You Be You

Today we have a guest post from a wonderful AR 2nd Year, Allie McCormick!  She will be discussing how she learned to leverage her talents and interests for the good of her classroom.  Her refection is a part of the project/best practice-share we hosted for AR corps members as February’s Learning Team.  Enjoy!

Last year, as a first year teacher, I found myself perpetually frustrated with my students’ inability to express themselves visually. It seemed like no matter what I did, they would always reach for words before imagery in their efforts to communicate their thoughts and ideas. Obviously, this deference to words bothered me most when it came to their artwork. But I also felt strongly that in order for my students to access the imaginative and creative potential of their minds, they needed to be constantly vigilant in regards to opportunities for visual expression.

Then, at the beginning of this year, after reading Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist,” it occurred to me that I wasn’t practicing what I preached. In his book, Kleon employs hand-drawn graphs, flow charts, and other similar—highly visual—presentations of information to communicate his main ideas. Meanwhile, I was exclusively presenting my students with boring, unappealing computer-generated documents and handouts. Suspecting that my students would respond to similar visual presentations of information, and accepting that doing so would essentially force me to capitalize on every opportunity to model the process of “being visual,” I began “drawing” all of my classroom handouts and have not looked back.

Although a little more involved logistically speaking (I have to scan all of my handouts using an app on my phone in order to post them on my school’s website), my handwritten materials have had a dramatic impact on my students. Now, the work they receive from me—be it guided notes or a worksheet on color theory—is visual and engaging. The best example of the growth I’ve seen lies in my students’ artist statements. At the beginning of the year, I presented the “rubric” with which I would be grading their artist statements all year—a non-linear, highly visual kind of flowchart that breaks down all the requested components of a successful artist statement. My reasoning for this rubric are twofold: For one, the rubric in and of itself models the way in which I would ideally like to see my students write in my classroom—extremely visually. And for another, it makes the requirements of the artist statement accessible to non-linear thinkers and those students who are highly visual (aka those who do not follow written or oral direction super well). Additionally, the actual sheet upon which students are to write their statements is incredibly malleable to their individual vision.

Artist Statements

So far, the results have been spectacular. My students are engaging with their artwork (in terms of it’s conceptual meaning, emotional significance and technical merits) in a meaningful, personal way. And many are taking incredible ownership of the presentation of this information, often visually referencing the project upon which they are reflecting.

The main reason I believe handwriting has been so successful in my classroom is because it’s incredibly authentic to who I am as a person, and thus who I am as a teacher. In my experience, students—at least my students—can smell disingenuousness on me from a mile away. It makes sense that because I shut down and turn off when presented with a visually unappealing document, but find joy in the challenge of being as visual and creative as possible in my efforts to communicate, my students do, too.

Similarly, I believe my students’ ability to sense my personal level of investment in any particular lesson or subject is the reason behind my initial failures engaging them with art history. As an artist and an academic, I have never been the least bit interested in conventional art history. If I’m being completely honest, I just don’t find any joy in the traditional approach to contextualizing artwork. And as a first year teacher, my apathy was wildly apparent to my students.  As a result, the art history component of my classroom quickly fell by the wayside in favor of technical instruction and studio time. So in the spirit of being true to who I am and capitalizing on my ability to invest my students in that which I love, I totally reframed the role of art history in my classroom. And thus, “Inspirational Wednesday” was born.

Inspirational Wednesday

It began with an in-depth conversation surrounding native Arkansasan artist Shea Hembrey and his qualifications for “good art.” According to Hembrey, all art can be understood in reference to three h’s: head (or conceptual meaning), heart (emotional meaning), and hand (technical skill). This is now the lens through which my students engage with all art, including their own work and the work of their peers. This is in no small part because it is the truest, most personally authentic approach I’ve found to engaging with art history. And as a result, at least for now, each Wednesday, as I present a new visual artist to my students for their consideration, my students are engaging with the work of professionals as they do their own, bridging the disconnect between art history and creation.

I think it all kind of boils down to the following, the unofficial mantra of my classroom: attitude dictates outcome. It wasn’t a thought I was able to concisely articulate until my second year of teaching, and yet it has always been present in my teaching of visual art.  My attitude dictates the attitudes of my students; my students’ attitudes dictate the quality of their artwork. If I’m not invested in something, or if it’s not genuine to who I am as a person, my students will pick up on it in skinny minute and tune out. For me, handwritten documents and “Inspirational Wednesday” are two of the ways I’ve found to make my classroom more authentic to who I am. To be sure, I’m not advocating that teacher’s should nix anything in their curriculum that doesn’t immediately gel with who they are. Rather that, as teachers, we should be true to the artist within and find a way to take ownership of and adapt everything we do in way that is authentic to our individual truth. 

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