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. 


Why Art?

Often when you teach art, people both outside and inside the school ask, “why art?”  They say things like “the students you/we teach need to know how to read, they are behind, they need math, why are you teaching them art?”  At times, this can be a difficult question to answer.  You sometimes question yourself.  You can give the typical, “it helps them express themselves” or “it is a place for students who might not necessarily succeed in other classes to excel” which are true and important sentiments but I needed more solid counter statements to provide; more reason to be able to convince myself and others that what I was doing was important.  When no one else steps foot into your classroom because it’s not a tested subject, when classroom teachers keep kids back to finish “more important work,” when you feel yourself feeling unsettled when you read a kid’s written response to something, and when you yourself start to question, why art?  Why teach art in the Delta where schools are failing and sixth graders are reading at a first grade level?  Why should I not completely sacrifice my class time to submit to the wills of those who would like to see it become a class where we merely read and write, perhaps with an artistic theme?  Why not turn it into the same kind of test-prep that abounds during the rest of the school day?  Remind yourself that every kid deserves the opportunity to have an art class.  Just because they are behind in reading, doesn’t mean they should be neglected the chance to learn other subjects.  Art is not only done with the hand, but also with the heart and the head.  So much of what we do is not only important for emotions but it is important for cognitive development.  We have the power to provide a kind of natural learning.  In my opinion, art classes can be a model of what the entire educational system has the potential to be.

When playing with this idea, I am constantly drawn to the idea of learning as play or exploration.  Elliot W. Eisner in his book, The Arts and the Creation of Mind, says that,

The arts have an important role to play in refining our sensory system and cultivating our imaginitive abilities.  Indeed, the arts provide a kind of permission to pursue qualitative experience in a particularly focused way and to engage in the constructive exploration of what the imaginative process may engender.  In this sense, the arts, in all their manifestations, are close in attitude to play.

It is the same idea that Teacher Tom expresses in his blog, time and time again.  When you give kids the opportunity to learn, they will.  Naturally.  In his post entitled Why I Teach the Way I Do, Teacher Tom explains

The idea of a play-based education challenges the conventional wisdom about what teaching is. Whereas the traditional idea is of a teacher standing in front of a room of attentive learners, lecturing, correcting, grading, and testing, the role of a teacher in a play-based model (sometimes referred to by more academic sounding names like “inquiry-based” or “experienced-based”) is to, in effect, create an environment in which children can freely engage with materials, ideas, and people, that is to play with them, and from that play construct their own, personalized education.

Giving up control is scary and, in most of our schools, frowned upon in the greater sense.  But we as art teachers most often have the freedom to support some form of this organic learning.  We can present kids with a challenge, give them tools, and watch them try.  We can question them to push their thinking further, and we can provide them opportunities to edit, grow, and then document their thoughts, emotions, physical creations, and reflections.

If we head back over to Eisner, he proposes various cognitive functions that the arts encourage.

He attests that the arts:

  • help us learn to notice the world
  • promote our awareness of aspects of the world we had not experienced consciously before
  • grant permission to engage the imagination as a means for exploring new possibilities
  • invite the development of a disposition to tolerate ambiguity, explore what is uncertain, and exercise judgement free from prescriptive rules and procedures
  • stabilize what would otherwise be evanescent
  • help us discover what it is we are capable of experiencing or the contours of our emotional selves

As we go into this home stretch and begin to plan our final units and projects to round out the year, I challenge you to keep in mind that you are important to the wholistic and foundational development of the minds of children.  Think about how your projects or challenges target the cognitive functions above.  Push kids to talk about their art more throughout the whole creation process.  Expose them to inspiration and help them build an artistic language that helps them express how art effects them.  These are not easy tasks but when your classroom is engaged in these manners, there is no stopping the potential that our kids have.  Reading, writing and arithmetic are great but they are no match for the whole undiscovered world.

Rise up,


P.S. Here are the units I have coming up:

Unit 4: Curbside Couture (inspired by this event at the Clinton Library) Kids will be challenged to create something (anything) that can be worn and will be exposed to fiber arts including weaving and sewing.

Unit 5: Black History – we were asked to make something for the program so, something we will make…for this, kids will be exposed to various printmaking techniques and we will look at traditional African prints as well as artwork by a soon to be determined modern printmaker who is preferably either Black or uses Black subject matter.

Unit 6: The Magic of Texture – Still working on the details of this one but I want to somehow hit atmospheric perspective and texture techniques…perhaps some drawing and painting lessons as well as a 3D twist in the sculpture studio.  Looking for art suggestions if you have any!

Unit 7: Final Project: Also in the works – I will do a follow up post when I get this together completely!

The Art of Motivation

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the Arkansas Art Educators Conference in Little Rock.  It is always such a joy to interact with so many others in my field, considering we are generally a pretty isolated bunch.  Each year I walk away with new tools, new connections, new skills, and a renewed sense of excitement about this work. This year there was one presentation that really stood out and I thought I would share some of its lessons with you.

The session was called, Issues and Theories in Motivating Students in the Art Room and was lead by Dr. Jeoffrey Grubbs, an educator and researcher at UALR. The session write up claimed that, “motivation is one of the least discussed topics in teaching and yet it constantly impacts students and teachers every day.  This presentation addresses nine motivational truths explained in ways that can be applied in an art classroom.”  Seventy-five people were packed into a tiny room, sitting on the floor and straining their necks to learn about this important piece of our daily work, and Dr. Grubbs did not disappoint.  This session really gave me a refreshed perspective on how to look at challenging students and re-grounded me in the art of motivation.

His truths

  1.  Everyone can be motivated
  2. Students are always motivated by something (whether it be you, peer approval, the seeking of attention, etc, actions are always motivated by some internal or external factors)
  3. Motivation is a relatively constant behavior.
  4. Rewards and punishment will have temporary impact, but do not encourage increased growth for the long term.
  5. Competition only motivates the students who think they can be winners.
  6. Achievement in one area in a student’s life can lead them to believe they can be successful in others.
  7. Increasing an individual’s sense of self efficacy – or perception of the ability to succeed – will increase motivation.  For us this means presenting learning materials so students can understand them, implementing and encouraging collaboration, and helping students to believe that high performance is an acquirable skill.
  8. Clear communication of expected outcomes increases motivation.  (explicit instructions, sharing learning goals, all that stuff they tell us to do – it’s real.)
  9. A teacher’s constructively encouraged language increases motivation.  We need to reduce the fear of learning and failure.

He also discussed a person’s motivational needs which include:

  • Physical Needs (food, shelter, safety and experience)
  • Cognitive Needs (understand/know, structure/order, and collect/create)
  • Psychological Needs (self-respect, express emotions, autonomy, and give/receive love)
  • Relational Needs (belonging, communication, esteem of others, relationship goals, status goals and responsibility goals)

The discussion of all of these made me realize that in order to catch those tricky kids, we need to find what is behind their motivation and get on board.  If a kid does better with a classroom job, perhaps they are driven by responsibility goals.  The class clown is likely operating with status goals in mind or is motivated by attention.  Kids who like to collaborate could be longing for a sense of belonging or may have a low sense of self efficacy and therefore need other students for support until they can build their confidence.  In turn, the only way to find out what each student’s motivators are, is through observation and relationship building.  We need to know more about our students so that we can figure out what makes them tick.  When you see 500 students a week, this can be a daunting task.  But I say start small.  I challenge you to choose one of your tough kids and try to find out his or her motivation.  What gets them going.  Then start to brainstorm ways to encourage that motivation but with the goal of academic/classroom advancement.  If a student is motivated by the attention of his or her peers, how can you enlist their help?  If he or she has a fear of failure, how can you start small and encourage them as they grow?  If you think about it in the frame of motivation, those challenging kids come back down to earth and become normal humans, operating themselves through human nature and needs.  And they become reachable.

The Balance


That pretty much sums up life as a teacher.  Or at least my life as a teacher.  Especially in October, in the week after i just spent 4 days in the homeland for the beautiful wedding of my friend.  There is so much catching up to do!  As I was trying to decide what to blog about this week, my roommate received an e-mail from a friend that lay within the same vein.  He is in his first year teaching (TFA also) in Baltimore.  This was his message:

question…when u go home, or during ur first year….did all u think about was ur kids? i like cant separate school and home, its driving me nuts. like i went for a jog and blasted music and i still thought about them. I need a psychologist.

So, as a house, we brainstormed.  I realized that I had had similar feelings, as had my roommates and we came up with a response to his concern which I have decided may be helpful to one of you.

First, we decided this was a standard feeling.  It is very difficult to separate work and life in your first year teaching, and especially in your first year teaching in TFA.  This is partly due to the extremely high expectations that are set upon us and partly due to the fact that most people who join are passionate about what they are doing and generally type A perfectionists.  Throw high expectations mixed with failing conditions our way and we’re bound to be stressed and obsessive.  It’s the nature of the beast.  Second, because of this, it is difficult and perhaps impossible to turn off your thoughts about work.  However, it is important to find a way to make those thoughts positive or at least less stress inducing.  In my roommate’s words, “It’s about self care because you seriously will drive yourself nuts or burnout and drop out if you cant find a way to live your own life separate from teaching.” 

We decided the two big things that helped us, actual ended up being kind of common sense.  1.) find an activity that calms you and de-stresses you and that you enjoy enough to relax about your work-related thoughts (camping, baking, or canoeing worked for me) or 2.) find an activity that you definitely cannot think during, like intense adrenaline-rush activities, such as rock climbing or insanity, or activities that require total focus, like chorus, video games, or painting.  When you are able to take an hour or two out to do these things, it actually refreshes your mind and you are able to tackle your classroom problems in a more positive, efficient, and productive manner.  Often it seems like we don’t have time to take for ourselves but really, in the end, we usually use the time we are given.  If we have an hour to do something, it gets done in an hour.  If we have ten, it gets done in ten.  The third thing I would like to add to the list is also common sense and most of you already probably have a system for, but just in case…prioritize.  Any time I am feeling overwhelmed, I make a list of the things I have to do or want to change.  Cross off the ones I have no power over and then organize the rest into manageable chunks.  Usually, I have done all of this with a very elaborate sticky-note system that my roommate loves to laugh at, but this year I made a grown-up planner system that is working pretty good as well.  I have the long term stuff I have to do across the bottom (broken up into categories) Then have the days at the top where I can split up and prioritize those long term tasks as well as daily stuff like lesson planning.  I attached it as a PDF because I used funky fonts but just shoot me an e-mail if you would like it in .doc form!

Weekly Planner

I didn’t want this to be a post about ideas to de-stress because each person is different and it will take a different thing to get them refocused.  What I wanted, was to let you know that if you are feeling this way you are not alone and it is ok to do that thing that is going to get you recharged and then come back to the task at hand.  Don’t let teaching change you being you.  And with that, I’ll leave you with the wise words of Walt Disney…


The Many Faces of Mona

We all know that teaching is a tough job.  It is hard work that comes with many stresses. In the end the reward is great, but sometimes it’s tough to see on a daily basis.  In order to keep myself sane and crack a few smiles on the faces of those silly little children that walk through my door every day, I like to do a little something that puts a personal touch in the room once in a while.  My subject, Mona.

Mona picstitchShe gets dressed up for holidays, seasons, testing, and any other excuse I can think of.  Above are a few examples of Mona from last year.  There is no real reason for doing it other than it makes me happy and it makes my kids happy, which therefore, makes it absolutely worth it.  I highly recommend finding a way to put a smile on your face each day.  Whether it be Mona or grumpy cat (yes, I now have this as a poster in my classroom…) the more you have fun, the more enjoyable you will find your job. Grumpy Cat

October’s a tough month people, go into it prepared.

P.S. If it’s one of those days where you are really struggling to find the joy, just watch Kid President.  That boy is amazing.


I figured before I share anything else, I better share the guiding force behind the workings of my classroom.  That way, you have a clear foundation for what my students and I are aiming toward in the coming year.


So, there it is folks.  It is a work in progress every year, always being tweaked and changed to share a better picture of what I want my kids to really take away from their time in my room.  As you can see, this year I went with the theme of, “Be in your right mind!” (even though they decided to put out new research about the holistic functioning of the brain like a day after I put this up…darn scientists. Anyway…) Since switching to TAB, my focus has really turned away from product and is very much grounded in planning and process.  I just want my kids to believe that they have really cool ideas. Because they do. And it’s awesome.

“In art class, we will be in our RIGHT MINDS!” We will create original works of art with confidence but we will know that art is not only about making things.  It is about learning how to think in new ways and explore new solutions to problems both big and small.  In art class we show respect to each other, to our space, and to our time because we know that to waste time means to waste our potential and no one in their right mind would risk that!”

I have contemplated adding, “We will be able to lead ourselves and will take ownership of our minds and actions”  to the end. Like I said, it is ever-changing.

This student friendly version was whittled down from this document outlining the nuts and bolts of what it is I want my students to be able to do and say.  2013-2014 Vision

As an added bonus, I really love the overall picture for humanities classes that Jacob outlined this year.  His thoughtfulness and holistic approach has been really inspiring to my vision and the content I plan to teach in my classroom this year.  See part of his humanities vision below!

As Humanities teachers, we cultivate students who are…

… confident participants in their cultural and historical context that can articulate and explain the significance of their own as well as others’ identities and believe in their voice within their community, state, nation, and world.

… creative thinkers that can express their own thoughts and ideas in new and original forms, arguing and advocating for their own perspectives. They make decisions that demonstrate strong intellectual opinions, expressing their unique point of view.

… critical thinkers that can problem-solve around challenges and mistakes, and can make deep analytical statements. They uncover the implicit themes, arguments, and ideas within and across cultures, texts, artworks, performance pieces, or languages, and determine how – and why – these are being conveyed.

… life-long scholars that express constant curiosity about the world and people around them. They hunger for continued growth, seeking opportunities that further their development, challenging themselves, taking risks, generating original and creative ideas, demonstrating outstanding technical skills, and learning from mistakes.

Room for Improvement

So at the end of last year, with my switch to Choice Based learning and added grade levels, there were a few things that had been causing frustration and/or I just thought could go better for the coming school year.  I made a list of those things and then throughout the summer, as a solution popped into my head or was stumbled upon through pinterest or awesome blogs, books, etc., I filled in the area under that problem and planned the solution into my management plan, long term plan or room decs for this year.

I thought it may be helpful to share my problem-solving process with you to a. hopefully help someone out who may be experiencing similar problems (or at least commiserate) or  b. steal some of your awesome alternative solutions! (comment below with helpful-hints!) Today I’ll share my initial document and then the 1st solution in action!

You can find the unedited, no-frills, brainstorm pdf file below.

Things to Consider Fixing for Next Year…  

Solution #1

The first thing on that list had to do with volume control.  My kids were being productive (for the most part) and having meaningful conversations, but they were just too loud.  So, the music teacher and I decided to collaborate and do the same volume control tracker in both of our rooms, using volume levels as a verbal and visual guide for students.  With this handy tool we can easily say “during your Do Now, you should be at a volume level 0, meaning you are silently working until the bell rings.”  On the left side of the tracker there is an “our goal” arrow and on the right side there is a “we are here” arrow.  My sound monitors for the day will be in charge of moving the arrows to the appropriate positions.  We are still brainstorming rewards but classes with the most greens will earn some kind of prize at the end of a quarter…kids come tomorrow so we’ll see how it works!


(please ignore the fact that our school did not order laminating paper for this year so my tracker is currently housed in sheet protectors…)

School year #4, here we come.