We have finished approximately 5 weeks of classes so far in the 2012-2013 school year and I must say that I believe that this has been the best start to a school year that I have ever had. I believe this to be a fundamental result of the changes I have made in my teaching practice to begin the year. I want to begin by describe my old method of teaching and then explain the changes that I have made. And in the end, I was able to have really great meaningful conversations with students about their work.
Last year was busy – I was opening a new school and there was more ‘administrative’ work being done to get the visual art department up and running, and less time than what I would have liked was being spent on developing, reflecting and refining the curriculum that I was teaching. At the end of the school year I had more time to reflect and realized that I was not teaching students the fundamental skill of creative thinking that I was hoping that they would learn while in my classroom. The primary evidence of this was in the student’s work itself as we presented the work in our display cases. One of two things would happen in each assignment: either the works would look essentially the same (i.e. students completed a self-portrait assignment that was to convey their personal sense of power, or if the work looked different, then it seemed to all be ‘about’ the same topic. What I realized was that students were creating what I call cookie cutter art, and to me this was unacceptable. At first, my reaction was to ‘blame’ the lack of creative thinking on the students rather than to look at how I was teaching, and structuring my lessons for students to learn and then apply a variety of means for making their own work innovative (at least in comparison to how it was seen in relation to their peers). The basic process that I had been using was as follows:
- Set the context for the assignment, and allow students to brainstorm.
- Complete Brainstorming
- Develop Thumbnails
- Play with the Media (Explore & Experiment)
- Develop a Preliminary Drawing or Maquette
- Start the Final Piece
- Write an Artist Statement
- Reflect on Learning
Between units I would do smaller exercises with the class that would explore composition, subject matter, style, conventions, etc. What I realized that little of this learning was being applied to the students work because it was temporally to far removed from when I was asking students to apply the ideas and skills to their own work.
This year however I have dramatically changed the structure of classes. Days in which students are not working on their culminating task are divided into 3 parts, but not in the more traditional ‘minds on hands on consolidation model’, rather into a mental / skill warm up, explore technique and then develop concept / composition. In this first unit what this looked like was students being much more engaged for the full duration of the class and then also the quality of student sketchbook work increased dramatically. The direct result of this process is that it allowed me to focus my feedback in a given class to a more narrow and specified range of ideas in order to boost student performance. For example, instead of spending 1 whole class working on pen & ink techniques, this would be broken down over three days; instead of one whole class devoted to creating thumbnails, this would be broken down over three days. The major area of improvement that I saw was in terms of composition because they had more direct time to think about exploring options. For example, one day we discussed the concept of symmetrical, asymmetrical and radial balance, and then the were required to create thumbnails of their subject matter for each of these strategies for placing the focal point. The next day, we discussed informal balance (which is a much more difficult concept to understand and much more difficult to apply) and then they tried out this strategy. The third day we discussed the idea of quartering the picture space to create areas of visual rest and the photographic concept of the rule of thirds. Again students had time to sit down and apply these strategies to their own visual thinking. The end result, better more focussed thumbnails.
The same process was carried out for determining ‘how’ to depict the subject matter (the invasive species in this case) in such a way that it visually communicated the invasive characteristic of the plant itself. Students were then lead through a series of short mini lessons to allow them to think about and then apply these imaging strategies such as personification, magnification, exaggeration, magnification, etc. over the course of several days.
In the end, students ended up with 10 or so really well thoughout out well developed thumbnail sketches that they were then able to take to the preliminary work stage, in which they bring together all of their work in a couple of focused preliminary drawings in which they refine their drawing skill, composition, imaging strategy and of course use with the technical media. Again, the work that was created was superb and much more refined than that which was done in previous years for me. Students are using more time in class to think through their process to develop their work (instead of ‘today we are working on thumbnails – GO!’), getting more feedback through conversation with their peers and me as the teacher.
After the whole process was completed this past week I evaluated their final products, and I was very happy with the end results. Every work looked different because of the media that was used, the compositional strategies that were employed and the imaging strategies that were thoughtfully selected to communicate the invasive qualities of the plants. Even though the project was somewhat conceptually limiting this time through, it provided a really unique opportunity for students to stretch their thinking within a fairly tight set of conceptual parameters. On the evaluation sheet that they used throughout the process there were no numbers, only quality descriptors (i.e. “beyond expectations”, “good / well done”, “its okay”, “some more work is needed”, “work is missing”) that corresponded to levels of achievement (i.e. 4, 3, 2, 1, R/Inc.). The students had now problem with this and when I talked to students at the end of the process, we looked at the trends in their evaluation throughout the entire process and steps that they need to take the next time around in order to show improvement. In a class of 26 students, only 3 asked about their numerical value, the other 23 were entirely satisfied with the conversation as the launching point for their continued learning in the class.