Part 2 of a 3 part series - Part 1 - Part 3
What do we value? “What you value, you talk about.” Walk into nearly any school across this country and chatter about grades permeates every hallway and corner. But not necessarily learning. In schools, we value grades. This has a pernicious effect on what young people and adults believe is important. Grades and testing are more distracting from actual learning than any smartphone or app on the market. I may not have mentioned this before, but I taught at a school where, every morning, along with the pledge of allegiance, every student in the school would recite the following motto out loud in lockstep to start the day:
“School X students will meet or exceed grade level standards as set forth by local, state, and national assessments!”
Talk about a lack of vision. Of values. For what purpose? What about wonder? Or learning? When I say assessment, I don’t mean grades. That is what they meant in that motto though. Students chasing success defined by scores. But the solution can’t simply be eliminating grades. In going gradeless, you can’t simply toss grades out the window without replacing them with something else or you’ll likely create a vacuum of confusion and chaos. Instead, you have to deftly swap one system for another, like Indiana Jones-style except we’re tossing out the bag of sand in favor of something with real value (and with less running hopefully!).
What is required is a culture shift. Not a change in society, at first at least, so much as a change in the culture of individual schools, which stand apart from culture at large. What we can replace grades with is dialogue. Dialogue, for me, is the foundation of assessment. Constructive criticism and care. Grades are monologic - something done to you. We’ve all felt it. That sting of an unfair grade. A 9 out of 10? For what, you nitpicky...?!? You’re subjected to the selective judgment of every teacher you;ve ever had. Compared to the teacher, police wield more physical power and potential for harm over your average person. But the teacher is, in my mind, secondary to the police officer in the amount of unchecked power over the autonomy of other humans. Keep in mind that every day, most every person age eighteen to four, can typically only go to the restroom with the permission of an adult they barely know. An unavoidable biological necessity controlled sometimes by the whims and moods of another person. Doesn’t that strike you as a little odd, philosophically? Why does compulsory attendance in a class or, later on, choosing a course because I might be interested in the subject, inherently give another person the right to judge me? Why do we simply accept that learning and being judged go hand in hand. To be clear, I’m not conflating learning HOW TO MAKE judgments with BEING judged. The latter is the one I’m skeptical skeptical of.
Dialogue, on the contrary, requires the sharing of power. There still exists, perhaps inescapable, a uneven power dynamic. But in dialogue there is a two-way street. Give and take. Dialogic teaching, while certainly time-consuming last semester, allowed me to create an open and authentic channel of communication, or feedback loop, with my students which we both used to improve and develop more complex understandings of the material, each other, and the world. I learned as much, if not more, from dialogue with my students as they learned from me. This is what assessment means to me.
One way I was able to assess my students and my teaching this semester was by using a pre and post survey. Of course, I did plenty of assessing of my students along the way, and as a result, I continually assessed my teaching and course structure overall making tweaks here and there. But it’s not until the end of the semester when my students get to fully reflect on our journey. Today, I’ll be sharing their comments from the exit survey and the SEIs (Student Evaluation of Instruction) they completed. For my survey, I received 29 out of a possible 29 responses because I required the surveys be completed prior to final meetings with students. I asked three open response questions. I’ll go over their comments in this post. In my previous post, I wrote about their quantitative responses. I’ll conclude this series in my next post by bridging last semester with the new semester, part 3: Final Meetings & New Beginnings.
First, I’ll begin with the experiences my students found most memorable. To analyze this qualitative data, I simply counted occurrences of experiences (see below). I’m proud of the thoughtful comments my students left, which were almost entirely positive, but I’m resisting the urge to copy them all below so you won’t be endlessly scrolling. If you’d like to see the comments for yourself, you can find all the results here.
Q1: Please describe your most memorable experience in this course. This experience could be positive or negative.
Total Appearances of Experiences
This data was helpful for me in planning for next semester. Essentially, anything that didn’t receive a mention here is on the chopping block, and even some of the things that were mentioned might still be eliminated from my curriculum. Despite one appearance of guest speaker, I believe based on the feedback I received immediately following our guest speaker’s visit and it’s appearance here that I will pursue a guest speaker next semester to end the course again and will probably continue that as a tradition. With one appearance, monoprinting will return with some slight tweaks as a demonstration of artistic process. However, with only one occurrence of sketchbook, along with some criticism you’ll see later in the student suggestions, I’ve decided that weekly doodles will not continue next semester. I love teaching students how to make sketchbooks, but I prefer to do that if they are going to become an important part of the course. It seemed as though most weeks, students were either rushing or creating doodles that were unrelated to what we were doing in the course. While they did get the students drawing regularly, I’m not sure they were worth the extra time commitment. We also did not have ways of naturally fitting them into class time as I had originally intended.
It seems obvious that the lesson plan presentations were extremely valuable to the students as it was mentioned most by a third of the group. Nearly another third mentioned the Creating Culture experience, followed closely by Clay on the First Day. All of these therefore seem like essential pieces of the puzzle. I only want to bother with things that will stick with students long after they leave my class. We just don’t have time for anything else. Everything else we did last semester is up for major modifications or elimination. The goal is ‘less is more.’ I have to make the response and feedback process more streamlined and efficient if I’m going to be convinced that the approach is practical for K-12 classrooms.
Q2: Please describe your most valuable takeaway from this course.
Baby’s first narrative analysis! I realize writing this that the data I collected last semester is allowing me to employ methods I’ve been learning the last year and a half in my PhD program. It’s interesting to try these out on my own data, even sort of “fun” to try different approaches and try to teach them to myself. I’m seeing how research methods could benefit classroom teachers who want more sophisticated, credible, and accurate pictures of what is going on in their classrooms. It’s disappointing though that teachers across the country aren’t permitted ample time to deeply analyze and apply their own teaching! A thought also occurs to me that it seems a little strange that I’m only employing these methods now, outside of my coursework and that I have not had any opportunity to practice these methods under the guidance of a professor. Something seems wrong about that. It reminds me that classrooms should be places of practice where we try putting things to use. Funny that I learned ABOUT so many different methods without actually learning how to DO any of them. Lots of philosophy, theory, and styles though. *Sigh*
Anyway, I attempted to code student responses the the above question. Coding, as I understand it, is a qualitative method where one searchers for occurrences of certain words, concepts, and themes. This is a mechanism of narrative analysis. First I got out my highlighters and began reading through a print out of the comments. Then I realized that I had a computing machine that might be able to help with this task. So I tried, and quickly learned, that highlighting multiple terms using multiple colors in Microsoft Word is deceptively challenging. Long story short, the “Replace With” tool was the key. In any case, I’ll share a PDF of the coded comments with the total occurrences of various words and concepts. The following categories and concepts emerged from the comments: Art; Creativity & Its Characteristics; Settings & Tools; Effects; and Audience & Agency. You can see the terms that I clustered together to create this categories and probably guess fairly well as to my reasoning for the sake of time. The most prominent terms included “I’ at 42; “art” at 38; “creat” for create, “my” at 28; creative & creativity at 21; “learn” at 22 followed closely by “class” at 21; “valu” for value & valuable at 12; “me” at 12; “lesson” at 9; “student” at 9.
My favorite phrases however were some of the following, as they resonated with my goals for the course:
I have more value than a grade.”
Beyond this, I’m not sure how much there is to be gained from this analysis. If I was to compare these results with my quantitative data from my previous post, I suppose that I would temper my excitement because here I see so many people mentioning how everyone is creative and creativity can be improved, whereas the numbers showed how a number of students seemed confused about creativity being something that is dynamic. Additionally, art was mentioned most but does that conflict with the “art is a privilege” statement that divided the class on the survey?
It’s positive that there were so many mentions of art and creativity, by every student at least once, although that is what I would hope for and even suspect. Two thirds of the group mentioned learning and class specifically so I appreciate the correlation, since the course was focused on art-integration. It seemed as though most statements involved what I would call statements of agency, like “I did this” for example. I wonder if there is a way to measure agency or if I should try to look for changes in agency from the beginning to the end of the course?
I don’t know if there is much else to interpret here. I feel like there is a deeper level of analysis or other tools I could apply but I’m not sure what right now. It was a decent amount of work to analyze the comments but a lot of that could be attributed to learning curve and troubleshooting the software. I’ll try this method again next semester and see if it is more productive. Still, the document is pretty and colorful :)
Q3: What else would you like to share about your experience in this course? This is my first time teaching this course and using some of the methods we have used so any additional feedback regarding your experience in this course would be extremely appreciated. What didn't work for you? What worked for you? What would you change or tweak? What would you keep the same? Thank you!
The last question invited feedback concerning what worked and what didn’t work from my students’ perspectives. I have to say that this was the most HELPFUL feedback I have ever received from students! I truly feel like these comments alone justify the dialogic approach. Generally speaking, this constructive criticism felt like it was coming from colleagues, as if we’re on the same page now at the end of the course. The vast majority of suggestions are things that I wish I had thought of changing or already have thought about changing! Was this the result of establishing a culture of criticality through conversation? Being vulnerable? Transparency? Did I just get lucky by having a very professional group? This is something I’ll be thinking about in the future.
I didn’t employ a specific method of analysis for this section. I simply looked for positive comments (blue), critical comments (pink), and suggested solutions (yellow). For expediency, I’m sharing a PDF of the document as I went over them and made notes by hand and I am too tired/lazy to go back and redo them digitally.
How do you think their proposed changes align with the changes I had already been thinking about? I found that keeping a running list throughout the semester helped me keep track of tweaks I wanted to make in the future. For the most part, I feel like we’re in agreement.
Finally, I would just like to wrap up this post with a little brag by including my SEIs. This is the primary evaluation instrument of the university. In total, I received 14 out of a possible 29 responses. Unfortunately, only half of my students completed them so I don’t really consider the quantitative data very valid. Ironically, THAT is the data I would be primarily judged with (and I mean judged). Though I did receive a 4.9 overall :) On the other hand, what qualitative data I did receive was very positive overall. I was happy and humbled by their kind words:
Honestly one of the best, most dedicated, and prepared instructors I have ever had."
So what do you think? Do you agree with my analysisis…is. Did you see things that I missed? Have any questions? Thinking about collecting your own data about your teaching? Have tips to share? Let me know!
As I stated previously, I will follow up this post with Part 3: Final Meetings & New Beginnings where I will bridge last semester’s final meetings with students and the beginning of a new semester with a brand new group of future teachers. Thank you for reading!"
Part 1 of a 3 part series - Part 2 - Part 3
Numbers. While some art teachers may reject the value of quantitative data, I don’t. It’s WHAT you are measuring that makes the difference. For example, we know that standardized test data is basically trash. I’ve mentioned in a few posts already this past semester how I’ve used data from my class to better inform my teaching and while I would accept the charge that what I’ve done so far is only ‘data light,’ I have nevertheless found the stories in numbers and patterns extremely valuable for my teaching. Shouldn’t that be the guiding principle of all data collection: Is this data valuable?
If there is no change, then nothing has been learned. So one way I was able to assess change in my students this semester was by using a simple self-reporting mechanism, the Likert scale (Strongly agree, somewhat agree, I don’t agree or disagree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). I collected self-reports from every student in the form of an Entry and Exit Survey which I gave at the beginning and end of the semester. For the purposes of this post, I’ve combined the somewhat and strongly agrees and disagrees. You can find more specific info as well as all the data here.
As the semester progressed, I realized that there were many questions that I should have asked at the beginning but I didn’t know what I didn’t know yet. Next semester my survey will be more robust. However, what responses I did get were very revealing and while I see tremendous positive gains in some areas I was also left with puzzling questions. This is the challenge of quantitative data - it must be interpreted and analyzed, and that of course involves subjectivity. There are many ways to read the data. As you will see below, results do not always make sense. We must resist the urge to tailor our questions to produce our desired results while also acknowledging that individuals are not purely rational actors and that there will always be a chance of irrational results. Above all, we must keep in mind that self-reports are not 100% accurate, but neither would be any assessment. This being said, let’s jump in.
For the following statements, students were asked to agree or disagree or state that they had no opinion. Let’s start with the good news.
Some people are creative and other people are not.
A major goal for this course is for my students to see all people as having creative potential. Hence, by the end of the semester, my hope was that all students would disagree with the above statement. Out of 29 students, we went from 12 to 26 students who disagreed by the end of the semester. At the beginning of the semester, more than half of my students thought that creativity is a trait that only some people possess. By the end, nearly the entire group thought creativity is something that all people have access to. Remember, these are future classroom teachers who will presumably be more likely to see creative potential in ALL students instead of just a “gifted” or “talented” few. Unfortunately, 2 students still did not see creativity as innate and 1 person had no opinion. But a 14 student swing is HUGE! This was my biggest win by far. How can I continue these gains in the future?
I feel comfortable sharing my opinion about an artwork or image.
Here we went from 19 to 26 students in agreement. It seems 2/3rds of the class was comfortable sharing their opinion regardless. 5 students had no opinion in the beginning while only 3 felt the same at the end. 5 students disagreed with the statement above in the beginning, but by the end not a single student voiced discomfort sharing their opinion about an artwork or image! I think eliminating that resistance in a handful of students is still huge. It was nice to see the time we spent in class talking about artwork paid off!
I feel comfortable leading an art activity or experience.
Here I saw another huge gain. We began with 12 students in agreement and ended with 24! 14 students disagreed with this statement at the beginning while only 2 disagreed by the end! I’m disappointed of course to see that 2 students continue to harbor discomfort at the idea of leading an art exercise, but the gains far outweigh any potential negatives. I haven’t parsed through the data enough to determine whether or not the 2 stubborn students were ones that had decided during the semester to not go into teaching, in which case there was a handful, which could explain the slight negative results. On the other hand, I will certainly think about how I can help all of my students become comfortable sharing opinions about images and leading art exercises in the future. It is also worth remembering that comfort can come with experience and one experience presenting an art activity may not necessarily produce comfort.
In some areas, there was little to no change.
Exploring and making art in a classroom setting is a good use of time.
I’m actually surprised a little bit by this one. We went from 28 students to 29 in agreement. No one disagreed at the beginning so it seems I won over one fence-sitter by the end. Was this self-selection? Students have the option to choose 2 out of 3 art-integration options including visual art, music, and theatre (sadly, no dance). It seems that most everyone who signed up for my visual art integration section already felt that art has value in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong - I LOVE this - but I would’ve guessed that some people might not have seen art as REALLY that valuable (remember this when we get to “art is a privilege” below). Am I expressing an inferiority complex after years of being called a “special” rather than a ‘real’ teacher? Were the students not being completely honest because they know my background as an art teacher? Doubtful. Should I rephrase the question in the future? Perhaps I should ask them to rank “art” in comparison to other subjects. But that would seem to betray the purpose of my class. Ranking would promote divisions between subjects when my class attempts to show how art can connect all subjects. I think the best solution will be to add more verification questions, in other words, ask the same question different ways, to get clearer data. Certainly things to think about for the future but overall it is heartening that a group of classroom teachers believe art is inherently valuable.
I enjoy looking at artwork.
I’m disappointed that I had almost no gains here. 24 students agreed with this statement at the beginning. 24 agreed by the end. 3 students disagreed, while 2 still disagreed by the end. This one I don’t quite get. If you don’t enjoy looking at art, why are you taking a visual art class? When it came to sharing opinions on art (see above), 5 students went from a negative view to a positive or neutral view. Yet here, 2 students continued to hold negative views towards looking at art? In a cynical way, I suppose it doesn't surprise me that some folks would be more comfortable sharing their opinion about something than actually engaging with it (see the comments below any article shared on Facebook, for example). But on the the other hand, I’m more disappointed in myself that I wasn’t able to sway those few stubborn folks. Is “enjoy” too strong a word? Again, I need to ask verification questions. How would the results change, for example, if I asked if they found looking at artwork interesting? Or, do they seek out opportunities to look at artwork? Things to consider for the future for sure.
I like kids.
This is almost a trick question. If you’re going to teach, you better like kids. We don’t teach art, we teach people, I tell my students. If you’re going into teaching, you better answer yes to this question - or get out. I wonder if at some point in the future I will be compelled to counsel a student out of my class based on this question?
At the beginning of the semester, all 29 agreed that they like kids. At the end, one person went to no opinion. As I mentioned before, some students over the course of the semester decided that teaching was not for them. I was told that many of my students take the art-integration courses before actually being accepted into the College of Education, so changes of heart at this early point in their student careers is even more understandable. We had no direct contact with kids through my class, however, so I can’t really attribute any decline here to my course. I also wouldn’t give myself that much credit. But still, I’ll keep my eye on this area i the future.
And now for the bad news and the head-scratchers.
Art is a privilege.
I included this statement to mirror the language that I’ve seen commonly in arts advocacy. “Art is not a privilege” can be seen in materials produced by the Ford Foundation for example. I believe art is a right, a la freedom of expression, and not a privilege. If art teachers and advocates are saying “art is not a privilege” how is this understood by everyday people? Apparently, not very well.
12 students thought art was a privilege at the beginning while 14 students felt art was a privilege by the end - a increase of 2. 8 had no opinion at the start while 6 did at the end. 9 disagreed with the statement at the beginning as well as at the end. This makes no sense to me. After all, EVERY STUDENT thought art was a valuable use of class time (see above). I can only guess that we all had different ideas about what “privilege” means in this context. When I hear “art is a privilege” I hear “art is not for everyone.” This reflects the standard definition of privilege: “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.” Of course, what my students learned during our discussion of “authenticity” earlier in the semester is that a word can mean many different things to many people. I did not use the word privilege in class in this context. For example, I did not say “art is not a privilege” in part because I thought that our class discussions and exercises and assignments would naturally lead them to that conclusion. I would not have expected the results of this data - which makes it all the more important to collect. After all, everyone in the class made, looked at, talked about, and taught using art. So why did half the class think it was a privilege even after all that? My suspicion is that they may have maintained a belief that art is “special,” reinforced by the fact that some schools have art and some don’t, usually due to funding disparities, and practices like calling arts and gym teachers “specials” in some school districts. Additionally, the term “special” appears in the aggregated Google definition but not in Merriam-Webster, in case anyone had to lookup the term mid survey. Do I believe art is special? Yes. Do I believe art is for everyone? Yes. Others, however, may see a conflict where I do not. I can understand how some of the class could have thought that art is for everyone and that some of the class might’ve thought that art is special in a way that deserves respect. But for me, this contradicts what I was trying to accomplish in the course. I shared the Entry survey results with the class but I don’t think I went into what “privilege” might mean for me and the good folks at Merriam-Webster. I remember discussing privately with an art-loving student how she was disappointed to hear that so many in the class thought art was a privilege. She and I were on the same page, but many others were not. I had assumed that some would think art was not for everyone then and fully expected the majority to see art as something that anyone can do at the end because they all had in fact made art more than once in various forms in our course. This did not happen.
I can’t quite view this result as a failure, but moreso as a puzzle. Clearly, there is a disconnect. More importantly, there seems to be a disconnect between what art advocates say and what the general public may hear. We must speak the same language and perhaps the term “privilege” may have lost its communicative value. I will most likely keep this same phrasing for future surveys, but will need to ask additional questions to drill into what is really going on here. Additional statements such as “art is a right” or “every student should have access to art in school” or “art is for everyone” could clarify the views of the class. Perhaps unpacking “privilege” in tandem with our discussion on “authenticity” would be beneficial? Of course, you can’t cover everything you might like, but I think further investigation is needed.
One can become more creative.
Here we finally come to my weakest area. At the end of the day, if the students leaving my course cannot state that they believe a person can learn to be more creative, then I have failed, at least in part, as a teacher. While I saw huge gains in several areas, this feels like a defeat. And again, it is truths like this that make collecting data all the more critical. I would not have assumed a decline in this category, but nevertheless, there was - and that is something I have to face as a professional.
Out of 29 students, 27 agreed that someone can become more creative at the beginning of the semester. By the end, it was 25. A decline of 2. 2 students disagreed at the beginning and the end. Instead of 0 at the beginning, 2 students had no opinion by the end. Being in my class had a negative impact on my students belief that individuals can become more or less creative. While the numbers are small, I can’t ignore them. I’m shocked at the slight regression.
How could this be? What went wrong?
I’m of course very pleased that the vast majority of the group came in and left seeing creativity as dynamic and something that could be improved. This should not be dismissed. But they came that way, through no effort on my part. Another example of self-selection? Throughout the course, I included readings which addressed how creativity can be improved and spoke multiple times of the importance of a growth mindset in general and in regard to creativity specifically. We learned creative models, methods, and research on systematic creativity (see Made to Stick). They all chose a creative growth goal and had to provide evidence for how they had demonstrated creative growth! So how is it possible that my course have no impact on 2 students and a negative impact on 2? What is going on?
While I’m elated that more than half the class realized by the end of the semester that creativity is something that all people possess (see above), how could they also still believe that one cannot become more creative? Is this cognitive dissonance? Did they fail to see themselves as creative somehow? Were the 2 people with fixed trait views of creativity also the 2 people who felt that only some people are creative? I understand that beliefs are difficult, if not impossible, to change, but I’m still surprised. I have work to do here clearly and must reassess my methods. It’s important to see that everyone has creative potential, but it is just as important that creativity be seen as something that can be improved like anything else.
What do you think? Are your interpretations of the data similar to mine or do you see something different?
In the end, do I think going gradeless was worth it? Absolutely. Do I think I could’ve seen the same quantitative results with a more traditional approach? I think that is possible. None of the questions featured here dealt with the assessment, for example. Do I still have a long way to go? Absolutely. But check back soon for How far have we come? Part 2: The Words where I dive into the qualitative data, namely student comments, which have their own story to tell!
NOTE: It has been a tumultuous few weeks since the Fall semester came to a close including traveling, family tragedies and emergencies, and illness. As a result, I apologize that this post has been delayed. My plan is to make 3 posts to bridge this past and upcoming semesters. Here, part one deals some of the quantitative data I collected; whereas part two will examine the qualitative feedback I collected, mostly in the form of student comments; and part three will reflect on our final meetings in which I met with students individually to determine final grades as a preface to next semester just around the corner! Stay tuned and as always, thanks for reading and your support!
Our last class of the semester! The last day is always bittersweet for me. It is a celebration of all we have accomplished this semester but also the last time we will all be together. The sandcastle my students and I have built will soon be washed away by the tide. In a month or so, a new one will begin. While there was nothing being turned in and nothing going on in class that day that the students would be held responsible for later, I was delighted when I saw that every student (except for two recovering from surgery) had chosen to attend! For me, this was a subtle but significant endorsement of the time we’ve spent together this semester. They were there because they wanted to be - not because I had coerced them with grades or penalties (and very very few had enough absences that missing the last day would’ve penalized them). For this, I’m grateful.
For our last day, I planned a potluck while we enjoyed a make-up presentation and completed course evaluations. I brought coffee and donut holes the first day to take the edge off our first meeting and a potluck on our last day was their chance to reciprocate. We enjoyed a wonderful sugary feast! I wanted feedback, the university wants feedback, and on top of that my department wanted feedback - and of course we all had our separate tools! Hopefully the snacks helped prevent what I’m calling ‘eval exhaustion.’
Much more importantly for our last day, I invited fabulous guest speaker. Duarte Brown is a local Columbus mixed-media artist that is passionate about working with young people and community. Mr. Brown is an artist-in-residence for the Ohio Arts Council, a publicly funded program that places artists in schools for as little as a day or as much as once a week for a semester! It is a wonderful program that enables young people to see working artists in action and a chance for artists to share their inspiration and gifts with others. Hopefully some of my students may wish to have an artist-in-residence in their future classrooms! I wish more art teachers would invite artists into their classrooms to provide real working artist role-models and create connections between the classroom and the community.
I knew that my students would love Duarte when I had the opportunity to hear him speak at the recent Ohio Art Education Association conference. He was passionate, sincere, and funny as he accepted a state award and spoke about his work with local art teachers like Melinda Staley and sharing his art with young people around Ohio. He graciously accepted my invitation to speak to my class on the spot. The day of his visit, he had left another conference just to make it to my class. As he spoke to my students, they heard that same passion, sincerity, and sense of humor I had heard weeks before. At the core of his talk was love, especially his love of making art and using it as a way of connecting with others. He spoke about resistance and challenges and the complexity surrounding race, masculinity, and trauma that permeates our students’ daily lives. And he also expressed the vulnerability required for both artmaking and teaching and spoke on the importance of being fearless and meeting our young people where they are, free of presumptions and judgments. This for me is the essential work every teacher must practice and something I continually work towards.
As future teachers, I believe Duarte’s words resonated especially strongly with them and I know that many of them found the experience moving (I won’t see their feedback until next week to know for sure). I know it resonated with me as a person who lived through a great deal of childhood trauma, was homeless and repeated 5th grade, but that went on to use art to connect with others and is now a teacher seeking a PhD. I have little doubt that he further inspired them to inspire others. I’m incredibly grateful for his selfless generosity in taking time out of his busy schedule to speak to these young teachers during this critical time in their studies. I’m thankful that they have such a memorable example of creativity in the classroom that they can draw on in their future work with young people.
Sorry this week’s post is so short, but finals are beginning this week and I’m under the gun. However, next week I’ll be back to talk about my student conferences in which we will be meeting to mutually determine each student’s final grade. Stay tuned!
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.
As you know, my nemesis is the “school art style.” This term was introduced in the 1970s by art educator Arthur Efland. It represents everything I am against in art education. Bland, prescribed, superficial, “cookie-cutter” forgeries, created en masse by class after class, year after year, to meet the expectations of parents and satisfy antiquated notions of artmaking as individualistic, teacher-driven time-fillers with little room for choice or meaningful exploration. Canned art. Guaranteed to succeed. My mascot, Carl the Color Wheel, stands for my feelings about that kind of paint-by-number anti-creativity too common in artrooms across America. It is inauthentic. Opposed to this meaningless mimicry, I want my future teachers to involve art authentically in their classrooms. Debbie Clement is a great example of the difference during the younger years, as she writes a great post about authentic vs inauthentic artmaking. Below is an example from her blog of the dreaded “school art style.”
I don’t believe that some art is better than no art. If the teaching promotes misconceptions and is anti-art, I would rather there be a void of artmaking in their classroom thank you very much. On the other hand, very responsible teachers sometimes avoid artmaking exactly because of their anxiety about possibly “doing it wrong.” Good intentions are not enough and real harm can be done unintentionally by well-intentioned people. Instead, we can do our best to prepare our students to be as authentic as possible, proceeding with respect, evidence, and sensitivity.
In the last few weeks of class, my students and I have been exploring some broader issues that relate to arti-integration and classroom creativity. How does art relate to culture? Art and culture have been inseparable since long before there were words for either one. To talk about art outside of culture and its complicated network of connections to people with relationships in a society is to try to understand a fish without knowing anything about the existence of water. Authenticity is critical to both artmaking and culture. They are participatory and dynamic, not fixed and passive. They both intimately involve creating and making.
To provide my students with a strong foundation for exploring art and culture authentically, we first began with authentic artmaking experiences, such as the monoprinting we did in class a few weeks ago. Then two weeks ago I lead the class in a discussion on the topic of “Authenticity v Inauthenticity.” Each student began by thinking of or Googling examples of each and then sharing their examples with a partner before we sharing with the entire group. We then wrote down the various meanings and words the group associated with each word in an effort to come to a communal understanding. We often think a word has one meaning to everyone, but they don’t do they? That is a simple lesson that I feel like has taken me a long time to learn. So unpacking a word in class and what it means to everyone is not only something a constructivist educator would do, it’s something I think is important to do so that we know whether or not we are speaking the same language. It’s a way of determining shared values. We had a variety of ideas along the spectrum between the two terms as well as examples. My favorite was probably the three students who brought up the example of the Mona Lisa and a forgery, just because they made the art connection. Still, I would be lying to myself if I believed every student would make the connection between a copy of an artwork and paint-by-numbers. Beliefs are hard to shake and for some, I’m sure, paint-by-numbers matches their idea of art. Personally, I don’t think they have any place in any classroom - except perhaps for the one Andy Warhol did. It was probably our longest discussion of the semester and it was one in which the whole class seemed engaged and interested, which was reflected in many responses as well. I saw that in just a few cases students seemed to conflate “authenticity” with “originality” which I would say is a related idea, but very different. I did do a little bit of reteaching in pointing this out in my responses to their feedback. You can find all of their responses here.
After this discussion, students read an article by OSU AAEP professor Dr. Acuff titled (Mis)Information Highways: A Critique of Online Resources for Multicultural Art Education and were assigned to participate in an online discussion afterwards. For the discussion, students were asked to respond to the following prompt:
What are some multicultural mistakes to avoid?
The students brought up a number of strong examples with a lot of crossover. I was extremely satisfied by their demonstration of their understanding of the reading and the connections they had made to examples from their own educations and found lessons. I feel that this exercise is a vital part of the course because it meets the students where they are. “In an impromptu surveying of my class of 27 art education pre-service teachers at the University of North Texas (UNT), in Denton, Texas, USA, 100 per cent claim to always use or frequently use the Internet to find lesson plans or ideas for curriculum development” (Acuff, 2014). The vast majority of teachers today will look online for teaching materials. Acuff asks them to be critical of the materials they find that they otherwise might take for granted. The internet can just as easily perpetuate ill-informed and harmful teaching practices as it can disseminate more empowering and humane approaches. “There is no way to control information disseminated online, nor verify its authenticity or accuracy. Therefore, art teacher educators must be proactive in engaging in dialogue and frank conversations with their art education, preservice students about online content and its place in teaching, pedagogical construction and curriculum development” (Acuff, 2014). For students who had not yet been able to view many lessons with a critical lens or even think of many examples, I feel that the discussion presented them with examples they might not have otherwise considered and may have revealed the pervasiveness of problematic practices. If you would like to see their discussion posts and responses, I’ve copied the entire online discussion here (as of 11/12/2017). All student names have been removed.
At this point, I felt that the students had a strong enough knowledge base in which to proceed with an interdisciplinary artmaking experience that directly connects culture and artmaking. The project was first inspired by an article I read as an undergraduate written by my then professor Dr. Melanie Davenport titled Using Simulations to Ground Intercultural Inquiry in the Art Classroom (2003). “Becoming members of distinct, emergent communities, constructing shared cultural understandings through dialogue within the group, creating artifacts of both practical and aesthetic use, and finally, dealing with problems of interpretation and evaluation provides students the scaffolding to construct further understandings about the intercultural processes that contribute to the evolution of visual culture over time” (Davenport, 2003). In her article, Davenport discusses how simulation can be a helpful tool for exploring cultures in a way that invites students to walk in another’s shoes while enabling the maker to better understand their own shoes. “Viewing the visual world through an intercultural lens adds a much needed cosmopolitan perspective (Appiah, 1998) to the consideration of the visual manifestations of culture, past and present, and the interactional processes that shape our world” (Davenport, 2003).
Another student in Dr. Davenport’s class, my friend Laura Hein, an art teacher in North Carolina, took Melanie’s idea and ran with it in a fun way. She groups her students together and gives each group odd materials with which they are asked to construct an original culture which culminates in the sharing of objects and stories from each group. One example I remember was a culture that worshipped chickens because they had received feathers as one of their materials. She inspired me to design my own lesson based on Davenport’s article. In my case, I wanted to constrain my students not just with materials, but with a realistic scenario as well. I had recently discovered Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs & Steel and had loved it. Diamond wishes to understand modern day disparities between cultures by tracing back the most significant catalysts for change throughout time. What advantages enabled some cultures to dominate others and is it possible to identify the origins of those advantages? Was it differences between the people? Or was it a difference of circumstance? As you can guess from the title of the book, Diamond identifies technological factors such as the invention of guns and steel, as well as biological factors such as germs, as having played some of the most significant roles in human history. But beyond these factors, well beyond recorded history, Diamond identifies that luck, essentially where you were born including your geography and resources, as being the earliest factors that contributed to the growth and spread of some communities and the later challenges of others.
As a K-12 art teacher, I liked multicultural lessons where students would explore how a “Big Idea,” like love or death, might be depicted in various cultures around the world. Or a lesson where a teacher might provide students with examples of an object like a piece of clothing or a mask or a tool and explore how the context, use, meaning, and appearance changes from place to place. Like many, if not all, students in America, I made my fair share of “art” things that were just culture knock-offs and crappy copies. Like a lot of kids, I’m almost positive I made some construction-paper feathered headdresses and some artifacts with a paper towel tube. It’s hard to recall when or what now. Those were examples of disposable culture. Culture as superficiality. Viewing culture through the lens of a gift shop. I detest lessons like that but I’m afraid that some still see culture as sombreros and boomerangs.
Why are toilet tube totem poles so problematic? There are so many writers who do so much better a job unpacking this than I can. I would just briefly ask: Why do you think copying an object from a culture will help students understand the people of that culture? How does copying an idea, but using completely different materials and for completely different reasons under completely different circumstances, help students connect in any way shape or form with the specific time or place or people that created the original? I do believe that you can gain inspiration from objects from other cultures but that inspiration should be authentic. WHY was this object made? How do YOU, today in your specific time and place, answer that same “Why” question? I don’t accept that you, 21st century person, would answer the question the creators of that artifact were trying to answer in exactly the same way. If you do, that seems like simple plagiarizing, which is academically, artistically, and morally dishonest. Can you not learn from copying? Of course you can. But you sure as hell aren’t copying anything if you’re using a cardboard tube to mimic a religious artifact. Instead of copying a dreamcatcher, for example, is there anything that you could create to catch your own dreams or make them come true?
I wanted to create a multicultural lesson that not only was the opposite of such cultural mimicry but was also more ambitious that the average example of examining an idea or object as it appears in various places or times. I wanted something experiential that would stick. I wanted to instigate not only authentic artmaking and greater understanding for what it might have been like to have lived in a different time and place. I also wished to utilize various aspects of creativity during this lesson, engaging students in play through roleplay, collaboration, questioning, uncertainty, risk taking, and, of course, making. I believe the purpose of a constructive multicultural lesson is to build an appreciation for diversity, greater understanding of different points of view, and greater empathy towards different people. I developed Creating Culture and it is a lesson I have shared with students over the years of what I hope is a good example of the potential of multicultural inquiry.
The idea was simple. Split the class into two and separate them as much as possible, recreating geographical distance mentally. With little more effort, this plants the seeds for group identity, as supported by literature in Social Psychology. I researched the locations and resources of two civilizations which existed at the same time but because of essential differences were very different technologically and which were examples Diamond had cited as evidence of his theory. One inspiration was the Fertile Crescent region and the other was Papau New Guinea. In each case, students were given information about the conditions in which they might’ve lived and their resources and materials, intended to be as close as possible approximations to the materials each culture would have had access to at the time. Because the original materials are not always available or safe or cost effective for the average classroom to use, such as stone carving, substitutions can be made, like soap in place of stone, for example. It is important however that these substitutions be made explicit for each group so they can apply a little imagination to surpass these real world limitations. The key, however, is that neither group knew what culture their scenario was based on or what materials the other group had. Instead, each group only knew what people would have known at the time, namely their immediate surroundings. Everything else was up to them to create. Each group set about deciding what their culture would be like and creating objects and artifacts that they would use in their shared culture.
Inevitably, cultures come into contact with other cultures. This is the “interculturality” that Davenport describes in her article. To provide this experience with students, I surprised each group with a message that people in another land had been recently found. At the time, there was no written alphabet or communication, so this forced each group to communicate visually through their objects. And this also left the door open for uncertainty, predictions, and misunderstandings. They must now interact with this unknown outgroup by sending objects back and forth. Will they trade or not? What will they offer? What do they wish to communicate? What are the intentions of the other group? In the end, we reunite the groups and discuss the cultures and objects they created and discuss the perceptions and misconceptions they had of each other and the their implications.
I’ve shared this lesson with several classes of art education students and art educators at conferences over the years. With each presentation the project has improved. This was my first opportunity to share it with classroom teachers and I was impressed with what they created together. One object that was a show stopper was a working bow and arrow one culture would have used to hunt created from mostly sticks and rafi! No matter how many times I’ve done this lesson, I’m fascinated by the differences of the objects from year to year - none are ever exactly the same - and how the interactions between the groups change each time. Some groups enter into conflict while others establish mutually beneficial relations. I would love to see a class combine my lesson and John Hunter’s World Peace Game and therefore connecting the past and the future with imagination and community. What I love about this exercise is that students see first-hand the connection between art and culture. It’s about specificity and possibility.
Here are some of the responses I received from students about the experience:
Not only were we encouraged to think about art in a new way, we were forced to be thoughtful with our decisions in a way which we might not typically think. Furthermore, it felt as if our group really came together over this assignment and we wanted to create resources which would be fitting for the entire community.
What happened next was unexpected. After the lesson was over, I stored the objects the students had constructed on a shelf against the wall, put the extra lesson plans I had provided for my students away in my drawer, and left the classroom I share with several other teachers. We are currently waiting on storage shelves which will be used to store the work from the various classes that share the room, so for now everything has to fit on a couple of small shelves out in the open. It had not been my intention to display the objects, but I was also proud of my students and had not thought much about leaving them out. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I received a message later. “Is that a teepee?”
I was accused by a co-worker of cultural mimicry. The person might have been unsure mainly because it wasn’t a teepee and hence, if it was, it was not a very good one. Or maybe they had already made up their mind. No, it’s an original creation. “And is that a headdress?” It’s a headdress, but for an invented culture. It’s not based on any existing culture. I was subsequently forced to defend myself and my students work. I did by providing most of the materials which I have included in this post. This evidence seemed satisfactory and so it appears I’m no longer under suspicion. The solution offered was that I should’ve had a lesson plan displayed along with the objects. This is fair, as they were visible even though my intention was mostly to store them rather than display them. Would less visibility have prevented any of this conflict? I’m not sure. The accusation was not accompanied by interest in my plans or rationale.
The incident in question was the impetus for this longer than usual post. We often don’t have all of the work and thought that goes into a project or assignment at our finger-tips to answer our critics. So here it is. Years of of research and planning and practice. Weeks of exercises, discussions, readings, and projects. And all of that can be threatened by a single uninformed accusation. Such an accusation can be potentially career damaging. I knew that right away. I was shocked and upset. I was also insulted personally on behalf of my students. Do I allow or encourage my students to make shoddy reproductions of objects from other cultures? No. No I don’t. Here’s an example of me saying exactly that to a student in fact when reviewing a lesson plan they had submitted to present to the class. I can imagine how someone outside of my department, seeing these objects together without any explanation or context and without knowing me, could assume the worst. What disappoints me about this incident is not that I might be asked to explain what my students do. I can do that easily. What is most disappointing is that the question was accompanied by a presumption of guilt and that it came from within my own department suggesting at best a lack of trust. There are two ways at least to approach any situation. As a teacher, I give a lot of feedback and ask students a lot of questions. I recognize the critical distinction between the question "Is that a tee-pee?" and "What was your class working on?" That distinction is judgment. That is a part of the ecosystem in which teachers operate and we must be prepared for it.
There are of course three takeaways from this. The first is tough, because it cannot always be possible to see things the way someone else does. Acknowledging difference means acknowledging different experience. I saw a four-corner pyramidal structure with a woven netting cover created for a tropical environment. I didn't imagine how someone else might interpret these objects as they lay piled on a shelf. If I had simply provided a copy of my lesson plan near the ‘offending’ objects, would that have prevented this miscommunication? I suppose we must operate under the assumption of better safe than sorry and always provide pertinent information for any work we display both in and out of our classrooms.
Now, having experienced being implicitly labeled racist, or at best culturally insensitive or ignorant, I have two choices at least moving forward in my teaching. I can give into that fear of being criticized by someone that takes something I’m doing out of context. Perhaps stay away from hands-on multiculturalism all together as such can present risks for those that engage students in such exploration. I would perhaps avoid any risk if I threw out this exercise all together in favor of an in class discussion instead for example. Or I can continue to do work with students that engages students in meaningful cultural inquiry. I can continually reaffirm my embracing of difference and do the work of becoming a better ally and a better informed teacher, open to authentic criticism of my practice, which there is surely room for, as I am by no means free of the power structures that perpetuate inequity in our education system and our country as a whole. But I’m working to be better all the time. You shouldn’t expect rewards for this kind of work, other than the reward of better teaching and better relationships with my students. You should, however, expect criticism. Some of it fair and some of it not.
The lesson for my future teachers? Document EVERYTHING. Record responses. Record feedback. Record responses to responses. Create plans. Review plans. Take photos. Record video. Do everything and anything you can do to capture the amazing things that happen in your classroom. And one day you may need some of that documentation as evidence to protect yourself from people on the outside of what you’re creating in your class together with your students. And more importantly: Know WHY! Why are you doing what you’re doing? Do you have evidence for what you’re doing? Could you defend it if you had to? Always be sure, not in the appearance of the products that your students will create, for that leads to the standardized, mechanized, dead pedagogy plaguing so many schools. Instead be sure of the process, the WHY, behind what you’re doing. Be mindful of different perspectives but be aware that some perspectives might just be wrong. That doesn't mean you can just ignore them. Always display contextual information with work. Next time, I'll create a QR Code linking to this post.
We will not create safe cookie-cutter copies and meaningless things with our students. Meaning is messy, like people and the differences between them. We must create learning that lives and breathes. We must never give in to allowing our work to become another example of the “school art style.” We must constantly support our students in authentic making and exploration. And we must do this in spite of resistance and very real risks.
You may download my lesson packet Creating Culture here.
We’re all familiar with the term “emotional roller coaster.” But that’s not a very helpful metaphor is it? Roller coasters have operators, safety precautions, and typically don’t crash. Our emotions, let alone our lives, are anything but a roller coaster. We can go off the rails rather regularly.
My apologies for my delay in posting this! I’ve traveled to two conferences in the last three weeks and I’ve been struggling to keep up with my class as well as my own coursework. But both conferences were wonderful opportunities to connect with new people and ideas in two very different art education communities - one primarily research and the other practice. That was the product at least. The outcome. It all sounds rather tidy. The PROCESS on the other hand, was emotional and messy. A misheard name, an awkward conversation, a feeling of not fitting in, and having to make sacrifices like staying in and working rather than going out and socializing. These were some of the bits we tend to edit out of our stories. Sort of how textbooks edit out the ugly parts of history.
Am I the only one who when first arriving at a convention, needs about a half-a-day or so to acclimate emotionally? Before that it’s like that first day of school again. I’m in a strange place with strange people. Everyone except for you seems to be mingling and catching up with each other and bustling about. It’s like this predictable re-entry process I go through each time. But those feelings don’t last (usually) and in the end it’s all worth it. I made connections with folks I hope to continue to see and attended to already established connections and left inspired and feeling closer to others that value some of the things I do. By the time I have to leave I’m sad to go! (I had to leave both early for a class I take on a few Saturdays this semester). You feel acutely vulnerable at first but you put yourself out there, give it some time, make mistakes, but also gain a great deal. This the the process of connecting with other people. And that emotional journey relates to one of my recent classes.
The topic of the day was Artist as Storyteller so we were discussing narrative art and how art can tell stories. Simple enough, right? For this class I had prepared an in depth PowerPoint showing students some artwork and materials that could help connect to literature class. Mainly, how an artwork can be used as a writing prompt and help students learn about the parts of a story while creating their own artwork using collage and drawing. We were to look at artwork and interpret it narratively, imagining what story it might tell. Afterwards students would have time in class to create mixed media artworks that told a story. I hoped that by the end we could hold a mini-critique to talk about our collages AND our monoprints which we had still not had time to critique all together. I thought I had a fantastic presentation with interesting examples and images I had used in the past, and a great art experience planned for them.
Everything went wrong.
Most if not all of my students had a positive experience overall, as far as I could tell at the time and after reading their responses (which they complete every week). Some sensed that things were a bit off with the artmaking at least. A few made astute observations and provided constructive criticism. But I knew things had not worked out and shared as much in many of my responses back. I admitted my mistake and asked what they might’ve done in that situation. All teachers know that feeling when something you thought was going to be great falls flat. The ones that care do something about it.
It’s important that we acknowledge that learning and teaching is a largely emotional endeavor, no matter how often it seems that education stops at the neck. I’m constantly trying to improve my practice as a teacher. But the failures still hurt. Losing doesn’t feel good.
Is learning about “winning”? No. I said “losing” on purpose. Did you see a problem with that like I did? Because that is the closest analogy I can think of for the feeling of a lesson falling flat. I think this is a very American thing to say probably. I feel like there is a tendency towards binary in the U.S. Win & Lose. Good & Bad. Democrat & Republican. Our education system stigmatizes failure and making mistakes therefore discouraging the tremendous opportunity for learning that mistakes offer. There is that perfectionist tendency that strangles so many children with anxiety today. “Art is never finished. Only abandoned.” - Leonardo da Vinci. I also have serious complaints about our education system’s overall neglect of emotional education. When mistakes happen, I don’t believe we are adequately prepared to manage our response in healthier ways. We are a fixed mindset nation where a first grader might tell you they are not a math person. But we can improve. And I’m teaching my teachers in the hopes that they will be able to escape these mental shackles with which I’ve grown up - that they might live freer and healthier than I have. A guy can dream, can’t he?
So it hurts when things don’t work out and there’s no do-over. So what do you do? Well, at first there is the sticky business of pushing through in the moment. The old “show must go on." You adjust and adapt and slog your way through less confidently than normal. You salvage it the best you can. You do your best to save the patient but it’s already DoA - not an unusual outcome when you relying on lesson plans. Anything that doesn’t go “according to plan” means you’re off track. I’ve been a bit off-track most of this semester on this journey. You try to shrug off the dissatisfaction as best as you can. But you screwed up and you feel like everyone saw you being a bonehead. There are many ways to react, some requiring more self-control than others. Some just require some deep breathing. But you get through it. After, I was not looking forward to their feedback on my lesson. In the end, they went pretty easy on me. They are sweet. And maybe, sadly, I wonder about their expectations of their professors. Was this still exceeding their expectations?
Next you perform the autopsy. What happened? Wrong content, wrong images, and wrong project. One artwork was not as age-appropriate (or maybe interest appropriate) as I thought it might’ve been. It didn’t engage them on the early Monday morning. Unlike Garfield, I don’t get to blame the day of the week. I knew exactly what day it was going to be and went ahead anyway. Another artwork was too complex to be adequately unpacked. It was a rich, layered, in some ways difficult work, and I treated it poorly by shoehorning it in to prove a minor point - that even a non-objective work could be read like a story...sort of. The hubris! While my own art example I shared was a mixed media collage, neither of the examples we discussed was a collage, despite the fact that we would be making them and could benefit from seeing various approaches. Additionally, my example was a very detailed, carefully rendered piece and there was no way they could do similar work in the allotted time. I wasn’t really showing them what was possible or worse, giving them an unreasonable point of comparison. It was closer to showing-off, it felt. Look what I can do under ideal circumstances with unlimited time and many years of drawing experience! Now you try! I had gotten my students started the class before cutting out images to collage but let their ultimate purpose remain a mystery in the hope that they would have to think on their feet an adapt. But that turned out not to work out. Because of the limited time, almost no one was able to finish in class. That’s not a very satisfying experience. Nor were they able to make many meaningful connections. To make it up to my students, I told them they could submit a picture of their collages rather than submitting written feedback. Not much, but something. I already knew that I would be making dramatic changes to the way I would present this topic in the future so their feedback would be somewhat redundant for me.
We also had to talk about some artwork before the end of class. So we saved twenty plus minutes to share our monoprints we had created a few weeks before. We “had to” have a mini-critique that day because we would not have another chance the rest of the semester. We also “had to” because I had assigned a reading discussing talking about student artwork and felt that my students would be mad if we didn’t apply the reading in class. And because of the short amount of time, I felt like our conversation lacked depth and several pieces worth acknowledgment went undiscussed. There were some thoughtful comments although we mostly got a lot of “that reminds me of.” And, of course, we even went slightly over time, which I hate, because I work hard to respect my students’ time. That of course is the danger of teaching (or doing anything in the classroom) because you think you “have to.” So all in all, a roller coaster wreck.
I know what you might be saying. It wasn’t THAT bad. And I get that. I’m not trying to paint this class as some kind of catastrophe. There were no fires or getting fired involved. But this was my first real bad day of teaching this semester. Teachers know how important modeling is for learning. Just imagine how extra important it is when teaching teachers! Modelling can be a double-edged sword because this was one of those days where I hope they DON’T do as I do...but they probably will :) But in all seriousness, it is important that our students see us make mistakes and that we own them. I know as a young teacher, I would have wanted to hide my mistakes. That’s what near constant overemphasis of “craftsmanship” in high school and college art courses taught me perhaps. Our students need to see us as fallible (not that they don’t already know well enough). But they can learn a tremendous amount from seeing us sitting in the hot seat. Watching HOW we deal. We should let our students see behind the curtain, rather than pretending to be wizards and witches of Oz or magicians as Nan Hathaway has said. We’re showing students how to be in the world, not how to be a good audience member, watching as the world goes by before them.
The autopsy, while intellectually satisfying, did not alleviate my emotions. I felt down. I could tell that I was feeling vulnerable. I like to brood. Like many others, I have a tendency to ‘protect’ my vulnerability with defensiveness. I related to this during my attendance at the conferences. Do you ever go to a presentation where you realize that you have been doing something wrong in your teaching? Headed in the wrong direction for a while? How do you react to that news? Despite presenting to teachers many times over the years, I only came to appreciate this nuance recently. When someone points out a better way of doing something that you have been doing or otherwise makes it clear that something you have been doing is unhelpful or even counterproductive, our logical side can appreciate the new information. Let’s implement that. On the other hand, our emotions kick in as well, don’t they? We’re halfway through the semester/year/course! I’ve been doing x wrong all this time! What have I done to my poor students! It’s not like a single mistake, but a mistake exponentially multiplied with compound interest. We feel bad. Maybe shame, the flip-side of vulnerability. Rather than appreciating the new information, part of us feels threatened. Rather than engaging with the path forward a part of us remains trapped in the loss behind us - in the mistake. We might not be ready for that info yet. Everyone reacts a little differently. For me, it takes a little time to resolve this conflict and while I know rationally that everyone makes mistakes because I have said it to students a thousand million times, I still, perhaps irrationally, feel that pain acutely. How many times, I wonder, has someone saying, “Get over it!” actually helped. We know it’s not that simple. But maybe you, like me, say this to yourself more than you would like. I simmer and stew but eventually move forward. We can’t let ourselves become the kind of teacher that doesn’t admit mistakes. I feel like I’ve made every mistake in the book. I want to own them.
Whenever I give teachers advice, I want teachers to know that I’m never shaming them. I’m not coming from a place of judgment. As I like to say, the only way I’ve ever learned anything is the hard way. I’m never better than anyone, rather just a little farther down the path. When I offer advice to teachers, it’s because I have been where they are and have and have found a way to try again. I don’t want to judge them anymore than I want to judge my students. Instead, like Craig Roland always says, I want my students to “amaze me.”
I see so many professors and teachers forget what it was like to be in their students’ shoes and forget what it was like before they knew what they know. To hold students hostage to their own impossible standards. We need to create space for our students to make mistakes. We have to address those mistakes coming from a place of caring and acknowledging the tremendous emotions involved. Just like we have to acknowledge our own emotions in our own practice and give ourselves permission to make mistakes. The best-laid plans of mice and men…
It’s just not always easy. We need constant reminding. The more aware we are of our own emotional roller coaster ride we go on when we make mistakes or things don’t go as expected, the better able we are to care for ourselves and help our students when they experience similar feelings. We have to develop healthy strategies for managing our emotions and help our students do the same. How can we care for others if we are unable to care for ourselves? I’m reminded of that famous song by Fred Rogers, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” I’m working on it, Mr. Rogers. I’m trying.
When we dedicate ourselves to teaching, we all choose the hard way. We don’t choose the path with gold and shiny things at the end. We don’t choose the path of least resistance, because we know that resistance is something we will come face-to-face with every day, not least of which in our own mirror. There is nothing easy about working - doing authentic, meaningful, life-affirming work - with people. People can be difficult. Feelings can be difficult. Difficulty is assured. But change is possible. What is heartbreaking is the teachers who look at the world, a world that seems like a scary, inhumane place to them, where they feel powerless perhaps, and decide, intentionally or not, that the best thing they can do is to get their students used to it by making their classroom a miserable place. Those teachers who like to repeat “Well in the real world...” as a bludgeon attacking resistance and potential. I choose instead a humanizing approach, to try to help my students realize how powerful they really are. That their power comes from who they are and their experiences and the people they connect with. It comes from their ability to learn from their mistakes and to try again. It comes most of all from them caring. We wouldn’t get upset if we didn’t care. So we give it some time, make changes, and get back to it.
Does this ring true for you? No two people experience anything exactly the same way. I’d love to hear about your own emotional roller coasters and crashes and how you get out of them!
Here is a link to my day 8 outline & day 9 outline
“As Teachers, we choose our words and, in the process, construct the classroom worlds for our students and ourselves.” Peter Johnston, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives
Developing dialogic teaching and learning is not easy. Dialogue is not predictable and requires vulnerability on both the part of the teacher, as well as the learner. It’s a two-way street and power is shared. The teacher must stand in front of a group of people and be able to stomach uncertainty and wade through awkward silences. The learner risks just as much speaking up and becoming the center of attention while risking being misunderstood or saying the wrong thing. We believe that when we bring together our different points of view, we build more complex understandings of the world and ourselves. But we all have to trust each other that we’ve come together in the interest of a common goal - transformation.
In my experience as a student, teacher, and observer via roles like being a university supervisor for student teachers, far too many classrooms are monologic rather than dialogic. What’s the difference? “The difference...can be thought of as a shift from asking whether something is true to asking when something might be true.” Therefore in the dialogic classroom, students must rely on inquiry, critical thinking, and creativity in making good judgements. When we focus on trivial facts rather than dynamic mindsets, our students suffer in a number of ways. It becomes easy for the teacher to rely on the lowest common denominator, such as memorizing or reproducing the color wheel, and in turn students learn that knowledge is about being right or wrong and that you can either be smart or dumb. This makes them ultimately less resilient and able to overcome challenges in the future, not to mention distorted views of self. When we dialogue with our students, we are embracing active engagement and growth, as well as acknowledging the often contextual and conditional reality in which we all live.
I’ve seen classrooms where students were not allowed to talk with each other, even in the art room, even while working on projects and sitting in groups. I’ve seen classrooms where students did not discuss art, theirs or anyone else’s. I’ve seen classes where students respond to canned, disconnected questions with canned, disconnected answers. Such classrooms break my heart. I have struggled through many a class in my (long) college career where the teacher abused their captive audience and where it seemed the only voice the professor was interested in hearing was their own. This is not just monologic - it’s anti-democratic. And I’m sick of such behaviors being justified by “benevolent dictators.” And it’s all too easy to slide down the slippery slope of student compliance. In “Calling for Response-ability in Our Classrooms” by Maureen Boyd, she states:
“What do we really mean when we say, “You’re not listening to me”? In the constrained world of the public school classroom, with its lopsided power relations, it really means, “You need to do what I am telling you to do. You need to comply.”
But of course there are many wonderful classrooms as well that are full of engaged learners (including the teachers)! I’ve seen classes where students engaged with each other and their teachers, cooperating in the pursuit of curiosity and understanding. Boyd calls this kind of talk “response-able.” She states, “Response-able teacher talk practices cultivate student exploration and articulation as they frame and connect material to local experiences and student funds of knowledge, guide critical exploration, and cultivate openness to perspectives.” Additionally, there is evidence that the ability to communicate effectively is one of the most important characteristics for a teacher to have.
Guiding teachers towards becoming dialogic with their students has become my passion as a teacher educator. At my last position as the coordinator and sole professor of a regional university’s art education program, I redesigned our Elementary Methods course to almost entirely focus on talking about art. As I saw it, being able to talk about and lead discussions surrounding art is an essential skill for every art teacher. Despite identifying as an artist myself, I tend to agree with Dr. Terry Barrett, author of Talking About Student Art (the textbook for my course), when he says “learning to talk thoughtfully about art is especially valuable, perhaps more valuable than learning to make art.” Or course I believe making is important! But, in my current position, when I think of whether or not classroom teachers will be more likely to look at and talk with their students about images or get out art materials and engage their students with authentic artmaking, I would wager that they will be willing to provide many more opportunities to talk and look together than make for their students.
I don’t expect my early-childhood teachers to become art teachers. I do hope that they will become fearless classroom teachers that are more open to making with their students, more supportive of creativity broadly, and will talk more frequently and thoughtfully with their students about images and objects in general. It is my belief that learning to dialogue with art will transfer to other areas of their teaching and gradually lead to more them becoming more dialogic in their own teaching generally. I know there will be plenty of pressures to not engage their students in dialogue - test scores and pacing guides for a couple of examples. But above all, I want them to be brave by resisting the temptation to talk at their students. Not engaging students in discussion, I believe, is a fear-based pedagogy. Art, like teaching, requires vulnerability and risk at its core. So how do we become braver? We practice.
Practicing bravery was exactly what I wanted from my students for their midterm assignment. More explicitly, I wanted them to practice conversation, specifically involving art in some way. The assignment was Two Conversations, one with a loved one and the other with a stranger or acquaintance. Both conversations would involve art in some way, either looking or making, but both would require talking. This would be many of their first experiences planning and/or leading an art experience which is why I wanted them to have someone they’re close with to be a friendly audience. However they need to operate at the edge of their comfort zones, hence asking them engage someone they know little if at all. I explained that they could think of their mini-lesson plan which they’ll be creating for their final project as simply scaling up their conversations from one-on-one to a group while maintaining that conversational style. In 3-6 pages, double-spaced, I asked them to explain who they chose and what they did and reflect on the experience, comparing and contrasting the two conversations, while thinking about what they might change, what they learned and felt, and what specific characteristics of creativity they explored.
One thing I was not expecting was just how much I would enjoy reading their reflections! I was so impressed with them all - their thoughtfulness, their risk-taking, their ambition, and their self-awareness. Their writing seemed to flow naturally as they considered how their plans had unfolded and how they might apply this experience to their future classrooms and students! My biggest problem was trying not to give them too much feedback as I enjoyed their reflections so thoroughly and I wanted to dialogue with each of them at length! Again, I must do better practicing less is more with my descriptive feedback. I was so proud of all of them and it was so self-affirming to see what I perceived as our efforts in class and my efforts behind the scenes paying off. Probably a third or so of the group opted to make art with folks which really impressed me, since I know most of them don’t have much experience making. Most of all, it was touching to see them strengthening their bonds with family, friends, and partners while forming new relationships and friendships with friends of friends, neighbors, and complete strangers, all because of a midterm! How often can anyone say that? So many saw the power of art in action! Now that they know they can do it, I believe that ‘proof-of-concept’ will carry over to their final lessons and I can’t wait to see how they impress me!
As I wrote about in a previous post, I like to play with data. Data can come from a number of sources and in a number of forms. So after I responded to all of my student’s midterms, I became curious about the story inside of the stories. What words or ideas occurred most frequently in their reflections, for example? And what, if any, story did my feedback tell? I turned again to the website Wordsift.org. The story it revealed was fascinating!
When all of their combined 32,099 words were reduced to the 25 most frequently occurring words in their responses, “conversation” and “art” were the frontrunners unsurprisingly. Next “question” was very frequent, followed by “thought” and “think.” After those, words like “asked,” “person,” “make,” “like,” “see,” “different,” “interesting,” “experience,” “know,” “activity,” “time,” and “felt” were most prevalent. Can you see a story? The story I see is one where inquiry is emphasized and that joins actions like making with feeling, looking, and thinking through experiences interacting with people that were both different and interesting. When I expanded the number of words from 25 to 75, I felt that the additional words supported my initial story. Do you agree or disagree?
Next I analyzed my own descriptive feedback. I utilize some common phrases and questions but each response is unique and personalized, so I wondered what story I might be telling the entire class. What were the results? Of the 25 most frequent words in my feedback, “think,” “art,” and “like” were top. Those words were followed by “experience,” “well,” “thank,” “great,” and “thought.” Next were words including “looking,” “student,” “person,” “other,” “maybe,” and “might.” Others were “enjoyed,” “sharing,” “idea,” likely,” “writing,” “someone,” “proud,” and “reflection.” What story do these words tell you? For me, they tell me that I’m encouraging in my use of language but also pushing students to consider various possibilities and conditional knowledge. I can also see my students and I using several of the same words, suggesting we’re effectively speaking the same language. My words to emphasize the interaction and construction of knowledge between people. Again, I increased the number of words from 25 to 75 to see if more information would contradict or verify my first account. For me it did, painting a more detailed portrait of what I suspected. Does that match the story you saw?
Together the world I’m creating with my students is one that prioritizes people over content and active construction and exchange of shared knowledge over impersonal, standardized transmission. We are building a space for thinking and feeling and above all, dialogue. A place where we can be heard and seen and all of this through and with art and artmaking. Many people say art is a language. I disagree. Language is language and art is art. T-shirts communicate but they aren’t a language. Art is a medium - but not just a medium for us to only look at, but a medium through which we can interact and learn to talk with each other as well. I believe that when we talk about and make art, we learn perhaps more about ourselves and each other than we do about the objects themselves.
While I continue to struggle with the demands of my first completely dialogic classroom, I see the rewards so clearly now and I believe there are more on the way for me, but even moreso for my students.
Here is a link to my day 7 outline
So I’m going to talk about meetings - WAIT! STOP RUNNING AWAY! This is going to be interesting, I promise! Because this is the best I’ve felt assessing my students’ progress in a long time! Do you hear that?! Assessment. Felt. Good. Now do you want to hear more? Read on, dear reader!
My favorite part of this week was definitely conducting midpoint meetings with my students. It was such a pleasure getting to meet with each student and check-in, even if it is only for 15 minutes! I still have about a third or fourth of the class left for next week due to “fall break” which is something that doesn’t really apply to teachers or grad students I suspect. I was really worried about these meetings before they started because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stay within the time limit I set. Time is a struggle for me as you already know. Additionally in the past, when I would meet and advise art education students, our meetings would regularly last 30 minutes plus because their journey through their courses and program requirements were so complicated and because I was determined that they would leave as informed as possible, unlike the adviser I had while an undergrad who made it clear she didn’t enjoy seeing students and mostly left us blowing in the wind on our own. It’s a terrible feeling. I saw that on more than one occasion, namely advisers who expected students to know what they didn’t know. I was so excited (and pleasantly surprised) that we were able to move through our meetings efficiently without any traffic jams!
This wasn’t luck, however. I did several things to make sure we made the most of our short time. First, I created a midpoint meeting agenda of 5 items we had to cover. I always tell students not to give students more than “a handful” of things to think about or do at any given time and since we have 5 fingers on our hands 5 items must be more than enough. Any more is asking for trouble (but this is anecdotal and arbitrary on my part - 5 is not a magic number but it is a concrete visual). The agenda’s items were:
I printed out one for each student and for myself and filled them out and checked them off as we progressed. At the end of the meeting, I asked each student to sign to confirm what we had covered those points. This gave us structure and allowed us to move expeditiously while practicing good habits with students, in this case always having something to take notes with at meetings, and committing to decisions, hence the signatures.
Second, I took a page out of Terry Barrett’s playbook, or so I’ve heard, and told students that if they didn’t come prepared for the meeting that we would have to reschedule. If they’re not ready to meet, why meet? How would I know if they’re prepared to meet, you ask? They had to bring a form filled out that I had emailed them and handed out in class. Set your students up for as much success as possible by printing the important or easy things out for them so they have both online and analog and no excuses.
The form I gave them was what I’m calling their “Creative Growth Goal.” It asked them to identify a creative lesson (Eisner), habit (Project Zero), or disposition (Columbus Museum of Art) they would like to work on and show growth in by the end of the semester (about 8 weeks from now). And no one forgot to bring it so far! My students are so on top of everything! I can hardly believe I didn’t have to be the bad guy...yet. We all know that if you set consequences - you have to follow through. But I typically explain I don’t like being put in that position but it’s not my call - its theirs.
This form set us up for two important conversations: A) thinking about their mini-lessons they’ll be preparing for their final; and B) how they will be assessed overall in the course. I explain that there are two widely accepted ways to evaluate student progress in education. One is growth and the other is mastery. I describe how their mini-lesson will be where they will demonstrate mastery, because they will have multiple opportunities to receive feedback, reflect, and revise BEFORE they perform. We’ll be grouping up to talk about ideas next class. The upcoming midterm is practice since it involves two one-on-one conversations involving art looking or making in someway. The draft of the lesson plan will be practice. Even presenting it to the entire class will still be practice technically since it will be with adults and not children and it’s the first time they’ve tried to integrate art probably. It will nevertheless be a “performance” that will make it more real and allow them to “play the whole game”. The final polished product will be the art-integrated lesson plan which they will hopefully carry into their teaching careers. I wonder if I can check in with them somehow and find out if they use it again? How many teachers use the lesson plans they create in undergrad? I further explain that I use a one-point (yes or no) ‘rubric’ for mastery so - Did they integrate art? Did they integrate it authentically? Did they hit these important mechanical parts of a lesson plan? Yes. Yes. Yes. Mastery.
Growth, I explain, will be their “creative growth goal.” I want to be able to put a “creative growth mindset” into practice. I use the metaphor of exercise - a la Dweck’s growth mindset intervention where she refers to the brain (or intelligence) as a muscle. I say that if I walk into a gym, I sure as heck don’t want someone coming up to me to tell me what part of my body I need to work on! I can make that decision myself and they should too! I want them to have ownership over what skill they want to learn. I have no expectation for how much growth or what that growth should look like. My only expectation is that there is growth, regardless of whether it is leaps and bounds! Just like with exercise, we have to be as honest as possible about where we are and where we end up and we have to hold ourselves accountable, but maybe with a little help from a coach or teacher in this case. And whatever you decide to work on, why not work on it together with your students? If I was teaching a workout class, I would definitely be moving and exercising along with my students - not standing still and yelling at them. I’m working on vulnerability and I create conditions for students to work on their vulnerability as well.
Having framed the way they’ll be assessed in the course and making connections, we begin talking about specifics and I try to help them by providing different methods for how they might work on their goal, just like how a trainer might identify various exercises to help someone reach their athletic goal. I want to plant seeds. I tell them how important it is not to overfeed your students by giving too much direction or too many specifics because that can take ownership away from the student. On the other hand, no advice can leave students feeling adrift, confused, or frustrated. It’s a line you have to walk for yourself.
We checked-in on their upcoming midterms quickly to try to resolve any confusion that might escalate their stress and affect their work. Things always come up during these conversations and I’m always really interested in how different students can construe things in different ways than I might intend or how little miscommunications occur or how students can identify areas that need clarification or fixing for next time. I learned a lot about the course their eyes. I’m often gobsmacked at teachers who act like confusion is not a necessary and vital part of learning.
While uncertainty is built into the course, students have only so much tolerance for ambiguity and it can be a big stressor if left unattended. So my goal was for each student to walk out knowing whether or not they were “on target” or off target and what they needed to do to get back on track. We went through any late or missing assignments. I explained that by de-emphasizing grading, I’m not scoring their work, but I am checking it off. If they’ve done everything I’ve asked them to mindfully, then I’ve checked it off, provided feedback, and they are “on target.” I found I learned a great deal about their lives and challenges and that they learned more about my specific expectations and we “lifted the hood” together on how assessment works in the class. I told them that if an assignment was checked off that I had everything that I needed. If it wasn’t, I let them know why specifically in my feedback. One of my goals this semester is total transparency.
My goal is not to tell you you’re a number or a letter, because you’re not, I say. You’re a person and we can do better than that as teachers. My goal is for you to have a clear understanding of where you stand in regard to your own growth and mastery in this course as I’ve observed it and how to move forward. For most students, I was able to gladly tell them just to keep on doing what they’ve been doing because it is working. They’ve managed their time well, despite many personal, work, and other academic obligations. They’ve responded to material thoughtfully in their responses and engaged with material during class in projects and discussions as well as with their classmates.
There were some notes given but most were merely explanations of why I might not call on a student repeatedly to make ample space for other students to speak up or asking students to speak up a little bit more. What a blessing to be able to give students notes like that! I thought about how lucky I was to engage students in dialogue through our written responses and feedback, creating that feedback loop, so that I know how deeply they are engaging with material and how thoughtfully they are reflecting and how many connections they are making even when they don’t speak up much in class! Seeing their thinking makes me a much more confident teacher. I know who is engaging and who might phone it in. I mention this to at least one student, just how grateful I am to be able to see their thinking that other teachers and classes might miss! This is why dialoguing with our students is so critical! Our students are multi-dimensional - not just their presence in class but all the rest of the time between classes as well! How do you make their learning visible as Harvard’s Project Zero Shari Tishman asks? Response journals / portfolios is such a powerful way for me!
One takeaway I leave several students with is just how much I believe it is important that you make time to meet with your students, even if it’s just a quick check-in. EVERY student. No matter how big your classes get, every student deserves some of your time and an opportunity for a one-on-one connection with their teacher on a human level. Those student-teacher relationships are crucial for building trust and communication for learning. I feel as though these meetings have gone a long way so far towards strengthening my relationships with my students this semester.
Do you think I’m crazy? I’ve been meeting with students individually throughout all my courses for the last few years of teaching art education, education, and studio art classes but then again I’ve had the luxury of being able to meet both in and outside of class time. For those of you with younger students, I know you don’t have that luxury of meeting kids outside of class. You might only see your students a few times a month sadly! But can you take just one class session, maybe even if it is only once a semester, to meet face-to-face with everyone for a little check-in while the rest of class work on something together? 5 minutes? 2 minutes? What can you accomplish even in just one minute? If you imagine an elevator ride together? How could you creatively overcome your own unique challenges and obstacles? Do you already do this but differently? Am I asking too much or can we make “one-on-one-for-everyone” a reality?
Hopefully I’ll talk about what happened in class this past week in my next post. This post I think is long enough already. It was a great class looking at and talking about art together while thinking about “sticky” ideas and systematic creativity. But I was SO EXCITED getting to connect with my students and - guess what -THIS WAS AN ASSESSMENT! THIS IS WHAT ASSESSMENT CAN LOOK LIKE! THIS IS WHAT ASSESSMENT CAN FEEL LIKE, PEOPLE! DO YOU HEAR ME? ASSESSMENT FELT GOOD! In our Internet age, where more empathy and eye-contact are regularly called for - where we say we miss human connection - spending some face-time with your students and other humans is more valuable than ever. It’s priceless. Humans, like creativity, depend on connection. Community too requires connection and requires that we treat each individual within our community with dignity. Meetings do not have to suck! Pass it on! :)
Here is a link to my day 6 outline (we did about half - the rest was aspirational)
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Today was all about process! This past week I was hit with a double-whammy of getting sick and an unexpected personal crisis so there went that feeling of being on top of my workload I mentioned last week. That was fast! Several deadlines converged on me at once and so I found myself in that position no teachers like - feeling like I was letting down my students. We often have tough choices as teachers and at times we must implement curriculum triage. It’s true that there is never time to do all the things we would like. There is only so much one can do, and I think teachers especially, are generally pretty self-critical when it comes to accepting the reality of “good enough”. So could I use this as a teachable moment for my students?
On the first day of the semester, I had planned on discussing the term “curriculum” with the class, especially since it’s in the course title, but it didn’t make the cut due to time. Now seemed might be an appropriate time. That’s because “curriculum” comes from Greek, meaning “race track.” This is how I start class. I mention that there are different sorts of race tracks: a line, a circle, and others, like a spiral. A school year can seem like a race track. There is a beginning and an end. Hopefully we are racing ourselves and not each other (part of my assessment rationale). At this point in the semester, some of us are starting to feel it, aren’t we? We’re starting to get just a little tired. But we have to hang in there and take care of ourselves so we can make it to the finish line. I don’t know if I like the idea of a race track though. Everyone starts at different places. And not everyone is trying to get to the same place. Some of our tracks are straight and smooth at times, and some of ours are curvier, more difficult, with more obstacles, sometimes based on who we are, where we’re from, what we look like, and who we love. For me, the most important point is that we’re always moving forward. If we stumble over an obstacle, we get back up and keep moving.
For me, I mention that being sick and a personal issue were two too many obstacles for me this past week and it put me in a position where I feel like I let them down. We’re all trying to get better, but we all make mistakes or don’t accomplish what we hoped to. But we have to forgive ourselves as well as ask for forgiveness. As teachers we make choices all the time and those choices become our curriculum. We can’t do everything we want to. I had to make an impossible choice between five things. I chose to schedule our midpoint meetings, so that everyone could confirm in class today, complete and submit materials for a deadline for an upcoming conference I’m presenting at, and write my outline for class so that I wouldn’t be panicking in the morning - every teacher knows that feeling. What I had to sacrifice were my personally imposed but publicly accountable deadlines of completing my weekly blog post on time and completing my feedback for their last responses. I hope you can forgive me for not being able to give you feedback yet. I will soon. But life and teaching are all about making choices. Was there a right and wrong choice in my case? No. There were many options and I had to use my best judgment. What more can anyone do? It’s all about the process and having opportunities to make decisions and to see how they play out. That is our theme today as we’re going to be exploring process and making process-based art where you’ll all be experimenting and transforming!
I introduce “monoprinting” or “monotyping” with a brief PowerPoint presentation explaining the process and showing some examples, both photos and some examples I’ve brought, of monoprints I’ve made myself and with children in various settings. View presentation here. One of their prompts as they entered this morning was to Google the terms so hopefully some of them had already seen some examples. Monoprints for me are especially process based, encouraging looseness and experimentation with a variety of methods. Each print is unique yet students often follow tangents and utilize repetition to explore subject matter in depth. I ask them to make connections to the processes of the Art 21 artists they chose and to create at least one print inspired by their work or life. Still trying to make as many connections as possible. I share my struggle with the students about the amount of time necessary for authentic art making and I tell them that we will only be making today so there is no need to feel rushed to display or talk about your work. Today is all about taking your time and engaging with the process. I tell them that they can even stay after class if they want (one student takes me up on it for just a few minutes).
I lead them to the back and walk them through a demo of monoprinting with the materials available. I introduce the tools and supplies and ideas lie writing backwards and making a mask. I should find a video online for absent students or consider creating my own. One of my weak areas is making in class content available for students that miss class. Next semester this will be so much easier with all of the structure online already in place! And I’ve been wanting to make videos for a while but I’ve usually got other things on my plate.
Everyone jumps right in and the classroom has a real studio atmosphere today. Students were busy exploring, trying things, gathering equipment, sharing ideas, and complimenting each other. Each student was trying something different with a variety of approaches and colors and ideas. I bet this was a very different experience for these students and I can’t wait to read their reactions.
We never remember to say everything we want to say, do we? One thing I wish I had emphasized is that a big part of process art is challenging oneself and, similar to physical exercise, pushing oneself and going beyond their comfort zone and moving forward even when they begin to get tired, feel resistance, and want to stop. Usually in art classes, especially at the intro level, students need to work on mental discipline and can get distracted and chatty with their neighbors. That was not the case today thankfully! However,I think one student was only engaged in the process for maybe 20 minutes or so and I’m wondering what they will say about the experience in their response. Should I worry? Ideally, in an art class, especially one that is choice-based, there is no “finished.” But we all get tired and are interested in some proejcts more than others. For the most part, everyone seemed to be thoroughly engaged in the process and it wasn’t until after about 45 or 50 minutes students gradually began cleaning up and returning to the other side of the classroom. I was hoping they all might work right through ‘the bell’ but it wasn’t to be. One can dream. We were pretty much done with 20 minutes left but I spent a little extra time getting cleaned up and so we had 10 minutes at the end to review just a couple of points from the short article on art-integration they had read the for class today. FINALLY, we had at least touched on all the readings they had been assigned!
After class, I was able to go through and provide the late feedback to their responses. The time seemed to go by efficiently and I was also able to go through some late submissions and comment on their posts about the Art 21 artists they selected on the class discussion board. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the students and their interests and it was helpful for me as well because it introduced me to Art 21 artists I wasn’t aware of and helped me brush up on some others. I was pleasantly surprised that it seemed like everyone was able to connect with a contemporary artist! I could see me giving this assignment each semester and continuing to make connections to contemporary artists. It made me realize how beneficial it can be to create assignments were you and your students are able to learn together! This prevented commenting from becoming tedious and reinforced that we were all making connections.
Today I also very briefly introduced the final art-integrated lesson guidelines but mentioned that we would go over it in more detail next class and we previewed their next assignments. I’m especially excited to be discussing Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath which discusses why some ideas thrive and others die. This book was recommended to me by my mentor Craig Roland and I’ve found it to be one of the more important books I’ve read I believe. I feel like making ideas “sticky” should be the primary concern of every teacher, though to thinking of what your students will remember years down the road seems somehow nostalgic or at least counter to current concepts of data-driven and corporatized learning. This will be my first time discussing Made to Stick with education students so I’m looking forward to hearing their reactions!
I can’t wait for our midpoint meetings next week! Despite all of the planning I’ve put into this course already, I had still struggled up until very recently as to how exactly we would proceed for our all important face-to-face meetings and how we would be defining growth for them. I had a eureka moment the other day and I’ve decided that I will ask them to select two habits, dispositions, or lessons from the previous documents on the benefits and characteristics of creativity and artists that they’d like to focus on for improvement. I will have to create a template, but I will ask them to identify the 2 skills, why they want to work on it, and how they will will go about improving. I think this choice will be empowering and reinforce the important benefits of creative and art-based learning. Therefore, to encourage a “creative growth mindset” AND to help them better identify the benefits and characteristics of creativity, we will practice adopting some ourselves!
On a bit of a side note, I don’t see why we can’t evaluate growth and mastery in the same course, but maybe I just don’t know enough about assessment. For mastery, of course, they will be planning and leading an authentic art-integration experience which they’ll receive feedback on and be able to revise and improve to meet the standards established in the categories of the template for instruction and authentic art-integration. To plan, we’ll be using the SUCCESs model to evaluate their ideas for their lesson and make sure they are “sticky,” which we’ll talk about next time - see template. We’ll also be using the SUCCESs model to discuss the artworks they are posting for their assignment, namely identifying the “stickiest” artwork or image in the world. I think this will be a good window into talking about art together.
Another realization I had is that Doodles can be notes taken while students go through the readings as well! This should help students with their Doodles - and I’ll be interested in hearing about their experiences with the sketchbook at their meetings. Any sketching, planning, brainstorming, or notetaking works, but not the projects because those get covered by the responses.
I hope I can make time next class for students to go back into their monoprints, but as usual we have a full plate as we’ll be getting into talking about artwork for the first time, discussing how to make their ideas “sticky” and just getting into more depth with their final art-integration projects. But it is is so typical that teachers plan artmaking and exercises as one shots so it would be important to give them an opportunity to continue experimenting and to go deeper. We’ll see!
Here is a link to my day 5 outline
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.