It was our first class session this week and our essential question was: “Where am I?” I’m excited about where we are and the journey we’re just beginning!
Every teacher knows (or should know) that the first day of class is critical. The first day can set the tone for everything to come. Beginning teachers know this - feel this - acutely. That first day can fill a new teacher with dread. I think the question that has crossed many of their minds over the years is “Will I lose control?” There are entire books in education that are written about the first days of school, such as Harry Wong’s The First Days of School. I remember how, in my panic as a new teacher, I clutched to Wong’s highly formal approach like a castaway clutching to flotsam in the middle of the ocean. Such sweet relief an extremely standardized and traditional approach can provide . The alternative is horrifying – disruptions right out of the gate.
After many years of teaching experience, his approach strikes me as extremely ‘businessy.’ It says school is a place to get work done. School is a place of control - self and otherwise. The tie-wearing gentleman holding out his hand at the doorway, the assigned seats, the neatly written instructions on the board, the silent pupils, and the bell work waiting for them at their desks all echo the message: get to work. I’ve come to resist this obsession with making school like a work place. I do not believe that school is a place where children go to work - although a lot of work does happen there. I don’t believe that you go to school to get a job. I believe that you should be able to get a job regardless of whether or not you go to school. I believe school prepares you for life. And work is not all there is to life.
I agree with Wong that it is important that students respect you as their teacher and understand right away that the classroom is a place of learning. But what do we want our students to learn? Do I want them to learn about control? Learning begins before the student ever walks in the door. This semester, I sent an email to my students a couple weeks before school started. Not to harass them, or remid them that summer is nearly over, I said, but to let them know that my course was probably going to be very different from what they are used to. And when you’re not used to something, it can be very uncomfortable, even frightening at first. I made the core course documents available to them through our class website so that students could have a chance to read through the materials at their leisure. I left the choice up to them as to whether or not they continue on or drop my course in favor of another section.
Based on my reading on “going gradeless,” student buy-in is key. And I’ll need their buy-in for a lot more than just my method of assessment. Art anxiety is a real threat to every art teacher’s plans and prevents so many teachers from making space for creativity in their own teaching. I call it the ‘creative crisis.’ Creativity requires risk. Risk is inherently uncomfortable. Creativity can often lead to unexpected results. The unexpected is something the vast majority of teachers fight tooth-and-nail to deter. Creativity is by definition elusive. Our high stakes tests, evaluations, and accountability metrics don’t allow for elusive. And there is research that most teachers and workplaces don’t really even like creativity or creative individuals (which I’ll share later). Convincing my pre-service teachers to embrace creativity will be a challenge but one I believe with many opportunities for transformation.
First impressions can last a lifetime much less a school year. So if my goal for my class is to encourage my students who are all undergraduate pre-service teachers to experience and embrace creativity, to eventually recognize themselves as creative agents, what should our first day look like? How can they experience ‘the conditions for creativity’ as soon as they walk in my door, rather than the rigid systems proposed by Wong? School, like life, should be a sensory experience. I turned on some soothing (but not sleep inducing) music. I brought coffee to help my students stay alert. I put a sign in sheet with a sign facing the entrance and a welcome message with our class number, my name, and an explanation of what to do on the board. Because creativity requires risk, I believe that students must feel that your classroom is a safe place immediately. All of these signals I mentioned help student situate themselves in a new and often alien space - the art room (or any new classroom for that matter).
I wanted my students to feel welcome and invited to experience creativity right away rather than conforming. As students trickled in I greeted them, shook their hands, exchanged names, and told them what was going on. “Clay on the First Day!” A few years ago, I was fortunate to present during an Ignite session at the National Art Education Association annual convention organized by my former art education professor Dr. Craig Roland. An Ignite session is a series of short, fast-paced presentations. There were several other memorable speakers, one being Janine Campbell who advocated doing “Clay on the First Day” like she did with her middle school students. When you mention “clay on the first day” to most art teachers, they are taken aback, shocked with eyes bugging out in disbelief. Are you CRAZY? their look suggests. Sometimes in a crazy world, the only way to move forward is to be a little crazy. Trusting students with clay right away might seem crazy, but encourages them to embrace creative making and exploration. It requires a great deal of vulnerability on the first day and models the kind of risk-taking I’m advocating. It’s a risk that paid off for me.
To add a something to work towards and therefore keep students engaged beyond directionless exploration, I introduced “clay on the first day” as an Oliver Herring inspired “Task Party.” Oliver Herring is a well-known contemporary artist featured on Art 21 whose practice involves creative collaboration, often with strangers. A fundamental aspect of creativity is collaboration and to develop that safe place where my students can take risks requires the building of community. To do this, I wanted to encourage them all to work towards a shared goal, namely trying to figure out exactly how tall they could build with their clay. Wet clay does not make it easy for any structure to stand up, however a variety of methods could be used to build with varying levels of success. The nature of the exercise requires problem-solving and discovery - even failure. I hoped that this would encourage collaboration, since they could certainly build taller with more clay, however only three students stumbled upon that concept organically. Is that enough? Determining the result, or making sure that more students worked together, would take away student agency. Would some classes discover collaboration more quickly and widely than others? Perhaps more could have been nudged by a few chosen words on my part? Or was it enough to draw special attention to their structure since it ended up being the tallest (at about 21 inches off the table)? At the end of our time, students walked around the room to view the work of others and since they knew they were not being evaluated, they should have been more predisposed to being interested in the work of their classmates (Amabile, 1996). We then acknowledged various works around the classroom and highlighted various strategies and unpacked how the exercise made them feel and how it was similar or different to other first days of class they’d experienced (pretty different i most cases, fortunately). Lastly, we discussed the purpose and they pointed out how they had met others in the class through the exercise and enjoyed having something tactile to work on so that the entire process of getting to know each other seemed natural. Another nice feature was that no one was stressed or panicked because they had arrived late or not been able to find the room since we were all engaged in making already and they could simply jump in. It was welcoming. They were learning - but would this knowledge stick? Will it transfer (the holy grail of education)?
After our experience with clay, we cleaned up and transitioned to a more formal ice breaker exercise. Even though students had already been able to engage in free making and socializing with others in the class, I wanted to encourage the students to share with each other beyond typical small talk. Now that they were a little familiar with each other, it was time to go deeper. Therefore I chose an icebreaker that would encourage more community building while covering both light-hearted as well as some very serious topics to encourage students to trust each other and to bond over meaningful similarities and differences. For this, we played a game called “Cross the Line” that another grad student, Izzy Healey, had shared previously for a class we had taken together. Participants stand along either side of a tape line on the ground. I then read a series of statements and if the statement applies to them they step on the line and if they don’t apply they stay off the line. I felt this would be a better use of our time than asking students to share their names and majors or fun facts which can drag on ENDLESSLY with little if anything remembered. Instead, the group was able to relate their backgrounds and experiences to their classmates. My list of selected questions this year can be found here. We returned to our seats and briefly shared our reactions to the exercise. Ultimately, the exercise helps students acknowledge the diversity of the group while also making connections. We’ll work on names next class :)
After “crossing the line” and hopefully beginning to see each other as members of a community, we got down to the business of the class, like format and what they would expect for their first assignments. A huge part of creating that safe space for risk taking is students being clear about the expectations of the class and what will be expected from them. As a teacher, there are always things we forget to mention and wish we had said, and this day was no different for me. I should’ve watched my time more closely so we didn't have to rush, but managing my time this semester efficiently is going to be an ongoing challenge I’ll be working on. I was glad that I started by familiarizing them with the class website where they will find the course content and submit responses and assignments, as well as showing them the assignments due for our next class. I was able to adequately explain the “flipped classroom” format of the class, but we did not go into enough (or much) detail on our gradeless assessment and their portfolio they be constructing over the course of the semester. These will be vital to cover thoroughly next time so that the students will buy into “going gradeless.”
As students worked on their clay, I came around and chatted with them in small groups. Just some basic small talk. But it was interesting to note that several of them shared statements like “I’m not creative” or “I’m not very artistic” in response to me asking what brought them to the class. The course is one of three options they have including theatre and music. Education majors must take two of these arts integration choices. Most simply replied that it’s a class they have to take. A few voiced interests in doodling or that they had taken art courses in high school but the most creative confidence that I heard was “I liked taking art classes in high school” or “I zentanlge but I’m not artistic.” Very few students admitted that they were “creative” and even fewer that they were “artistic” during the “crossing the line” exercise. I wonder if by the end of the semester if any of these teachers will change their tunes? Will they come to see themselves as creative? Will they see how the tools the ways they measure student performance can dictate how students perform and even more important why. We shall see.
Overall, I was very happy with how the group responded to our first meeting and I’m very optimistic about our future together. What about you? Have you tried any of these exercises yourself? What first impressions are important for your students to get? Do you create conditions for creativity on the first day or a different experience? What is most important to you, and how do you communicate that to your students?
You can find my first day outline here.
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where future classroom teachers learn about visual art-integration. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while also experimenting with a hybrid in-person / online curriculum.