Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Road to Choice: a self portrait in more ways than one

When I think about my journey into choice based art, I wonder why it took so long.

For many years, I had heard about TAB and I knew deep down that it sounded like the right way to go but I let fear hold me back. Fear of students making artwork that looked like junky, and I would look like a bad teacher as a result. Fear of losing control of the behavior in my classroom and looking like a bad teacher as a result.  Do you see a pattern there?

At the end of the day, my decision to transition to choice led from an understanding that it's not about me.  It's about letting my students develop their artwork from their creativity and passion in a way that is meaningful to them.  When the teacher dictates the idea, the medium, the color choice, the skills, down to the size of the paper, the teacher is the one doing the heavy cognitive lifting and the teacher owns that learning, not the student.

I am still inching towards my goal of a choice based classroom (crawling on my hands and knees some days) but I know that it is the right thing to do.  Teaching one subject in the same way for 15 years will do that to you.  Today I thought I would share the evolution of a self portrait project over the course of three years: 2014, 2015 and currently.

The 2014 portraits fit the model below created by Melissa Purtee over at Thoughts on Arting to a tee.  

Last year's group had to choose to represent an emotion, their culture or a memory and there was criteria for each.  They also could choose colored pencils, watercolor pencils or paint.  I didn't have a Drawing Center or resources to support a huge variation in media choice like I do now, so it was pretty chaotic.

This year...we are still experimenting with media (many kids are loving Art Set Pro on the iPads) but the overarching understanding is that self portraits reflect who the artist is or who they want to be.  I've given examples of 4 paths that students may choose to take, with a lot of variation. I look forward to documenting the process and watching the kids experience creating art that has intrinsic value to them.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Using the Studio Habits of Mind

Last year was the first year that I really worked on familiarizing my students with the Studio Habits of Mind, another winner from the Project Zero people at Harvard. This framework dovetails nicely with the Teaching For Artistic Behavior model in that it respects learners as artists-- artists who make choices, experiment with media, collaborate with others.

I used the SHOM mostly for reflection last year, one Haiku Deck that I created and used as a visual can be found here.  The children chose one or two sentence stems from each category and filled in their reflections at the end of their projects.

This year, since I am giving TAB methodology a try across all grade levels for the 1st Unit, I wanted to create visuals that gave students concrete examples of what kind of cognitive and creative work they are meant to be doing in class.  I also would like to see the children use the framework as a springboard for our SeeSaw reflections, which will occur during the last 5 minutes of each class and be more authentic than waiting until they complete a project.  I also like the idea that the reflection is not limited to their artwork, they are genuinely reflecting on their own artistic habits on a regular basis.  This consistent and more relaxed (kids can record themselves using iPads instead of having to write) formative assessment should help to develop these transferable skills.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Can TAB and PYP co-exist? I'm about to find out!

I've had my eye on TAB for a few years now and slowly adjusting my teaching to amp up student Voice and Choice while still staying true to the PYP.  With the support of my PYP Coordinator and my amazing Pedagogical Coordinator Andy Vasily, I've decided to jump in with both feet this year. I will be adjusting my already conceptually based units and letting the learners decide how they will demonstrate their understanding in a studio that respects them as artists and the drivers of their own learning.  I am very excited and also very nervous, but I wholeheartedly believe that I am doing the right thing.  More concrete examples to come, Grade 5's will begin with a unit on Identity.  Are there any other PYP Art teachers who also use the TAB/Choice model?  Please do get in touch.

Right now in addition to gathering material for my Studio Centers, I am working on creating visuals for a "Nuts and Bolts" wall-- general procedures, types of Studio Learning (thanks to Ron Ritchhart I am training myself not to use the word "work"), design cycle, etc.  Here are some highlights, created on

Stay tuned for more as my students and I embark on our TAB/PYP journey starting next week...

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Meaningful Reflection and SeeSaw

First of all, if you're not using SeeSaw, you should be!  I was introduced to it at EARCOS, and its an powerful tool for sharing, reflection and immediate feedback.  I've found it to be much more organic (it is very kid friendly which makes me more likely to whip out the iPads when we have a few minutes for a quick formative assessment) than traditional digital portfolios. The children love getting recognition and feedback for their learning as it happens.  Many parents who downloaded the app to their phones respond immediately when their child posts something (they get a push notification) and the kids just love it.

Students are now commenting on each other's work and I've created a reminder to make "Art Smart" comments.  Taking literally one minute to talk about this and showing the slide below has transformed the comments from, "It's cool" to "What grabbed my attention was the detail of the trees in the foreground."  Nothing like a little meaningful application of art vocabulary to spice up the old art teacher's day. :)

In addition, when they share their own artwork on SeeSaw, they love creating videos and drawing on them while they are explaining.  The following guide keeps their dialogue on track:

If you haven't tried SeeSaw yet, give it a shot, it's free!  (No, I am not being paid to write this, I just am a fan.)

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Surreal Worlds

My Grade 4's were prepping for their next unit which investigates the concept of artistic inspiration, specifically about how nature can inspire artists.  There is lots of material to "go traditional" with this particular unit but sometimes I feel like they have been Moneted and VanGoghed to death by the time they get to 4th grade.

We started by exploring organic shapes and forms and we practicing different tricks that artists use to create the illusion that their shapes are 3D (shading, contour lines, overlapping, etc.)

The next step was using oil pastels to draw several textured organic shapes on large black paper. Once that was complete, I sat with the children and had them imagine that they could shrink down to the size of a teacup and climb inside their picture.  What kind of things could they do in there-- we wrote action words on the SmartBoard-- slide, jump, swim, climbing, hanging...this element was important because without it many children will just take selfies with their artwork in the background.

Once the children looked at their work and decided on body movements, they photographed themselves in action in front of our ad hoc green screen (two pieces of green butcher paper taped together.)  They uploaded their photos along with their organic shape pic to Baazart and had a play.  They came up with absolute gems like these...

But wait!  We were full of, "What would happen ifs..."  I asked the kids what might happen if we uploaded images to another app, Flipomatic?  Check it out...

Some of the kids decided they wanted to upload the Flipomatic images back into Baazart, and this is what was great to let the students decide where there endpoint would be and use each others' work as inspiration.
"The Carpet Seller" 

If you are interested in learning more about using iPads in your art room, definitely check out Mrs. Jardin's ART room and the iPad Art room.  It was this post from iPad Art room about multi media workflows that inspired this project. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Visual Arts and the PYP Exhibition-- A conundrum

An Exhibition Night auction of portraits taken by Grade 5 Students in Cambodia-- 2011
I had a PYP Coordinator years ago who was fond of saying, "Exhibition is just another Unit Of Inquiry."  This always had us Grade 5 teachers laughing-- a wonderful thing to say in philosophy but an entirely different one in practice.  For us arts teachers, there can be a lot of pressure to facilitate the children to produce something that both encapsulates their Exhibition experience and is a show stopper for Exhibition evening with parents.  It may not be philosophically the point but it's reality in a lot of schools.

For me, the conundrum is this:  like most strong conceptual Units of Inquiry, Exhibition has the potential to provide an opportunity for powerful visual arts integration, but... meaningful integration takes time.  If you have a very full schedule at a school that doesn't have a lot of wiggle room for change, this can be a massive challenge.

Exhibition is typically a 6 week unit, if it takes 3 weeks for the students gather enough information to decide on a specific issue to tackle, and another three to take action on that issue, when do they create a piece of art that demonstrates that new understanding, especially if their dedicated art time is 45 minutes a week?  Does the piece of art even need to demonstrate their new understanding?  Wait a sec, how important is it to have a shiny finished piece of art to display and that tear jerker song to sing for parents on Exhibition Night?  Is it the process or the product?

Reflecting on Exhibitions past, it's becoming clear to me that the most meaningful Exhibition and Visual Arts integrations are the ones that are the most organic-- and it means every student might not have a piece of art on the wall for Exhibition Night.  Here are some suggestions for the arts teachers who-- like me have struggled to figure out where the arts fit meaningfully into the Exhibition.

  • Idea 1: Collapse your schedule if you can-- if you are at a school where you can do this, you are very lucky indeed.  If some students choose to take action using the Visual Arts, go with it.  At one previous school, a small group of students painted a mural at an NGO sponsored school for children who were scavengers at a garbage dump.  It was a powerful experience, and while I was out with my small group of Grade 5's, my other art classes were simply cancelled.  In another Exhibition at the same school, the students interviewed and took portrait photos of impoverished people that they encountered on the street.  This would not have been possible without a very supportive relationship with the homeroom teachers and the ability to cancel my other grade level art classes for a few afternoons.  I blogged about the experience here.
  • Idea 2: Wait until a natural artistic opportunity arises and jump on it-aka The Big Ole Leap Of Faith- this one also relies heavily on the relationship between the homeroom teacher and the Visual Arts teacher because they have to be willing to approach you with a crazy idea in the middle of you "doing something else with their kids" for Exhibition and you have to be willing to (with the support of your admin) ditch whatever you were working on and follow their lead.  One crazy idea that I heard this week," My kids want to turn my classroom into a real fast food restaurant but they will be serving reality (diabetes, obesity, etc) instead of actual food.  Can you help?"  We had the kids vote whether to continue on their Visual Arts exhibition project (more on that later) or ditch the whole thing and make McDonald's in their classroom. Guess what they chose?  I'll give you a hint, I'm lovin' it.
  • Idea 3: Focus on the student's personal Exhibition journey rather than their Exhibition topic-- this is a great way to go because you have lots of work with from Day One.  Symbolism, abstraction, emotive colors and forms, photography-- there are so many ways the kids could take this. It could be a powerful opportunity to integrate language arts, music or dance as well.
  • Idea 4:Plan to give the kids more art time towards the end of the exhibition-- I wish I had thought of this one sooner.  It's hard to demonstrate new understanding visually when you don't have the understanding yet! This year's Visual Arts component of the Exhibition was supposed to be a mixed media piece that demonstrates deep understanding of their topic using symbols.  Great idea in theory until I realized that there is no way the students will have time to complete their work in my class, considering they are just getting to the "meat" of their Exhibition topic now and I have one of my precious 45 min weekly blocks left.  At the start of the unit, we were twiddling our thumbs (aka working on something else) and waiting for groups to be sorted and issues to be chosen.  Clearly, my approach this time around was misguided.
The more I look over this post the more I think that flexibility and time are the two most crucial elements for single subject teachers to maximize the transdisciplinary potential of the PYP Exhibition, or really any Unit Of Inquiry because...after all, the Exhibition is just another UOI, or is it?

How do you integrate the Visual Arts into the PYP Exhibition?  What are some of the biggest issues that you have faced with the Exhibition and did you solve them?  I would love to hear your ideas!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

It's a blog revival

I had just about given up on this blog.  My teaching philosophy has changed a lot over the years and a lot of the older content on this blog is very teacher directed, in a "25 versions of the same thing" kind of way.  Over the last few years, and through coursework in Cultures of Thinking and the various models of Choice Based Art Education, I am working to do the following:

  • leverage student voice and personal relevancy in their art making
  • actively encourage collaboration (in art creation, idea generation, and formative assessment)
  • use the Studio Habits of Mind to foster a culture of critical thinking 
  • take a purposeful step back to allow the students to own their cognitive and creative work
After a long conversation with the wonderful @andyvasily at EARCOS in Manila last week (he is joining our staff here at KAUST and I cannot be happier!), I decided to keep the blog as evidence that teaching is an iterative process, even after 17 years and five countries. 

I thought I'd share one example of "then and now" in action.  On the left is a group of Vejicante Masks that I made with students in Phnom Penh way back in 2007.  Why I was doing Puerto Rican masks in Cambodia when there is a rich tradition of masks in Khmer folklore is the topic for another blog post! On the right is a group of masks that my 4th graders here at KAUST recently finished.  Certainly much more variety and evidence of student choice on the right.  Their Studio Habits of Mind based reflections often shine an interesting light on the rationale behind the artistic choices they made.

Could I take this even further on the choice spectrum and open it up more to how the kids choose to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts?  Absolutely and I look forward to the challenge.

How has your teaching philosophy changed since you started?

And a few more shots of the masks for the Pinterest addicts among us: