Tag Archives: Mindset

Reaching each child through… Education?

The middle school in my neighborhood has a sign board that has been displaying a powerful message:

Every Student, Every Day, Whatever it Takes.

I wish I could say that all teachers, or even all of the art teachers in my  school division, believed in this philosophy — actions and words suggest otherwise — but this mindset is one that must be embraced by K-12 public school teachers. We certainly get all sorts of students, and it is our job to help each one of them succeed. All of them! EACH… ONE…

I want to share the story of an art teacher who found an unusual way to connect with one student through… education. But not “education” in the way you would assume. In this case, helping this one student find success in the art classroom was not about art knowledge and skills. Rather, it was through designing an art lesson of his own.

Ari is a 5th grade student. Since I was not witness to Ari’s behavior and performance in art before progress was made, let it suffice to say that things were not going well and the art teacher was struggling to find a way to connect with him. Through some stroke of inspiration, she found he was interested in creating an art lesson of his own. The teacher began working with him on developing and refining his ideas, meeting with him after school, and helping him put his plans into an “official” format that could be shared.

Ari is into dinosaurs. With the help of his art teacher, he has created a Prehistoric Landscape Mural lesson plan and presented it in a lesson plan format that some of our teachers use. This is a pretty solid lesson which includes concrete instructions, idea development and planning processes, collaboration, and a final critique. While some students may not come to the lesson as a dinosaur enthusiast, most will feel engaged as they go through a process to design their own dinosaur using the Prehistoric Landscape Planner and combine it with dinosaurs made by their classmates into a landscape mural. Ari even created a Prehistoric Landscape Slide Presentation to present the content and processes to the class.

I encourage you to check it out. Use it if you want! Ari is very excited by the idea that his lesson could be shared and used by other art teachers. His own art teacher even tested the lesson with a group of second grade students shown below with their completed mural on the wall behind them.

This teacher really went beyond the norm to reach this student and help him develop understanding in art. What we all need to understand, though, is that going “beyond the norm” is NOT the same as going “above and beyond the call of duty.” On the contrary, this is exactly the call. This is what each of us should be doing.

Thank goodness there are ways to reach the vast majority of our students through well designed instruction. For those few remaining, we must find a way, even if it means doing something different than you planned, or different from what you would expect. THAT is differentiation to meet the needs of ALL students!



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?

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

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:

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?


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. 


Bonsai is an art form I have referenced at least once before on WhatItMeansForArt. It is not an art form practiced in K-12 classrooms, but it provides an interesting perspective for that very reason. Because bonsai is not an integrated part of the western art tradition, is stands as a sort of different-but-parallel art culture which art educators can analyze from the outside.

This recently released Bonsai Empire interview with bonsai master Masahiko Kimura highlighted two aspects of the tradition of bonsai teaching and learning that stand in stark contrast to modern educational practice and theory. These are the apprenticeship structure, and a distinct mindset around artistry.

The first is found in the very language used to refer to teacher and student. Translated, it is master and disciple. These words have significant connotations in English which may differ somewhat from those of the native Japanese language and culture, but if you read from the perspective of a bonsai apprentice like peterteabonsai, you will see it is not so different after all. He describes his initial understanding of the word Oyakata, or master, as somewhere between “boss and god.”

A bonsai apprenticeship is designed to prepare the apprentice for a career as a bonsai professional. This makes college level learning a more appropriate comparison than K-12 classrooms. Even so, Mr. Kimura says he was in training for 11 years, and through the apprenticeship “came to like bonsai gradually.” Can you imagine going to college for 11 years to prepare for a career you didn’t particularly like in the beginning?

More for consideration of K-12 art teachers is the methods employed in this learning environment. Kimura says, “My Oyakata rarely directly showed me how to do a bonsai task, he just gave me some good advice whenever he saw my work.” He expands on this by explaining that a master teaches the basics of the art, and the apprentice “must learn these basics very, very well to be able to come up with his own style after apprenticeship.”

Today’s educators know we must design instruction for specific learning outcomes in an established length of time. That is the nature of a course, is it not? But I fear too many art educators hold onto a lingering thread of this philosophy believing they should just respond to what the student is doing or just teach the foundations. All of the educational research would suggest these methods are not effective.

Layered on top of these ideas about the nature of the master and apprentice relationship is a distinct mindset that has persisted throughout Kimura’s life, and has no doubt influenced his students.

Hints of this mindset are revealed when he shares something of his own skill saying, “I get inspired right after I see a tree” and describes this as a “gift” he believes he got from his parents. We begin to form a more thorough understanding of his mindset when he describes the “most important qualities a bonsai artist should have.”

  1. Sensibility, the ability to react and evaluate intuitively
  2. Natural inner talent
  3. Inspiration, [you] can’t make a good bonsai without proper inspiration
  4. Creative power, a tireless force that makes an artist great, and…
  5. You must be brought up with these qualities.

Watch it yourself to double check, but I believe he actually shared that last one as number five… as a separate quality. He elaborates on this with a Japanese Proverb

“what is learned in the cradle is carried to the grave”

Now, I believe deeply in the power of early childhood education. It’s absolutely true that parents have a huge opportunity and obligation to begin teaching their children early, but as an educator I will not concede to an idea that what children have when they come to us at age five is going to determine their success or failure in school and in life.

Our mindset about our students ability to learn is one of the major factors I see that influence the success of teachers and schools. We must believe that our students are able to learn, and likewise, we must not believe that certain abilities are some sort of divine gift. Skills are learned and practiced, even if not in a traditional learning environment. If you want to read more about mindset and my feelings about talent read  any of these:

Before any bonsai people get upset with me, let me state clearly that I associate this mindset with master Kimura, not with the bonsai tradition at large or all bonsai professionals.

It is no longer the norm, but the master and disciple, or master and apprentice relationship has existed as an important part of the history of western art (not only in bonsai). Listening to this interview, I wonder if the art world hasn’t inadvertently held onto some of that culture and mindset. Art is not an activity for the wealthy and the privileged. The arts are an inherent part of human culture and therefore the birthright of every human (if you want my opinion). In public schools most of all, we must avoid taking any stance that suggests a student doesn’t have what it takes, or that the abilities they need to succeed are somehow innate rather than learned.

Art teachers, look hard at your own thoughts, words, and actions and ask yourself, is there any remnant of the master and apprentice system in my classroom? And if so, is it serving my students? All of them?

Questioning for Mindset

Questioning is  a valuable skill teachers can develop with practice. This is not just asking any-old question, of course, but the ability to ask questions that promote students growth and learning. In an art setting, questioning is often applied to develop creative and critical thinking about the problem at hand.

Unlucky Ducky by Frank Ballato, III, art teacher
Unlucky Ducky by Frank Ballato, III, art teacher

Continue reading Questioning for Mindset

Stop Teaching Art

Early last summer, I was feeling rather ornery when I proposed a conference presentation called “Stop Teaching Art.” While my proposal did represent legitimate concerns I wanted to bring to bear, I really didn’t expect an organization dedicated to promoting art education to accept such a proposal. Imagine my surprise when it was accepted for both the state and national conference.

Mars by Kate Patsch, art teacher
Mars by Kate Patsch, art teacher

Continue reading Stop Teaching Art