Hello! For those of you that are new here, welcome! Thank you for visiting and I hope you enjoy your time here! And for returning readers, a very special welcome back! I don’t know about you all but this seemed like the summer that never was to me! It flew by so quickly, I can hardly believe that classes are right around the corner (and many of you heroes have already started back!)
The beginning of the year is a great time to revisit your values and reaffirm your beliefs to prepare and get energized for the work ahead. Since several of you are new Color Wheel Killers, I think it’s especially appropriate to share why I’m here and hopefully that will resonate with you and this community will be something you want to continue to be a part of. Together we can advance the field of visual art learning.
I started this blog a year ago as a challenge to myself to be more transparent in my teaching and therefore more vulnerable - to share what I was doing with others struggling with how to teach better and more creatively. I wanted a place where I could share my thoughts about teaching and the things going on in my classroom. It was a risk I’m glad I’ve taken and has since helped me to think more deeply and meaningfully about my teaching practice and research. I’ve taken (mischievous) pleasure knowing that my provocative title has connected with you and others as we think about how better to connect our students to their own creativity through encounters with contemporary art.
So why is my (in)famous logo, poor Carl the Color Wheel, getting dispatched in such gruesome fashion? Well, because blood is cool, obviously. But yes, I know it's not so much the gore but my call for eliminating color wheels that can elicit gasps among some of my colleagues, even accusations of blasphemy. ‘YOU MONSTER!! HOW COULD YOU?!? HOW ELSE CAN STUDENTS LEARN TO APPRECIATE COLOR?!? The color wheel is precious and every child must know it, use it, memorize it, and love it. Blue and red make purple! Yellow and purple complement each other! This is critical art stuff here!’ I worry how some of my colleagues seem to so strongly identify with this tool or see it somehow as endemic of all of art education. I'm not attacking anyone - just an idea.
What do I have against color wheels, the art teacher’s beloved class accessory? For the record, I like color and I think color theory is really interesting. like rainbows. I’m not opposed to circular rainbows.
I consider myself to be in good company in my disdain for the color wheel. Art educator Olivia Gude, whom I’ve followed for years, has likewise repeatedly called for an end to the antiquated practice of making color wheels:
And HS Art teacher Amelia Hernandez recalls an Olivia Gude anti-color wheel presentation from a recent NAEA convention in Chicago where Gude says, “If you still get the urge to teach a color wheel assignment, just lie down on the ground and wait until the feeling passes.”
While I might see similarities between my thinking and that of one of the top movers-and-shakers in our field, I’m definitely not trying to claim superiority by any means. How do I know color wheels are a waste of time? Because I’ve made classrooms full of students paint color wheels (but we made them into flowers, so that’s better right?!? No? No.) I deeply regret it. If you have done this too, I’m not judging you. But if you don’t have a darn good reason for doing it after reading this, then I might.
What is most important about art? This is a question my mentor Craig Roland would ask his students. What’s the one thing you want them to remember about their time in your art class?
Our time is so short with our students and therefore even more precious. Every student doesn’t take art, isn’t required or doesn’t have access to take visual art in school. Will they go throughout their lives with the secret shame of never having made a wheel of colors of their very own? Will they have some disadvantage in life which you could point to? In the typical visual art class, not every student is going to be an artist. In fact, this is most likely true for the vast majority of them. How does the color wheel improve the life of the dentist? The auto mechanic? The garbage person? The postal worker? How will the color wheel help them encounter a contemporary work of art or engage an object in an artful way.
Of course, I’m sure everyone thinks what they’re teaching is important. I didn’t think I was wasting my student’s time as they spent class after class filling in the colors. But why is the color wheel important? Is it important beyond itself? Some call it an important tool. But is the use of a tool in it’s form or in it’s purpose? Certainly, a pencil can be beautiful - but isn’t the beauty of the pencil found in the purpose in which it is employed? An elegant equation? A poignant sentence? An expressive line?
But surely the color wheel has some purpose! I grant you that. I see no doubt that the color wheel serves the painter better than most. It’s a little less useful already for other visual art forms however, say for example the sculptor that works in earthtones or the digital artist whose color palette is based on an entirely different wheel of color based on light rather than pigment. For every person that claims how useful the color wheel was to them, I wonder if I couldn’t find 100 that would say not a day has gone by that they have occupied their thoughts with wheels of color?
Understanding the color wheel will help students see better! They will appreciate color more! First, I’d like to see the evidence for this. Seriously. I’m unaware of any research that demonstrates that an intervention involving color wheel training is correlated with subsequent reports of significantly higher levels of aesthetic satisfaction. Secondly, do you really think the color wheel is the best, or only, way to produce that satisfaction?
Is there a right way to use color? Color wheels allegedly teach students “ideal” ways to choose colors. This must certainly refer to some of the so-called “rules” some art teachers must be referring to when they state that “you must first learn the rules before you can break the rules.” But color preference is personal, cultural, and contextual. The color wheel can tell you what colors might look “pretty” or “nice” together (according to a particular socio-cultural viewpoint) and encourages encourage a formulaic or prescriptive application of color. “Step 1: Follow directions; Step 2: Use at least 1 color and its complement; Step 3: Clean up after...” Sound familiar? Much like a disgruntled older woman in search of beef in the 80s, I can’t help but ask: “Where’s the meaing?”
Color is important to me when it is meaningful. Color is important when it helps us create and understand meaning around us. How do I perceive color? What colors create which effects? What colors might best portray a feeling I’m going for? How do certain colors make me feel? How can I use color to affect my mood or that of others? None of these questions are answered by the color wheel.
I see the color wheel in good company with the elements and principles of art. They are the grammar of art, but not the message. They are they HOW, not the WHY or even WHAT. Humans are naturally driven by meaning and purpose and that is not supplied by grammar but comes from the heart. Certainly not useless, but moreso overemphasized if anything. More sophistication does not necessarily imply more meaning. Greater sophistication comes with practice and practice comes with inclination. Interest can be sparked by a good teacher, but not if we are focusing on what isn’t meaningful. To privilege the mechanical aspects of art over the meaningful aspects is pointless to me. We must always begin with the meaning. We must engage ourselves with the purposes of art and go beyond the superficial aspects.
We are all attached to the past in one way or another. Call it tradition, nostalgia, or sentiment. We all have things we either don’t want or are afraid to let go. But when those things get in the way of learning, when those things reduce what we do in art to the lowest common denominator so it can become a multiple choice question on some irrelevant test, then we must challenge ourselves to abandon those things holding us back. If I was a writing teacher, my site might be called, “Kill Your Cursive.” It’s not the style so much as the substantive role art and creativity can have in the lives of everyday people today and have had throughout history.
If you came out of an art education without ever seeing a color wheel, I think it would still be possible for you to live a long and happy life. I believe you’d still be able to enjoy the colors of a sunset or a butterfly’s wing or a Van Gogh.
We live in an age where we can’t believe our eyes. The majority of young people and adults can’t tell the difference between a fake image or news story and a real one. How have we supposedly helped our students “see” if they cannot even see the difference between what is real and what’s fake? How does this prepare them for an unforeseen future as a fully-functional citizen? Will memorizing a color wheel somehow better aid them participate in the society of the future than critical thinking skills or the ability to consider multiple interpretations, build empathy, or make meaning? Because looking at art can help develop those skills. Reproducing colors in a circle don’t.
To grow, we must be prepared to abandon the old ways of doing things and leave behind the things we may once have found useful, even loved, but that no longer serve us. Kill Your Color Wheels is a reminder to focus on what's important: How can art make a real difference in our students’ lives? Plus, killing a color wheel is silly - and I like silly.
If you are as interested in answering that question as I am, then I hope you’ll continue to revisit my blog from time to time and refresh your own thinking with my writing and research. What old habits or ideas are YOU trying to let go?
Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll continue to practice and call for more meaningful, creative, contemporary visual art learning!
For more on my views on color wheels, as well some thoughts on art education and creativity, check out the following podcasts:
Art Class Curator Episode 09 Killing Your Color Wheels with Jim O’Donnell: https://artclasscurator.com/09-killing-your-color-wheels-with-jim-odonnell/
Art Ed Radio: Episode 105 Art Ed Should Thrive, Not Just Survive: https://www.theartofed.com/podcasts/art-ed-thrive-not-just-survive-ep-105/
For a similar take on the elements and principles and their role in art education, please check out Cindy Ingram’s excellent blog post at: https://artclasscurator.com/why-i-hate-the-elements-and-principles-of-art-but-teach-them-anyway/
For more interesting ways to think about color, and more picking on the color wheel, see Olivia Gude’s articles
“Color Coding”: http://www.academia.edu/7339685/Color_Coding
Want to learn more about color and perception? Check out this amazing TED Talk by neuroscientist Beau Lotto: https://www.ted.com/talks/beau_lotto_optical_illusions_show_how_we_see
Want to learn even more about color and perception? Check out “relative color”: http://colorisrelative.com/color/
Want to learn even more more about color and perception? More relative color at: http://purplepwny.com/blog/color_relativity_color_theory_beyond_the_wheel.html
“Especially as a beginner, it can be very tempting to look towards mathematical formulas and rigid step-by-step approaches to picking your colors. Unfortunately, there isn’t any one formula that will work for every situation.”
Note: Sorry once again for the delay of my post! Like I said before, this has been whirlwind of a summer! I can’t believe that a new school year is here already! There are so many things I want to share with you, like the wonderful time spent talking to Art Class Curator Cindy Ingram for her new podcast, my lovely first experience working with the Art of Ed creating my first video presentation for their summer conference, my phenomenal experience working with high school creatives during the 31st annual Art-All State Massachusetts as an Artist-Mentor, my trip to Wichita Kansas to present at the regional USSEA Conference where I shared insights gained examining the potential connections between burns, creativity, my classroom community, and finally the art projects I completed, such as a 90 page creative non-fiction novelette about growing up with a mother suffering severe mental illness, which took me 8 years off and on to complete, as well as some other pieces! Phew!!! Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to weave those experiences into future blog posts for you all! In the meantime I'll have classes to teach and a dissertation proposal that will need approving so please expect 1-2 posts a month for the immediate future! Thanks again for your continued support!
Why are we doing this? Is this question meant to be horrifying? Has something gone terribly wrong? A connection not made? There are doubts being raised just as the difficulty begins to incline. Or is it a question we should encourage our students to ask all the time? To keep us accountable and make sure what we’re doing is relevant? Skepticism is healthy. Can “trust me” be a valid response? Have I not been explicit or have I overestimated their knowledge gap?
This week was step 1. In class I introduced the topic of “Big Ideas” which is a method of curriculum design where teachers begin by identifying an important, universal or at least essential concept at the heart of a discipline, topic, or even inquiry. I was introduced to the method in my undergraduate art education courses. Our textbooks, Sydney Walker’s Teaching Meaning in Art Making and subsequent Rethinking Curriculum in Art with Marilyn Stewart, were like art education bibles for me because of their marrying of artistic practice with curriculum design. It was an idea I certainly wrestled with at times, and continue to do so. But it also deeply resonated with me as both an artist and a teacher. For me, it’s basically like a theme. What is a theme or “Big Idea” in art? Artists explore identity. Artists explore culture. Artists explore love. Artists explore power. Family. Diversity. Heroes. A "Big Idea" is something that affects humans all over the world and are at the core of any way of knowing it seems. Of course, artists are inspired by all sorts of things and for all sorts of reasons. No artists work can be reduced to a single idea. However, by tracing a single strand of an idea through an artist’s enables one with a deeper understanding of that artist’s work and how it relates to the world at large and connects to the work of other artist who are exploring similar problems. Rather than reductive, Big Ideas should be seen as connective, offering viewers a point of entry. And Big Ideas can help any age group relate to the work of artists - attempting to answer the simple question: “Why did they do that?”
In preparation for this new semester, I was able to identify and collect Big Idea lists and resources for art and some of the most common disciplines like social studies, science, math, and literature, which I provide students online. I think Big Ideas relate naturally with Backwards Design and that is usually how I begin planning a course. I start at the end. What kind of person do I want to leave my classroom? What do I want them to know and be able to do? What do I hope they will notice about the world? How will they see it differently? What dispositions will they internalize? And then I go backwards from there. I’ve tended to favor a view of education that is long term. Built to last. What kind of person will you be on your deathbed? Let’s reverse engineer that. What do we need to do to get there? All that is step 2. That’s the lesson plan - the HOW. We’ll get there soon, but all I want right now is the WHY.
It’s a new class, a new semester, a new group, and a newish me. The course title is definitely the same. For those of you just joining us, it is Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers. It’s a course for students intending to become teachers and is one of their choices for studying art-integration. The “Why” for me is creativity. I want my students to demonstrate artistic thinking and to grow creatively - to at least not be afraid of it or avoid it. And to do that, they must experience creativity for themselves.
So far this semester has been tremendous, but tremendously busy before it even started! Maybe you can relate? But I’ve stripped down the course to fewer more essential elements - forcing myself to kill a few darlings along the way. Probably a few more could use elimination, but I’m a greedy teacher always thinking we can do more than we really can. And the pacing is dramatically more reasonable!
My major goal for this new class was to include more art experiences and we have definitely done that! Each class so far has been at least half artmaking! Art takes time. Experiences take time. So aside from more art, my biggest practical goal was to not fall behind the calendar on the first day of class again. And we did it! For TWO whole classes this time! It’s true. By the third day, it was clear there wouldn’t be time to cover all the readings and viewings in class. But maybe that’s not a bad thing? Maybe their responses with me is enough? I have a feeling that this course is likely to be the ONLY course of training in VISUAL art-integration that these teachers may ever have. Perhaps one day they’ll have arts-integration as a focus of some PD or an in-service - the lucky ones. But some unlucky ones may never have another opportunity to learn from a visual artist and about what it means to make art, be creative, and see the world through an artistic lens. So I squeeze in some things in and let them make the connections on their own.
We have class for one hour and fifty minutes once a week and the first three classes have featured clay-on-the-first-day, followed by Sumi Ink Club, then collaging with the Big Idea of Identity. This week’s class, the 4th one, was no different. This week students were invited to a Task Party inspired by artist Oliver Herring and they it was fantastic! My students have responded beautifully and I’ve been very happy to see them gain confidence in their creative abilities. Each art experience was slightly different but shared the qualities of open-endedness, socializing, and thinking through materials and media. One of my main artistic goals is for students to see how art can bring people together and help them connect with each other. We’re building community.
The first day, the goal for the second half of class was reviewing the syllabus and trying to get the students to buy into the going gradeless approach, which is critical. The next day, I introduced our main project, creating and presenting an art-integrated lesson. We reviewed the guidelines and the provided template. The third day, we discussed creativity during the second half of class. I’m seeing in their reflections how much they are getting out of our creative experiences and some are already noting changes in their thinking and creative growth. They’re coming up with great takeaways and we’re working on thinking of ways they can use the material in their futures. It’s been much smoother than last semester so far!
This week we continued our discussion on creativity and dived into Big Ideas. And we hit our first bump in the road. When I introduced the lesson plan and the idea of art-integration, I challenged them to imagine their lesson as the Colossus of Rhodes with one foot firmly planted in the subject they’re most interested in and another foot planted in art. I reminded them of the analogy and told them that their assignment this week would simply be to choose a Big Idea from the art world and the non-art world using the lists provided. We review that they explored the Big Idea Identity as they worked on their collages the previous week. We go into the Lesson Plan Resources folder to pull out examples and practice combining them. I choose one from science - that all matter in the Universe is composed of tiny particles - that things are composed of smaller parts - and ask the class to see if they can connect it to a Big Idea from art from a list I display. They mention community and family.
Then we move to literature and we mention how we can look at a painting and then read a story related.
"But a children’s book will have pictures…"
"Well, not if you’re teaching high school," I mention. What I wish I had said, and will say next time, is how students of course can create their own illustrations for books.
But the student seems lost. Not seeing how Big Ideas connect or why they’re relevant. Is their conception of learning always start with a bit of content rather than a concept as so many do? Pick a thing and teach it. Are they grasping for standards to tell them the “what” to teach before they’ve ever considered the “why?”
"Do you want us to teach an art lesson like what we’ve been doing in class?"
"No, of course not! I don’t want you to be art teachers, unless you want to become art teachers - in which case you’re welcome to join the Art Education program. But I want you to teach a lesson that combines art with a subject you love."
"Do you have an example of a finished lesson plan?"
They’re desperate for the how. Maybe they feel like I’ve given them a tuna and a light bulb and asked them to put them together.
"No. I don’t want you to see the answers yet. And more importantly, we didn’t start this way last time. I’m not asking you to know what you’re going to teach or what it needs to look like in the template. I’m just asking you to pick two Big Ideas that interest you. You don’t have to know how you might combine them. Just as long as long as YOU can see a connection."
I know the impulse is to go online to find a ready-made lesson plan. But in those lessons, all the choices have already been made for you. In the textbook, all the choices have already been made for you. But I want YOU to make the choices - to make the connections for yourselves. It’s uncomfortable to not know the answer. To not know the destination - but that is part of being creative. To be uncertain and able to move forward. To step into discomfort. To make something, when it is easier to copy or just give up.
There was some tension this class. Confusion. We’ve crossed into creative territory. And almost immediately, the “I don’t want to mess up” sentiment appears. It is a common anxiety among my students based on their responses. Am I battling against perfectionism? I’m definitely shaking my fist at the gilded temple of perfectionism and its golden calf ideal of the 100%. I know my writing is.
Afterwards I felt deflated. I wasn’t expecting the struggle to begin right off the bat with Big Ideas. Then I remember back to the first art education class I taught. I wanted my art education undergrads to use Big Ideas for planning their lessons just like I’d learned to do. I remember introducing the concept in a way that I thought was clear and straightforward, telling them they would be designing their lessons using Big Ideas. And then the tears.
I was completely caught off guard. I had never imagined that this would cause tears. But change can be hard. The students had never been asked to do something like this before and a couple that were further along in the program were experiencing a tiny breakdown about learning a new approach. This would not do - but we had to work through their emotions first. I had to calm their elephants before their riders could listen. After a lot of talking, reassurance and practice, they got it.
But I saw the necessity for a better approach. I had seen where the bar was before I had arrived. When I was reviewing the Portfolios that had been submitted by prior student teachers - I was floored. I found binders stuffed with lessons printed directly from the internet. Dear god - they didn’t know how to plan a lesson themselves! This is one reason why I didn’t resent the implementation of EdTPA portfolios across the country like so many of my colleagues. They saw a loss of autonomy whereas I saw a raising of standards. Effective programs were already asking their students to create lessons and record videos of themselves and assess those plans and reflect upon their performance in the classroom. But not all teacher prep programs were requiring their students to perform these basic teaching tasks. What I did resent was how the cost was passed onto the students and how coordinators had no say in the process.
The concept of Big Ideas is new to them. I had asked for a head count of anyone that had been used Big Ideas for curriculum design in the past. None had. So this is completely new for them. Maybe I haven’t framed it right yet? How much of the puzzle do I put together for them? This is a continual struggle for me. Is see the connections - when will they? What if they don’t?
Next time I will add this:
Why have we been engaging in these artistic experiences if we’re not to teach like that? Because many of my students have few if any experiences being creative in school to draw upon in your planning. I want you all to experience creative conditions. You must FEEL creativity. I can't just tell you what it is like. You can't just read about it. You will understand the highs and lows of the creative process because you have lived them. This is how you will know if your students are being creative and if you are being creative in your planning - because you know what creativity feels like. What I want most from you is to help your students show and not just tell. I want you to help them make knowledge and not just regurgitate. To build with their hands and look with their eyes while you move their hearts and engage their minds."
Maybe it will just take time. There’s that uncertainty again - that essential ingredient of the creative process. When we meet next, we will take some of the Big Ideas folks have selected and see if we can’t play with combing a few of them in different ways before they head to their grade level groups to brainstorm. Show them how a Big Idea can serve as a starting point for Backwards Design. I’m hoping that through this experience, they’ll begin to see planning and curriculum design as a creative process.
So do I show them an example when I want them to surpass it? When it was created using a different process and timeframe? I think I may withhold examples until after I receive the first draft. I think this will ultimately allow them to show more growth by allowing them to start with only what they know on their own. If they then have an example to scaffold them before the second draft, I believe they will feel as though they’re making even more significant progress. They have a template. They have guidelines. They have resources. They have the SUCCESs model. They have the Thinking Like An Artist dispositions. They have all the tools they need - it’s time to start putting them together.
While my students last semester put a tremendous amount of work into their lessons and grew tremendously, I want lessons that are more creative and blend together art and other subjects even more deeply. Last time, I received some problematic lesson plans that made me want to rethink how we had approached the planning process. And I have. Now I have to trust in the process I’ve established and see it through. And I’m optimistic this group will step up.
So we’ve crossed the creative threshold. The struggle is becoming real. But I believe they will engage and persist. We’ll see what they do with it. As Chip and Dan Heath say, we’re at the “Huh.” Will the “Aha!” be far behind?
First, I’d like to brag on my students a little bit. The last two classes have been presentation days for their art-integrated lesson plans that they’ve been working on since the middle of the semester and they did a wonderful job! It was fantastic getting to see them performing what we had been practicing and connecting and sharing with each other. This was also the first time I attempted the ‘three-ring circus’ method and I thought it was a big success!
Allow me to explain. I have 29 students total which meant 15 presentations each day. How do you fit 15 lesson plan presentations into 110 minutes? Fifteen 7-minute presentations? NOPE! I divided the room into three parts with display boards and had five rounds of three simultaneous 15-20 minute presentations, each to a third of the class! The students LOVED it! Many of them shared in their feedback how much they enjoyed seeing several shorter presentations and commented about how interesting it was to see several different approaches throughout the day. It’s definitely messier than your typical whole class one-after-another presentation format but those can be sooooo boring! I like the extra mess. It gives the presentations a little more edge since they have to adapt to distractions like not being the only one talking in the room.
Once upon a time, when I first worked with aspiring teachers in the small art education classes I taught, each student had an entire hour to present their lesson to the class. I now think that was probably a waste of class time. They didn’t learn a lot about how young people would react to the lesson based on their peers playing along. Overall I found them somewhat tedious. Since then, I’ve decided that shorter is better when it comes to presenting plans. I think teachers can and should be able to fill in the blanks with their social imagination and experience. Now I favor a short 15-30 minute ‘preview’ or presentation of the lesson.
But do these simulations translate to the future classroom? It’s important to breakdown complex tasks like teaching into chunks to be practiced. You have to practice the hard parts in order to improve. What are the hard parts they practice through a lesson planning process? Aligning ends with means. Curriculum design. Intentionality. Goal-setting. How do these parts relate to creativity? It’s something I need to think about.
To be able to grow as teachers, we need to have the knowledge and skills necessary to reflect, evaluate, and improve. For that, I believe one needs critical thinking and an awareness of possibility. To that end, I wonder if I’m really enabling my students to be critical of their performance so that they can improve. I will know a little bit more after I read their reflections. Already though, in the future I would like to try having them record themselves so that they have something to critique after they present. But how helpful would it be for them to record themselves presenting in an undergrad class? The reality is that college students make TOO IDEAL an audience for practicing teachers. They don’t misbehave. They do as they’re asked. They tend to be pretty nice and leave almost entirely positive comments. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does make their presentations fairly painless and unrealistic when compared to the typical classroom. It would be wonderful if I could get a panel of classroom teachers to critique them, but that seems a little unrealistic as well. So does getting them access to groups of children as student guinea pigs. The next best thing may be if they are in small groups reviewing each other’s videos. They tend to rise to the occasion when performing for their peers and might take greater critical license if I encourage them to offer constructive comments for each other. In my opinion, one of the best ways to ensure that an assignment is completed without grades is to tell them that they’ll be presenting or sharing with each other. In addition, they’ll have to record their K-12 teaching for their EdTPA portfolios in the future. For now, I believe a video would give them an opportunity to think about the way they structure their lessons even if it has minimal benefits for their class management.
I’ve regularly required my art education students to watch videos of themselves in the past but for whatever reason I never asked them to review them with partners or in a small peer group. The idea for intimate critiques only occurred to me after seeing Dr. Craig Roland at the University of Florida do just that with grad students teaching studio art classes. I need to work harder to empower my students to become better self-evaluators and develop habits like criticality and seeking feedback from peers. They had opportunities to review each other’s lesson plans online as they developed their drafts but I realize I didn’t give them enough tools to help them critique themselves and each other in more sophisticated ways. For example, I didn’t have a resource available in advance such as this super helpful version of Bloom’s Taxonomy showing specific language that is perfect for planning objectives. But they didn’t have this. I knew that some of them had not had experience writing lesson plans, but I wasn’t sure how many or where most of them were in regard to their studies. I had a couple that are graduating this semester and some just starting.
I’ve provided them feedback on two drafts and am waiting on their third and final drafts so my hindsight is 20/20. I expected things that I had no right to expect. Objective writing was something I commented on almost across the board. Over and over it was: How do you make learning visible? Be clear and specific. “Learn” and “know” don’t mean anything. How do you want them to show what they know? But they didn’t necessarily have access to those words on their own because we hadn’t gone over them. Big Ideas or Essential Questions was another area that I commented on across the board. We had talked briefly about Big Ideas in class and they should be familiar with essential questions (“should” - one of the most dangerous words in the English language). Both provide the focus or theme of the lesson. In retrospect, I had not provided them with lists or sources for these explicitly. Nor had I thought ahead to consider finding resources for Big Ideas across subjects for them to combine. Now I have lists of Big Ideas from science, literature, math, social studies and other subjects. They should have had these resources from the beginning. Their research sections also generally needed a lot of work. A comment I wrote over and over again was that there are many ways to learn something and that they needed to justify why their way is a good way. I shared with them that EdTPA evaluators would be looking for very strong theory sections. But again, this was a defect on my part. They didn’t have access to those resources, like this incredible resource which lists a number of learning theories and their various proponents. I was so focused on creativity this semester that I ignored the basic building blocks they needed to help them develop their lesson plans. I didn’t want the class to be about lesson planning. I just wanted the lesson planning to be a part of the course. That was a mistake. I should have focused them more on building the strong structure upon which they could feel secure in taking risks and practicing creativity. Instead I’m afraid my approach was disjointed.
Have I told you that I like to practice juggling in my spare time? It’s true. Each day I seem to drop the ball a little less. This gives me hope. One day, I hope, to not drop the ball.
Obviously, based on the above, I have a ways to go. In a lot of ways, I wanted to see where they were and what they could do on their own, but I know now that without the guiding resources above to scaffold them, they will instead depend on materials found online and rely too heavily on my suggestions. Some, I could tell, were pre-packaged internet fare. I imagine I’m a master chef, teaching future chefs, but instead of providing them with gourmet ingredients with which to work, I have left them to their own devices and some have had to do with whatever they could find - junk food from the internet or low-hanging fruit of my own advice. How do I know that some of them relied on my advice? Because there were at least three presentations that were essentially the same. I don’t want that to happen again. I gave them suggestions at our midpoint meetings for ways they could address their creative goals with various art exercises. Maybe next time I need to keep my mouth shut.
Instead, I feel like if I had shown them these building blocks that they could have constructed the lessons that demonstrated more ownership. With those resources I mentioned, they would have shared points of reference from which to critique each other more constructively. With videos of their teaching, they would have had objective evidence to review beyond their own experience and if they had been able to review this with each other they would hold each other accountable. Additionally, one thing I had done in the past was try to purposely misinterpret or find obstacles with the lesson in order to show presenters where their students might struggle. Most people tend to approach their plans optimistically, assuming success rather than failure, so most of us miss the built in problems. Knowing in advance that someone might be trying to ‘break’ their lesson could keep them on their toes and make them aware of their blind spots. These are all ways that I might try to enhance the critical thinking involved in their lesson planning in the future.
Yes, this is JUST a two credit course I’m teaching through the Art Education Department in the College of Arts & Sciences. Yes, I’m supposed to be focusing on art-integration. No, it’s not technically my job to show them how to write a lesson plan. Yes, they’ll probably have plenty more opportunities in their education classes in the College of Education to improve their planning. Do I trust that? Should I?
Lesson planning. How does one teach lesson planning without making the class ABOUT lesson planning? Does lesson planning reveal a teacher’s thinking or is lesson planning an obstacle to authentic teaching? Reviewing lesson plans can be a real slog sometimes. They aren’t exactly fun to read or light reading. Should they be? As any good teacher in a teacher preparation program, I have logged countless hours reading the lesson plans of students training to become teachers. And like anyone neck-deep in student plans, I find myself asking: Is there a point? I think there is, but this is question that makes me “wobble” every semester. Shouldn’t they just be out there, being mentored by teachers out in the field from day 1?
Lesson planning is the crux of any teacher preparation program it seems. Mastering lesson planning is a skill not only required by most programs, but defacto mandated by high-stakes teacher evaluation programs such as EdTPA. For a student’s EdTPA portfolio they must complete three essential tasks: plan a lesson, video themselves teaching the lesson, and reflection. So there are very real incentives for prospective teachers to ‘get good’ at lesson planning if they’d like to obtain certification.
Once employed, many if not most teachers will be required to submit lesson plans to their administrators or at least to make them available for the possible pop-in of an administrator there to observe your class. The lesson planning that most students practice in preparation programs is different than that required by most school administrators. For expedience, administrators tend to ask for very simplified plans, sometimes requiring the teacher to show little more what objectives their students are working towards, what standards those objectives are meeting, and perhaps an overarching essential question. Teachers are told to have many things available and prominently displayed JUST IN CASE.
When I was new teacher, struggling just to stay a day (if that!) ahead of my students most of the time, the requirement to submit lesson plans of any sort beforehand felt like a tremendous burden! No one seemed to read them. Rather, they seemed to fall into a bureaucratic black hole of busy work. Many of my early plans were built with bulleted lists on Post-It notes and scraps of paper. My attendance books and my logs were always up-to-date and correct - you don’t really have a choice when seeing 150 middle schoolers a day. But for your average art teacher, who probably teaches several different classes a day with several different age groups - the demands of lesson plans was one task too much. It’s tedious and another example of the autonomy that is forbidden teachers today. It is difficult to imagine any scenario where a principal would be called upon to tell someone exactly what standard is being taught in a given classroom on a given day or time. It became my tiny rebellion to resist the mandate to submit copies of my plans. Over the course of three years, three principals, and two schools, I barely turned in any. Occasional and sporadic requests were deflected with an ‘Oh, right! I’ll get right on that!’ The lack of interest in the art curriculum by the higher ups can be a double-edged sword. Eventually, I succumbed - but even then I make no guarantees as to the accuracy of those plans.
I was trained to create lesson plans as an undergraduate. Everything was so overwhelming at first - I didn’t know where to begin. Now I think I can write a pretty good one. I enjoy curriculum design a great deal. It’s possible that my plans are just okay. Maybe I’m like the cocky athlete that never quite mastered the fundamentals. I look at the template I give my students. Do I start class with a launch? Something provocative to engage their curiosity or confuse them? Admittedly, not as much as I should. Often, we just start with announcements. Do I end class with closure? If you’ve been reading, then you know I run out of time regularly. Sometimes I feel like being a teacher teacher is like being a basketball coach, except you’re in the game and expected to play better than the players. I feel like when I don’t demonstrate best practices that I’m not practicing what I preach and that I’m modeling bad behavior for my teachers that they’ll replicate.
Then again, I’m not really aware of evidence that says the traditional launch, instruction, application, and closure combo is ideal for learning. There is another part of me that wonders if traditional lesson planning hasn’t held me back in some way. Possibly made me more conservative as a teacher. As I mentioned, the Task Party our first day of class this semester was a huge success but required no formal lesson plan. It was merely a material with a prompt and time to work and reflect. Space, constrained materials, and choices. I’ve only realized recently the incredible power of temporary, process-based, community-driven artmaking constrained by limited materials (though I’ve been flirting with things like choice-based art for years). When I’ve witnessed student-teachers struggling with a class that was flagrantly disengaged, trudging painfully slowly ahead with their detailed and highly-structured plan, I know they are fighting a losing battle. Why not just give the students a material, give them a challenge, and turn their imaginations loose? Would it be any worse? Would the student-teacher be any unhappier? Would they be ‘learning’ less? The lesson plan only grants an illusion of control in some cases. The more complicated the plan, however, the more ways it can fail, I tell them. This is more a reminder for me to keep my own ambitions in check.
Even with a task party, I could still probably throw a dart at a list of the visual art standards and hit something that might apply to the learning at hand. Like I’ve told my students, if you’re doing anything right at all, you’re probably hitting several standards. It’s not that I’m against standards-based assessment but I share some of Alfie Kohn’s skepticism towards them. In many cases they are arbitrary. As standards are practiced, it’s lowest common denominator teaching. What is the alternative - no standards? Who the hell teaches without any standards? When do standards mean something? I will probably write more on standards in a future post.
When I talk to colleagues about teaching lesson planning, I tend to agree with them. We feel like the extensive lesson plans students are asked to prepare in college help them identify and practice the many working parts of a teacher’s plan. While they won’t be asked to create comprehensive plans in their careers, knowing the basic structure of a lesson plan will ultimately improve their future teaching. Will it? Am I deluding myself into accepting a banking model of education? I push back against that when I see this view in their plans...I really hate the banking model.
Next semester I’m going to center lesson planning more throughout the course. One of my main arguments is that, in order to increase the likelihood that classroom teachers will integrate art into their future teaching, they need to have a lesson plan of their own design ready to go. They need to have created and used a lesson plan integrating art in the past. It seems logical and fair that, one tangible product of our process-based course should be a fully-functional lesson involving art.
Ultimately, did I get creative lesson plans? Overall, I’m not sure. Creativity is like a wild animal. In the dark. Inside your tent. How does one plan for creativity and have my students figured that out? I’m proud of the work my students put into their lessons and I think they represented gains and changes in attitude for many of them. They performed well despite my shortcomings and I stand by the work we’ve done together professionally. But this wobble will continue to be a tension of my course. A tension between the teaching lesson planning, representative of school systems and structure inherent in most teaching, and creativity, that unpredictable and unruly beast, on the other hand. How can I empower my students so that they are successful with the content but in a way that my class does not become merely about content. How can they balance what they’re comfortable with and what is traditional with trying something new or risky? This of course, reflects the struggle I face every day and the struggle my students will face in their future classrooms. It’s a good struggle and one I will continue. I can do better. And my future students will too.
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.