Organizing with Color

How do art teachers organize their room? With color, of course!


Which stools go at your table?

Which supply bin goes at your table?

And, WHAT?! Is that a trash can?

The combination of assigned seats and assigning a color (or other designation) to tables can streamline a lot of processes!

Any questions? The purple table is dismissed. 

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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?

Equity and a Healthy School Culture

Pedro Noguero shares three qualities of a healthy school culture that supports equity. 


Each of these start with a verb to which I believe you should add ALL of these subjects: the administration… the faculty… the school culture… the team… the teacher…

1. …Does not blame underrepresented students for low performance.

Do not accept talk by yourself or your colleagues that blames the students or takes the position that “these students can’t.”

2. …Pushes faculty to see teaching and learning connected.

Absorb that, then look back to number one. Don’t make me spell it out. 

3. …Has a coherent, data-based strategy for achieving goals related to diversity.

If we don’t collect meaningful assessment data we can’t do this. If we don’t analyze the data, we can’t do this. If we don’t make a plan to respond to what the data is telling us, we can’t do this. 

P.S., dear art teacher, I am talking to you. I am always talking to you. 

What is your goal?

Several very busy days have passed since, but I don’t want to lose the opportunity to acknowledge and reflect upon the fall art teacher in-service.

There is nothing more exhilarating than a back-to-school kickoff event with over 300 art teachers in one place! Now, before you conclude that I must have a very boring life, let me clarify. I don’t mean exhilarating like when you ride a roller coaster or something like that — but having this many like-minded professional educators in one place just before the start of the school year does create an atmosphere where the excitement and anticipation are palpable. And this year, everyone was feeling a little extra enthusiasm because we arranged to meet at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

We were able to take care of business in a general session, had an excellent presentation from our hosts (Thank you, Briana and Elizabeth!), provided opportunities for collaborative teams to meet, and had some much valued time in the galleries.

The day before the in-service, I asked a question of one of my colleagues who was preparing for her own teacher meeting.

What is your goal?

I think I asked this question for myself as much as any reason. Our in-services are only a short half-day and our big opportunity to influence the direction for the whole coming school year within our discipline. Many times in the past I have felt overwhelmed with the number of topics that I felt too important not to address during the meeting, but the reality is most teachers will come away with just one or two ideas they will really carry into their classroom.

With this realization, I have tried to focus these professional development days, and design them with one goal. By happy coincendence, the presentation from the museum staff reflected this line of thinking for teachers. The session was organized first by asking the teachers to consider what type of people they want their students to be in the future, then connecting to those ideas through the discussion activities, and encouraging the teachers to consider their goals for their students as they interacted with the exhibitions.

So, what was my goal?

I kept it simple this year. My goal was for teachers to feel inspired and excited for the new year. Spending time with the art teachers certainly motivated me, and I hope they found some inspiration in the activities and artworks they encountered at the museums!

Bridging the gap between Art and Education