Monthly Mentor

Jennifer Pulbratek (March)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Jennifer Pulbratek has been teaching art, mainly Ceramics (however also some Drawing, Painting, Printmaking) for 14 years in Arizona. She is National Board Certifed, Early Adolecent Young Adult and has been active in supporting other teachers though the National Board Certification process as a coach and in teaching pre-candidacy classes. Jennifer graduated from NAU in 2005 with a Bachelors of Science in Art Education and a BFA in Jewelry and Metalsmithing. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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Friday 03.16.18

The Power of Communication

From: Jennifer Pulbratek

1. Meet kids at the Door. You learn so much from this. I knew a teacher that shook all her kids’ hands. I really love that idea. I wish I could do it, but my mother-in-law will tell you I’m a germ-conscious person. There is a reason I do not keep Kleenex on my desk. I love kids, but I really don’t want to touch them. My teenagers tell me that I’d hate teaching elementary…they tease me that it would be torture for me. Since I have started meeting kids, I can get a read on their day, what’s going on, who is happy, who is upset. And it helps me mentally prepare what direct instruction, demonstrations, class discussion, or whatever is going to happen that period. I have a few minutes to adjust during attendance so I’m a bit more collected. This practice has also helped me build stronger relationships with kids, giving me a minute for a conversation- whether it be a scolding or a compliment.

2. If the kids are not meeting expectations, it’s likely that I have not been clear enough. Expectations in an art room are very different than another classroom, and expectations vary from teacher to teacher. Instead of being frustrated, re-teach expectations. Remind kids. They are just like us, they get busy and forget. (Now sometimes they just don’t want to do it… but often my lack of clarity or consistency is the issue.)

3. If a kid isn’t behaving, don’t hesitate to call their parent right then and there. I have a few kids whose parent cell phone numbers are taped to my computer. One kiddo a while back was absent a lot. Every day he was absent I called mom right then during attendance. It was short and sweet. She knew, the other kids also saw, and it curbed absences.

4. If you freak out on a kid, apologize. I’ll admit, I have done this. In the middle of 143 teachers being cut at the district I worked, a kid said something. I don’t remember what. I responded harshly. I should not have been so harsh. The kid was wrong, but so was I. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I apologized and explained to the kid how I was feeling. The kid explained themselves, and we were good. Sometimes you will build the most trust from those kids.

5. When giving praise, be specific. Instead of saying, “This is awesome!” say “The pattern you choose to put in the background really pushed your subject forward. It also makes the viewer think about why the subject may be leaving.” Or something like that. Be really detailed. Ask them deep questions as well. “I really like the way you carved these two patterns here. How are you going to resolve the conflict between how different they are?” As a teacher you don’t have to have the answer to the question; it’s not your art work.

6. IF, if, if, if you ever touch a student’s work, ask first. Sometimes kids need the teacher to show them the line they are talking about, or how to hold a pencil, or place their hands. But if you go in and touch without asking permission first, you are telling them that what they have done is wrong. If a student feels like they have made art wrong, they will shut down.


Wednesday 03. 7.18

The Power of Appreciation

From: Jennifer Pulbratek

A few years ago my husband and I came to the realization that everyone needs appreciation. I actually asked him if he wanted to collaborate with me on this post--he declined. However, he wasn’t lacking words in telling me about how I use appreciation in my classroom, how he has learned to use it at work, and how we as a team use it in parenting, especially with our defiant child (we are forever grateful for behavior analysts).

Everyone needs to feel appreciated.

People think Millennials complain too much… “my boss didn’t compliment me!” However, what have we been teaching our students to do? Advocate for themselves. When you hear that, they are just advocating for the need to feel valued. Why do people leave jobs?  They are unhappy because they do not feel valued.

Remember the time you walked into the teachers’ lounge and somehow a conversation started about a kid who was just awful? Another teacher was describing the student’s behaviors and you felt angry for them, and grateful at the same time that you don’t have that student. What a relief, right?!? At some point in the conversation you find out who the kid is…and low and behold they are your best student. You know, the student that stays after class to make sure all the chairs are put up, or the one that just cleans things up extra well, or the one that brought you a bag of pine cones (not readily available in the desert) because they heard you wanted some of your students to draw pine cones. Why is this kid so good for you and so awful for the other teacher?

Lots of reasons… they could be naturally artistic. But we know even some really artistically gifted kids are not well behaved in art class on their own. Somewhere along the line you showed them appreciation. Showing appreciation validates a person--it gives them importance and purpose. Positive reinforcement is much stronger than negative reinforcements and has longer lasting effects. I forget who said it, but someone once said, “Nail students for greatness.” After that I attached a small nail to my computer with a bit of tape, just as a reminder. Show your students you value them, and you will transition from a dictatorship to more of a coaching relationship. You are cheering them on, but they own the process.


A teacher and mentor I really admire once game me the advice, “That student that you like the least, you have to love the most.” As hard as it may be to find something to appreciate, find something and be genuine about it. All people, especially students, see right through fakeness. Build that positive relationship with that student. Use the power of appreciation to create a learning environment where kids feel safe to explore, experiment and make art without fear of failure. 

A person who feels appreciated will always do more than just what is expected.”- Author Unknown 


Friday 03. 2.18

Finding your Inner Spirit Animal and Ultimately Yourself…

From: Jennifer Pulbratek

After being invited to write for this blog, I got on here and checked out who had written before me.  Holy Guacamole!!! THE Katherine Douglas… I adore her! That’s like trying to follow Queen, Prince, Blondie. I just can’t. I messaged a dear friend and fantastic art teacher and told her I’m sick to my stomach. (I don’t belong here.) She reminded me to be myself; that’s what makes me a good teacher. 

I often tell student teachers they need to find their Spirit Animal, or themselves, their “thing”. They can’t be me. Just as much as I can’t be other teachers I adore: Bob Ross, Cassie Stevens, Sister Wendy, Clara Lieu, Gerry Brooks, or Snape to name a few. As teachers we have to find our own thing, embrace ourselves, our odd quirks and what works for us. Some teachers embrace technology wonderfully, then use it! Others are awkward… why force it? Some teachers are really great at lecture, while others can lead kids in fantastic conversations. Some teachers use sarcasm well while another teacher using the exact same line would be a train wreck. Find your thing, and then mine the heck out of it. I learned first-hand this year that when you don’t because you are nervous about what kids expect, you will fail. 

This last year I moved to a new school and replaced a well-loved teacher. I had a student who really struggled with the change. Another kid was in my room after school when there was a tantrum from the struggling one. The second student said to me, “Man, when I’m in Ceramics 2, I need you to be you.”

A few years ago at my former district, my best friend was cut due to budget and I was given the advanced art classes (her babies). I was always second guessing myself. I so desperately wanted to do right by them. I was really nervous one day and asked how my friend did something. One kid said, “Don’t worry how she did it.  We need you to do things your way.” I stepped into the storage room and cried.

The kids need us. And they need us to be us. Full of our quirks and our flaws. They need to see our mistakes and our rawness. Don’t be afraid to be human. We are not perfect, but that’s what makes us perfect for our kids. To be fair, we have to accept their flaws. We have got to be okay when a kid nervously chews on a pencil. Or fidgets and rips the clip part of a pen cap off. Yeah, we should address it with the individual, but we have to forgive them and build that relationship with them. 

If we lose a piece of work, we must admit we lost it. If we blow something up in the kiln, we have got to own it. We need to ask for forgiveness and model how to say, “I’m sorry.” How else are kids going to learn to take ownership if the adult in their lives don’t do it, and do it often? 

And then let your passions hang out. If you tell jokes, do it. If you give compliments, do it. I held kids to high standards. I would give compliments, but then ask them deep questions about their designs and where they intended to take them. And I’m fairly blunt. Sometimes it takes a while for kids to get used to a new personality. I experiment, I explore, I address each kid as their own artist. I try to give each individual a purpose to their assignment. If something isn’t of a standard it should be, I tell a kid. And that’s me. It’s taken awhile for some to warm up. And to be fair I think it’s taken me awhile to get comfortable enough to be me… to get to the point where I keep parents’ phone numbers taped to my computer and set times on my phone for kids who are easily distracted so they have a dead line for each sub step. 

But I’m happy to report my spirit animal is back. A kid spotted it yesterday in the middle of chaos, kids doing what seemed like 100 different things, including a “secret” therapy smashing session (of unclaimed glaze ware) for a kid who was having a rough day. The observant kid walked by to see what was going on, came up and whispered to me, “You are a good teacher.”


Monday 02.19.18

Some thoughts about the essence of Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB)

From: Katherine Douglas

What do artists do?
The child is the artist.
The classroom is the child’s studio.

A beautiful TAB studio atmosphere doesn't happen by magic. It is built by laying a structural foundation carefully, by starting small, observing carefully, tweaking what isn't going well, and expanding what is going well. Some teachers have success jumping in and opening many choices at once but I couldn't have done that myself. More complex techniques and materials can be added when the studio is running smoothly. Instruction is ongoing with whole group, small group, one on one, peer to peer and individual research. Whole group demos are generally about materials, techniques and concepts that will have a permanent home in the studio.

It is important to consider that we teachers may be mistaken when we believe that “everybody” loves to do x, y, or z. Once students are offered authentic choices about how, when, or IF they will apply teacher demos to their personal work, we find out what they really care about.

My colleague Diane Jaquith offers the best explanation of the difference between choice and Teaching for Artistic Behavior:

"The difference between a choice-based art program and TAB is in the teacher's intentions for students. If ALL of your planning, decision-making, considerations, and advocacy are with the intent of supporting students to become independent learners and thinkers during art class, then you are teaching for artistic behavior. If you occasionally have skill-builders or whole-class assignments it may still be a TAB program if the purpose of those activities is to expose students to media they might otherwise not try or to provide basic skills so students can continue to work independently. However, if most of the decision-making is done by you, the teacher, or is focused on product, not process, you may be offering choices within your art program. That's OK too - just probably not TAB."

I remind myself that no matter how we teach, students do not necessarily learn what has been offered. Students who have been assigned and directed through a curricular agenda that has been laid down far from the world they know and want to know more about--may gain little.

Lone sculptor

An effective TAB teacher is, among other things, running a laboratory! Observe carefully--when a material/tool/technique seems to support growth in thinking/independence/creativity then keep it. If not, either teach better about it, change it somehow, or get rid of it! And the solutions will be different for every TAB teacher. In the amazing feedback loop that is TAB practice, 1. Set up what you think are good circumstances (of time, space, materials, information) 2. Present your very best "opening" 3. Observe very carefully and take notes, trying to be specific on the good, the bad and the ugly. 4. Revisit, revise, reteach or eliminate, as necessary, based on your observations and data. In traditional art teaching it can be the students who have "failed". TAB practice turns this upside down, with the teacher modifying, modifying, modifying! It is actually a radical concept isn't it!

Lone sculptor
In conversations with students concerning the quality of their work: 1. Assume the best until you know better. 2. Start where the student is, judgement free, and notice. 3. Play off of what you see: “I notice that you are tracing this image. Isn’t it interesting how that feels different from drawing freehand. Can you imagine how this could fit with your desire to draw better and figure things out? What would you think of a multi approach—freehand, stenciled and traced images layered in to one piece?” 4. Always support students’ metacognition so that not only you, but more importantly, they, are aware of the intent of a particular action.

When students are offered control of their work and their learning, when teachers assume that they are capable of this, and that they can teach us as much as we teach them, the results are impressive. Likewise, when teachers take control of the way they offer these opportunities, customize their practice to meet the needs of the students in front of them and collaborate with other like-minded professionals, a career of teaching in a community of learners both face to face and at a distance proves satisfying and invigorating.   

I love being an art teacherI love being an art teacher! 



Monday 02.12.18

A closer look at Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB)

From: Katherine Douglas

When art teachers hear about student-directed learning and art making many questions may come to mind: 

Can students do anything they want all the time?

This varies from studio to studio and across K-12 grade levels, of course. Some teachers have a brief sketchbook topic for everyone to provide focus at the beginning of class. Many teachers have students chart their center use, to support both going deep in a particular medium, as well as growing and interacting with multiple media over time. The media/technique choices available to students have been introduced by the teacher previously and those choices are thoughtfully offered.

How can the teacher help multiple students at once? 

This was less of a problem than I expected! Media, tools and techniques available had been introduced in brief structured whole group demos. Students who chose to explore the new offering were invited to be coaches for newcomers to the subject. Peer teaching and support was a strong component in my studio. Children also benefited indirectly—watching a friend try a new material made more sense to them than what I might have showed! During studio time I could circulate, make noticing comments, pull a small group together for more information, work one on one with a struggling student, grab a paint brush and work along with students while engaging in informal conversation, and actually sit to observe and take notes. Because students were using their own ideas instead of mine, there was little need to consult me about “Is this good? Is this what I am supposed to do?” TAB studios are well organized and students are coached to set up and put away their tools independently, freeing the teacher for conversations and modeling.

How can there be enough materials for all students to do as they wish?

The TAB teacher is, like any teacher, in charge of the materials in centers at any one time. Because students are not all using the same media, the teacher does not have to provide wood looms, for instance, to a class or 30 students. The artist search (Szekely, G. (1988) Encouraging creativity in art lessons. New York: Teachers College Press.) is an essential part of artistic behavior, so students are tasked to be alert to potential media (cardboard, fibers, found objects) to spark their ideas and to provision the TAB studio.


If everyone is working on something different how does the teacher grade?

Teacher grading methods are as unique as each setting, but many TAB teachers use student self-evaluation with teacher input. This is often based on the Studio Habits.

Evaluation of behaviors and a focus on the seven goals (Monthly Mentor post, 2.6.18) open up more possibility for growth and understanding than a grade on a particular project.

How can you let students use centers or work independently if you have not taught skills?

This leads to the question of “which skills” and how much time they might take in all-too-brief studio experience. Some teachers offer skill builder exercises, but many classics, such as shading with a pencil, become small group work for students committed to drawing. Other skill teaching arises from a student needs; an upper grade teacher could offer a soldering demo for wire building that might then appeal to other students. Skill offerings and timing are viewed through the lens of work students wish to do! Skill develops when even beginning students start making work and persisting in it. Third graders begin silk screen experiences with puzzlement and wonder; those who wish to go deeper gain both independence, understanding and quality over time.

Third color sscr

The trust between teacher and students allows for responsibility, decision making, commitment to work, and metacognition, as children find and process their own best art making practices.


Tuesday 02. 6.18

Making Progress and Meeting Collaborators

From: Katherine Douglas

As I continued to refine the studio offerings and improved in managing the time, the space and the stuff of the class, I gradually created goals for my students:

1. To have an idea
2. To gather tools, materials and resources to explore the idea
3. To explore the idea, with possible course changes, mistakes, and new directions
4. To know when they were finished
5. To put away tools and materials properly
6. To reflect and/or share what had taken place
7. To decide what’s next

I found that my young students incorporated these goals into their weekly studio time and grew in their ability throughout the three years they were in my class. Looking back, it has occurred to me that these seven art making steps are often in the hands of the teacher, not the students, in some art classes.

Paint partners

Working with other like-minded colleagues who were also supporting independent student work enlarged my understanding of authentic art practices “The job of the artist is to have an art idea and find the best material to express it, or to use a material that leads to an idea. This is the real work of the artist.” (Pauline Joseph, 2003)

Pauline and I and John Crowe and Diane Jaquith began writing about our experiences and sharing them at state and regional conferences, and at NAEA in 1996. The more we connected with each other, the better our teaching became—when you explain your work to someone, you learn more about it too!  As we began to write more, the Internet also grew easier to use, and other thoughtful teachers were drawn to reach out to learn more and, importantly, to share what they had created on their own. Over time, with the expansion of blogs, Facebook groups and Twitter feeds, art educators came out of isolation and found that they had a lot to offer higher education, corporate publishers and suppliers, and of course, their professional organizations. At this point, our group named ourselves (and a graduate course at Massachusetts College of Art and Design) Teaching for Artistic Behavior or TAB.


Thursday 02. 1.18

The Bumpy Beginning of a Young Teacher

From: Katherine Douglas

I would like to write about how I began, how my practice evolved, how it works today and the connections between teacher and student leadership.

Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB)

When I began art teaching in 1969 I was aware that much of the curricular material and discourse about the purposes of art education came from three areas: the many universities and art schools whose research and writings were shared nationwide, information from corporations offering projects, books and curricular suggestions for using the materials they created, and from professional groups like NAEA, which offered print materials and conferences at the state and national level. It never occurred to me that my voice had any importance in this conversation. My situation, as a new teacher, was in a tiny district with little encouragement to attend conferences and meetings. This isolation, along with difficult working conditions made it necessary to alter how I had been taught to teach! With 960 students per week, 35 minute classes, few supplies, a meager budget, no written curriculum, and an introduction by the principal to the staff as “the new babysitter” every class felt like a game of “whack-a-mole”. I frequently had to offer a second option because I didn’t have enough materials for an entire class. My students never finished my projects all at once, so books and crayon drawings and the chalk board (remember them?)


attracted the dread “early finishers”. The next year a colleague and I planned a mixed-age summer art camp with multiple media available in a studio setting. After this positive experience, I decided to offer something similar during the school year, which would also help address my working conditions. So, what began as a green teacher’s survival tactics began to look like a good idea. Noticing that my students showed much more investment in their own ideas, I began to offer very brief media introductions which left more time to use for them to use expanded choices such as watercolors, simple fibers, collage and 3D.


I was still stumbling along, doing some things well, most things badly, and trying to observe, respond and improve. Fortunately, my young students were enthusiastic and forgiving of my missteps.


Wednesday 01.31.18

You Can’t Fatten a Chicken by Weighing It

From: Robin Schnur

It’s a slightly gruesome yet apposite aphorism. The least effective way to help something grow healthy and strong is to focus on measuring it. Nurturing, understanding, tending to needs— this creates an environment for something to develop and thrive.

Yet, in every learning context measurement is an essential component. We dedicate significant time to designing and conducting evaluation, and then synthesizing and communicating our learnings. We have to—how else will we understand learner growth and the efficacy of our learning approaches? How else would we measure reach and impact? How will we able to assess whether resources are appropriately allocated.

So, what’s the right formula between doing the thing and measuring the thing?

Within our department, we have many different approaches to this question. In some areas, we have rigorous, multi-year studies conducted by external evaluators. In others, we have surveys and observations forms that we’ve devised ourselves and use with some regularity. It often feels, though, that we’re re-inventing the wheel; that this is not an integrated part of work but an add-on, ad hoc. My quest this year is to crack the nut on evaluation and to make it a reasonable, regular, resource-efficient, and rewarding part of our work.

One area of our work is leading the way, and I am hopeful it will provide a model for evaluating a broader range of activities.

Our Interactive Gallery is a multigenerational participatory learning space within the Ryan Learning Center of the museum. Over time, this room has worn many hats, most recently as an interpretive exhibition space with long-term installations tied to special exhibitions or areas of the permanent collection. Earlier this year, I and my colleague Mary Erbach, assistant director of learning environments, decided to put a hold on our larger scale installations and instead use this space to mount a series of shorter experimental installations that would help us learn about our audiences and their orientations to creative learning environments in the museum—by observing their interactions in novel participatory spaces, by visibly soliciting their feedback within the space, and/or by studying the things they produced and left for others to see.

Image 1_Overview

The first experiment is Drawing Room (November 5, 2017–January 28, 2018). In this installation, we aimed to learn about the linkage between the museum experience and creative production.

Image 2_Zone 1
The space is divided into three zones. Zone 1 invites visitors to look outside and be inspired by our garden and the works of art installed therein. Participants can use artist’s horses and basic drawing materials to sketch what they see out these windows.

Image 3_ Still LIfe

In Zone 2, visitors are invited to create still-lifes from an array of traditional studio objects—vessels, simple forms, flowers, articulated figures and hands. Visitors may choose to display their drawings in a clip-up gallery in the space.

Image 4_Response Wall

Zone 3 is a space for visitor feedback. We offer a set of prompts that query dimensions of creative response, and visitors may post their responses for others to see.

Image 3_ Still LIfe

Drawing Room closed last week, and we have not yet sorted through the hundreds of drawings and response cards that were left behind. But, we have been observing behavior and collecting and reviewing artifacts every day for nearly three months and have noted some broad trends and patterns:

- Many people signed, dated, or wrote other messages on the drawings they clipped up in the display area.
- Some people drew other members of their family drawing in the space, or incorporated elements of the space's design into their drawings?
- Many of the drawings clearly show that the maker spent a significant amount of time in the space.
- Many of the feedback cards express surprise or admiration for other family members’ willingness or skill in trying their hands at drawing.
- Some of the feedback cards express gratitude for or simply note the chance to slow down, reflect, have a go at something unexpected, or think about their own relationship to creativity.
- Many response cards tell us about those areas of the museum that are most meaningful to the writer.

This integrated yet informal approach certainly has its limits: we don’t know much about the people who visited the space and left behind their feedback or drawings. We don’t know whether people came to the Drawing Room at the beginning or end of their museum visit, and how that might have affected their experience. We know nothing about the quality or length of the entire museum visit. We don’t know whether Drawing Room attracted a representative sample of museum attendees or if it drew a new or different audiences. These are things we would also like to know but require a more structured, less integrated approach— timing and tracking, intercepts, etc. For these experimental installations, the integrated, informal approach made the most sense: we now have a rich trove of qualitative data that indicates the strengths and weaknesses of the installation overall, and which can inform our decisions for participatory learning environments in the museum moving forward.



For an interesting angle on the relationship between experimentation, failure, and evaluation, read the December post of the Museum Questions blog.

Monday 01.29.18


From: Robin Schnur

It’s a conundrum in museum programming. We want to be thoughtful about and well prepared for the learning experiences we create. We want to be able to communicate with our public about opportunities for participation. This requires careful planning and, most often, a long timetable. At the same time, we aim to be of-the-moment, to respond to events as they arise in the media or in our communities. We need to be responsive to the questions and concerns that audiences carry with them, including when they come through the museum doors.

How do we negotiate between the long horizon of program planning and the necessity to be in active and responsive dialog with our audiences and the world as it unfolds around us?  

Apropos of this big question, in our annual planning process in youth and family programs we asked ourselves: What are we obliged to do? What do we know we want to do and can plan for in advance? And, where are the open spaces to capitalize on or connect with what’s happening around us?

I invited my colleague Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, director of adult learning and associate curator of interpretation to join me in addressing this question. Not long ago, Nenette and her team confronted this conundrum with fresh eyes and launched a new public program called Intersections. Within the fixed structure of the public gallery talk schedule, Intersections opens up a space to address social issues and developing current events.

RS: Nenette, Intersections is a big departure from the traditional gallery talk. How did you approach shaking up the public programs structure to create a setting for conversations about social questions, while not abandoning the core premise that works of art are the focus of such conversations.

NLS: There was comforting simplicity in the schedule of thematic or collections-based gallery talks given by educators 4 times a week at noon. Deadlines had us publishing our topics 4-5 months in advance. In summer and fall 2016, though, a series of events (the Pulse nightclub shooting, police violence against African Americans, the presidential election) spurred some of us to ask how we might capitalize on the museum's potential, and that of the artwork in our collection, to prompt reflection and dialogue for both staff and visitors. It was essential that we were able to respond to events as they happened, however, and the current system was not compatible with that flexibility. 

I figured out a way to situate a new program format within the existing framework of noontime talks. Intersections happens on the second Friday of each month at noon. It's still publicized in print but now we use the website to post the topic about a week in advance. This has allowed us to tackle issues such as patriotism, privacy, gender stereotypes, and neutrality in ways that felt timely and urgent, and also opened up space for our visitors and staff to shape the content of the program. In order to determine the topic, the two facilitators have to ask themselves, "What are people talking about outside the museum?" It makes our work and the artwork at its center feel relevant and meaningful in new ways.

RS: Intersections addresses social questions that are of-the-moment, and that means that most people don't have much distance from the issue at hand. For instance, when you and I chose patriotism as our topic this fall, we were responding to that week’s uproar around NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. The debate around #TakeAKnee was politicized and racially charged. We knew that calling the question might provoke strong reactions among group members, and we chose focal artworks that would we thought would elicit a range of responses. So, how do you create a space in Intersections that promotes a respectful exchange of divergent perspectives?

NLS: It helps to set expectations for the type of program this will be—topical, participatory, welcoming, personal—from the very beginning and then being okay if someone chooses not to participate. We begin the program with everyone sharing their first name and a response to a related prompt. We ask participants to use "I" statements rather than speak in general ways about others. The dynamic it sets up is one of individuals coming together to add their perspective on a topic rather than a lecturer and an anonymous audience.

RS: I am wondering if 'breaking' the form shook things loose in a broader way and allowed you to see more possibilities for open-ended and responsive public programming?

NLS: I have encouraged our educators to experiment with existing program slots, pedagogically and format-wise, within the constraint of the hour-long tour (though I'm not wedded to that duration if a program idea calls for something else). We have established other series such as "New on View," which allows us to highlight installations or rotations that were not planned or publicized in advance, woven guest artists into our programming, including poets and musicians, and next month will be doing a "pop-up exhibition," working with curators to bring artwork out of storage for the hour. While the number of traditional gallery talks has decreased a bit, the diversity of program offerings and our ability to respond, experiment, and collaborate in new ways has been a worthwhile change.


In Intersections, people process their own reactions to current events—as they emerge in a rapidly increasing media cycle—with one another and in the context of human expression across time and culture. We realize that our questions belong to this moment and also have been asked and answered by artists in other times and places. Its success has shed light on the urgency to carve out space for personal reflection, response to the moment, and critical inquiry for all of the audiences museums serve.


Monday 01. 8.18

Happy New Year!

From: Robin Schnur

This is the time of year that many people make personal resolutions for the year ahead. Perhaps more pressingly, this is also the time of year that many of us in museums and non-profits lay plans and craft budgets for the next fiscal year. That’s where my head is on this January morning: when I get back to the office on Monday, January 8th, I and my team need to finish up the process of outlining our fiscal year 2019 plan and determining how much everything will cost.

As we near the end of our planning period, I thought I’d share a few of the big questions we’ve asked ourselves as part of the process, which began back in September and will be all tied up in early February when I have to submit our official budget. In this blog post and subsequent ones, I’ll write about those questions and how we endeavored to answer them.

Question #1: What’s the ultimate goal for our work?

That’s a big one. I’ve worked at the same museum for 16 years and for most of those years I have been involved in leading efforts to create programs, resources, spaces, and leadership opportunities for K-12 students, teens, and families. Annual planning has always involved shaping a strategy, priorities, and actions for the year ahead.

This year we looked further out, asking ourselves what the ultimate outcome of our work should be. This entailed getting two divisions of our department together—School Programs and Youth and Family Programs—to craft an impact statement for our shared efforts to reach and engage young people. An impact statement is a one-sentence articulation of what an organization (or group within an organization, as in our case) intends to deliver at the highest level.

Crafting an impact statement can be tricky. We often propose our work in future-facing language about what the museum will do for/with a group of people (e.g. This new digital initiative will empower families to…). An impact statement centers the community, group of people, or system and the intended effect it expresses is much deeper and broader than any one program, resource, initiative, or group can achieve on its own.

A good example of a succinct statement of intended impact comes from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History: “Our Community Grows Stronger and More Connected.” Nina Simon writes about the process of defining the museum’s impact and theory of change in a series of blog posts from 2015.

In our process, we found it was sometimes challenging to not have our impact statement include an indication of the changes our museum needs to make in order to be a more welcoming, inclusive, and equitable place for young people. Ultimately, though, an impact statement is not an articulation of organizational transformation. It is an expression of the positive change that will happen for people if your organization makes the right plans and executes them well. So, it sits out there at the very end of your theory of change or logic model; it’s the beacon on the horizon toward which you point all of your efforts, including those aimed at internal change.

This a basic theory of change model:

If we do these things (strategy, actions) >>> then these immediate outcomes will be achieved (e.g. teens will be involved in enriching arts-centered activities after school) >>> and then these intermediate outcomes will be achieved (e.g. teens will develop their creative voice in an inclusive environment) >>> and then ultimately this impact will be achieved (this is where the impact statement lives).

The distance between outcomes and impact is somewhat indeterminate. Generally, immediate outcomes are things we can observe in the space of a program or learning opportunity. But we know that transformation doesn’t happen right before our eyes. It can take years for an idea, an inclination, a way of seeing one’s self to take shape. The long horizon and aspirational focus of impact makes it very difficult to evaluate. I’ll try to come back to this in a subsequent post.

Back to our process. We began our exercise by using a series of sentence stems to keep us focused on the people rather than the programs or the museum. These were the ones we used:

I wish for every child and teen to feel…

Through an encounter in the museum every child and teen should be able to…

Every child and teen should walk away with…

To be honest, these are flawed sentence stems, and these flaws were well debated during the process. The second two were particularly problematic. Many people bristled at the word “should.” Rightly so, it does feel a bit like we intend to impose our will upon young people in these sentences. Once we wrestled with and moved beyond the imperfectness of language, we generated dozens of sentences that surfaced our aspirations for the affective, cognitive, social, and other dimensions of our work with youth. I should note that we did this first within our divisions—School Programs and Youth and Family Programs—separately, in two sessions each.

Then, we got this big group together to winnow pages of aspirational language down to one statement, using this protocol:

- first, people worked in pairs (one person from each division) to synthesize and craft a provisional statement
- then, pairs grouped together into 4s to share and synthesize their respective ideas
- then, we moved into two large groups of 8 to further synthesize ideas

At the end of the hour, we had a small handful of working ideas that were fairly close together. Subsequently, the head of School Programs, Sarah Alvarez, and I got together to merge and prune our language into one draft impact statement, which I’ll share in my next post after it has been reviewed and accepted by our teams.

At times, I and others have questioned the merit of spending much time on this effort of defining impact in one sentence. Can you really sum up one’s aspirations in 20 words or less? Have we approached this as thoughtfully as possible? What haven’t we considered yet? With all these questions, I remain optimistic that this process has positioned us to better align the efforts of a talented staff to the needs of youth and with the resources at hand and will enable us to communicate the value of the museum for and to young people in Chicago.

If you’re interested, here’s another good story in Medium about a museum seeking to define its social impact, by Kelly McKinley, Deputy Director of the Oakland Museum of California.