Tag Archives: art education

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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Scholastic Art

Such a busy time of year! But I want to take a moment to acknowledge a big milestone in the Scholastic Art Awards season: the exhibition is installed!

We judges more work than ever, and have more work than ever to install in a gallery space that has remained stubbornly unchanged in size from year to year.

We also had our fair share of weather challenges including at submission deadline time, and for installing this show. A HUGE thank you to the teachers who came in on their snow day to get this work going.

Nearly 400 gold key and silver key artworks are on display at the Ernst Center at the Annandale Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

There is still much to be done to prepare for our award ceremony on February 21. Stay tuned for more!

VAEA – Northern Region

Having the annual VAEA conference in Northern Virginia this year really shows in the large turn out for the Northern Region Meeting. 


I am so excited to have so many of my local colleagues here, and especially excited that they were all here to recognize Susan Silva who received the secondary educator of the year award for the Northern Region. 

Thank you, Andrew, for putting her name forward. She is so deserving!

Congratulations Susan!

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!

It’s Only Fair

Learning can be challenging — frustrating even. With a little experience, an art teacher can predict pretty accurately what the frustration level will be with the new content and skills. So why not warn your students? It’s only fair!

Thanks to art teacher Bethany Mallino who plans to include this and many other gold nuggets in a future publication called SmART StART in ART. (I’ll let you know when it’s available.)

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?

What is your purpose here?

I hope when you read, “What is your purpose here?” You can fully envision the scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest. If not I think the image, below, is linked to a gif. (Hit me with a comment if you know the response to the question from the movie.)

I suppose it’s fair if you are wondering what this has to do with art education…

I met with art collaborative team leads recently and posed a question about the purpose of art CTs. Some quick answers included “to collaborate,” “to share ideas,” and “to share best practices.”  Yes, these are reasons we get together, but why do we do these things? Why do we collaborate? Why do we share ideas?

TO IMPROVE STUDENT LEARNING!

I am surrounded by this language all the time in the instructional services department. If a similar question were asked of a group of my central office colleagues we would probably all respond in unison. 

This interaction with my art instructional leaders helped me realize that this is a message that I should work harder to promote. It’s a mindset that can impact how we interact with our work. Everything we do should be with the goal of improving student learning.