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Who should make the art?

So, here’s a little quiz: Who should do the art making in the art classroom? The student! Of course! Did anyone at all have a different answer? I doubt it… But do we really mean it? Let’s give this question some thought.

Let me apologize to those who have seen parts of this story already. You see, it started on social media so some of my comments below have seen the light of day already. But this deserves elaboration!

Like many of you, I have made some attempts at connecting with other art educators online. I have followed some blogs and liked some art teacher pages, only occasionally finding some like-minded individuals. More often, I encounter what I would call (at great risk of offending) the unfortunate state of art education in our country. You can recognize posts in this category because they include phrases like…

…so excited to have my kiddos try this new product…

…love these [artist name] paintings by my students…

…found this idea on Pinterest…

…this is what my students will make…

A recent post that suggested something like this last sentiment went past me recently with four variations of the same painting made by the teacher. The text went something like this:

“I’m starting this lesson soon and made several samples to think it through. Which is your favorite?”

The paintings really were nice looking, each a variation of a swimmer’s face under water with a diver’s mask and snorkel. Cute idea, really! (I would show you the images, but it just doesn’t seem fair to use the teacher’s pictures in this post.)

Teacher samples are good, and “thinking it through” is good too, but if this is all that is said about the lesson you will start soon, what are we to believe except that you intend to guide your students to make their own variation of the self-same painting? I just couldn’t ignore it. I had to comment. I wrote:

You’ve worked really hard to design something. You tried some different variations and even gathered input from an authentic audience. All important skills for an artist. Teach the children to be artists. Don’t be the artist for them!

So, let’s go back to my original question. When you answered, were you thinking only about who is pushing the pencil or moving the paint brush? Manipulating media is only a tiny part — albeit the most visible part — of what an artist does.

Fellow art teachers… (No… Let’s make it bigger…) Fellow teachers, if we are to teach our children to thrive in the 21st Century, we cannot go around solving problems for them!

Any artist-educator worth her salt knows deep down that the visual arts are the perfect place for students to learn those skills that, by now, nearly all of our schools and districts have written into their mission statements. If we are to teach our students to be resilient problem solvers and creative and critical thinkers, we must give them problems to solve.

Art education is not what they do at those paint and wine nights! Sorry if I have crushed your dreams, but while I’m at it let’s try to clear up a MAJOR misconception.

(Image borrowed from www.paintandwine.com)

Art education is not about teaching children to create artworks!

(Did I blow your mind?) Honestly, it never has been. Even before all this “21st Century Skills” stuff, art was about teaching things like working with your hands, experimentation, play, communication, self expression, and understanding visual culture. Art students develop their art skills at the same time, and that is also a valued outcome. But, (and I am going to take another risk at offending) any teacher who thought artmaking was the sole or primary purpose was sorely misguided.

Let me step off my soap box and get back to this teacher that I called out.

I get the teachers inclination. Providing a sequence of steps that results in reliably attractive artworks can have its benefits. Administrators love pretty artwork in the halls. Many of your colleagues and parents who don’t know better will be impressed by you. And some of your students will even feel a sense of pride for making something that still doesn’t look quite as good as the one the teacher made. But how can we reframe the idea to create a foundation for a lesson that allows the children to solve the problem?

As I described above, the painting samples represented a snorkeler. So if the assignment should not be, “make a painting of a snorkeler,” then what should it be? It should, instead, be a challenge that could have many possible solutions. It should be a challenge that allows the students to find a personal connection, and it should expect them to practice specific art skills related to media and/or subject matter. There are several different ways to go with this, but let me suggest just one:

Create a portrait of you doing an activity you hope to do someday.

Do you think this fits the bill?

I invite you to share your thoughts and comments.

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A Matter of Perspective

Perhaps one of the greatest educational concerns in these modern, cell-phone-saturated times is that our children learn to interact with others in a meaningful way, to connect and have empathy for others.

One of the most powerful but under-recognized learning outcomes in the arts is an understanding of the relationship between the artists intent and the interpretation of the viewer. At its core, this is about understanding others, understanding how others might feel or react, understanding how others have a different background and experience that impacts the way they interpret the world around them. It’s a matter of perspective.

A great example of this interaction was recently brought to my attention and I thought I would share it for all to consider and learn from.

Brauntheus, by a 12th grade art student

The impressive artwork above won a Gold Key award in the regional Scholastic Art Awards program and hangs,  as seen above, in the exhibition of award winning work. I received a letter from a Chinese-American visitor to the exhibition. It reads…

While I was [at the exhibition] I saw many paintings were exhibited on the walls, most of them are nice and artistic pieces. However, one of them makes me feel uncomfortable.

It is the piece titled: Brauntheus by a 12th grade student. Referring to the “dragon slayer” story, Brauntheus presents a man fighting an evil creature with spears. Looking carefully, I found that the creature in there is not a western dragon. What the man fighting against is clearly a Chinese Loong.

The letters author provided the images of “Western Dragons,” above, and the images of the Chinese Loong, below, to illustrate the differences. What do you think? Is the dragon in the artwork a Western dragon or a Chinese Loong?

He went on to write:

If you know some Chinese cultural, you may understand that a Chinese Loong is not an evil creature as a western dragon is. And the Chinese often call ourselves as the Loong’s successors.

The letter’s author was even kind enough to provide a web page about the differences between a Chinese Loong and a western dragon. Use the link to check it out if you like.

The authors of Brauntheus make the Chinese Loong look really evil, and he/she specifically used papers full of Chinese characters to make this piece.  Therefore, what the authors want to express is quite clear. As a Chinese American, I can feel that the hatred and hostility are directly poured over me when I stand in front of the piece. I feel very offended, and I also learned that many Chinese Americans feel the same way as I do.

I sincerely believe that an institute… should not exhibit a piece of work like this which promotes hatred and hostility.

Powerful feelings! It is no small matter that a visitor to an art exhibition can feel attacked by an absent artist, and nearly declare the act of artmaking a hate crime. I don’t want to diminish that reaction! It is at the center of this conversation, but here’s the kicker…

This student artist intended to flip the roles! His teacher explains:

The funny part is that the human in the composition IS the monster. The monster is minding his own business in his lair.

What a fascinating case! Even as the artist was pushing back against our notions of monsters, he was perceived as one! And while you don’t want the viewer to feel attacked, he was actually right on target to feel like the dragon slayer is the more evil of the two characters represented.

I believe the most important thing that came from this was the conversation. Next time you feel misunderstood, or feel offended by something someone else is expressing, I hope you will talk it out. You might just find that you and your opponent are actually on the same side!

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.

Art and Our New Superintendent

A Leadership Conference marks the beginning of each new school year for the school and central office administrators in our school system. This year’s conference was our first real opportunity to hear from our new superintendent, Dr. Scott Brabrand

https://www.fcps.edu/news/fairfax-county-school-board-confirms-scott-brabrand-fcps-superintendent
One of the prominent ideas he spoke about was mindset, which he illustrated with a personal art example. Dr. Brabrand shared his efforts to challenge his own mindset regarding his drawing ability. Any artist or art teacher has probably had to listen politely to hundreds of people explaining that they can’t draw. (Read a related post HERE.) Dr. Brabrand recognized his own mindset on his ability and set out to challenge it. 

First, he spent 15 minutes drawing a cat, with unimpressive results. Then he asked an art teacher to help him for one hour, and drew another cat. This time, the results were quite impressive. With only an hour of instruction, he was able to grow from a child-like line drawing, to a well-defined, natural form of a cat including value, shading, and texture. Well done, sir!

So what’s the point?! 

As educators we must consider our own mindset around teaching and learning. That means we must, first, recognize our mindset, and second, be willing to challenge and change that mindset. We cannot expect to be successful, as educators, if we don’t believe in the human ability to learn. And we won’t meet our mandate to reach every child if we have anything less than this growth mindset for each and everyone of our students. 

If you’re interested in reading more about mindset, check out these posts:

Art & Technology

Congratulations to the many students, and their teachers, recognized at the Technology+Art=NOW reception yesterday evening. The artwork is stellar, and you should be incredibly proud!


I also want to thank — and congratulate — Arts Herndon, the organization that organizes this program. I want to thank them for recognizing our artists for excellence and for providing monetary scholarship awards to encourage these students in their endeavors. That may all make sense but it may seem less clear why I would want to congratulate them as well. 

I want to congratulate them for their vision.   Arts Herndon recognizes that significant advances in creativity and innovation are happening at the place where art and technology intersect. The Technology+Art=NOW program is a clear demonstration of this belief, but the really impressive part is that they have been doing this for ten years! Kudos, my friends, Kudos!


Fore more information about the program, go to the ARTSPACE Herndon website, or read the FCPS news release

Meaningful Choices

Born of a disagreement, this group of art educators came together to address different approaches to choice in art education. The question comes down to this: Should we have “projects” in art instruction and if so, why and how should we do this that provides an appropriate amount of choice to our students. 


Each presenter shared some of their own experiences and approaches. Katherine Douglas presented her experience as a teacher in a primary choice-based art classroom. 

Anne Thulson made an analogy to the Prime Directive from Star Trek in which the crew of the Starship Enterprise were not to interfere with cultures of the planets they visit. She argued that the art teacher should interfere and intervene with the students as they learn. She shared a collection of Dérive strategies to engage with spaces which she uses in the School of the Poetic City summer project.

Olivia Gude provided a number of approaches to presenting conceptual projects without making art seem too important.  The subject of ordinary life is used through concepts such as mapping, telling stories, being dirty, awkward silence, punishment, weirdness, and lies. 

Sharif Bey shared approaches to exploration of material process to find unique entry points into learning. He points out that discovery can’t happen in the absence of circumstances that allow for it. 

Each of us probably has an approach that we feel more aligned with, but I believe all of our students will benefit from opportunities to engage in a variety of approaches and practices in making choices for the artmaking process. 

Designing the Future of Schools

Education is often criticized as being stagnant, but new ideas — new designs for schools are being developed and tested around the country. 

http://xqsuperschool.org/
Grants such as those through the XQ Super School Project are allowing a few great ideas to be implemented and tested, including the design-thinking-based school ideas shared this morning. 

The challenge of designing a new and different school is valuable, and the need is real, but it is a far different and monumental task to redesign our public school systems. Integral to the challenge is the need to provide equitable education opportunities to all students across the country.