That’s it?

This year, the students have engaged in various activities along the way to dig deeper with their ideas and learn about some of the tools and materials we have in the art room.  Each art class brings new challenges, problems and questions.  It is always exciting to see where their creative minds take them.  They are currently finishing their artworks and are writing short artist statements to explain their thinking as well. 

One of the important things to keep in mind when looking at your child’s artwork, especially at the beginning of the year, is what it actually represents.  A brilliant colleague stated that an artwork, is much like a souvenir from a great trip.  I love this metaphor.  Your child’s artwork is a small representation of a much larger, learning journey.  Complete with highs and lows, success and failure, “ah-ha’s” and “uh-oh’s,” each and every step of the journey is an essential part of the learning process.  The finished artwork represents an idea that was created by the child, but it also represents a learning process that is not always visible to those who only get to see the finished product.  A child’s artwork is a meaningful souvenir that represents learning, reflecting and growing.    

At the beginning of the year, many of the students are eager to get the tools out and use as many materials as possible.  It takes some time slowing down to think carefully about the intent and purpose of an idea.  It can be hard, to spend time thinking about ideas when you are surrounded by so many inspiring tools and materials.  Some students spend several classes experimenting with tools and materials that lead to new ideas and new challenges.  Ideas can change and grow with each new class, which is a great exercise in fluent and flexible thinking, as well as a great introduction to the process of iteration (think quantity of ideas, leads to quality).    

Once the students have spent time thinking through some ideas, they present their idea to me before they begin.  This short conference, is a great way for me to touch base with the students and learn about their idea, thinking and direction for creating and making.  If a student is struggling to find an idea, I will spend some time chatting with him/her and helping them get to a place where they can make some decisions and build their creative confidence along the way.   I often tell students I won’t give them an idea, but I will help them discover one on their own.   Some students do struggle, and that is important too.  Creative ideas are hard to think of.  It takes time to develop an idea that is original and unique.  I often talk to the students about where good ideas come from, and how the key is quantity over quality in the beginning.  Going with your first choice is usually the easiest, but not always the most creative.  Some students announce that they already have their idea, before I even finish explaining the project!  They are so enamored by the tools and materials, they just want the go ahead to dig in.  The act of slowing down and thinking deeper is a challenge, but an essential one.    

A goal I am working on this year is to slow down more and let students really think deeper about the purpose and intent of their art making.  We do this in a variety of ways such as; thinking routines, creativity challenges, and other idea generation techniques.  As the year goes on, the students will be more comfortable with the tools and materials in the room, as well as the independent flow of the work space.  Once they build a comfort level with the tools and materials, they can begin to think deeper and make meaningful connections between their lives and their art making ideas.    

Which leads me to the title of this post, That’s it!?  When a child brings home an art project, it may take many forms.  For some, the project arrives home in a Uhaul, while others it can fit neatly into their pocket.  It is important to note that the size of a project does not dictate the effort, thought, or creativity.  Each child takes a different approach to their creating and interprets the art challenge in many different ways.  This open-ended approach really helps build creative confidence, stretches creative minds and promotes independent thinkers in the process.  When a child brings home a work of art, asking deeper questions may help elicit a thoughtful conversation about artistic intent and purpose as well.  Please check my website and twitter feed for routine explanations of projects that may help provide a context for the artwork.  Some questions that might help; Tell me about what you created?  Why did you choose those materials?  How did you symbolize ideas in your artwork?  How is this artwork connected to you?  Did you change your mind along the way?  Why? Did you experiment with tools and materials along the way?  These are just a few questions that might spark a conversation and help uncover the intent and purpose of the creation.  All students complete artist statements as well.  These short statements are a brief glimpse into the thought process of these inspiring artists.    

The art projects take several weeks to complete.  Time is spent in many different ways.  Some classes are used for idea generation, some are used for inspiring students to dig deeper, and some are spent celebrating the project itself.  Each aspect of a project is vital to the creative process.  When your child brings home an artwork, please remember it is a souvenir of a larger journey of creative expression, critical thinking and personal connection.  Please feel free to email me with any questions or comments.  I am always happy to talk creativity!  Thank you for supporting the arts and creative minds of all our children.            


Ditch the Buzzwords… Please! (and I’m guilty too)

As an avid reader of education books, articles, blogs, etc., my senses are always on high alert for meaningless buzzwords that dot the ever-expanding educational landscape.  I have come to loathe words and phrases such as; 21st century skills, college and career ready, rigor and many others that attempt to reform education with edu-talk as opposed to reforming education with actual practice.  In my mind, educational adjectives should withstand the test of time, apply to all content areas and be easily understood by those who live in the education world and those outside of it.

Recently, I was reading about how we need to ensure our content and curriculum is more rigorous.   Have you ever looked up the definition of rigor?  It is neither inspiring, nor relevant to education.  It is such a cold word.  Rigor is exactly what is wrong with the American education system.  Simply  using esoteric words to give the appearance of hard work, is the exact same game of school most kids play across the country and throughout our schools everyday.  A classic case of talking the talk, but no walking the walk to back it up.

Imagine if… instead of the word rigor, we found other inspiring, yet approachable educational mantras.  I would like for my content and curriculum simply to be, personally relevant, interesting and meaningful.  If I can ensure my content and curriculum adhere to these three simple words, I know that my students will produce rigor, as opposed to consume it.

Why is it important to have a curriculum and content that is personally relevant, interesting and meaningful?  If a student finds the content personally relevant, interesting and meaningful, I know that I will not need to do anything to ensure they are embarking on a rigorous journey.  Simply empowering the student to have choice and ownership of his/her learning will lead them down a path that inspires the very thing teachers work so hard to instill… motivation.   Motivation to learn is intrinsic.  All we can do as teachers, is provide an environment that encourages creativity, values non-conformity and appreciates individual interests and passions.

Relevant, interesting and meaningful are absent from most schools across the country.  Of course standardized testing, teacher accountability, politics, etc., are often cited as the roadblocks to real reform.  However, I can’t help but wonder why we don’t just use these three words as the foundation for our educational system.  Our educational system doesn’t need to be more rigorous.  It needs to be more relevant, more interesting and more meaningful.  We need to start with the child, instead of starting with the content and curriculum.

In the end, I would like my students to lead instead of follow.  I would like my students to create their learning, instead of consume it.  I would like my students to challenge themselves, instead of waiting for me to challenge them.  I would like my students to create knowledge, instead of borrow it.  I would like my students to achieve greatness, instead of read about it.  Lastly, I would like my students to see school as a place where it all begins, instead of where it all ends.



A Mission Question…

I am reading the book A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger right now.  It is a really good book.  Mr. Berger lays a solid foundation for the importance of questioning as it relates to learning, creativity and innovation.  One part (of many) that really made me think, was when he wrote about moving away from mission statements and more towards mission questions.  This makes a great deal of sense.  He writes how you really don’t want a statement that makes it sound like you have already achieved something and are simply resting on your past history, nor does a mission statement make it sound like you are constantly working to stay atop the field you are in.  He believes that a mission question for a business (or in my case a school or district), promotes a desire to constantly adapt, be flexible and open to fresh ideas, all while still driving home the laser-like focus your business or school is all about.

So… this of course got me wondering about what a mission question might look like for my classroom and district.  A few I thought of were;


How might we prepare our students to be future-ready?

What if our focus is on thinking and not content?

Where is the space for wonder, curiosity and imagination?

What does it mean to be future-ready in this district?

Do the teaching and learning inside school mirror the teaching and learning outside of school?

Is the teaching and learning inside of school relevant outside of school?

Hmmmm…. Something I will keep thinking about:)

Art Studio:

Does the art studio develop creativity or hinder it?

Is the learning in the art studio relevant outside of the art studio?

What does it mean to be future-ready in this art studio?

Where is student voice, choice and ownership in the learning?

How do students express their own voice and style, and explore both internal and external influences as it relates to their world?

More to think about…

It really does make sense to think about a mission question as opposed to a mission statement.  The mission statement seems to emit a sense of stagnation to me.  A mission question, seems to empower from both inside and out, of an organization.

We want students and teachers to question more, but so much of our educational culture is still geared towards answers and products.  How can we shift from a culture of answers, to one of questions?  How can districts encourage questioning?

IMG_1253   A metaphor I often think of, being in the arts and all, is that of a broadway performance.  I feel like teachers are the stars and the audience is the students, parents and community.  Each and every night, I think most teachers approach the performance as the final act.  Only perfection will do.  No shouting out, “line please?”  No running through rehearsals dressed in sweats.  The venue is pitch black, to make sure only the final product is viewed and nothing behind the scenes is visible.  No understudies standing on stage learning from their mentors.  None of this.  It must all be perfect!  No room for questions, mistakes, or failures.

However… What if… teaching was viewed as a dress rehearsal every day.  The house lights were up to show the process.  The actors could shout for help whenever they needed.  Everyone could question parts of the performance in order to create a more meaningful show in the long run.  Behind the scenes action could be more transparent.  What if teachers viewed everyday as a dress rehearsal and approached each day as a chance to get better, ask questions, take risks and in the end, make someone’s day a little brighter:)

What if….

Secondary Ed. and Creativity 

I was at a district meeting tonight and we had a discussion about secondary Ed. and the structure of teaching and learning at these levels. In a dream world, here is a rough idea of my 2 cents on this 

If I could design the secondary experience of my dreams, it would be something more like this. 3 courses. The Social Experience, the Political Experience and the Environmental Experience. These are broadly defined as social experiences, meaning interactions with peers, family, media, everyday interactions. The political experience, being defined as rules and laws, not just state and local, but home, work, school rules. The written and unwritten rules. This would deal with power, use, abuse, development, and other issues related to power. The main focus of this strand would be the democratic process. Student voice, choice and ownership would be a strong component as well. The environmental experience would be defined as factors relating to outside environment, personal environment (school, home, bedroom etc.), internal and external environments.   All of these courses are broad in scope and sequence to allow for divergent thinking,  multiple entry points and creativity development. I feel these three factors drive our world today.  They are connected, overlap and stand on their own. 

In a typical day a student would take all 3 of these courses, facilitated by a team of academic specialists trained in traditional disciplines such as math, science, art, etc. The students would then bring their strengths, passions and interests as they investigate a life-centered issue of their choice that they would investigate and explore over the course of a semester or longer. Students would investigate issues, topics, etc. while the teacher would facilitate, inspire, ignite. If a student needs to learn spreadsheets because it relates to their focus, then they would absolutely learn that from a math specialist. The difference here is that the intent of learning this skill is intrinsically motivated and applied to a specific project, as opposed to learning it in isolation such as a traditional math class, with no opportunity to apply the learning.  

The role of failure would be built in since the students would be exploring issues of their choice. Failure would be a part of the process and seen as purposeful and meaningful since they are working towards a self-selected learning goal. Failure happens all the time when students are engaged in something they love to do outside of school, and they figure out a solution (kids rarely, if ever read directions… they play with it and learn along the way). When it is a task that is learned in isolation, in a specific class (especially if the student is not motivated by the content or approach), the desire to persevere diminishes.  

Steven Johnson wrote a great book about Where Great Ideas Come From. In it, he talks about the role of coffee houses during the Enlightenment period. The purpose of these coffee houses was for brilliant, diverse minds to come together and let “hunches collide.” There is great value in getting a room full of diverse thinkers together to discuss problems. In a secondary environment such as this, the “coffee houses” would be the courses outlined above.  
I think the purpose of a school designed this way, (I have many more thoughts on this, but for another time:) is to create an environment that honors all voices, talents, passions, etc. As it stands, the artist mind walks into the “math” class and has checked out before sitting down. The mathematical mind, sees little value in sharing ideas with the “free-thinking artist.” But if you create a class called, The Social Experience, all learners come in feeling confident in their abilities to contribute. The artist sits next to the scientist and the learning potential has exponentially increased. If we want to get students to focus on thinking, learning, creating, etc., we need to take the labels off of learning. I always tell my students when I am trying to get them to dig deeper with their artistic intent and their ideas, “Don’t steal the viewers thinking.” I say this when the kids are creating art that is more literal than symbolic. Aren’t we stealing students thinking when they walk in and the course is labeled “math,” or “Science?” Right or wrong, don’t some students tune out or assume a stereotypical role that accompanies that specific discipline? It is more than just the label. We need to get all students to the thinking table, bringing with them their strengths, weaknesses, talents, interests and passions, excited to learn and confident to contribute. I am not sure we have that in education yet, we are getting there though:)  
Learning specific content is important, I agree, the purpose of this redesign is to make the learning meaningful, relevant and all-inclusive. I wonder about all the amazing thinking, creating, ideas, and intellectual potential we are missing because we don’t let kids use their strengths in disciplines outside of the areas they were developed in and/or valued? 

What do you think?

How will you encourage creativity?

So my passion for creativity extends beyond the classroom, to my non-school life as well. What I have learned over the years is that when children are born, they are innately curious and creative. We have heard scholars, etc. talk about this before. The conversation then turns to schools and why are they, “killing creativity.”  Is it because traditional educational settings require compliance and conformity?   Is it because it is easier to educate in the Industrial Age than the conceptual age?  Is it because creativity can’t have a number stamped on it.  Well, probably yes to all 3 and many more thing too.  The most important aspect of creativity that is missed in schools and homes today is encouragement. How do we encourage creativity?  One would think that is easy. Offer praise for the rainbow painting. Hang up the family portrait.  Frame the water-color horse. But, what happens when creativity isn’t so easy to encourage?

Case in point.IMG_0684  My daughter is a creative girl. She does the typical creative “things.”  She paints, draws, creates in a typical manner. That is her practicing and developing her creative capacity as a thinker. But how does she apply it?  Well, first we have to get at the root of creativity. It is elaboration, originality, flexible thinking, and fluency of ideas (Torrence) and much more. Creating a painting is about finding a path, it is about expressing a thought, persevering through moments of failure. It is elaborating on an idea or image they saw earlier, to create an original idea. It is exhibiting fluency of ideas by trying many different ideas until arriving at the one that sparks the imagination.  All of these amazing thinking routines are a part of the art making process. Now, back to my question, “how does she apply creativity (elaboration, flexible thinking, fluency of ideas, originality, etc.) as a thinker?

Every evening I always ask her to clean her room. It looks like a tornado rolled through there all the time. Almost every time I glance in her room, I see her dancing in front of the mirror “cleaning” away:)  One night, I went up and she had cleaned up her entire room. Everything was gone. I then walked around her bed…  only to see a little box that read, “Lost and Found.”  I took a moment and realised this was a moment where I would either encourage or discourage her creative capacity as a thinker.  I could have quickly dismissed this box and told her to take everything out and place it where it goes and expressed my disappointment while doing so.  Or… (What I did), praise her for coming up with a solution that worked.  A closer look at this example reveals the key components of creative thinking that she was developing while painting, drawing, creating and now applying to a given situation.  She elaborated on a familiar idea she sees in her school everyday.  She took the idea from school and put her own twist on it by bringing it into her bedroom.  She exhibited fluency of ideas, because of the countless times she tried to clean her room and just not finding a way that worked for her (many times we focus on our own desires and outcomes and ignore that of the child).  She also exhibited flexibility of ideas because she was able to see the box in her room, which was a small decorative doll house she had made, and turned it into a lost and found box.  So, this one little act was how my daughter applied her creative thinking.  My response to this situation could either encourage her creativity or discourage it.  Artists always push the boundaries.  That is a good thing.  That is how we progress as a society.  Conformity is the antithesis to creativity, yet it is the desired mode of educational practice in schools today.  It is easy when all students conform and are compliant.  But is that what we want?  Of course I am not advocating for unsafe behaviors, but rather a school where curiosity and creativity are expected and encouraged and not marginalized.  A classroom where students are encouraged to take the path less traveled.  Letting go of adult expectations and yielding to child inspirations.

Another shortIMG_1160 story.  Same daughter was outside playing in a creek in our backyard.  I was off doing yard work.  My daughter yells over to me to come see what she created (see left).  When I get over to see her, she shows me a carved gourd with eyes, nose and mouth.  When I ask her how she created such a wonderful sculpture, she shows me the tools.  A plastic knife, piece of glass (found in the creek) and pruning shears from the garage.  After counting all her fingers and happy they were all there, I realized again I was at a defining moment to either encourage or discourage her creative thinking.  She used the tools she had available to create her sculpture.  She used her flexible thinking to see the carving tools not for what they were, but what they could be.  She was able to creatively solve the problem set before her, using her creative thinking skills.  I chose to praise her ability to use the tools around her to create such an interesting sculpture.

Everyday, we will be tested by students and children to see if we will encourage or discourage their creative dispositions.  It is our duty to encourage creative thinking, boundary pushing and box breaking to prepare future generations to think the unthinkable, imagine the unimaginable and question the unquestionable!

Leadership Academy reflection

IMG_0042Each summer the school district I work in hosts a summer leadership academy. The goal of this academy is to promote best practice from within, by empowering our outstanding teachers to provide innovative professional development in a variety of disciplines on a variety of topics. The purpose of this post is to highlight some of the important lessons I learned from attending this year’s inspiring academy.
​The academy began with a riveting keynote from Dr. Michelle Borba, a renowned educator and motivational speaker. A few of the key points that resonated with me were the idea of teaching the whole child (heart) and not just his or her head. As an art teacher, I often focus on the heart of the child. Artmaking is about the heart of the artist. I agree with Dr. Borba, in such a high stakes testing environment, educators and administrators often ignore or worse, cut back on time in the arts. We constantly hear that our students need to be more creative, yet most people in positions of authority do not know how to teach creativity, let alone provide an environment for creativity to flourish. The art room is a place where students are free to express themselves, learn how to communicate, take risks, learn from failure and work through ambiguity. The art room provides an environment in which students can combine learning focused toward both the head and heart to make sense of the world around them.
​Dr. Borba spoke about the increase in anxiety and stress among students today. Students have created a brick wall barrier to learning for “fear of being wrong.” Often unwilling to take risks, these students are uncomfortable with ambiguity and freeze up when presented with open-ended problems. They are anxious about tests, class rank, grade point averages and things that are of little significance in the job world they will hopefully be a part of. They are stressed about family, friends, relationships and things that are not addressed in school, yet have a monumental impact on learning. The art room provides a space to work through these issues. The art room can provide a space for creative problem-solving. It is a place where students are required to engage in the creative process where formative assessment is built in. Failing is a part of the process and not the end product. In the art room, students can work through relationship issues by expressing suppressed feelings that otherwise might never surface. It is a space where the students can work through open-ended problems that promote divergent thinking, as opposed to the convergent thinking that most other disciplines require.
​I appreciate Dr. Borba’s focus on the whole child. She also spoke about the need for empathy, compassion and respect. These “soft skills” are essential to success in life. Today, bullying is prevalent in all areas of schooling. I feel it is because many students don’t know how to be empathetic, compassionate or respectful. Many students have not been taught how to exhibit these three characteristics. If we spent as much time teaching about empathy, as we do math, I think our educational system would make big strides in all areas. The ripple effect of learning about empathy, compassion and respect would resonate in all areas of school and life outside of school as well.
​Dr. Borba spoke about the lack of hope our students have today. They are constantly bombarded by “doom and gloom.” Everywhere they look they see, hear, and feel hopelessness. This portion of the keynote was particularly compelling for me. Both as an educator, to make sure I am providing my students with glimmers of hope, and perhaps more importantly it resonated with me as a parent. I realized how much my own children have been exposed to the sadness and despair of our world. She made the point that we should be talking about the good, the amazing, and the beauty of life with our students and children. Teach them there is hope, happiness and beauty in the world.
As a result of Dr Borba’s speech, I adjusted our nightly routine for my 5 and 6 year olds. Now, every night before bed I ask my children four questions. “What was the best thing that happened today?” I ask this to get them to reflect on the good parts of today. I want them to go to sleep remembering the fun they had. “What is something you are looking forward to tomorrow?” I ask them this to get them excited about a new day. Each day brings new adventures and I want them to start out excited about what is to come. “What is something in the future you are looking forward to?” I ask them this question to help them understand there is always something out there to work towards and look forward to. The excitement and anticipation of something coming up is just as fun as the actual event. Lastly, “What makes you super happy right now?” I ask them this final question to take a look within and think about what truly makes them happy right now in the moment. Honoring the fact that this will change by the minute and that is ok. I ask these questions every night with the understanding that the answers will change as each day goes by. I will see my children grow with each answer they give and watch how the world around them changes too. I ask these questions to get them to focus on the hope, happiness, and excitement of life.
​Dr. Borba spoke about how the research is showing that these children represent the first generation showing signs of stress and anxiety at such a young age. The world is tough for our children today. Testing has overtaken our schools. The news is riddled with negativity. Many of our children come from re-defined homes and families. All of these and many other factors have had an impact on the children of this generation.
I think as educators, we need to focus on the whole child, mind and heart, by considering the arts as important as math and science. I think we need to teach “soft skills” such as respect, empathy and compassion as essential skills. Lastly, I think we need to teach our children in our homes and the students in our schools, that there is hope in this world.