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.

Ms. Bradshaw, why did you give me a C?!?!

With the quarter at a close and the reveal of their 9 week grades, students are finally seeing how the parts of their efforts in art add up.  As we have gone through the previous weeks, I have tried to make sure students understood the make-up of their grade; how many points things were worth, how one mistake on one project would not be their downfall, how not turning in a project at all might be, and how to make sure they were growing on their rubric.  However, it isn’t until they see that first report card that things kind of all come together.  I would like to work toward that happening more when it comes to individual projects as well, but for now, the report card is the ultimate showing of their hard work or lack-there-of.  This is the first year that I have had students tracking their progress in personal trackers (see the post Diagnostics and Tracking for details) and it is proving to be very useful in student understanding of growth and data.  However, there is always room for improvement and I hope this system continues to expand in detail and frequency so students are consistently invested in their grades and growth as artists.  I want them to be recording their daily participation points – perhaps in some kind of exit activity – and figuring out how to have them track mastery of objectives and/or elements along the way.  I will be brainstorming this for the coming semester so any ideas are very welcome!  The more urgent issue however, is once in a while, I still have students ask “Ms. Bradshaw why did you give me a C on this!?!?”  rather than understanding clearly how the rubric works and being invested in the fact that they earn their grades and I am merely there to record them and point them in the direction of growth.  In order to move closer to that I think 3 things need to be done:

1.  Students need to more clearly understand and be invested in the rubric.  I think this will come with repetition, review, and by breaking down and focusing on rubric rows.  Every time we do a project we need to go over the rubric before and after.  I think I will have them choose which rubric row will accompany our challenge each unit to up the critical thinking skills we are focusing on this year.

2. Students need to better understand the classroom expectations for independent projects. This will be helped by the rubric review pre-project and break down of rubric rows so expectations can be layed out for each category.  I think also encouraging students to move beyond the “scribble stage” in studios would contribute to growth in this area.  Students created great plans for projects at the beginning of this unit but I would say only about 15% of students stuck with their plan in any way.  I need to figure out a way to promote problem solving in order to create their way-cool ideas rather than making another gun out of toilet paper rolls because the kid next to them did and it looked kind of cool.  I had way too many last minute projects turned in this time around.

3. Students need to feel ownership of their projects and effort and operate with a growth mindset. The final piece comes down to investment.  If students are invested in their work and take ownership of it, they are more likely to see themselves as earning their grade rather than me giving it to them.  I need to impart on them a drive and value of hard work so that students are turning in their best work rather than a last minute piece just to have something in.  Students should be focused on getting better with each piece rather than seeing them all as separate entities.

This is far from a perfect (or complete) plan but I think if I am mindful of these three components and work toward improving them, students’ personal investment in their grades will increase.  I want to continue to improve the quality of student data tracking and the consistency in which we track.  When students become comfortable with the process, it allows for deeper conversation about why and how this can help them in both art class and how this can be transferred to other aspects of their school career and lives.  Hopefully…

Project Proposals

About halfway through last year, I switched to a choice based model of Art Ed or what many call “TAB” or Teaching for Artistic Behavior.  This means that the students are in control of what they make, rather than the teacher.  If you want more information on this movement, I suggest you check out their website, the yahoo group, TAB-Choice Art Ed and this article by TAB educator, Nan Hathaway   (I will warn you, this article has caused controversy, but I think it paints a pretty good picture of why a lot of teachers have switched).  I thought about it for about two years before making the jump but now that I have, I really like it.  It does however, come with many new challenges.  One thing I am working on is that my kids really love the “scribble stage” of studios or basically that point where you experiment and go all out with reckless abandon.  Who wouldn’t love that…but this year, I wanted them to start thinking more.  Our vision is all about thinking and problem solving.  Though experimentation is important, I wanted to push them further.  In a conversation with the high school teacher in my district, she brought up that she sometimes uses pre-planning worksheets for her regular projects.  She talked about having them do a thumbnail sketch and answer a few questions before getting started.  She e-mailed me her template but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for so I started looking around Pinterest and the TAB yahoo group.  Finally, I came across this worksheet that was made by Nan, the same woman who wrote the article above.

Project Proposal Form

I decided to have students use this before getting started in their choice studio.  I also started giving them unit challenges.  That way, there would be a plan and a purpose.  My Unit 1 Challenge was based on the book “Not a Stick” by Antoinette Portis.  Last week was the students’ introduction to this new system and, as expected, it was met with mixed reviews.  The kids didn’t love the extra paperwork they were being expected to do, but I do think it gave them a bit of an opportunity to think through their work before getting started.  Below is an example of a proposal from a sixth grade student.


That last part is what I fill out as I look at them to let them know if this is a solid plan or if they need to do some work.  He doesn’t have quite everything in the right spot but for his first one, this is pretty good.  Not all were quite that thought out, so I want to keep encouraging kids to go into more detail.  I think if I were to re-do the sheet myself, I would have them draw their project first, then think about materials, and after that match them to a studio.  On this particular sheet, studios come first so I think the kids think about where they like to work rather than what they are making.  So, we’ll be having talk about how to choose your studio(s) next time we do it I think or designing projects to fit the studio you want to work in.  Also, his idea was one from the book (although, knowing this kid he may have come up with it anyway…) so I also want to be encouraging students to think bigger and with even more of their own investments and personal style in mind.

Choice is such a new process to me and there are so many variables, that I think every year will be a bit of an experiment.  Hopefully with this method, I am pushing at least most of the kids to put a bit of thought into their work!

Diagnostics and Tracking

Soooooo I HATED the idea of testing and tracking elementary students’ work my first few years in teaching. I refused. I was told I had to. I whined about it. (500 students, how am I supposed to track 500 students?!?!? And a diagnostic in art? Please, I see them once a week. I am not wasting my time giving a test.)  I was a pain. But, I’m going to tell you a secret. This year, I did it voluntarily.  Whaaaaat? I know.

If we go back on over to my Things to Consider Fixing list, you will notice that I wanted to be better at returning work and having the kiddos more aware of their progress.  Which means…I need to be aware of their progress. Like, solidly.  So, I buckled down and created a skills-based diagnostic and stole some individual trackers from the great Jacob Carroll, that I altered to meet my needs, and voila, a system is underway.  I figured I would share a few of my new documents and systems with you in case you too have been a skeptic and need a little boost to get started.

So first, the diagnostic(s)


Third Grade Diagnostic

For my first day, I gave these to the kids after I went over expectations.  But then I realized that did not work and they left a ton blank (which you can see in the tracker later).  So, I switched up my game plan and decided to give it to them as Do Nows over the course of the first month.  I had the third graders do the drawings on their own and then read through the bottom 3 questions.  For the 4th-6th graders I had them do page 1 on week 1, page 2, week 2 and will continue on with that next week.  I was hoping to have them out of the way sooner but this seems to be a more effective way to get actual answers so I’ll go with it…

Once they have all of the questions done, I will go through and grade them, recording each skill in my classroom tracker.  I use a pretty basic one that I just manually do all kinds of stuff to because that is what works for me (see below) but there is also one found at http://tfahumanities.wordpress.com/art/ that is really wonderful if you like the visuals.

2013-2014 Tracker1

After that, I am having the kids record their diagnostic score (3rd is only recording their drawing level which is based on this cognitive growth rubric 2011.ECEArt.CognitiveGrowthRubric and 4th-6th will be the actual number of points they got correct on the test) on the top section of their personal growth tracker which is stapled into their portfolio.


Stuff is given back to them through this little system that I developed (student helpers pass out the papers in their teacher’s clip) and progress is recorded once a month as a Do Now.


Finally, they will also use these personal trackers to keep tabs on their project scores once we get started with TAB stuff and will take the same test I gave at the beginning of the year as a summative so they can see how (hopefully) awesome they are growth wise!

Phew. That was a lot. But hopefully a good look at how I am tackling a widely misunderstood but helpful-once-you-use-it classroom strategy.


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.