Thursday, December 10, 2009

Riding the Pendulum

Teaching is an interesting profession. So many of our days are filled with dramatic swings in student engagement, effectiveness of lessons, etc. Today was one of those days for me.

Let me start with the down swing first. We're supposed to finish up with a positive when assessing things, right?

Yesterday we were coming to the end of a long term art project and some people were completely finished while others were scrambling to get their work in order so they could present for critique the next day. I had posted some links on our class Ning to some artists that were working in the program that we are going to learn next and I had invited them to just get into the program and "play." The problem is that this translated into "this isn't very important," so many of them were getting out homework for other classes.

So I gave a speech. I talked to them about the importance of unstructured time and how that's often when the biggest breakthroughs come in because they feel free to think for themselves instead of just worrying about if they are doing "A" work. I also explained that this continues to be true later in life. Many of the greatest progressions in art, science, math, business, etc. have come at times when the person in question was involved in "playing" with an idea. I hoped that this conversation would encourage them to value that time. I felt good enough about what I was saying that I addressed the issue with all of my classes.

Fast forward to today and in my photography class I confronted the largest group of people doing outside homework I have ever seen. It was unbelievable to me. I asked them if I had missed their class yesterday when giving the talk, and they looked a little embarrassed and informed me that we had talked about it. Now photography requires a lot of planning and work outside of class, so I typically allow them to trade some of that time for "study hall" time so they can be stress free when arranging a photo shoot in the evening. But the timing of this mass of students led me to believe that I wasted my time discussing this with them.

On the other end of the spectrum, I had a great moment with one of my AP Studio Art students. She had turned me on to a new contemporary artist that I was not aware of. It was great to learn from my student. Then when I get home last night I have an email with a link to a video that she has made in the style of this artist. She had taken what she liked about her work and synthesized it into something that was new and uniquely her own. It's really all you can hope for from a serious visual arts student.

So the pendulum swings. I guess the goal is to just not get thrown off when it starts to swing back the other direction.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Individualizing Education?

I teach art. While the students at my school have to have a “Fine Arts” credit, it can come from visual arts, music and theater. So my classes are basically electives. I’m not complaining about this, I’m just establishing the context for what I want to discuss. Only one of my classes is part of a sequence. Because of this, my classes are filled with an extreme age and skill diversity. I have freshmen with no art experience and seniors who have had three years of art and are in two other art classes this year all co-mingling in a single class.

This raises all sorts of questions. How do I grade equitably? Do I try to put their work in the context of their particular trajectory, or do I simply have the same expectations for everyone? How much can I expect a freshman to draw upon life experiences to create meaningful art? For that matter how much can I expect from the senior? How can I custom tailor my class to be relevant to my student’s lives when they are spread across such a broad spectrum?

This last question is one that is particularly pressing to me right now. In my Digital Imaging class (a class revolving around computer based arts) we finished getting the basic technical skills necessary to function in Adobe Illustrator. We have also discussed some of the key elements and principles of art and made several projects around combining these two types of skills into coherent work.

Then I decided to perform an experiment. I let them self-assign. I gave them links to some particularly wonderful websites with examples of all sorts of effective digital art. The work ranged from fine art to web design to movie posters. Then I asked them to think about what they would like to be doing with this program. They had to pitch an idea to me before they could start, but they were pretty free to choose a route that was exciting to them.

Sounds easy enough, right? But then it started. How do you establish a due date for such a project? Such varied skill levels, combined with such a wide variety of projects was leading to a huge discrepancy in the amount of time it was going to take each student. I suddenly had to improvise. For those students that were finishing more quickly, I had to think on my feet and present other problems that they could solve. How could they extend their project to a higher level?

If a student had designed a new logo for a band then I asked them “How would that look on a T-shirt?” What could you take from your design that you could use to unify an entire line of products; posters, hats, shirts, stickers? For other students it was simply suggesting refining their craft and building upon what they had started.

Something was happening though. I was developing an individual lesson for students that was appropriate and effective in having them synthesize what they had learned into a new project. And that’s when a scary thought went through my mind. Why doesn’t my whole curriculum look like this?

Well, I’ll tell you why. How do you manage due dates in such an environment? How do establish an objective rubric for each project (the significance of an objective rubric is for another blog)? How in the world would I ensure that everyone is learning the same core material while carving his or her own creative path?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. One thing I know for certain is that the reason I doubt this approach is because it breaks from everything I’ve ever known about teaching, where everyone is doing the same thing in the same time frame always. It also takes me even more out of the position of power. I become a facilitator. But I become a facilitator that has to be able to think 30 different ways in each class period to be able to serve my students.

I feel a little inadequate in posting this blog, because it doesn’t have answers. It really just starts to ask questions. Questions that once answered could radically shift the way my classroom looks. But I get the feeling that means these are just the kinds of questions that I need to be asking.