A day (year) in the art room…

IMG_0961.JPGI am constantly working on setting up a routine to meet the needs of my students, administrators and district.  I feel like every year I get a little closer to figuring things out.  Here is the way my room will run this year (stay tuned as it will probably change next year:).

Open the school year with opening routines and explaining the room.  The room is set up with several different centers.  (If people are interested I can post pictures of my room).  I have a fiber & craft center, drawing center, paint center, printmaking center, collage center, paper center, 3-D/sculpture center, resource center(area with reference books) and digital center with iPads and laptops.  Within each center are various tools and materials for the students to access.  For the most part, I do not pull items and set them on the table for the students to use.  I treat the room like an art studio.  Students get the tools and materials they need to express their ideas (more on this later).

I open the year with a creativity challenge.  I talk to the students about how creativity is a skill that can be learned and developed with practice.  “Practice” comes in the form of open-ended questions allowing for divergent thinking.  I have conducted many different creativity challenges (I can discuss these in a later post if anyone is interested) as quick 1 class activities where I introduce the challenge, conduct it and reflect on it after with the class.  I will conduct these creativity challenges throughout the year as a fun break from the routine and a great way to develop creativity.

Before we begin a project, I have the students practice certain skills and learn vocabulary through small center rotations.  I might have the younger students practice line, value, texture by practicing these skills using different tools and materials and rotate through 3 separate areas, each area with a different focus.  I may have the older students practice juxtaposition, creating the illogical and interaction of text and image (Olivia Gude’s Postmodern principles).  This day serves as a way to practice new skills and build a “toolbox” of creative approaches to use in their art projects.

The next step is to introduce the project.  Each grade level has a different grade level focus that guides instruction throughout the year.  This introduction usually features picture books ( another possible post. I have built a great collection of picture books over the years), contemporary artists, artifacts from visual culture, movies, etc. We discuss the connection between the artists/designers and the grade level focus.  The project challenge is guided by an essential question.  Once we discuss the essential question, the students are asked to brainstorm (the act of brainstorming takes many different forms.  i.e. questionnaire, brainstorming, word association, etc.) ideas related to the essential question.  Once they have their idea, they then run the idea by me to make sure they can articulate the connection between their idea and the essential question.  Once they are ready to begin, they choose the tools, materials and skills they need, to best execute their idea.  They may choose to use the skills they practiced at the beginning of the lesson, or not.

Occasionally, we will stop a project in the middle to have the students share out their creative process.  This mid-point share out session, enables the students to make adjustments as needed before they are finished.  If we don’t do this in the middle, then we do a share out session at the end.

The last step is to share out the projects.  We do this in a variety of ways.  We may share out the projects in small groups and the students will create short skits to explain their ideas and connections to classmates artwork and ideas. We have also had silent museums, where the students arrange their artworks on the tables for their classmates to see. The class then wanders around with post-it notes and is asked to focus on certain aspects of the artwork and leave a post-it note comment, question, or connection.  For example, I may ask the students to select and artwork they have a personal connection to and explain why.  They may write down the most creative use of a material and why.  I may have them write down something they want to learn to do/try in their own artwork, etc..  I can write a more detailed explanation of this, or any of the above mentioned parts if you like just leave a note in the comments.

Other side notes… Each grade level completes usually 3 projects a year.  The first project is the Creative Conceptual project.  This project focuses on the student as an artist, expressing their ideas, thoughts, wonderings, and imagination about the world they live in.  The next project is the Collaborative Design project.  This project usually features a collaborative effort to solve a design problem.  This helps the students learn to collaborate, while working through the art and design process.  The last project is the Independent  project.  For this project, the students are creating their own lesson and asked to write up a short lesson plan for me to approve. The purpose of this is to empower the students to take an active role in their learning.  The students are able to use the tools, materials, and skills they have learned throughout the year and apply them to a project they design.  Each grade level follows these 3 project outlines.  The grade level focus, falls into each one of these 3 projects.

Another side note… I exhibit all projects in the commons area of our school from day 1.  The purpose of this is to show the students, staff and community how important the creative process is.  I choose to show the project evolve over time and exhibit the growth, change and development over time.  I will display finished products as well, but I will accompany these artworks with a process board that shows images, quotes from students and project explanations throughout the entire process to show viewers that art is a creative thinking process, not just a finished product.

Please leave comments if there is anything specific you would like me to explain further.  I would like this blog to be driven by the readers and what you all want more of.  So just let me know!  I will keep posting a broad range of topics until I get a request to dig deeper into a specific area.  I am still new to the blogging process and I want to make sure this blog is useful to you the reader.

Some of the topics I could expand on…

Pictures books in the art room, creativity challenges, classroom set-up, lesson plans, contemporary artists, post modern art education, art advocacy links, student work samples, display boards of art and design process, share-out ideas, administrator buy-in, these are a few of the topics I am interested in and could explain further.  Just leave me a comment on what you would like to hear more about.  I may not be able to provide all of the answers, but I may be able to provide some insightful questions.



IMG_1253I recently read an interview with James Paul GeeProfessor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, and author of the book, The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning.  If you are not familiar with him, please read his books.  He is a brilliant thinker and articulate voice in the education reform movement.  He draws on video games and gamification, to outline what he thinks educational practice should look like.  This quote, in particular stood out:

Understanding oral and written language involves essentially running video-game like simulations in our heads. We run problem-based simulations where we try out various actions in our heads (as ourselves or someone else) and gauge their possible consequences.

A game manual is given meaning by the game world it is about, not by a dictionary. A physics textbook is a “game manual” for the actions, experiences, and problem solving that physicists engage in. The textbook, too, is given meaning by the “game” and the world it is played in (a somewhat different world than our everyday world, since physicists, thanks to their tools, can see things like electrons).

In school, we give people texts when they have not had enough experience in the worlds the texts are about, the experiences that give the texts meaning. It is as if we were to give kids game manuals without the games. It only works for kids who are getting a lot of experiences at home—backed up by lots of talk with adults about these experiences, talk which helps the kids learn to map language on to experience and vice-versa—but it is disastrous for less advantaged kids.

I love the manual comparison.  Art education, and all disciplines, should use this concept as a measuring stick when designing lessons, developing curriculum and especially when looking at high stakes testing.  Are we providing a manual with no game?!

Are we providing students with just the manual and leaving the essential act of playing the game out of it?  And to take it a step further, what kid looks at a manual when playing a game anymore anyways.  They simply grab the controller and start playing.  They fail, assess, fail, succeed while playing the game.

If we are giving kids the manual in the form of text books and worksheets, where is the game to apply the learning.  Do we really want the game that these texts and worksheets are preparing them for, be a test?  Shouldn’t we focus on designing meaningful games where students consult a manual as needed?

Some Words…


Throughout the art process, students need to gain comfort with ambiguity.  In a world that is constantly changing, being comfortable with ambiguity empowers one to learn skills that are adaptable to multiple areas.  We are no longer living in the age of, “this is what you will do when you get older… so this is what you need to know to get there.”  Employers are seeking individuals who are comfortable in evolving roles that change and develop as needs arise.  The artistic process provides an environment to practice this.  Through open ended problems with no predefined solution, the students are asked to create their own answers to complex problems, while raising new questions to investigate in the process.

What is important is to keep learning, to enjoy challenge, and to tolerate ambiguity. In the end there are no certain answers.  -Matina Horner


Failure is often looked upon as a negative outcome in the form of a finished product instead of an integral part of a positive learning process.  Throughout the artistic process, the students utilize the art and design process to try something, fail and make adjustments to succeed.  The freedom to take a risk and fail is fostered by a caring empathetic classroom that focuses on the learning process.

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”  – Bill Gates

Grade Level Focus

IMG_4797Grade Level Focus

In art, each grade level has a different focus throughout the course of their five years at my school.  Each focus combines grade level standards, with child development to ensure deep understanding of complex ideas.  Each focus provides an over arching umbrella that covers all projects throughout the year.  Having a large focus over a period of a year, empowers the students to dig deeper into the creative process and enables them to make personal connections to material being taught.  By the end of the five year program, each student has a better sense of themselves, others, and how they and others use visual art as a means of expressive visual communication.


The students in first grade focus on relationships and connections in art throughout the year.  Relationships and connections are important at this stage of development.  These students are becoming more self-aware and learning about interacting with others.  It helps foster a foundation of empathy,compassion and respect for others.  This focus also enables the students to see the relationship between materials and concepts as well.  Each lesson throughout the year will be related in some way to the idea of relationships.  This focus also prepares the students for later years when more abstract thinking is expected and identification of patterns and connections becomes essential for both making and viewing visual images.

example lessons from the past:

Relationships between kids and toys

Relationships with friends

Relationships choices


The students in second grade transition from a focus on relationships, to now applying this knowledge to create a community where everyone is working together, respecting differences and utilizing their strengths.  Throughout the year, these students will be viewing, discussing and creating works of art that deal with community.  Second grade students welcome responsibility and can grasp the idea of working as a group to accomplish a task.  This year long focus allows the students the opportunity to further understand the relationship between an artist and his/her community.

example lessons from the past:

Invent a new community

How do communities shape boys and girls?

Why do we have rules in communities?


The students in third grade will transition from a community focus to communication.  At this point the students have a solid understanding of who they are, how they relate to others, and how they can work as a team to accomplish a goal.  This stage now focuses on how to visually communicate, clearly and effectively as both an individual and collaboratively.  The previous two years promoted self awareness, empathy and compassion.  In order to communicate effectively you have to have a solid understanding of the target audience.  This focus allows the students to use all that they have learned about themselves and others and begin to focus on how best to communicate an idea and/or concept, solve a problem, and ask clear and concise questions to further and deepen the learning process.

example lessons from the past:

What/how/why do the spaces we live in communicate?

How can you persuade someone using visual art as a form of communication?


The students in fourth grade become increasingly aware of their strengths and weaknesses.  They tend to compare their work to others at this stage more than ever.  Fourth grade students become more self-conscience as well.  Taking this into account, this focus empowers the students to be more introspective and confident in themselves and the creative process.  This focus helps the students understand how identity is reflected in the artistic process.  By looking at artifacts from our visual culture, this focus also helps the students to understand how these artifacts affect the identity formation process.  The purpose of this focus is for the students to reflect on who they are and how to create visual artifacts that reflect their attitudes, beliefs and/or traditions.  Self-awareness is essential to effective leadership.

example lessons from the past:

Who am I, Who are you and what does it mean?

What if I….?

How do I understand others?

What does empathy look like?


The fifth grade students focus on leadership for the final stage of the art program.  This focus utilizes all prior knowledge from the previous years to become leaders.  As fifth grade students, these individuals are seen as the leaders of the school.  This focus features the work of artists and designers that are viewed as leaders in their field.  The purpose of this focus is for students in fifth grade to take on a leadership role and develop a sense of what it takes to be a leader.  The past four years and various grade level focuses have helped the students learn skills that are essential for effective and thoughtful leadership.  The students operate at a high level of independence at this stage as well.  They are thinking critically, exhibiting high levels of creativity, acting collaboratively, and communicating effectively throughout all five years in school.

example lessons from the past:

Redesign the school to better suit the needs of students.

What makes your blood boil?

These are a few of the lesson ideas that have been explored in my art room from various perspectives through various projects.  We do a lot of discussing, viewing, idea-generating, etc. before beginning.  As you can see, the grade level focus is specific enough to provide direction, but broad enough to pursue from many different angles while valuing many different perspectives.  There are so many great artists and designers that explore these concepts in so many interesting ways.  It is important to make sure the question(s) and focus are not rooted solely in art.  Making a grade level focus on Line, or Ohio artists, or Masks, pigeon holes the project, shuts the door on collaboration and leaves little room for creative expression.  I feel the grade level focus creates consistency, allows for collaboration (since it is not a focus solely rooted in art), provides an opportunity for student voice and speaks to the now of each and every student.  Keep in mind these lesson examples are just initial seeds.  The actual projects that sprouted from these seeds took quite a bit of time to grow and develop.  Flexibility is the name of the game.  Reflection, revise and reassess are constants in my room.

The grade level focus provides a starting point for the creative process.  It empowers the students to not only learn artistic skills for visual understanding and communication, but promotes an environment where risk taking, critical thinking and creativity are essential.



I feel it is so important to share the process with everyone.  I tend to exhibit projects as “in progress” out on shelves for all to see.  This values the artistic process, while letting others see the projects grow and develop over time.

Here are several examples of the process boards on display after each project.  Each board features images, quotes, planning documents and project explanations.  The purpose of each board is to provide insight into the artistic process the students were engaged in.  Most projects take an entire trimester to complete in order to explore each project from multiple perspectives.  Projects are also displayed throughout the process as works in progress.  It is essential to exhibit the projects “in progress” to underscore the importance of the process.  Most art projects are only displayed as finished products, which leads to the perception that art is only about aesthetic products ready to hang on the refrigerator.

Each board also has a brief project explanation.  It provides a narrative context for the art project.  It also states the visual art standards that were a part of the lesson as well.

IMG_4411 IMG_4412 IMG_4413 IMG_4421 IMG_4427 IMG_4432

Student Example

A Dancing Fire

Sometimes flames mean something.  Sometimes they don’t. I’m a flame that will never run out of fire.  My project shows my identity.  I got my idea from things that describe me, such as, I’m free spirited, I’m “different,” and weird in my own way.  My project is a flame that is “dancing.”  It’s important I learn about myself, to help me make a gift for people like me.

My art piece connects to my identity in different ways.  I love to dance and sometimes dancing is all over the place, like my fire.  I’m a free spirit, which means I don’t always care about what other people think of me.  I used a lot of materials for my project.  I used glitter to show how I stand out, I used cellophane, because sometimes I’m shy.  I used cardboard for the wood, because the wood is the fires base.  My family is my base, because they are a big part of my life.  I used paper for the flame, because I”m not strong enough, emotionally, to be something harder, but I’m strong enough to keep myself up right.  I used splattered paint to show how, sometimes, I’m sloppy.  I used hand prints, because I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty.  Almost all of my materials mean something in my art piece.

I created my art piece, because I wanted to show my identity, and that will help me make a gift.  Making an art piece about myself lets me see things about myself that I’ve never seen before.  Everybody is different, and art is a way you can show people that.  Flames are different.  Here’s my flame.  Can I see yours?

-4th grade student


IMG_1220Ten years ago I began my teaching career.  Fresh out of college, I was excited to begin my career as an art educator at the elementary level.  Having attended The Ohio State University I felt well prepared to develop meaningful curriculum, bridge the theory to practice gap and become a great teacher empowering students with the gift of creativity.  Oh how wrong I was.  My first few years were filled with me trying to learn how to manage a classroom while presenting archaic lessons to my students that in reality empowered them with the gift of mass production of lessons I thought were “cool,” but made little connection with my students on any level.  I used all of the help books, online resources and lessons I remember from when I was a student.  At the time, I felt it was the right thing to do and that my students were becoming budding young artists.  Looking back now, I realize that those lessons, my classroom management and my approach to teaching and learning were not in step with the learners in my classroom.  The art room I was so excited to be in, was devoid of creativity, critical thinking and meaningful connections.  The one thing I feel I did well back then and continue to do today, is to reflect on my practice, my students and my curriculum to refine my craft over the years.  It is the act of reflecting that has lead me to where I am today.  I am now at a point that I feel the curriculum I have developed over the years, has evolved into a meaningful curriculum connected to students while facilitating the creative process.

Being a very introverted person, I am much more of a watcher and observer than a speaker.  I spent the first half of my career watching other art teachers in my district and observing details.    I have an insatiable love of learning and one of my passions is art education.  I spent many years reading current research and theory on art education and putting the article or journal down only to scratch my head and wonder, “how do I do that?”  Inevitably, I would go back into the classroom and continue to practice art the way it was done when I was a kid because it was easier, well-tested and considered the norm amongst art educators.  Along the way, I became more and more frustrated with the art process my students were engaged in when they came to my room once a week.  I decided I would take small steps to transform my art room.  As I became more confident, I began to take more risks and try new things with my students.  I began to share the work of my students with our principal.  I started to talk about the process with him instead of focusing on the finished product.

When I graduated from college, I was ready to start implementing some of the abstract theory I was exposed to throughout my collegiate career.  I was enrolled in an art education program that was transitioning away from Discipline Based Arts Education (DBAE) towards a more postmodern Big Idea centered approach, where art lessons centered around big ideas that were directly connected to students lives.  They were broad enough that they represented life-centered issues transferable across all academic disciplines.  The idea of this was great.  It meant units and lessons revolved around issues that students could relate to, thus engaging the students more in the curriculum design process and empowering the students with ownership of their learning.  This shift in philosophy represented an approach that was more student centered.  In several university classes, my cohorts and I engaged in writing unit plans aligned to this new approach.  We were able to practice the lessons in our student teaching placements, as well as amongst each other in the university setting to get feedback and refine the lessons in a supportive environment.  This was a growing process that I felt helped me learn to apply the theory and turn it into relevant practice.

However, as evidenced by my first several years in the classroom I did not carry this knowledge over into the art room.  I realize now, having plenty of time to research a lesson and spend hours crafting 30 page unit plans per university requirement and presenting the lessons to young adults in a controlled setting, is enormously different from planning and preparing for 5 units and teaching students age 6 to 11 in a completely unpredictable setting such as an elementary art room.  Looking back now, I understand that one of the biggest reasons I feel there is such a wide theory to practice gap is due to a number of factors that make it difficult to practice postmodern art education ( I will explain these in future posts).

Once I was hired, I realized quickly that with the exception of the fellow art educators in the district, most in the district outside of the fine arts discipline had limited knowledge of art education.  Additionally, most held antiquated views of art education and expected cookie cutter refrigerator art to be produced at an insanely fast clip.  Naively, I assumed there would be someone in the district that was the head of the fine arts department and would be a leader, articulating the role of arts education within the district.  Once hired, I realized there was no such position (there is one now and she is amazing!) and curriculum specialists put all of their efforts towards math, science, reading and writing.

Parents also had an impact on my early development as an art educator.  It became clear quickly that the parents in the community expected neat, cute ready to hang artwork.  I am sure this mentality was based on their prior experiences with art education and typical of most adults.  The average person usually has a fifth grade education in art at best.  For most people, art stops at this point.

Early on having a strong desire to practice some of the intense theory, I think it was quickly extinguished once I saw so many obstacles in my way.  Then it became a habit and that habit quickly became a rut I was thoroughly embedded in.  I found myself practicing art education the same way it was practiced when I was in school– twenty some years prior.  I thought I was on the right track…

When I began my career I struggled to connect my lessons to my course of study.  I wanted to create new and innovative lessons, but I didn’t know where to begin.  For many of my lessons I used what I saw in magazines, books and online.  They were neatly packaged and ready to go.  The students created Picasso styled self-portraits, Fall Leaf projects, Jim Dine Hearts, Eric Carle collages, and many other fairly typical art projects you see still today.  I was obsessed with fine artists and making sure my students were learning about their lives and art.  I made sure each lesson connected to a fine artist (probably western canon) and many of the lessons simply mimicked the style of the artist.  I made sure that every lesson used the elements and principles of art.  Many times I would create lessons that simply focused solely on the elements and principles.  I might have had the students create artwork about lines, texture, shape, etc..  The end results were usually aesthetically pleasing.  I felt good that my students learned about artists and could recite facts about their lives.  I loved that their art was a  mini-representation of popular fine art.  I was proud how well versed they were in the elements and principles of art.  The parents were happy with ready to hang work and my administrator was happy because everyone else was happy.  Everything was beginning to hum along smoothly.

After a few years, I began to question the curriculum I practiced.  Was it best for students?  Did this curriculum prepare students for school and beyond?  Did the students feel they had a voice and choice in their art making?  Were the students exercising critical thinking skills?  Were the lessons student-centered?  Was the content relevant to my students lives?  Did the lessons allow for divergent thinking?  How were students collaborating?  What were the students communicating about themselves through their art work?  I had many more questions that began to steamroll and sound alarms in my head that something was not right.  It became clear that something needed to change.

One of the turning points in my career was simply paying attention to what my kids were saying.  One day I walked by our display of Students of the Week. I noticed one of the students response to the question, “What do you want to do when you get older?”  He wrote, “steal cars.”  Intrigued, I asked the student the next time I saw him in a very non-judgmental way to explain his answer.  He simply told me he played a video game called Grand Theft Auto and thought it would be cool to steal cars.  This to me was a clear signal that I needed to rethink my curriculum.  This event made me think about how, not just art, but all of education should be focused on teaching kids not what to think, but instead focusing on teaching kids how to think.  I realized that students have access to information at the press or swipe of a button, so teaching them in the traditional sense of “here is everything you need to know to be successful” won’t work anymore.  This boys response made me realize that education needs to focus on getting students to think critically about the information they are accessing.  In the art room, I needed to focus on getting students to understand the act of looking is an active process.  I needed to focus on getting kids to learn how to communicate visually.  I needed to focus on facilitating opportunities for students to engage in meaningful interactions with both visual images and the more inclusive arena of visual culture.  My students needed opportunities to practice visual communication.  They needed opportunities to collaborate.  Most importantly, they needed to learn to think critically by engaging in a rigorous curriculum.  It was also important for my students to struggle and fail in order to learn and grow.  I started to understand the importance of art education in the twenty-first century.  At a time when the visual image is becoming tantamount to the written word, getting students to regurgitate facts about artists and engaging them in lessons that were written with little regard to the creative process seemed inconsequential.

Taking all of this into account, I began the transition process.  I began to shift my focus and practice as an art educator.  To begin this shift, I read as much current research as I could to help me convince myself that this shift was worthy and in the process help me articulate a vision for students, my administrator and the community as well.  I read art education publications, I read publications outside of art, I read business articles, psychology articles, child development articles and many other articles outside of art education.  Artists are big picture thinkers, so reading across many different fields was helpful for me to be able to change my vocabulary when advocating the work I wanted my students to engage in.  Reading about the parallels between the business world and the psychology world and taking a step back to see the connections to the art education world, really empowered me to see the more holistic benefits of the arts and creativity.  I took an active role in my learning and professional growth.  I began to practice what I was going to be asking my students to do.  If I wanted them to take ownership in their learning, I must do so as well.  I couldn’t sit back and wait to be told what to do, I had to take it upon myself to research, engage in trial and error, fail and start all over again with regards to curriculum development.  As I researched, I began to realize that good educational practice looked the same in all disciplines regardless of content.  This research not only convinced me that a shift was essential, it also helped me articulate the reasons I needed to shift the art education program at my school to my students, administrator and community.  Reading across academic disciplines helped me alter my language to use terms and concepts from general education that my administrator was familiar with and help him understand that the skills I would be teaching in art, would help students in all academic areas and prepare them for success in the world outside of school as well.

Throughout this transition process I was fortunate to have an amazing administrator that trusted me to create a curriculum that was in the best interest of our students.  He supported my growth and development and supported me every step of the way.  It was his support that helped me continue to pursue a more contemporary approach to art education.  When my first administrator left and our current administrator was hired, I immediately wondered what type of support the art program at my school would receive.  I thought briefly about what I would say when he inquired about the art program.  And then I realized, that from all of my reading, practical examples, artist statements and student feedback, I should go to him and share the learning of my students.  The passion for my students learning through the arts forced me outside of my comfort zone and take a more active role in the advocacy process.  So, one of his first days on the job I asked to meet with him and discuss the art program at our school.  I began by telling him why the art program is the way it is.  Framing the discussion with the “why” helped justify the logistics of the program and establish the purpose for every carefully thought out step to the curriculum.  Since that first meeting, my current administrator has been extremely supportive and a huge advocate for the arts.  He recognizes the value, purpose and role art education plays in the 21st century.   He understands the artwork represents a process and thinking style typical of higher order thinking.

The curriculum I have developed over the years is a hybridization of many theoretical and practical concepts.  As a reflective learner// lifelong learner, I love learning about new theories, pedagogy, and curriculum frameworks.  Soon, I found myself getting overwhelmed with the constant desire to change my approach to align to the brilliant theorist, practitioner or whomever that I felt in sync with in the moment.  I found out quickly I was wanting to change everyday!  I realized a few years back that is was OK to focus on one small area at a time.  I didn’t have to reinvent my pedagogical approach with every passing article.  Taking comfort in this, I chose to focus on certain areas at time.  How do I get my students to engage in meaningful art education?  This question has guided me for some time now.  It has lead me in many directions and to many brilliant minds.  As a result, I have found myself creating a philosophy that pulls, what I think, are the best, most resonate parts of various theories to create a hybridization that works for my students and is constantly evolving.  I know now that adopting a singular way of teaching and learning is unrealistic.  Students learning needs vary by school, grade level and class, so to adopt a one-size fits all approach would be doing my students a disservice.

I hope to share some examples of work from my students.  Stay tuned!