Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Thoughts About Change


It's something I've been thinking about quite a bit lately. I feel like I do a pretty good job as an art educator, but I'm intrigued by some new (or not so new) ideas that I've come across lately. 

I suppose I should start by explaining my teaching style and background. Art has always been "my thing." I graduated from Columbus College of Art & Design and went directly into the Master's program for art education at The Ohio State University. My education has greatly influenced my style. Technique and technical skills were often at the heart of my own arts education. 

As I develop lesson plans for my students, I use art, literature, and techniques as the basis for most of the projects I create. For example, a very popular lesson that I've posted about in the past is my totem pole project. The heart of the project is stylization. Students discuss and visually dissect culturally accurate examples of Pacific Northwest Native Americans. Students take quite a bit of time to develop good drawings of an animal of their choice in order to make it stylistically match the artwork we are studying. The final version of the project is a beautiful and often quite intricate collage of construction paper. Because we spend so much time developing drawings and studying art, this is an extremely successful project. 

Enter meetings with my elementary art colleagues. My district currently has 12 elementary buildings and the same number of elementary art teachers. Of the 12 of us, three run choice based classrooms. I'm intrigued by the idea of choice based art because I can see that students of those three teachers are doing work that is more personally meaningful. There is often deeper thought in the student work and I like the flow of work from one project to the next. I have added quite a bit of choice into my projects, but there is always a lesson plan that the student choice fits into. 

My biggest struggle with purely choice based instruction is the actual artwork. Since instruction time of actual techniques is so limited, I see so many pieces of artwork that have great ideas, but poor execution or craftsmanship. I know many of my lessons are outcome based. There is a lot of good thinking and creativity that go into the lessons, but the goal is ultimately to provide learning experiences for students that provide a balance of technical skills and meaningful thinking and creativity. 

At my latest elementary art meeting, we met in the room of Mr. Callicotte, a colleague who secured funding to completely redesign his classroom. In was, in one word, stunning. He was moving toward choice based learning, but realized that different students have different learning preferences and needs. He did an activity that resulted in students figuring out what kind of environment resulted in their best work. The design of the room was such that it accommodated learning needs and provided space for different media as well as gathering space for the whole class to learn together. 

Mr. Callicotte's redesigned art classroom. New design to meet new needs. 
My current classroom. 
I feel like I'm at a crossroads for my teaching style. I want to make some changes to my space. I want to make some changes to my style in order to provide considerably more choice while still maintaining the quality of the finished art. Is there a name for this style? Maybe I'm being innovative and coming up with the missing link between traditional teaching and full choice. Probably not. I'm sure some of you are already doing this. 

Do any of you do anything similar? What are your successes and struggles? I can't wait to hear. 


Geoff Schmidt said...

Last year, I opened up Choice to my fifth and sixth graders. Overall, I love it because it fits my artistic and educational philosophies, and I see how much the kids (with a few exceptions of course) enjoy coming to Art with the ability to do what they want. I like that I am able to provide a place in school where things aren't so rigid. Where the expectations aren't "Get it right" as much as "Why don't you try it and see what happens?" I think that creates very meaningful learning that's hard to implement in other areas.

That said, Choice certainly has its drawbacks and frustrations. 1 - as you, mentioned, the quality is often lacking. I've tried to combat this by setting expectations for "quality" and "finished" work - like adding details and BACKGROUND! which so many kids are quick to dismiss initially. 2 - is the mindset "I don't know what to do," or "I can't think of anything." It's tough for students to come around to the idea I'm not going to tell them what to do. To help with this, I wrote and printed out a bunch of my lesson plans in student-friendly language with ideas for them to do. I call it "The Choice Packet - So You Don't Have an Excuse." Whenever I hear someone say there's nothing to do, I grab the packet and tell them to leaf through it. I'm happy to share that with you if you're interested. 3 - We run through a lot of materials during the problem-solving process.

There is, though, a ton of great stuff that I've been fortunate enough to see. The ideas and enthusiasm have gone way up. Kids are taking responsibility for their own learning and their own choices. They get to work with materials in ways I wouldn't have thought about. They work together. They share their ideas and teach each other when someone comes up with something cool. I can respond to individual students' needs and understand what their capable of or need to push their artwork to completion (values and perspective vs just details, for example). I just heard the other day a fifth grade wrestler/athlete, give the ultimate compliment: that Art was better than Gym.

I'm basing my Master's thesis on Choice. I could get into the educational benefits of student-ownership and all that, but this comment is already long enough to be its own post as it is, so let me just sum this up as best as I can. Choice is about process and experience more than it is about the product. It's a struggle to let go of that product part at times, but my thought is that, especially at the elementary level, if I can help students develop a positive relationship with art, problem solving, creative thinking, whatever else you value in art, then I'm okay with that.

I hope that's helpful. You do awesome stuff and I've seen firsthand how much your students enjoy your class. My advice would be not to force something you don't feel like doing. Make Choice - or any of your changes you have in store - work for you and your kids. You know their artistic sensibilities better than anyone.

Best of luck! I'm here if you need me!


Aimee Fresia said...

This post of yours is exactly something I've been struggling with for a few years as well. In my district of 19 elementary art teachers, about 3 are doing all choice based, and I (too) am not impressed with the work that is displayed/'finished'. I really researched the TAB movement a few years ago and I still don't know. . . I guess my comment isn't really helpful, but I'm feeling your struggle. I work a LOT of choice in at the fifth and sixth grade levels, and enthusiasm is very high. I agree that we need another option.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post, Zach. I feel so lucky to have such amazing colleagues! Having followed a similar career path as you, craft vs. student independence has been a tug of war for me. I've decided to move forward with independence slowly, experimenting, and not committing to any one philosophy. This year, I decided to allow 5th graders independence. I'm not ready for an entirely open studio, so each project has a beginning prompt and students make a daily plan, to be revised at the end of each class.

We are just finishing up a project with the prompt: "Create an artwork that makes a positive change in the world". They enjoyed it and the craft was not a big issue. I'm struggling with how to reach all students, to help them make artwork that is highly meaningful. Many kids were very passionate, but a few did not reach a high level of connection to the prompt. I'm wondering if I need more supports & resources in the planning phase?

I'm also worried about material management and organization, when bringing this style of teaching to other grade levels. As of now, I'm thinking independence will stay more limited in primary grade levels. Also, I want to teach primary students how to use materials that are new to them and make sure they understand art room expectations before "being set free".

It would be great to keep sharing about this subject! Thanks again for the post!

Zach Stoller said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'm glad I'm not the only one in this boat. Geoff, I'd love to see your choice packet. I'll email you directly since you probably won't see this. Mya, I feel like we're very similar with our teaching styles. Let's talk at some point about some of your 5th grade lessons. I like the framework you've described.

Unknown said...

Sounds good, Zach!

Heather said...

Zach, I have been contemplating this same thing lately. I wonder if its possible to balance technique days with choice days? You could call these material experimenting days and go over some techniques they could try. Maybe they could record and keep results in a sketchbook and then pull from these when working on their choice based projects. Students definitely still need to develop their craft so they can apply it to their choices, but choice is so important in helping students build autonomy in their work!

Zach Stoller said...

Good ideas from you all. Love the art ed community!

kerri said...

Maybe alternate years -- do choice based on years 1, 3, 5 (years I feel are critical "creative development years"
And technique based years on the others.Consider Years K-1 together, 2-3 together, and 4-5 together.
I see my students so little, that I don't feel like choice is a choice for me. I try to provide many choices within a project -- this is the style and technique, you pick the subject. Or, this is the subject, you pick the materials -- on at least 1 project.

Anonymous said...

Hi Zach,

Thanks for your post. I have a similar story--received a BFA in painting and an MFA in teaching. This is my 7th year of teaching and I've begun incorporating more choice into my classroom in individual lessons. I have been to a few TAB presentations and am intrigued by the ideas, but am not ready to be a fully TAB classroom.

I think there is a lot to be learned though traditional lessons because, as the teacher, I often do the lesson before hand and am able to anticipate problems/challenges that students might encounter. This helps me provide feedback so that students are able to solve problems and build confidence. I do try to model my classroom on more of a studio model, with a variety of supplies that are readily accessible for students to use. However, I only see students once/week for 40 minutes. With this schedule, there is very little time for them to get in "the flow." True artists have access to their work spaces for longer periods of time, which is what often makes professional artists' work so good--the ability to dedicate uninterrupted time to their craft.

I have also been using sketchbooks and trading cards as opportunities to build in more choice and experimentation. I am super excited about where I am with this right now and it is going to be one of my educator evaluation goals this year! Would love to keep the conversation going and share more ideas in the future.


Unknown said...

I, too, want to make these types of changes. I'll be following along to see how you are going about it. Right now, I like the idea of TAB but am having a hard time understanding how it would work in my teaching setting...500 kids revolving through my room every week, 45 minutes at a time.

Zach Stoller said...

Jillian, I'm in the same boat. 600 students of my own plus a traveling teacher that comes in to teach another 100+ during my planning time. All on a four day rotation 45 minutes per class. For me, it's been a slow series of changes that have allowed me to get a grasp on what works and what doesn't. So far, I've just been incorporating more choice into individual projects and I've liked the results. I'll keep everyone updated on what's going on.

Steph said...

I really like this conversation, even though I am late getting to it! This is my first year teaching art (after staying at home with my kids these last 17 years) and I am already feeling the same struggle. I have a couple of lessons I have written where I have taught a style of art or concept and given a couple parameters and then the kids are free to create. They are surprised, wait I can do whatever I want?! Those lessons are their favorites and mine too. I would love to turn all of my curriculum that direction but those lessons are hard to come up with!! I also feel that since this is the first year our school has an art teacher, that most kids don't know how to use materials and sometimes we need to do specific things together to learn those. Maybe not, if you figure out a way to teach techniques along with choice I would love to hear! I teach part time, 1100 students. It takes two weeks to cycle through them all. I get 30 minutes with K-2 and 40 with 3-5 so that is another struggle with allowing choice, I feel limited to what kind of projects I can do.
I love all of your projects, thanks for sharing them!