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.)

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!