Honoring artistic voice and choice in the art room – (and managing the practicalities)

Woohoo! Voice, choice and ownership have always been three very exciting words in visual arts education. Three words art teachers know are the key to excited, engaged and empowered artists. Begone days of 20 perfect pumpkins, welcome to more days of individually crafted, unique, personally relevant works of art. Let’s have all our students leave our classes as proud and confident individuals with a creative mindset – there is no such thing as “I’m bad at art” in our rooms.

Hey you! Young artist over there making paper mache topographical maps – add a couple more layers to make it stronger… And you there drawing intricate portraiture – try adding some darker tones to create contrast… Oh lovely, look at your detailed stencil you just cut, that could make an excellent screen print, want me to show you how? Oh hello sculptor! Have you tried plaster strips? That might help you achieve the effect you want…Wow go artist! That is really starting to show your concept, ask a buddy and see if they can catch your message…

Oh happy days in the art room! Wait……hang on… the art teacher is flustered, it is frenetic in here, students are waiting patiently (or impatiently!) we only have 20 minutes to go and we are not going to see each other for another week arghhhhhhhh!


Here is where my ideals clash with the practicalities of it all. Our exciting individual projects are colliding with timetables, clean up, storage, and interruptions… well… interrupting our flow! As a specialist primary teacher to some 330 students who I see for a single 80 minute lesson once a week – I need to help my students make the most of that time to be art-making time! To honor their artistic voice and choice in the individual projects they are pursuing.

Right in the middle of this UOI I thought it would be a helpful process to note down a few ideas and tricks that are helping (or at least I hope they are) the students and I manage our time to make the most of our lessons together (and so I do not forget!).

Here is a little context:

Our current central idea is: When we are in the creative process we “think like an artist” by using the Studio Habits of Mind*. With the enduring understanding being there is a creative process that we go through; that being finding inspiration, developing and planning ideas, creating, reflecting and sharing. We use our sketch book to show this process and lead to a WOW piece – WOW being Wonderful Original Work of art. We are currently giving this a good go with Grade 3 and 5.

Here are some ideas I have so far:

  1. If you are lucky enough to have anther PYP Art teacher in your school then 1. visit 2. share 3. discuss 4. ideate and repeat often! I am eternally grateful to have the brilliant Naomi Feil as my partner!
  2. Layout their work the day / period before / during lunch etc. Seems like simple timesaver, but its not just about saving precious minutes, more importantly its a visual assessment of where everyone is currently at. I can leave little notes on their work and they always have the option to change where they work when they enter.IMG_5643
  3. Material stations around the room so art materials easily accessible (older blog post on that here). No waiting around for supplies.
  4. Empower your teaching assistants – my dear assistant is always introduced as another art teacher in the room, I often catch her helping out students and demonstrating specific art skills… they are lucky, I am lucky, she is a rockstar!Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.02.23 PM
  5. Not all students are self sufficient at the same time, it is a delicate balance so I try to do the “three before me” and then add your name to the list. It’s big, its visual, students can see when its their turn and I can add names to those students I would like to check progress on. It’s simple and fair. IMG_5642
  6. Model the creative process – work alongside your students – and share your creative process, in fact I was just having a conversation with a grade 3 student this morning, he was telling me about how he doesn’t like to plan and he prefers to think of ideas while he is making, I shared my process and let him in on a little secret… hey me too sometimes!IMG_5651
  7. Planning sheets (thought collections) completed at various stages. The one below was used to centre their thoughts before they start – I did this during our morning mindfulness session, it calmed the energy in the room. It was nice to take a breath and reflect before makingScreen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.16.17 PM
  8. Class critique / feedback sessions gallery walk style – I participate with everyone so I can get some feedback in before the creating begins.IMG_5648
  9. Responding to the needs in the room, when only one student needs a demonstration, for example how to create a clay slab, I send a call out, an invitation to all that would like to join. Maybe only 2 students come, maybe half the class does, either way they have new ideas to stash away for another day.
  10. To follow on from responding to the needs in the room I have started my own bank of video tutorials of ‘current art room’ trends based on their interests – at the moment its stencil cutting and screen printing – if you can cope with the kiwi accent they are  here.  This is helping when I am in the middle of an in-depth discussion and someone wanders over asking how to screen-print – I only need to say these three words ‘remember my tutorials?’ (and of course they always do their own tutorial searches too)Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.32.49 PM
  11. Work with the homeroom teachers, what are the current UOI’s? Could it feed into the art room or the other way around… Our grade 5’s are working on their self-directed UOI’s at the moment and some students are choosing to incorporate their art into this which is an exciting avenue!

These are just a few of the things I am trying out along the way, what could you add to this list?

(*I have been enjoying reading up on The Studio Habits of Mind i.e. being able to think like an artist and the benefits of the Teaching for Artistic Behavior movement. It aligns well with the PYP transdisciplinary skills and attitudes. A set of skills and behaviors I that will positively impact their continued art education pathways and life outside school.)


make art and and make meaning in 3 lessons (a pre-assessment)

On my ever-continuous journey to support my dear students to feel like they are all artists and all have the capacity to create something meaningful/beautiful/special/purposeful to them – and to ensure they never leave my room saying “I’m no good at art” – because as we know, there is so much more to art education than what is behind that statement! For my Grade 5 cohort (80+ kiddos) I created a pre-assessment in the form of an art-challenge that goes a little something like this:

1. Working alone or with a partner?

2. Choose a theme from this list (or use your own idea**): Being under pressure – It’s ok to be different – Connections – My personal history – What I wish people knew about me – My hope for the future is… – I want a world without… – What I wish adults knew about being a 5th grader…

**On a side note; some nifty themes the students came up with were: “My future, present and past”, “love”, “my personality”

3. Design and plan an artwork to show your thoughts / feelings / opinions on the theme

4. Let us know what materials you would like to work with

We used this planning sheet to guide the process: G5 art challenge planning sheet

Once planning sheets where signed off this is where I stood back, observed, took notes of strengths and areas where some may need support. It is during this “art challenge” where I saw self-management skills in action, where I see their ability to really flourish with making meaning enter into their artwork – it was like a rocket launching, I could not have slowed them down even if I had tried. I made so many new discoveries about my students, fascinating to witness. I saw where support will be needed in searching for ideas/inspiration, where specific art technique/application of materials will be required and which students may need additional help to find something meaningful, to drive their creative process.

Once the challenge was over, on the 4th lesson the students entered the classroom and completed a gallery walk writing one kind/positive comment on each of their classmates artwork. Then again, quite hands off, I encouraged them to write an artist statement to go alongside their artwork, with the simple prompt “Tell me about your artwork” (thanks @Naomifeil!). After the artist statements were written these became their scripts for their flipgrid videos.

Here are some examples followed by the matching artist statement:

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Now, with the knowledge we have, we can enter into the longer inquiry of creating a WOW piece for our art exhibition under the Central Idea of “The creative process allows us to think like an artist by using the studio habits of mind”. Starting with individual goal setting using the Studio Habits of Mind. (More on this in another post).





Opening cupboards, opening minds

Starting the second year in your new school is like touring an old neighborhood you used to live in – ah yes, here is where I get these items, this is where I found comfort, this is where we had fun etc. Or the opposite feelings too; like my feelings about these grey cupboards. Ah grey cupboards, my old friends – so many secrets, so many hidden treasures, so difficult to access!

IMG_3700In my pursuit of open-ended-what-on-earth-is-this-going-to-look-like-units (I am sure there is a fancier name for this). I did not know what materials my students needed, they didn’t know either. As the briefs opened up, students designed individual, very different and very exciting plans for their artworks. This started happening:

“Ms Anna do you have?” – Ah, maybe… let me check, I have this size and this size… not big enough huh? Let me check this cupboard…

“Ms Anna where is?” – I think its on the left top shelf under the… no the other side, no the other way, actually its in the other cupboard, wait a moment I’ll come and look…

Multiply these questions by about 160 students – arghhhhhh! These cupboards were hindering the creative process.

Students need free access to materials, they need to touch and feel the properties of the materials and their possibilities, they need to mix and match, test and make mistakes, create the unknown… the materials themselves are invitations to play (by the way, Early Years teachers, you know more than all of us!) and experiment. Enter in our “stations”.

These have only been up and running for four weeks now and I have already seen a dramatic increase in ownership, the art sketchbook as a tool to document process, sharing of ideas amongst students (I’m learning new ones too!), curiosity and delight. I love watching students dart across the room mixing and matching materials. Painters are blending wet materials in ways they never had before, constructors are working with three dimensional materials in a new ways I have not seen either. Flip it around, those students who cannot let go of their love of markers are freely exploring other materials with a low-stakes, see what happens environment. My students are artists and they are working the art studio like an artist does. They come in and pick up right off where they left and its so rewarding to watch! For all parties involved, even my wonderful assistant said “Ms Anna I was a bit worried about putting all these materials out, I thought they would go to crazy but its really nice”.

Giving Feedback in “the thick of it”

We are a week out from our Grade 4 Exhibition. A week out from trailing the first ‘Spotlight on the Arts’ with Grade 4 as our guinea pigs. Our artists will be presenting a final work based on this stand-alone unit:

Central Idea: Artists use traditional materials and techniques (2D & 3D) to remix their subject matter (Lego) in new, unusual and original ways.
Long story short… I’ve taken the students through a series of traditional observational drawing techniques focusing on tone and value, using Jim Dine as our inspiration etc. etc. the usual stuff… as I am always in the pursuit of student-choice / self-directed artworks / student ownership / whatever you like to call it, I wanted them to enjoy producing something for the Exhibition that is theirs. So, handing them this planning sheet with the premise of remixing all they have learnt and enjoyed in this unit into a final work (more on this crucial step another day). Letting go of the reigns and following their lead; I am their supporter, cheerleader and sous chef. But its not all sunshine and roses, as we are so close to the deadline everyone is under pressure. In this pressure cooker my TA is working tirelessly, students are helping  and encouraging each other, and I, well, I feel like a chicken with its head cut off. Its exciting but I am going crazy! So, the reason I am writing today is because I have had a major break through! On a solitary Saturday morning in the art room, I laid out the student work for Monday morning and strolled through each one in silence, in peace and calm… it is what my wonderful art teaching colleague Naomi Feil and I are always harping on about with our kids, creativity needs time, space, and quiet to work. So, I wrote some last minute tips, questions and prompts on post-its that are otherwise quite hard for me to do “in the thick of it”. The idea is when they arrive on Monday morning they can have their art teacher right beside them in the hopefully make and not break last session. I have planned the rest of the week with spaces to do this again for each class with zero interruptions – I may even lock my door!

Yes you can or Let’s try

A Culture of Permission in the Art Class

Yesterday I was invited to join a podcast conversation centered around “A Culture of Permission” in our schools with Sam Sherratt, Frank Hua and Cathy Brown. Inspired by Sam’s post on Inquiry and a Culture of Permission.

Still reflecting on some of the snippets from yesterday reinforces my pursuit of student driven projects in the art room – where everyone involved are left smiling, fulfilled, proud and really feeling like an artist. With years 10 years of art teaching under my belt, 4 years of fine arts training and years and years of creating art – I do not assume to know what will or will not work for a student. Sometimes, I have a pretty fair inclination that what they want to do may not work. A recent example being, this idea a student wanted to try was definitely a book carved out with a laser cutter – the first reaction in my mind was oh dear this is not going to work, it will not have the effect he is after. But… what will he learn if I say “No, you can’t do that”? That his ideas are silly? That he’s not skillful enough? That he’s dreaming and he should aim lower next time? ARGH! Awful! So, instead I said “Sure, let’s give it a try!”. From the sidelines I encouraged gentle slices, slowly and carefully through the book pages. After giving it a good go this student turned to me and said “Actually, I think I’d like to look for a new idea because it’s not going to work”, very neutrally I said “OK, no problem I said, maybe that was made with a laser cutter?”, “Oh yea, probably” he said. What came after was the golden moment, he happily grabbed a couple of art books flicked through them with a much more critical eye and now his new idea is rocking! And maybe what is even more important is he knows his choices/ideas and creativity are valued. As he heads up to the MYP next year I know he is in a good position as he has figured out how to develop ideas, test materials, reflect and regenerate ideas. I am not sure this could have happened if I had just said “No, you can’t do that, it’s not possible”.

Meaning Beyond Words (grade 4 HWEO art integration)

Meaning beyond words… poetry… meaning… message… intention… interpretation… words… letters… form… shape… design… hmmm Typography (?!) were the stream of thoughts that preceded being asked to be involved with the Grade 4 How We Express Ourselves unit of inquiry.

Central Idea:
Being a poet gives us the freedom to express meaning beyond the words
  • Following, adapting and changing the many forms of poetry (concept: Form)
  • Poetry invites us to respond with different interpretations  (concept: Perspective)
  • Reflecting on experiences and knowledge through our own poetry (concept: Reflection)

The students moved through a series of provocations that involved group typography challenges (see some of the final outcomes here). And giving meaning to fake words (fun!). This was all with the intention of students to experience what it is like to deconstruct, reshape and introduce unusual materials to give type/words a new and enhanced meaning. Student to student feedback was used frequently to see if they had indeed done that.

Sounds fun so far right? Here is where it started to really pick up pace and intensity. Each grade 4 student came armed with their poems to the art class. They were then asked to select specific words from their most treasured poems to transform into a typography art piece for their MiniX. We had 3 weeks — enter thoughts of plausibleness…

Did I prescribe the size? No. Did I prescribe the materials? No. Did I prescribe 2D or 3D? No. The only prerequisite was that their artwork enhanced the meaning of the word and the message in their poem. This planning sheet allowed my AMAZING art assistant and I to prepare and plan materials for the students. Did I have enough space? I don’t think so. Did I have enough manpower? Probably not. Did I have enough time? Definitely not. What I did have was an amazing grade 4 team of teachers who were flexible, supportive and encouraging. I had a tech integrator that worked tirelessly with LED’s, circuits, robotics, programming and 3D printing. I had energized students that ran to class and wanted to work through their lunches. I had an art assistant that not only kept everything organized (80+ projects on the go!) she conferenced students through the designing stage and helped them troubleshoot through the creation stage too.

In the end they did it! They finished their work on time, they finished work that they truly owned, they were proud. I finished reading all their reflections yesterday and not a single student wrote they were disappointed in their work. They all relished in the chance to exhibit their work in such a lovely setting. Now, to reflect on the logistics for next year so students have easy access to the materials so more time making and less time “Ms Anna where is the…?”

This is the face I want to see everyday

Yesterday I was shared a link to this video. You may have already seen it shared through social media. Its an animated short film by Daniel Martínez Lara & Rafa Cano Méndez. In a nutshell it is about; educational systems, family relationships and societal values clashing with creativity and happiness. I watched this on a Friday morning with tears rolling down my face as I saw the colour drain from a child’s face as the creativity is stamped out of him. This film could not have come at a better time. As I was suffering a bit of the old teacher fatigue, this reminded me why I do what I do, why I love what I do and how lucky I am to do what I do. I love seeing these faces (at 2 minutes 14 seconds) everyday. I love it when  children enter my class like the character does at 1 minute 48 seconds. And do you know what? If I am not seeing those faces or they are not entering my class like this then it is time to reflect and work out what I can change so I can make this happen.