Category Archives: instruction

A Simple Reward System

Here’s another quick strategy I saw used with great effect recently… Do you know what that glowing purple object is on the table?


It’s a Bluetooth speaker!

The teacher has a playlist on her own phone and places the speaker, at a low volume, on tables that are showing that everyone is on task. The students really enjoyed having the reward of listening to music while they worked, even if the speaker had to move to another table after a few minutes. 

Thanks again to Bethany for sharing this idea!

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Easy Access

What is this wardrobe rack doing in the art room?


I’m visiting Lois today who credits Laura Watson with this ingenious approach to storing visual resources. 

Some posters are mounted directly on wire hangers to display from hooks at the front of the room. 


Other hangers hold large plastic folders that hold collections of visuals organized by subject and medium. 


This vertical organization allows Lois to grab something quickly, even in the middle of a class, and post it on the board with clips. 


What a great idea! 

Thanks to Lois and Laura for sharing.

Courage & Joy

Add to my recent post that educators need to have courage! Principal Dawn Hendrick and her staff at Woodlawn Elementary certainly demonstrated courage when they decided to dedicate an entire day to CARDBOARD!


A few of the teachers, including art teacher Angela Noland, started playing with the idea of doing Imagination.org’s Global Cardboard Challenge with some students at the school, and before they knew it, it was a whole school event. That’s right! Every student, in every classroom, grades K through 6 spent the entire day building with cardboard and then had a fantastic time sharing their creations with the school. 


While there was a great deal of flexibility, upper grades were challenged to design games that others could play. This required them to think creatively and critically, collaborate with others, and be goal directed and resilient. There was a lot of talk, too, about how this challenge really called on the students to apply their understanding of STEM disciplines, and there is certainly no denying that Art was involved. 

Where’s the A in STEAM? At Woodlawn, that’s where!


Many schools and teachers would balk at the thought of dedicating a full day to cardboard and play, but the day was not only successful, it was absolutely JOYFUL! 

Kudos to the staff at Woodlawn for having the courage to give your students an experience they learned from, and will not soon forget. ​​

What It Takes

I have been visiting and supporting a number of new art teachers at the start of this school year. This work always seems to shine a light on what is most important. Here’s my most recent conclusion…

There are six things you need to be a successful teacher. These are not the ya-have-em or ya-don’t-have-em sorts of things. These are understandings, abilities, and characteristics of teachers, all of which can be developed and refined. No one starts teaching with even most of these areas well-developed, and some of us who have been teaching a long while may still need to work on one or more of them. (This is what they mean by a lifelong learner, right?) As you read on, think about what areas you have developed well, and which could use some work.

Let me start with a set of three that are a little more concrete than the next: Content Knowledge, Pedagogy, and Classroom Management. Perhaps because they are more concrete, these three are often addressed to a fair degree in teacher preparation programs.

Content Knowledge is knowing your subject. In the art world, content knowledge and skills are infinite and ever changing. Few of us are truly proficient in a full range of media, and even those who graduate with advanced studies in Art History can very quickly become out of touch with trends in contemporary art. New teachers are often faced with a harsh reality when they realize they are expected to teach content and processes that they, themselves, don’t yet know.

Pedagogy is about having a tool kit of strategies for HOW to teach content, and knowing which of these are highly effective methods. I consider pedagogy to include a full cycle of planning, teaching, and assessing practices, as well as an ongoing reflective practice which includes the teacher as researcher. Like content knowledge, pedagogy is a constantly changing field with a regular influx of new studies. Teachers should take every advantage of professional development opportunities to continue learning about best practices in teaching. New teachers often have a few tools, and must work to develop and refine their practices through experience and continuous learning.

Classroom Management is frequently a barrier to being able to even consider content knowledge and pedagogy, and despite the best efforts of our friends in higher-education, there will always be a need for more practice and more experience managing student behavior. As much as I would like to meet with new teachers and talk about the content and pedagogy in their classroom, there is often an urgent need to develop classroom management skills first. Only after some semblance of order and routine is established do I start to focus attention on what is being taught and how.

The next three are a bit more abstract and a bit “deeper,” if  you will. To be a successful teacher Passion, Philosophy, and Mindset are every bit as necessary as the concrete classroom skills we have already discussed.

Passion can come in a variety of forms, but without it, you won’t last long as a teacher. Some are deeply passionate about their subject area (common in art), others for children, or for teaching itself. No matter what passion brought you to  teaching, one is a must. You must love children. I give props to Dr. Brabrand, our superintendent, for reminding us all of this regularly.   New teachers rarely lack passion, but we need to support them in other areas so this passion does not suffer.

By Philosophy, I mean to suggest that a successful teacher must have a philosophy of teaching. An idea of what is truly important to them in the classroom, what they really want their students to learn, and how these ideas come together to form instruction that aligns with that philosophy. Many teacher preparation programs address philosophy or at least encourage their graduates to write one. Many schools and divisions promote a philosophy of their own. It’s not important where the philosophy came from. What’s important is that the teacher knows what it is.

Mindset refers, here, to the teacher’s mindset about teaching and learning. How can a teacher possibly be successful if he does not believe that his students can learn? How can a teacher possibly be successful if she does not believe that her actions are what makes that happen? A teacher must believe BOTH that ALL students are able to learn, and that the teacher’s planning and implementation are what allow the learning to happen. That’s how this works.

There you have it folks. My take on what it takes to be successful, after spending time with a number teachers helping each make progress in one area or another.

Which do you need to work on?

What’s Your Perspective?

Thanks to my colleague, Jean-Marie Galing, for contributing these important insights!

Which of these images reveals the thinking of a second grade student about their neighborhood?

Pre-instructional drawing
Drawing in response to instruction.

Let’s not lose the meaning in wonderful narrative drawings by expecting students to use compositional techniques that they are not yet ready for.  Western art places value on depicting space in three dimensions, and we want students to understand how to use perspective.  But we need to consider what students can understand at different ages, and introduce perspective techniques in baby steps.

Pre-instructional drawing
Drawing in response to instruction

Early elementary students can organize objects along a ground line. By first grade we can add a horizon line and talk about near/far and big/little. Second graders can place near things at the bottom of the page and far things higher up, and attempt to show objects overlapping. Third graders can learn about and apply the use of foreground, middle ground, and background.  Upper elementary students may play with atmospheric perspective using light and darker colors, and by fifth or sixth grade they like to experiment with linear perspective.  At the secondary level, they start to pull it all together to support what they want to say.

So my perspective on “perspective” is to teach it a little at a time, and don’t let the execution of a technique suck the joy out of personal expression.

What are you working on?

I ask this question frequently when I visit an art room, “What are you working on?” I even ask when I already know the answer.

Recently I went into two art rooms at the same school. The classes happened to be the same grade level and I was excited to see the two art teachers were collaborating. In this case, that meant I saw the same lesson happening in both classrooms.

I asked my question in both classes. I one room I got answers like these:

  • Just drawing
  • Just doing a contest (it was not a contest)
  • We are doing this (points to paper)
  • We are doing… (reads title of paper)
  • (shrugs)

In the other classroom the response to my question was an enthusiastic explanation of the project, and each person at the table wanted a turn to describe their ideas to me. 

Now, this was not a thorough study. I asked just a few students in each room, but the difference was astonishing! In the latter example, students were clearly more engaged and using higher order thinking skills. In the first, students barely knew what they were doing, let alone what they were learning. 

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?!

What can you do, as a teacher, to make it more likely your students will respond to, “what are you working on?” with enthusiasm, awareness, and evidence of thinking and learning?