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!


  1. Great thought provoking entry. As I wrote to you, we should be totally integrated in the learning process, especially in the exhibition and not even have to consider the 'specials'. Let's keep fighting the good fight!

  2. I totally agree that flexibility and time are really important for arts teachers (Music as well, not just Visual Arts) during the exhibition. So often the Visual Arts classes end up focusing on the promotion of the exhibition - another product - rather than providing time for the students not only to show their understanding but also to use art as a way of helping them to understand the big ideas of the exhibition. I try to work closely with the Music teacher so that some students spend longer developing their ideas through visual arts and others through music. I love the idea of using art to focus on the students' personal exhibition journeys.

  3. This is really thought provoking. I've been an art teacher working with exhibition for 3 years now, and with 250 kids in grade 5 and more than one art teacher teaching the grade, it really is a struggle to find a meaningful way to integrate. For us, due to our size and the number of different specialist classes, collapsing timetables is just not possible. Neither is it to focus on working just with the students on their own exhibition topics. The school wants a wow! factor, but even working with that many students to create a collaborative piece that supports their understanding (without taking away from all the time they need for their own research) is demanding.