in most other college classes had experienced being meaningful and memorable parts of our learning!
When students have to improvise, I feel there can be a leveling effect on their relationships that re-orients them all as equals. The structure of having an image chosen for them takes away the power involved in one person possibly getting to choose WHAT they all do together. Since this was already decided, the tension was HOW to do it. Having a clearly defined purpose seemed to help avoid confusion and apathy that might arise from having too many options or a power struggle. With a very limited time frame, there was urgency and so they had to jump right in without time to overthink. Regardless of whether they were introverts or extroverts, they could all contribute to the idea as each one was going to have to physically use their own body to express the different elements in the painting. The fact that it was a landscape but they were figures meant that there needed to be a transformation - turning people into objects and actions - that they all had to figure out together.
While there are times students need to listen and times they need to talk, it is critical that all our students also have the opportunity to DO and to MAKE and to ACT. The rest of the class critique proceeded smoothly although more rushed than I would’ve wanted but I also felt that everyone was a little more relaxed after playing together. If we had only spoken and written, the students I aimed to involve in our games would most likely have remained quiet once again. Ultimately, I was happy to sacrifice some of our discussion time for greater inclusivity.
Games can be egalitarian, as everyone agrees to play, to observe the same rules, and to play their part however they want within those shared constraints. While many games have winners or losers, we can choose to play games that include rather than exclude. We can play games in the classroom that focus on process rather than product so that everyone can win by gradually improving and working together rather than against each other in competition.
Do you use games in your teaching? Which ones work for you?
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.