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Art Ed Should Thrive, Not Just Survive (Episode 105) with Jim O'Donnell
Art Ed Radio
The Art of Ed
Making art together is important. It can bring us joy and support us in grief. For some of us, art might be the reason we’re here. But beyond that, by coming together around art, we come to understand and accept each other a little more. After all, art is our inside - outside. The invisible made visible. And in sharing ourselves, our communities grow stronger. I love the bumper sticker quote, which I can only find attributed to either Rosabeth Moss Kanter or Glenn Hilke, stating that, “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.” I suspect that bringing different people together might just be the best possible way to make our world into the one our children deserve.
Culture and community have been recurring topics of my recent classes. A few weeks ago, I engaged my students in a Task Party, originally created by contemporary artist Oliver Herring. It’s an exciting improvisational artmaking experience. As students entered, they were asked to invent a task for another student in the class to complete, write it on a slip of paper, and drop it in a box. They then pick a task at random from the box. They can take as long or as little as they want to complete their task anyway they see fit. Afterwards, students may return to select another task and repeat. As for our materials, a few students and I were able to provide a suitable quantity of recyclables and assorted collections of household-type items. From these, students constructed vehicles, games, towers, gifts, decorations, clothing, and even a few performances, including one student who pretended to be a fish for the entire time and another student that became quite a convincing lion prowling our classroom and startling unsuspecting classmates. One of my favorite creations was a tutu fashioned from strips of plastic bags which reminded me of Degas’ Little Dancer which I shared with the class afterwards.
The first time I experienced a Task Party myself was at the 2016 NAEA Convention in NYC, where I was able to work with Oliver Herring himself. It was a huge ballroom filled with people happily interacting and making and expressing themselves. Despite how busy he was, he was extremely friendly and generous and chatted with me a bit about the event. He was more interested in my take - which is the sign of a natural teacher I think. “This is life,” I told him. “We’re exploring the world around us and ways of being and making something together.” He bowed graciously. After everything was cleaned up, a group of high school students from NYC challenged a group of high students from Provo, Utah to a game of baseball in the ballroom with a leftover tinfoil ball and tubes. It was a spontaneous, beautiful, hopeful moment I was fortunate to catch.
After my class task party, I reviewed my students responses, nearly every one of them mentioned connections with fun, spontaneity, creativity and/or socializing. Almost unanimously, they shared with me that the experience was like nothing they had experienced before. Good. That’s what we’re going for in this course. Also, the vast majority seemed to really enjoy themselves after struggling with a little anxiety, indecision, and ‘maker’s block’ and overcoming their resistance. I was proud of them. Only a few, however, seemed to recognize the possible connection to community in how we navigated and shared space and time, temporarily creating something egalitarian with shared decisions and consequences. I frequently asked students to consider how the experience might relate to “community” in my feedback as a friendly challenge to take their thinking to the next level. The next time a class has a task party, I’ll be sure to center community more explicitly for our post-discussion.
The following week, we revisited Big Ideas. In my last post, I wrote about some of the challenges my students and I experienced as I first introduced the Big Idea method of lesson planning to the class. I had spoken to my mentor and “sister-by-another-mister” Melanie Davenport, who helped me realize how, while I had thought of my content very matter-of-factly, that for my classroom, the introduction of this new way of doing things represented something of a culture clash. For some of my students, this was a significant departure from the way they thought about lesson planning. It had been a little more like oil and water for a few than peanut butter and jelly like I might’ve hoped. But that wasn’t the end of the world since struggle can be important to learning. My suspicion was somewhat validated later when a student explained to me she had been taught to always begin with a standard. But from my perspective, if you’re doing anything worth doing in the classroom, there is a standard for it - so what excites YOU?!
After our review, we transitioned to a discussion of “authenticity.” I believe students should value authenticity in creating their lesson plans. It can mean many different things, but for me, an art-integrated lesson is authentic when students are doing things that artists actually do or at least looking at the artwork they have created. This way, students are learning from actual practitioners involved in the field of visual art. If I was teaching medicine, I would want my students learning from doctors - not the amateur medic down the street 9 out of 10 times. I’m hoping more lessons will follow my lead this semester as this discipline-based / T.A.B. foundation was something I found lacking last semester. But a lesson can also be authentic when students are doing things that they want to do, making choices, and engaging meaningfully in creativity and artmaking. In that way, the learning is natural rather than forced or contrived and the students are being AND expressing themselves.
Authenticity is especially important as some students consider exploring different cultures with their students through art-integration. Whether or not you believe that cultural appropriation is a problem or not, I think any educator can agree that it is a disservice to students when teachers misrepresent or stereotype other cultures, intentionally or not. We have a responsibility to the truth as teachers. Those interested in exploring other cultures should do so with humility, as if they are entering the home of a stranger for the first time. Do not speak for people that you know little to nothing about. Speak for yourself instead. Does this mean I want my students to avoid the artwork of other cultures? Of course not! But, as an authority figure in the classroom and in the interest of intellectual honesty, it is dishonest at worst and ignorant at best to present some problematic lesson you found on the internet as if it accurately represents a group of people in anyway without doing some serious research and questioning. Don’t believe everything you read - it’s the internet for the love of gravy!!
I wholeheartedly believe teachers can teach what they do not know. We can’t know everything and studying a topic the night before your lesson does not make you an authority persay. Many might say they teach themselves first and then teach their students, but why not just learn together? Bu humble. Model curiosity and instead make that the focus. Become a community where power is shared, not centralized. Be respectful and responsible, again, as if you had were in a stranger’s home. Whenever possible, include the voices of the actual people of that community, in person or simply through video, audio or text. Invite members of that community to speak for themselves and invite your students to learn from everyone instead of only what you think about the world.
As a member of the teaching community and someone who works with aspiring teachers, I value authenticity and am practicing embracing vulnerability. I created this blog to be more transparent and make me more vulnerable. Because we must be ourselves or our students will sniff us out as phonies in a heartbeat. Teaching helps me be my best self. But I had no idea that a national tragedy would call upon me to respond with all of the authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty I could muster for the sake of my students.
On the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2018, 17 students and teachers were shot dead at Stoneman Douglas High School in Lakeland, Florida by a gunman with a semi-automatic rifle. I went to high school about 45 minutes away from there. According to conservative estimates, this was the fifth school shooting in 2018. That’s almost one incident per week. So far. This was only a few days ago. And every school and learning community in the country has been hurt in some way as a result.
When I first heard the news, I wanted to throw up. I cried. Over the next few days, I cried several times each day. Maybe I too had become desensitized to the continuous stream of mass shootings in America and it was all finally coming to a head. This seemed like something more than empathy and a loose connection to the area for me. I wasn’t expecting to react as strongly as I was. And in re-reading that sentence - how could we let things get to this point where I would say I either should’ve expected such an event or not felt so strongly? I was sick to my stomach, a little out of it, and heartbroken for those children that would no longer graduate and go on to live the rest of their promising lives. Those teachers that gave their lives to protect their students.
I couldn’t go on as usual and pretend that every teacher and every student in this country had not just been stabbed through the heart. I couldn’t process our shared grief alone. If I was experiencing such difficult emotions, then I guessed that some of my students may feel the same. Or worse. They might be asking themselves, why am I going into this field? Do I really want to become a teacher? Sure - we all had those moments. But most of us weren’t worried that we might die doing the job we love. It is most often our hearts - our love of children, the world, and learning - that bring us to this profession. That our children might be the price of our national inaction - of our shared failure to come together and make a difference again and again is appalling.
As future teachers, the real world won't stop at my students' classroom doors. And it can't stop at mine either. So I decided to change my plans. I decided to improvise. We would talk and share and make art together. And maybe, just maybe, that will make a small difference. And that’s what we did.
Asked them to check-in with themselves and try to find out how they were feeling. I told them we would be improvising and getting real and if at any point they found that our conversation was too much, they could step outside or leave at any time if that was what they needed. Then I began to open up. “I feel awful,” I said. I told them why. I feel heartbroken and angry at the same time. I described the pit in my gut, the weight on my chest, and the nausea in my stomach.
I don’t know how to talk about this,” I said, “but we’re going to talk about it anyway. I’m not a counselor. I’m not qualified. But that’s okay. And you won’t be either. And there may come a time, if it hasn’t already, that you will have to talk to your children about things they should never have to think about. But we can still do some good.”
I reminded them of the counseling services at school and the contact information I include prominently in our course syllabus. Counseling is for everyone and you don’t need to feel a certain way to see a counselor. While sometimes it takes time to find a good match, as with anything. I wanted to de-stigmatize mental health services, so I shared that in my early thirties, a cognitive psychologist helped me acquire tools that have helped me become a little bit healthier. I’ll always be grateful.
I also told them about last semester. The best friend of a student in my class had been wounded in the Las Vegas Massacre. Is that horrific event fading from our memory already? Back then, I began class by mentioning the event, telling the students about the counseling services, and after a brief period of time moving on with the scheduled lesson. Why didn’t I change my plans then? What did I think was more important? I feel a little ashamed. But tonight was going to be different.
Then I told them a story - my story. The story of a child that grew up in extreme circumstances and was part of an invisible population - namely students that are homeless and live in terrible circumstances with a dysfunctional family, in my case fueled largely by mental illness, alcohol, and shame. I told them how I had been emotionally, psychologically, and physically abused for years starting when I was 8 years old. I was held back a year simply because I wasn’t allowed to go to school for most of the year. By the time I was 12, I was an unsocialized, severely obese, unhygienic child with dirty clothes. I was a pariah, isolated at school, a mysterious but obvious target of ridicule and isolation by teachers and classmates, and completely on my own at home, trapped by the delusions of a mentally ill parent. For a long time, my shared belief that those delusions were true also imprisoned me. I was lonely, sad, confused, and above all, full of rage.
I had touched the darkness as a child. I admitted to having fantasized about my own death many times back then. How vividly I imagined everyone in my school lamenting my avoidable death. They would finally regret having ever been mean to me or excluding me I thought. I admitted how, during a particularly low point, I had fantasized about getting back at all my classmates that had hurt me by transforming into a giant robot and gunning them all down in cold-blooded revenge. Add to that I was being told that these people were my enemies and out to get me. I didn’t care who I hurt because I was hurting so badly I couldn’t feel that human connection. But eventually, I came out the other side, damaged but unbroken. No one should ever have to know those feeling I felt as a child. Those feelings are something I will have to carry with my the rest of my life. And every time another horrific shootings occur in this country, I’m back in that time of my life again, reliving all those terrible memories.
I consider myself lucky. I can’t say why or how I survived all that. Part nature, part nurture, and a lot of luck I assume. “But for a slight twist of fate,” I told my students, “I could easily have ended up in prison - or dead.” But a huge part of what helped me survive, I believe, was art. When I was younger, I escaped to my drawing. I constructed an elaborate comic book universe complete with storylines and characters, drawing and redrawing them over and over. And I gradually improved. As I got older and took charge of more and more of my life, I learned that the world could be different than I had been told. It was then that my art became a connection to others - a way of reaching out. Would you believe that by seventh grade, in the same class I described above, that I gave everyone in the class their own drawing just to thank them for being my classmates? And again in eighth grade. Art was there to help me when no one else was.
I told my students how later in high school, the first drawings I made that I considered “Art” were created one summer as I tried to process feelings resulting from an incident with a broken door, a bloody bed sheet, and a fist reeking of alcohol from another family member. I can’t remember ever being angrier in my life than I was that night. I wanted to steal a car; drive it into a tree; die; or end up in jail. I wanted to overdose (even though I’d never had a drug). I wanted to do anything I could to get back at my attacker by hurting myself. But I was isolated yet again. This time on a mountain with nothing around for miles. Instead of going for a knife, I picked up color pencils. I made art that showed the emotions that I could not articulate in words nor share with anyone.
Art, I believe can save lives. And art just doesn’t help us survive, it can help us thrive, as it enables us to process life and the world around us, even when we experience emotions to which we can’t give names or describe. I believe art brings us together and that being together is perhaps the best, most powerful thing we can do. So, for the rest of class, we painted and doodled and spent time together.
My students seem okay for the most part. But they shared several heartbreaking stories. Paranoia. Fear. Sadness. During lockdown drills, how as a student teacher, having to explain to kindergarteners why they have to pretend to hide from a bad man that has come to hurt them. My generation never experienced anything this. “This generation is resilient,” I tell them, “and don’t let any of these other generations disrespect you, because this is their mess - my mess - and we didn’t clean it up. But we have to try.” Through our sharing we became closer. Only a few spoke publicly, but everyone listened deeply. Everyone in our community was heard.
I’ve done the best I can do. That’s all any teacher can expect from themself. I was honest with my students. And I hopefully gave them an example of what to do when they do not know what to do. And moreso, maybe I gave them some hope. That, like in my life, it’s possible to turn things around. We’re not destined for an endless string of tragedies. I showed them that we can be damaged, but that doesn’t mean we have to be broken. And maybe they’ll remember that art can help us make meaning out of senselessness and bring a little order to what may sometimes seem like overwhelming chaos. That in art, whatever art is for any of us, we can find connection, strength, and healing.
I still want to cry. My eyes are welling up as I write these words. But we can either present ourselves to our students as products or processes. For their sake, I think they need to see the process, because we are all learning to live together in this world and they need to see that we all are in the same boat. We are all trying our best to figure out this thing called life. We can create and we can destroy. Our world can be a task party.
Thank you for reading. To all my teachers - readers, friends, colleagues, and those I may never know - keep being the kind, strong, brave, authentic, vulnerable beautiful creatures I know you are. We need each other more now than ever. And to everyone, take care of each other. Because that will make the world the one we want to live in and the one our students deserve. I believe we can make that world a reality. But only together.
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Why are we doing this? Is this question meant to be horrifying? Has something gone terribly wrong? A connection not made? There are doubts being raised just as the difficulty begins to incline. Or is it a question we should encourage our students to ask all the time? To keep us accountable and make sure what we’re doing is relevant? Skepticism is healthy. Can “trust me” be a valid response? Have I not been explicit or have I overestimated their knowledge gap?
This week was step 1. In class I introduced the topic of “Big Ideas” which is a method of curriculum design where teachers begin by identifying an important, universal or at least essential concept at the heart of a discipline, topic, or even inquiry. I was introduced to the method in my undergraduate art education courses. Our textbooks, Sydney Walker’s Teaching Meaning in Art Making and subsequent Rethinking Curriculum in Art with Marilyn Stewart, were like art education bibles for me because of their marrying of artistic practice with curriculum design. It was an idea I certainly wrestled with at times, and continue to do so. But it also deeply resonated with me as both an artist and a teacher. For me, it’s basically like a theme. What is a theme or “Big Idea” in art? Artists explore identity. Artists explore culture. Artists explore love. Artists explore power. Family. Diversity. Heroes. A "Big Idea" is something that affects humans all over the world and are at the core of any way of knowing it seems. Of course, artists are inspired by all sorts of things and for all sorts of reasons. No artists work can be reduced to a single idea. However, by tracing a single strand of an idea through an artist’s enables one with a deeper understanding of that artist’s work and how it relates to the world at large and connects to the work of other artist who are exploring similar problems. Rather than reductive, Big Ideas should be seen as connective, offering viewers a point of entry. And Big Ideas can help any age group relate to the work of artists - attempting to answer the simple question: “Why did they do that?”
In preparation for this new semester, I was able to identify and collect Big Idea lists and resources for art and some of the most common disciplines like social studies, science, math, and literature, which I provide students online. I think Big Ideas relate naturally with Backwards Design and that is usually how I begin planning a course. I start at the end. What kind of person do I want to leave my classroom? What do I want them to know and be able to do? What do I hope they will notice about the world? How will they see it differently? What dispositions will they internalize? And then I go backwards from there. I’ve tended to favor a view of education that is long term. Built to last. What kind of person will you be on your deathbed? Let’s reverse engineer that. What do we need to do to get there? All that is step 2. That’s the lesson plan - the HOW. We’ll get there soon, but all I want right now is the WHY.
It’s a new class, a new semester, a new group, and a newish me. The course title is definitely the same. For those of you just joining us, it is Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers. It’s a course for students intending to become teachers and is one of their choices for studying art-integration. The “Why” for me is creativity. I want my students to demonstrate artistic thinking and to grow creatively - to at least not be afraid of it or avoid it. And to do that, they must experience creativity for themselves.
So far this semester has been tremendous, but tremendously busy before it even started! Maybe you can relate? But I’ve stripped down the course to fewer more essential elements - forcing myself to kill a few darlings along the way. Probably a few more could use elimination, but I’m a greedy teacher always thinking we can do more than we really can. And the pacing is dramatically more reasonable!
My major goal for this new class was to include more art experiences and we have definitely done that! Each class so far has been at least half artmaking! Art takes time. Experiences take time. So aside from more art, my biggest practical goal was to not fall behind the calendar on the first day of class again. And we did it! For TWO whole classes this time! It’s true. By the third day, it was clear there wouldn’t be time to cover all the readings and viewings in class. But maybe that’s not a bad thing? Maybe their responses with me is enough? I have a feeling that this course is likely to be the ONLY course of training in VISUAL art-integration that these teachers may ever have. Perhaps one day they’ll have arts-integration as a focus of some PD or an in-service - the lucky ones. But some unlucky ones may never have another opportunity to learn from a visual artist and about what it means to make art, be creative, and see the world through an artistic lens. So I squeeze in some things in and let them make the connections on their own.
We have class for one hour and fifty minutes once a week and the first three classes have featured clay-on-the-first-day, followed by Sumi Ink Club, then collaging with the Big Idea of Identity. This week’s class, the 4th one, was no different. This week students were invited to a Task Party inspired by artist Oliver Herring and they it was fantastic! My students have responded beautifully and I’ve been very happy to see them gain confidence in their creative abilities. Each art experience was slightly different but shared the qualities of open-endedness, socializing, and thinking through materials and media. One of my main artistic goals is for students to see how art can bring people together and help them connect with each other. We’re building community.
The first day, the goal for the second half of class was reviewing the syllabus and trying to get the students to buy into the going gradeless approach, which is critical. The next day, I introduced our main project, creating and presenting an art-integrated lesson. We reviewed the guidelines and the provided template. The third day, we discussed creativity during the second half of class. I’m seeing in their reflections how much they are getting out of our creative experiences and some are already noting changes in their thinking and creative growth. They’re coming up with great takeaways and we’re working on thinking of ways they can use the material in their futures. It’s been much smoother than last semester so far!
This week we continued our discussion on creativity and dived into Big Ideas. And we hit our first bump in the road. When I introduced the lesson plan and the idea of art-integration, I challenged them to imagine their lesson as the Colossus of Rhodes with one foot firmly planted in the subject they’re most interested in and another foot planted in art. I reminded them of the analogy and told them that their assignment this week would simply be to choose a Big Idea from the art world and the non-art world using the lists provided. We review that they explored the Big Idea Identity as they worked on their collages the previous week. We go into the Lesson Plan Resources folder to pull out examples and practice combining them. I choose one from science - that all matter in the Universe is composed of tiny particles - that things are composed of smaller parts - and ask the class to see if they can connect it to a Big Idea from art from a list I display. They mention community and family.
Then we move to literature and we mention how we can look at a painting and then read a story related.
"But a children’s book will have pictures…"
"Well, not if you’re teaching high school," I mention. What I wish I had said, and will say next time, is how students of course can create their own illustrations for books.
But the student seems lost. Not seeing how Big Ideas connect or why they’re relevant. Is their conception of learning always start with a bit of content rather than a concept as so many do? Pick a thing and teach it. Are they grasping for standards to tell them the “what” to teach before they’ve ever considered the “why?”
"Do you want us to teach an art lesson like what we’ve been doing in class?"
"No, of course not! I don’t want you to be art teachers, unless you want to become art teachers - in which case you’re welcome to join the Art Education program. But I want you to teach a lesson that combines art with a subject you love."
"Do you have an example of a finished lesson plan?"
They’re desperate for the how. Maybe they feel like I’ve given them a tuna and a light bulb and asked them to put them together.
"No. I don’t want you to see the answers yet. And more importantly, we didn’t start this way last time. I’m not asking you to know what you’re going to teach or what it needs to look like in the template. I’m just asking you to pick two Big Ideas that interest you. You don’t have to know how you might combine them. Just as long as long as YOU can see a connection."
I know the impulse is to go online to find a ready-made lesson plan. But in those lessons, all the choices have already been made for you. In the textbook, all the choices have already been made for you. But I want YOU to make the choices - to make the connections for yourselves. It’s uncomfortable to not know the answer. To not know the destination - but that is part of being creative. To be uncertain and able to move forward. To step into discomfort. To make something, when it is easier to copy or just give up.
There was some tension this class. Confusion. We’ve crossed into creative territory. And almost immediately, the “I don’t want to mess up” sentiment appears. It is a common anxiety among my students based on their responses. Am I battling against perfectionism? I’m definitely shaking my fist at the gilded temple of perfectionism and its golden calf ideal of the 100%. I know my writing is.
Afterwards I felt deflated. I wasn’t expecting the struggle to begin right off the bat with Big Ideas. Then I remember back to the first art education class I taught. I wanted my art education undergrads to use Big Ideas for planning their lessons just like I’d learned to do. I remember introducing the concept in a way that I thought was clear and straightforward, telling them they would be designing their lessons using Big Ideas. And then the tears.
I was completely caught off guard. I had never imagined that this would cause tears. But change can be hard. The students had never been asked to do something like this before and a couple that were further along in the program were experiencing a tiny breakdown about learning a new approach. This would not do - but we had to work through their emotions first. I had to calm their elephants before their riders could listen. After a lot of talking, reassurance and practice, they got it.
But I saw the necessity for a better approach. I had seen where the bar was before I had arrived. When I was reviewing the Portfolios that had been submitted by prior student teachers - I was floored. I found binders stuffed with lessons printed directly from the internet. Dear god - they didn’t know how to plan a lesson themselves! This is one reason why I didn’t resent the implementation of EdTPA portfolios across the country like so many of my colleagues. They saw a loss of autonomy whereas I saw a raising of standards. Effective programs were already asking their students to create lessons and record videos of themselves and assess those plans and reflect upon their performance in the classroom. But not all teacher prep programs were requiring their students to perform these basic teaching tasks. What I did resent was how the cost was passed onto the students and how coordinators had no say in the process.
The concept of Big Ideas is new to them. I had asked for a head count of anyone that had been used Big Ideas for curriculum design in the past. None had. So this is completely new for them. Maybe I haven’t framed it right yet? How much of the puzzle do I put together for them? This is a continual struggle for me. Is see the connections - when will they? What if they don’t?
Next time I will add this:
Why have we been engaging in these artistic experiences if we’re not to teach like that? Because many of my students have few if any experiences being creative in school to draw upon in your planning. I want you all to experience creative conditions. You must FEEL creativity. I can't just tell you what it is like. You can't just read about it. You will understand the highs and lows of the creative process because you have lived them. This is how you will know if your students are being creative and if you are being creative in your planning - because you know what creativity feels like. What I want most from you is to help your students show and not just tell. I want you to help them make knowledge and not just regurgitate. To build with their hands and look with their eyes while you move their hearts and engage their minds."
Maybe it will just take time. There’s that uncertainty again - that essential ingredient of the creative process. When we meet next, we will take some of the Big Ideas folks have selected and see if we can’t play with combing a few of them in different ways before they head to their grade level groups to brainstorm. Show them how a Big Idea can serve as a starting point for Backwards Design. I’m hoping that through this experience, they’ll begin to see planning and curriculum design as a creative process.
So do I show them an example when I want them to surpass it? When it was created using a different process and timeframe? I think I may withhold examples until after I receive the first draft. I think this will ultimately allow them to show more growth by allowing them to start with only what they know on their own. If they then have an example to scaffold them before the second draft, I believe they will feel as though they’re making even more significant progress. They have a template. They have guidelines. They have resources. They have the SUCCESs model. They have the Thinking Like An Artist dispositions. They have all the tools they need - it’s time to start putting them together.
While my students last semester put a tremendous amount of work into their lessons and grew tremendously, I want lessons that are more creative and blend together art and other subjects even more deeply. Last time, I received some problematic lesson plans that made me want to rethink how we had approached the planning process. And I have. Now I have to trust in the process I’ve established and see it through. And I’m optimistic this group will step up.
So we’ve crossed the creative threshold. The struggle is becoming real. But I believe they will engage and persist. We’ll see what they do with it. As Chip and Dan Heath say, we’re at the “Huh.” Will the “Aha!” be far behind?
Part 3 of a 3 part series - Part 1 - Part 2
What did it all mean? What is my biggest takeaway? How will I put what I’ve learned to use? These are some of the questions on my mind as I reflect on the Final Meetings with my students and re-imagine my course for a new group and a new semester.
Evidence is important to me. The beginning of learning is the ability to empirically observe a phenomenon, analyze it, and apply that knowledge to our lives. As an artist, of course I’m interested in the subjective and the objective. The artistic endeavor is transforming the subjective, like a thought or a feeling, into something objective, like a painting. Art lives on that edge between ways of knowing. At the heart of creativity is both the qualitative and the quantitative. As a teacher and a researcher, I’m interested in both kinds of evidence as well. The tricky part is that two reasonable people can look at the same evidence and draw two different conclusions. So why not include our students in the grading process?
This class was not the first time I had met with students at the end of the semester. However this was the first time that I had not decided their grade ahead of time. In retrospect, what was important to me in those past meetings was making sure my students understood how I had determined their grade. I wanted them to know what I was looking for. Above all, I think I wanted to be perceived as fair. But everything else was worked backwards from what grade I had decided the student deserved in advance. Was it just an elaborate way to make sure they didn’t disregard my comments? Was I just making sure they heard me? Was I failing to give them a chance to be heard?
For this round of meetings, I found it was helpful to provide students with an introductory framework that explained how we would proceed and what the student might expect. Of course I had discussed the meetings in class but I found that performing this ritual individually helped light the path forward for each new participant. After some small talk and taking our seats at table in the archive room, I gained permission to audio record of each meeting. My ritual shpiel went something like this:
Thanks for being here. This meeting is probably different from what you’ve experienced in most other classes so it may seem strange at first. Our goal today is to determine together what grade you’ve earned in this course. Nothing is decided until you walk out the door.
Many students expressed fear and discomfort with the process. I found that the vast majority graded themselves fairly. Generally speaking, we were on the same page. Despite my de-emphasis of grading, fears that students would just give themselves A’s like kids in a candy store turned out to be untrue. In fact, several students graded themselves more harshly than I did, reducing their grades for things that weren’t criteria such as lateness. Many wanted to give themselves some wiggle room, often saying they probably ended up somewhere between an “A or A-,” or “B to A-,” which I found interesting. They wanted to resist pinning themselves down. I feel like a part of them might be more comfortable with me just telling them their grade. But I want actors, not receivers. And their future students wouldn’t have that option a nice big window. They had to be exact. A big part of the course is embracing uncertainty and stepping into discomfort and that’s what I expected them to do here - turn the subjective into the objective. Is there something artistic about assessment? Somewhere out there past me is barfing.
The meetings gave me the opportunity to gauge student understandings that might not have come across otherwise in their writing or submissions. At times I was listening for certain clues that would demonstrate learning they had not yet demonstrated in their portfolio. In some of those cases my evaluation was changed on the spot. In other cases, I was pleasantly surprised by how our conversation gave my assessment more clarity. In a few cases, as this was the first semester, I gave students the opportunity to revise and resubmit. I will try to avoid this in the future, stressing instead the finality of the decision we reach in the meeting together. But in this first go-around, it seemed fair to offer a mulligan. Permissive would be a fair accusation. Was I subject to confirmation bias, since I wanted them to be successful and therefore prove my own effectiveness as a teacher? I wouldn’t doubt it. I don’t think a confirmation bias is avoidable regardless of what tool we use. So why not err on behalf of the student?
I imagine our students are water. We often only see them in one state. One context. But they are much much more than most of us can ever see at once. How can we reduce all of this life and experience down to a letter or number? Take that letter to the store - what will it get you? Take it to the interview - what will it do for you? You are not a letter or a number. Little that we do can be represented adequately using a letter or a number - why pretend that it does? Better artificial control than natural growth? Grades are for meats and slopes. I want students who are open to change or simply able their minds when presented with new information so I must at least try to be that type of person. Teaching, for many reasons, helps me be the best version of myself. Either way, I feel like it’s important that students don’t feel like grades are something done TO them. I have no desire to sit and pass judgment on my students. I’m only interested in helping people become more creative, collaborative, and critical healthy human beings.
Because I had not conducted portfolios outside of studio art courses and did not have examples of the kind of authentic assessment I was attempting, I did not have examples to show my students beforehand. This could be a positive and negative thing, as I heard a desire for more clarity as to what I was looking for, even though I honestly wasn’t even completely sure what I was looking for either until it was in front of me. In two cases, students discovered ways of presenting evidence that will become examples for students in the future. One student had gone through their documents with highlighters to find specific examples of the objectives which was very helpful for both of us. Another student used the portfolio form I provided to self-evaluate her portfolio. In the future I will require that to help us get on the same page.
In looking back, a few things stand out to me about the Final Meetings overall. First, I loved conversing with my students and getting to hear things from their perspective. Whatever I had to say I had to say to their faces. I didn’t get a single email the day grades came out. That peace is priceless. But I got so much out of hearing their sides of the story and I learned things that I wouldn’t have known if I had only looked at their portfolios so I would encourage folks thinking about using portfolios and authentic assessment to include individual meetings to make sure you’re both on the same page. All of that richness would have been lost without these meetings! We chatted about future plans and the class overall following our official business in some cases. It was important to me that I got to know my students and I achieved that.
I hope I create a place where my students can pleasantly surprise me, like Craig Roland used to tell me. My students impressed me this past semester. I really asked them to do way way too much and in retrospect I’m lucky not to have had a mutiny on my hands. I’m thrilled by how they all stepped up to the challenge with barely any griping. That group of (mostly) future teachers was not messing around. I’m glad everyone had the opportunity to embrace uncertainty while achieving overall high grades through our meetings.
I would be misleading you however if I failed to mention that the approach of determining grades during a final meeting worked for all of my students. It was clear from their written comments that at least one or two students weren’t convinced. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in future groups as well. Below is one comment I want to speak back to before I approach a new semester:
I liked the layout of the course with the responses, feedback, class, content, and activities. I liked the responses and feedback because it was different then the normal discussion board post ideas. You really took the time to read what we had to say and responded. I liked the content and activities because they were interesting and fun and things I may use in the future. What I did not like is the gradeless approach and feeling the need to defend my grade with the work I have already worked so hard on, peer reviews, and organization. Also, I would have liked the modules to be posted at least two in advance so I can anticipate or work ahead. I do not like the gradeless approach because it gives me anxiety that even though I have worked so hard in the course, I still have to talk about what grade I deserve. I do not like peer reviews because it took my focus away from other work that was more beneficial. Lastly, as previously mentioned I would have liked more access to content material ahead of time.”
This is an unfortunate view in my opinion. It suggests an unrealistic view of the word - that hard work always pays off. Now, I’m not saying that hard work is not important. But hard work never has and never will guarantee success. Effort is not the same thing as learning and chance is always involved. One can perform a task quite tirelessly, to the point of near exhaustion, and still not make much progress. A person can work hard and still fail. Another can make great progress relatively effortlessly. Do we judge these two the same? What I was evaluating this semester were growth and mastery. Hard work, ideally, is involved in both. It’s disappointing that the student above felt that they were defending their grade. If I led my students to believe this was a courtroom drama, this was unintentional. This was a search for “truth.” This was an examination of evidence. This was the building of a case. BUT this was meant to be a mutual decision. A sharing of power, not an attack. I wasn’t trying to steal their high grade. This I fear is the product of a grade-based mentality. Is it a deficit view? I understand why people are averse to chance. It sucks when things don’t work out. Believe me, I know. But anyone who has tried to grow vegetables for the first time knows that hard work doesn’t always pay off. But we’ll give it a shot again this year. Live and learn. Hopefully the next time we’ll work smarter and not just harder.
Life is not a simple formula and students shouldn’t be lead to believe it is. It’s never as simple as ‘do good things and good things will happen to you.’ Job learned that the hard way, yet no one seems to remember his example. You hear this when people talk about karma. Put good into the world and good will return to you. As if the universe is keeping score. There is no supernatural incentive program to get humans to do the right thing. My mother, for example, did nothing to deserve the schizophrenia that ravaged her mind, body, and soul. She did nothing to deserve the cervical cancer that took her life. She didn’t deserve to die at the age of 46. I did nothing to deserve losing my mother that summer I was 17 (technically 9 years earlier due to her mental illness). Her birthday is this month. She would have been 67.
While it may seem out of place to bring such dramatic and personal life experience to bear on curriculum design, our teaching is inextricably shaped by our life experiences. In this case, as Forrest Gump taught us - shit happens. This is one of the few certainties in life. We don’t know what to expect. In response, I prefer a diverse portfolio of practices to improve my chances at success, like hard work of course, but also self-discipline, creativity, curiosity, flexibility, problem-solving, critical thinking, and comfort with uncertainty. We can’t just construct an imaginary snow globe around ourselves to protect ourselves from reality. That only distorts our view of the world around us. Perhaps it would be better to seek strategies to manage our inevitable anxiety, rather than seeking to avoid anxiety all together. Anxiety proceeds any new experience, any solution, any moment of growth. Anxiety is not our enemy. An inability to confront it is.
As I look ahead to a new semester with a new group, I don’t know what to expect. The only certainty is that it will be different. While I begin to plan, I’m reminded of three things from my meetings: How important our words are; How important my relationships with my students are; and Less is almost always more. As you read in a previous post, I am a chronic over-planner. And while I would much rather have too much planned than too little, I failed to kill enough of my darlings. As I revisit material and assignments from last semester, I’m even more impressed at how hard my students works and how much they achieved in such a short amount of time. But I’m lucky I didn’t inspire a mutiny. Oops. I knew I was asking a lot, but it was really way too much. Drastic cuts must be made if I want my students to thrive. Goal #1 - I am NOT falling behind on Day 1. No way, no how! That threw a monkey wrench into my whole semester last time. Less is more (not that you could tell from the length of these posts).
I would estimate that you have to teach a course three times (or three years for most classroom teachers) before you really start to figure out what you’re doing. This will only be my second go. So I know that there will be dramatic improvements this semester but also new challenges. Live and learn. Fortunately, as you’ve seen in my previous two posts, I have plenty of information and feedback to guide my revisions. So here is to an exciting new semester! Success will depend on a great number of variables, including my choices, attitudes, and beliefs; the choices, attitudes, and beliefs of 28 other people all interacting, the content, the weather, and a laundry list of things foreseeable and unforeseeable. This is teaching. This is art. This is creativity.
Part 2 of a 3 part series - Part 1 - Part 3
What do we value? “What you value, you talk about.” Walk into nearly any school across this country and chatter about grades permeates every hallway and corner. But not necessarily learning. In schools, we value grades. This has a pernicious effect on what young people and adults believe is important. Grades and testing are more distracting from actual learning than any smartphone or app on the market. I may not have mentioned this before, but I taught at a school where, every morning, along with the pledge of allegiance, every student in the school would recite the following motto out loud in lockstep to start the day:
“School X students will meet or exceed grade level standards as set forth by local, state, and national assessments!”
Talk about a lack of vision. Of values. For what purpose? What about wonder? Or learning? When I say assessment, I don’t mean grades. That is what they meant in that motto though. Students chasing success defined by scores. But the solution can’t simply be eliminating grades. In going gradeless, you can’t simply toss grades out the window without replacing them with something else or you’ll likely create a vacuum of confusion and chaos. Instead, you have to deftly swap one system for another, like Indiana Jones-style except we’re tossing out the bag of sand in favor of something with real value (and with less running hopefully!).
What is required is a culture shift. Not a change in society, at first at least, so much as a change in the culture of individual schools, which stand apart from culture at large. What we can replace grades with is dialogue. Dialogue, for me, is the foundation of assessment. Constructive criticism and care. Grades are monologic - something done to you. We’ve all felt it. That sting of an unfair grade. A 9 out of 10? For what, you nitpicky...?!? You’re subjected to the selective judgment of every teacher you;ve ever had. Compared to the teacher, police wield more physical power and potential for harm over your average person. But the teacher is, in my mind, secondary to the police officer in the amount of unchecked power over the autonomy of other humans. Keep in mind that every day, most every person age eighteen to four, can typically only go to the restroom with the permission of an adult they barely know. An unavoidable biological necessity controlled sometimes by the whims and moods of another person. Doesn’t that strike you as a little odd, philosophically? Why does compulsory attendance in a class or, later on, choosing a course because I might be interested in the subject, inherently give another person the right to judge me? Why do we simply accept that learning and being judged go hand in hand. To be clear, I’m not conflating learning HOW TO MAKE judgments with BEING judged. The latter is the one I’m skeptical skeptical of.
Dialogue, on the contrary, requires the sharing of power. There still exists, perhaps inescapable, a uneven power dynamic. But in dialogue there is a two-way street. Give and take. Dialogic teaching, while certainly time-consuming last semester, allowed me to create an open and authentic channel of communication, or feedback loop, with my students which we both used to improve and develop more complex understandings of the material, each other, and the world. I learned as much, if not more, from dialogue with my students as they learned from me. This is what assessment means to me.
One way I was able to assess my students and my teaching this semester was by using a pre and post survey. Of course, I did plenty of assessing of my students along the way, and as a result, I continually assessed my teaching and course structure overall making tweaks here and there. But it’s not until the end of the semester when my students get to fully reflect on our journey. Today, I’ll be sharing their comments from the exit survey and the SEIs (Student Evaluation of Instruction) they completed. For my survey, I received 29 out of a possible 29 responses because I required the surveys be completed prior to final meetings with students. I asked three open response questions. I’ll go over their comments in this post. In my previous post, I wrote about their quantitative responses. I’ll conclude this series in my next post by bridging last semester with the new semester, part 3: Final Meetings & New Beginnings.
First, I’ll begin with the experiences my students found most memorable. To analyze this qualitative data, I simply counted occurrences of experiences (see below). I’m proud of the thoughtful comments my students left, which were almost entirely positive, but I’m resisting the urge to copy them all below so you won’t be endlessly scrolling. If you’d like to see the comments for yourself, you can find all the results here.
Q1: Please describe your most memorable experience in this course. This experience could be positive or negative.
Total Appearances of Experiences
This data was helpful for me in planning for next semester. Essentially, anything that didn’t receive a mention here is on the chopping block, and even some of the things that were mentioned might still be eliminated from my curriculum. Despite one appearance of guest speaker, I believe based on the feedback I received immediately following our guest speaker’s visit and it’s appearance here that I will pursue a guest speaker next semester to end the course again and will probably continue that as a tradition. With one appearance, monoprinting will return with some slight tweaks as a demonstration of artistic process. However, with only one occurrence of sketchbook, along with some criticism you’ll see later in the student suggestions, I’ve decided that weekly doodles will not continue next semester. I love teaching students how to make sketchbooks, but I prefer to do that if they are going to become an important part of the course. It seemed as though most weeks, students were either rushing or creating doodles that were unrelated to what we were doing in the course. While they did get the students drawing regularly, I’m not sure they were worth the extra time commitment. We also did not have ways of naturally fitting them into class time as I had originally intended.
It seems obvious that the lesson plan presentations were extremely valuable to the students as it was mentioned most by a third of the group. Nearly another third mentioned the Creating Culture experience, followed closely by Clay on the First Day. All of these therefore seem like essential pieces of the puzzle. I only want to bother with things that will stick with students long after they leave my class. We just don’t have time for anything else. Everything else we did last semester is up for major modifications or elimination. The goal is ‘less is more.’ I have to make the response and feedback process more streamlined and efficient if I’m going to be convinced that the approach is practical for K-12 classrooms.
Q2: Please describe your most valuable takeaway from this course.
Baby’s first narrative analysis! I realize writing this that the data I collected last semester is allowing me to employ methods I’ve been learning the last year and a half in my PhD program. It’s interesting to try these out on my own data, even sort of “fun” to try different approaches and try to teach them to myself. I’m seeing how research methods could benefit classroom teachers who want more sophisticated, credible, and accurate pictures of what is going on in their classrooms. It’s disappointing though that teachers across the country aren’t permitted ample time to deeply analyze and apply their own teaching! A thought also occurs to me that it seems a little strange that I’m only employing these methods now, outside of my coursework and that I have not had any opportunity to practice these methods under the guidance of a professor. Something seems wrong about that. It reminds me that classrooms should be places of practice where we try putting things to use. Funny that I learned ABOUT so many different methods without actually learning how to DO any of them. Lots of philosophy, theory, and styles though. *Sigh*
Anyway, I attempted to code student responses the the above question. Coding, as I understand it, is a qualitative method where one searchers for occurrences of certain words, concepts, and themes. This is a mechanism of narrative analysis. First I got out my highlighters and began reading through a print out of the comments. Then I realized that I had a computing machine that might be able to help with this task. So I tried, and quickly learned, that highlighting multiple terms using multiple colors in Microsoft Word is deceptively challenging. Long story short, the “Replace With” tool was the key. In any case, I’ll share a PDF of the coded comments with the total occurrences of various words and concepts. The following categories and concepts emerged from the comments: Art; Creativity & Its Characteristics; Settings & Tools; Effects; and Audience & Agency. You can see the terms that I clustered together to create this categories and probably guess fairly well as to my reasoning for the sake of time. The most prominent terms included “I’ at 42; “art” at 38; “creat” for create, “my” at 28; creative & creativity at 21; “learn” at 22 followed closely by “class” at 21; “valu” for value & valuable at 12; “me” at 12; “lesson” at 9; “student” at 9.
My favorite phrases however were some of the following, as they resonated with my goals for the course:
I have more value than a grade.”
Beyond this, I’m not sure how much there is to be gained from this analysis. If I was to compare these results with my quantitative data from my previous post, I suppose that I would temper my excitement because here I see so many people mentioning how everyone is creative and creativity can be improved, whereas the numbers showed how a number of students seemed confused about creativity being something that is dynamic. Additionally, art was mentioned most but does that conflict with the “art is a privilege” statement that divided the class on the survey?
It’s positive that there were so many mentions of art and creativity, by every student at least once, although that is what I would hope for and even suspect. Two thirds of the group mentioned learning and class specifically so I appreciate the correlation, since the course was focused on art-integration. It seemed as though most statements involved what I would call statements of agency, like “I did this” for example. I wonder if there is a way to measure agency or if I should try to look for changes in agency from the beginning to the end of the course?
I don’t know if there is much else to interpret here. I feel like there is a deeper level of analysis or other tools I could apply but I’m not sure what right now. It was a decent amount of work to analyze the comments but a lot of that could be attributed to learning curve and troubleshooting the software. I’ll try this method again next semester and see if it is more productive. Still, the document is pretty and colorful :)
Q3: What else would you like to share about your experience in this course? This is my first time teaching this course and using some of the methods we have used so any additional feedback regarding your experience in this course would be extremely appreciated. What didn't work for you? What worked for you? What would you change or tweak? What would you keep the same? Thank you!
The last question invited feedback concerning what worked and what didn’t work from my students’ perspectives. I have to say that this was the most HELPFUL feedback I have ever received from students! I truly feel like these comments alone justify the dialogic approach. Generally speaking, this constructive criticism felt like it was coming from colleagues, as if we’re on the same page now at the end of the course. The vast majority of suggestions are things that I wish I had thought of changing or already have thought about changing! Was this the result of establishing a culture of criticality through conversation? Being vulnerable? Transparency? Did I just get lucky by having a very professional group? This is something I’ll be thinking about in the future.
I didn’t employ a specific method of analysis for this section. I simply looked for positive comments (blue), critical comments (pink), and suggested solutions (yellow). For expediency, I’m sharing a PDF of the document as I went over them and made notes by hand and I am too tired/lazy to go back and redo them digitally.
How do you think their proposed changes align with the changes I had already been thinking about? I found that keeping a running list throughout the semester helped me keep track of tweaks I wanted to make in the future. For the most part, I feel like we’re in agreement.
Finally, I would just like to wrap up this post with a little brag by including my SEIs. This is the primary evaluation instrument of the university. In total, I received 14 out of a possible 29 responses. Unfortunately, only half of my students completed them so I don’t really consider the quantitative data very valid. Ironically, THAT is the data I would be primarily judged with (and I mean judged). Though I did receive a 4.9 overall :) On the other hand, what qualitative data I did receive was very positive overall. I was happy and humbled by their kind words:
Honestly one of the best, most dedicated, and prepared instructors I have ever had."
So what do you think? Do you agree with my analysisis…is. Did you see things that I missed? Have any questions? Thinking about collecting your own data about your teaching? Have tips to share? Let me know!
As I stated previously, I will follow up this post with Part 3: Final Meetings & New Beginnings where I will bridge last semester’s final meetings with students and the beginning of a new semester with a brand new group of future teachers. Thank you for reading!"
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 gain power and influence over 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 circumstance and not inherent difference as the key. This isn't to say that cultural forces like colonialism and racism didn't drive these disparities, but its that technological factors such as the invention of guns and steel are what allowed the latter to spread around the world, as well as biological factors such as germs which accompanied globalization, 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. Being at the crossroads of trade also brought invention and developing beasts of burden as an energy source eased labor which allowed for surplus and more advanced tools and weapons.
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?” A co-worker accused me of cultural mimicry. It wasn't a teepee. It was somewhere between a pyramid and a tent structure. No, it’s an original creation. “Is that a headdress?” It’s a headdress for an invented culture. It’s not based on any existing culture. Nevertheless, my explanations weren't sufficient and I was subsequently forced to explain myself and my students' work. I provided the materials I've included in this post. This evidence seemed satisfactory and so it appears I’m no longer under suspicion of culturally insensitive or racist teaching. 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 research and planning and practice. Weeks of exercises, discussions, readings, and projects. And all of that can come down to a difference of perception. I was shocked and upset that everything I had put into this project had come down to a misunderstanding. 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 though about this incident is not that I might be asked to explain what my students do. I think being able to justify what you're doing is important. But when the question is accompanied by a presumption of guilt, I don't think that helps anyone. We all know there's plenty of culturally insensitive teaching to go around. And there are multiple ways to approach any situation. As a teacher, this motivates me to ask "What was the rationale behind this decision?" so that I can try and understand where there coming from before I give my notes. A lot of the times we're just not seeing the same thing. I want to recognize the disproportionate privilege and authority I earn as a white male teacher and recognize the distinction between the question "Is that a tee-pee?" and "What was your class working on?" I'll want to be a culturally responsive teacher and open to being challenged while also sitting with the discomfort of being professionally misjudged. 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 the specific way someone else might interpret these objects as they lay piled on a shelf. Others are justified to be vigilant and sensitive to problematic imagery. If I had simply provided a copy of my lesson plan near the offending objects, that may have prevented this miscommunication and it may not have. I wouldn't say that this situation resolved productively for anyone involved and is a pretty minor incident in any day to day. But it's the kind of thing that can also snowball and can cause someone to back off of doing culturally informed classroom work. Maybe that's better in some cases. But I don't think that's learning. How can we reduce harm while allowing for experimentation?
I don't want teachers to avoid teaching and learning about cultures with their students. And I believe they can do work with students that engages students in meaningful cultural inquiry but that mistakes and misunderstandings will occur. I can continually reaffirm my embracing of difference and do the work of becoming a better informed teacher.
The lesson for my future teachers? Be thoughtful and keep good records. 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” while also working extra hard to provide culturally informed learning that doesn't just replicate the stereotypical and racist homecrafts of the past. We must constantly support our students in authentic making and exploration and commit to doing the same. And we must do this knowing that we will make mistakes and that's how we learn.
You may download my lesson packet Creating Culture here.
I'll mostly be blogging about my experiences teaching. I teach a class online right now called Teaching K12 Art Online where I'll be exploring art online with art teachers. I also currently teach a (formerly?) face-to-face course called Visual Culture: Investigating Diversity & Social Justice which is an art, critical writing, and research course for undergrads. Before this, I taught a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where I was experimenting with cooperative & creative teaching integrating art and "going gradeless" with preservice early childhood education majors.