Monthly Mentor

Mary Elizabeth Meier (May)
Dr. Mary Elizabeth Meier is a professor in art education, a printmaker and mixed media artist, narrative researcher, and consultant for professional learning in arts education. She teaches pre-service art teachers as they complete their University field experience coursework and supervised student-teaching internships in art education. She teaches graduate students in the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania fully online masters program in art education. Meier also works in school districts to lead professional development workshops for art and music teachers in the areas of qualitative assessment, student learning, and the habits and dispositions of creative and artistic work. Click to read full bio.



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Thursday 05.25.17

Assess What Matters Most

From: Mary Elizabeth Meier

Teachers and students in k-12 classroom studios can work together to build a culture of creative idea development. The events that unfold are worth documenting. Documentation is a pedagogical orientation that students and teachers can take up together. Teachers can facilitate routines to fuel rigorous, spontaneous, and artful teaching/learning practices in which students’ artistic and creative exploration and growth are of primary importance. By documenting these experiences, we can reflect on them and expand them. By analyzing the information we gather, students and teacher assess what matters most.

Teachers who feel administrative pressure to comply with institutional assessment mandates might use a written quiz to assess students in their ability to identify discrete concepts (e.g., elements and principles of design). However, I urge art teachers to move beyond the format of quantitative, selected response quiz for assessments. We can use qualitative assessments as opportunities focus our attention on broad concepts, habits, dispositions, and events that are indicators of the most important aspects of student’s and teacher’s creative and artistic practice.

I use qualitative assessment design as a means of gathering information about student learning in order to fuel each student in idea development and artistic process. I teach pre-service teachers and coach in-service art teachers to do this work. I also reflect on my experience as an art teacher in elementary, middle level and high school settings. My first task as a teacher-facilitator is to attempt to identity what matters most for students to learn and then find ways to document and describe the qualities of experiences that unfold in the journey of learning. Secondly, I remain open to all of the rich experiences that will unfold in collaboration with students, especially those that I could not predict. Even as I attempt to pre-plan what matters most, I recognize that I cannot predetermine all that each student will learn. Furthermore, my information gathering teaches me what students find to be most important and most interesting about their experiences. My pedagogical orientation keeps me attune, awake, and listening to what students are learning. My assessment practice is rooted in gathering this information. I remain open to what students bring to the learning experience and what transpires in the real-time bustle of the studio classroom experience. Assessment is a back and forth process of gathering information as the story unfolds. Together, we assess what matters most, not what is easiest. We use the information we gather (students and teacher as collaborators) as an integral part of creative idea development. In this way, our assessment process is aligned with what we believe about art education. It is a contemporary, emergent process.

The ideas I set forth here correspond with an invitation to re-think assessment literacy for k-12 studio classroom contexts. I am developing open-ended assessment tools to empower art teachers to design their own information gathering methods. Our field is in need of bold art teachers who can advance new assessment practices. These practices will support what they believe is most important about working through artistic practice and advancing the unique work of art education in the art of teaching-learning.

I believe the creative idea development and processes of thinking via making are worth teaching, and therefore worth assessing. What do you believe about art education? What are the most important concepts and experiences, which are tied to your core beliefs? If these ideas are worth teaching, then they are worth assessing.


Wednesday 05.17.17

Assessment is Gathering Information About Student Learning

From: Mary Elizabeth Meier

Typically, the term, assessment is associated with numerical grading scales, objective testing, and quantitative accountability measures. In the art studio-classroom, I recommend that we shift toward a qualitative process of gathering information about student learning. When we gather qualitative information, we focus on qualities of experience rather than quantifications or arbitrary numerical representations. I advocate for a method of assessment that moves beyond simplified criterion based evaluation. Instead, rich descriptions and documentation of the qualities of emerging experience, process, questions, thinking, and making that fuel each students’ artistic process are important.

What does this look like in practice for teachers and professors who work in a studio-classroom context? One example of a shift toward gathering qualitative information is to work with students to develop open-ended lists that describe qualities of idea development and artistic behavior. For example, using the Studio Thinking 2: Habits of Mind (Hetland, Winner, Veenema, & Sheridan, 2013) as a framework, teachers and students can work together to explore the ways that an artist can “stretch and explore” or “engage and persist.” Students can learn to identify, analyze and reflect on the habits and dispositions that are related to creative thinking.

When I teach idea development in my University level Printmaking I course, I use the following student learning outcome (SLO).

Student Learning Outcome: Students will creative and revise ideas in stages of creative process.

SLO Assessment task: Students will 1) develop a sketchbook into a research notebook, 2) analyze and reflect on sketchbook entries, and 3) develop a series of prints that grows from individualized research and creative idea development.

Students made frequent entries in a spiral bound blank sketchbook. They used the sketchbook as a place to gather evidence about their individual creative process and in generating and revising ideas in the stages of monotype, monoprint, and relief printmaking methods. There were four opportunities during the semester for students to demonstrate their learning and processes. At two times during the semester they selected 5 pages from their sketchbook to photocopy and share with me, the professor. We conferred about their ideas using their visual and narrative analysis of their sketchbook entries. Students made their analysis visible to me by using sticky notes and marginalia to annotate the photocopies of sketchbook pages they selected. Later, they expanded their annotations to write a reflection paper as an interpretive analysis of their sketchbook work. Lastly, students developed their unique idea development workflow as they created a culminating print project in which they made many choices and exercised freedom in demonstrating 1) their understanding of the process of research in developing imagery as meaning making and 2) creating a hybrid process of making prints using two or more methods (e.g. planographic and relief).

The following are descriptors of habits for creative idea development. I have written them into an open-ended, flexible list that is a tool for assessment. I use these descriptors to encourage university students majoring in graphic design, art education, art therapy, and studio art to use their research notebook/sketchbook in the idea development phases of works in progress. These descriptors appear on the checklist under the heading, “engage and persist” (Hetland et. al., 2013). The list is not intended to prescribe precisely how students will engage and persist. Rather, I use it to provide ideas for a student to begin their own working process. There is also a blank, open field in the list for students to write in their own descriptors of their process.

* Poses new questions, expands an idea that originates in wondering, questioning
* Experiments and refines work with tools, materials, methods, techniques
* Tries new approaches, ideas, with curiosity
* Takes risks and plays with error/failure
* Pushes the limits, imagines more possibilities
* Plays with ideas and concepts using multiple approaches
* Seeks alternatives, finds what is missing, views the problem from a different perspective
* Moves between what is and what could be
* Adapts a known model

This assessment task draws on formative (sketchbook pages with annotated analysis and written reflection) and summative (culminating project) components. To give students feedback about the information we were gathering about their learning, we used one open ended checklist as a scoring tool to give individualized feedback in the form or written comments as relevant to three sources of evidence (10 pages from sketchbook, reflection paper, and final artwork).  To meet the University administrative mandate of the SLO, I set the target/goal for 75% of students show strong evidence of the qualities of generating and revising ideas in stages of creative process. We met our target when 79% students in the Printmaking I course demonstrated proficiency in the following dimensions of the assessment rubric:

* Research and making connections with artists and movements
* Observational drawing and sensory observation
* To engage and persist in idea development and technical methods
* To stretch and explore in idea development and technical process
* To reflect, revise, and refine stages of creative process

I believe that idea development and habits of creative thinking are worth assessing. We must empower art teachers who may feel caught up in institutionalized assessment practices (e.g., grading, testing, SLOs, and teacher evaluation) to find support in contemporary assessment literacy that is aligned with what we believe about art education. I argue that we should assess what matters most. In the next blog post I will expand the idea of failure as part of the principle, “assess what matters.”



Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. M. (2013). Studio Thinking 2: The real benefits of visual arts education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.



Monday 05. 1.17

The Practice of Assessment as Information Gathering

From: Dr. Mary Elizabeth Meier

In the role of University professor, I mentor art educators as they consider structures and routines to support k-12 art students in creative thinking, idea development, and other emergent learning experiences. The process that an art teacher undertakes to design learning experiences for students is related to developing ideas in stages of artistic process. More specifically, I encourage both pre-service and in-service art teachers to think about their process of curricular and assessment design as alike to their own working style as an artist.

Recently, students (the undergraduate art education students enrolled a University course I teach) and I were comparing methods to support high school art students with timely feedback about their work in progress. We debated the role and value of a final, summative critique to fuel students’ process of learning and idea development in art. One student expressed a preference for in-process critiques to occur at the mid-way stage of making hand-built ceramic work. She explained that well-timed feedback could allow a student to implement suggestions immediately. Positive, specific feedback is one facet of assessment that is designed to fuel students in their artistic process.

In this series of blog posts, I will outline a set of recommendations for contemporary art education as related to the practice of assessment as information gathering. These recommendations are those that I teach in my undergraduate and graduate University courses and are the basis for many professional learning workshops that I lead for in-service art and music teachers. The six ideas listed below form a basic framework for a “teacher’s toolkit” in assessment practices that is responsive to emergent curriculum, creative choice, and qualitative methods. Here is a brief look at some of the ideas I will write about this month as the NAEA monthly mentor for May 2017:

- Assessment is gathering information about student learning
- We should assess what matters most
- Assessment fuels each student’s artistic process with well timed, specific feedback
- The work of assessment is shared by students and teachers
- We can develop assessment tools to support exploration and idea development in students over time


Thursday 04.27.17

Shinique Smith in the K-1 Classroom: Discovery, Transformation and Crazy-Pants Art! Evaluation and Reflection - Part 2

From: Jennifer Childress

The effect of fear of judgment on creative work has been studied by a number of psychologists. Consider this article from Psychology Today, in their special issue, “The Enemies of Invention”:

Fear of Failure Narrows Vision
Wide-ranging thought requires a sense of freedom from consequence
By Peter Gray

“Support for this idea comes from Harvard Business School psychologist Teresa Amabile, who, in numerous experiments, sought the conditions that enhance or diminish creativity. She asked participants—sometimes children, sometimes adults—to produce a creative product, such as a collage, a poem, or a short story. Then the products were evaluated for creativity by a panel of experts. Though performed independently, the judges' evaluations were quite consistent from one to another. In general, they deemed creative those products that were original and surprising, yet also somehow meaningful and coherent.

“In several experiments, Amabile told some of the participants that their products would be evaluated for creativity by an expert panel. For others, she then added that their product would be entered into a contest—with prizes for the most creative products. A third group of participants were told nothing.

“In experiment after experiment, the participants who made the most creative products were those who didn't know their work would be evaluated. They were just playing—not concerned about judgments or rewards.

“These findings support the work of another psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She theorizes that positive emotions broaden our perception and thought—allowing us to put ideas and information together in new, creative, useful ways—while negative emotions narrow our perceptions and thought, because we are focusing primarily on the stimulus that initiated the emotion (for example, an evaluator, or the consequences of failure).

“Both these ways of perceiving and thinking are useful; both are products of natural selection. When not faced with immediate threats to our survival, we use our minds to find new ways of doing things and help one another. Faced with immediate threats, we use our minds to deal with the threat (if a tiger is chasing us, it's best to use well-learned ways of escaping from it, not dream up new ways of doing so). Fresh ideas run the risk of failure, so we're biologically constructed to cut creativity off when failure has serious consequences.

“Evaluation, when it is not asked for and when it has consequences, as it does in school or at work, is a threat. It inhibits new learning and new insights. Of course feedback from an expert can be helpful in improving any idea or product, especially if it is sought by the creator. But creativity is stifled if the main goal becomes feedback—either receiving the positive or avoiding the negative. It's no wonder children are less creative when classrooms are centered on evaluation. For students who take academics seriously, continual testing creates continual threat. Their minds are focused on fears: How do I deal with this test? How do I please this teacher?

“…It's hard to be creative in such conditions. Feedback generally promotes effort—because we want to impress the evaluator—but effort is insufficient for creativity. We can't be more creative just by trying harder. We must relax in a way that permits the full engagement of unconscious mental processes—ones that generate unusual associations and new ideas. These work best when we are playing, not when we are striving for praise or a reward (Gray, P., 2013).”

While Gray points out some not-so-surprising-for-teachers study results, we must ask ourselves, is the expectation that we not grade students on artwork or not give feedback realistic? Appropriate? Practiced by artists in their personal lives and artworld?  The answers lie somewhere in the juncture between the purpose of a lesson or a class, the age of the students, their expertise levels, and the appropriate when’s and how’s of feedback.

As we know from being makers of art and observing our artist colleagues, artists move back and forth between periods of dampened frontal lobe work (which allows suppression of judgment in order that many ideas to be allowed to generate) when they are in a state of flow, and periods of self-evaluation (editing, rearranging, etc.) as the works are iterated and take final form (Lano, 2012).  Then works are subjected to other reviewers, and eventually the public. Sometimes an artist revises work based on outside feedback, sometimes not; but usually as a result of some kind of final self-evaluation.

Increasingly, newer studies point to cooperation between the brain’s default mode network (the network that is active during creative flow) and the executive function network (self-control, judgment, etc.) in relation to creativity. The salience network is actively involved, helping the thinker to switch modes, based on stimuli. From the abstract, “Default and Executive Network Coupling Supports Creative Idea Production” (full publication available, see citations at end of blog post):

“…network efficiency was found to increase as a function of individual differences in divergent thinking ability. Moreover, temporal connectivity analysis revealed increased coupling between default and salience network regions (bilateral insula) at the beginning of the task, followed by increased coupling between default and executive network regions at later stages. Such dynamic coupling suggests that divergent thinking involves cooperation between brain networks linked to cognitive control and spontaneous thought, which may reflect focused internal attention and the top-down control of spontaneous cognition during creative idea production (Beaty, et al, 2015).”

Combining these studies with observations of how artists work, it would seem that judgment or evaluation is a critical (no pun intended) aspect of creativity, rather than the anathema suggested by Amabile and Fredrickson’s studies. We all have those terrible memories, however, of art teachers in school, or college professors in our degree programs (those looooooooong critiques) who did not spur us to work more freely or inventively, and sometimes damaged our budding efforts to become artists. Could it be that growing robust, resilient artists with thick-enough skins – whether in school or across a lifetime – requires a very delicate balancing act between internally and externally-directed focus? How do we become more aware of and sensitive to providing those opportunities in our classroom, and honoring the value of each? Of teaching our students to grow into adults who can manage a personally calibrated balance for themselves? What then becomes the purpose of assessment in art classrooms?



Beaty, R.E., Benedik, M., Kaufman, S.B., Silvia, P.J. (2015, June 17). Default and executive network coupling      supports creative idea production. Nature. Retrieved from         

Gray, P. (2013, May 7). Fear of failure narrows vision: Wide-ranging thought requires a sense of       freedom from consequence. Psychology Today. Retrieved from         

Lano, A. (2012, July 25). The science of creativity: Music-obsessed otolaryngologist Charles Limb believes his   studies of the brain could lead to improved treatment for hearing loss. The Hub. Retrieved from

Wednesday 04.26.17

Shinique Smith in the K-1 Classroom: Discovery, Transformation and Crazy-Pants Art! Evaluation and Reflection - Part 1

From: Jennifer Childress

As the lesson was completed, Erica evaluated the student work, but the evaluations were not shared with students, as the purpose was for Erica to determine where students had issues and strengths. Other reasons for not sharing evaluations with students included the possible negative effects of evaluation on work that was meant to be exploratory and discovery-based, especially for this age level.

In her reflections, Erica wrote:

Looking back at the student work that was completed during the guided discovery portion of the day’s lesson, I found that several students went above and beyond in creating their forms. Although this was evident in the work of several students, I will discuss only three. J___, a first grader, combined materials in unconventional ways that I did not demonstrate during class. She wrapped styrofoam bricks in socks and fabric, tying multiple segments of yarn onto the forms. A___, another first grader, tied consecutive knots in her yarn, more than the required double-knot, and created woven-looking segments. N____ is a kindergartener who brought in a figurine as her found object from home. To transform the everyday object into a beautiful sculpture, she decided to make a cape for her figurine out of fabric and yarn.

This lesson was full to the brim with opportunities for talented and gifted students to exceed expectations and discover many ways to transform the materials outside of what was demonstrated. Options were given in terms of which provided materials to use, how to combine, interchange, and transform them, and what materials could be brought from home. Options had a wide range of difficulty levels. This ensured that all students had choice and opportunity to determine their own level of challenge and adventurousness.

…The last day with the students will provide 15 minutes to complete the Shinique Smith lesson, as well as post-assessment. In order to increase this success in the last 15 minutes next class, I have prepared different opportunities for students to challenge themselves during the collaborative session where they will work together to form a large floor sculpture out of their smaller individual parts. I will bring rocks, pipes, and other small found objects for students to arrange in addition to their own sculptures. How they arrange these objects will be up to the students, as I will only demonstrate that the objects can be set side by side to make a line, like Shinique Smith has shown in her sculpture. It is my hope that they will get creative and find other ways as well.

Erica’s evaluation of the student work can be downloaded here (Insert ET_Visuals and Student Work Evaluation_Smith-Complete). The following images have been extracted from from her evaluation presentation.

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When looking back on her lesson, it seemed obvious to Erica that the students needed more time for her very ambitious lesson; time to talk more about Smith’s work and their own; to think, wonder, play, explore, etc. Yet the need for structure and guidance remained as necessary to promote the best conditions for creativity for all students, carried out in a physically, socially, and emotionally safe classroom. 

In Erica’s final reflection, part of a letter to an incoming lab teacher, she wrote:

Though you may want to be the kind, nurturing teacher you remember loving as a child, you still need to be firm and fair. This was something I struggled with during the beginning of the semester. As a people-pleaser, it is hard for me to be assertive at times, and I tend to have a very nurturing demeanor when it comes to children. While it is good to be nurturing as a teacher, especially with younger students, you cannot maintain control of a classroom without learning to be firm, fair, and assertive.

Students enjoy a good mix between fun and firm, they need that balance to feel like they are in a calm and collected learning environment. Without the balance, chaos will be imminent, and students don’t learn well in a chaotic learning environment. My advice is to save yourself the trouble and implement rules and consequences early on. Make sure you follow through with them! If you implement rules and consequences without following through, students will see that they can push your boundaries of what is acceptable behavior. There is a time and place for freedom in an art lesson, but it needs to be bridled, and structured well.

On the topic of behavior management, one of my best moments during the lab teaching semester was during my final, discovery-based lesson. After using the first few lessons as a way to develop basic artistic skills and behavioral expectations, I used my last lesson to give students the structured freedom of discovery. Watching them work independently, following behavioral expectations, and inventing new ways to use the sculptural materials, was a culmination of everything I had achieved with them. It was also a reminder that in order to have a calm and fun learning environment like the one I had achieved, rules and consequences were absolutely necessary.

This idea of constraints providing both a balance and spur to creativity is explored in depth in Sydney Walker’s book, Teaching Meaning in Artmaking. I will bring this into sharper focus in the next post.

What if the kindergarten and first grade had more days for the lesson? What new levels of creativity might have been explored? For example, what other shapes could the wrapped, tied, knotted objects have been arranged to form? Could objects be stacked? Painted on? Tied together and bundled? Put in one long line down the school halls? Could field trips be arranged for older classes to gather usable found objects prior to making art?

Fortunately, Erica was able to revise and extend her lesson and present it at the 8th grade level in her student teaching the following semester. It was very satisfying to give the lesson more breathing room, and see how different ages responded to Shinique Smith’s artwork.

You may view Erica's presentation here. If you are interested in learning more about Erica’s lesson, she welcomes you to contact her at


Tuesday 04.25.17

Shinique Smith in the K-1 Classroom: Discovery, Transformation and Crazy-Pants Art! Days 2 & 3

From: Jennifer Childress

ET_Section_A_LP8_Smith JC edits_Page_18

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As Erica planned for day 2, she made some changes in her original expectations for Kindergarten and first grade, as she had anticipated might be needed. Both grades made a few more objects with increasing independence, including wrapping or altering items they brought from home, such as stuffed animals, shoes, and the like. Items from home brought about both nostalgic conversation and lots of hilarity.

Erica asking for student advice on which shapes to put whereErica asking for student advice on which shapes to put where

Then each student arranged his or her objects on a cardboard “slice” to connect solid objects linearly, like points that make a solid line. She demonstrated how to “compose” the line by asking herself questions first, using the “think aloud” method to help students develop self-talk. “Hmmm- I think I’ll start with this tied pipe and put it… here… then maybe this one? No – this one – it fits better…” By the third object, she was asking students for advice and to explain their reasoning. Once students moved on to independent “line-composing,” I observed them asking themselves and each other similar questions, and thoughtfully arranging, then rearranging pieces.

First grade working on lining up objects -2

First grade working on lining up objects (above and below)

First grade working on lining up objects -2

In addition, Erica brought in extra items they could incorporate, adding even more discovery opportunities to the lesson:

I will bring rocks, pipes, and other small found objects for students to arrange in addition to their own sculptures. How they arrange these objects will be up to the students, as I will only demonstrate that the objects can be set side by side to make a line, like Shinique Smith has shown in her sculpture. It is my hope that they will get creative and find other ways as well.

Attaching the objects proved to be much more difficult and time consuming than anticipated, even with an extra helper in the room, Erica’s fiancé, whom the students called “Mr. Erica.” First grade was able to move on to the collaborative organization of their individual “slices” of cardboard, while Kindergarten did not. For K, that was saved for the 15 minutes grabbed from a third day, which was slated for student review and reflection on their full ten-lesson portfolio.

Erica reflected:

During day two of this lesson, the first graders exceeded my expectations in terms of the number of forms they were able to make and how creative they were with their problem-solving. Because of this, it was hard for me to slow their momentum when it was time to move on from the discovery-based portion of the lesson to begin arranging their forms on the slices. This caused me to run out of time for the collaborative session as well as an opportunity for real closure. I sacrificed a successful closure to give the students time to arrange their forms on their cardboard slices. This ended up taking a lot more time and effort than I thought it would. With the kindergarteners, I decided to end with a successful closure rather than attempting to fasten their sculptures to their slices after seeing how long it took to do with the first graders.

I think that this happened because the lesson was so discovery-driven, and I think I tried to cram too much into just two days. I’m very lucky that I will have 15 minutes during the last lesson to catch up with both classes. However, I’m glad that I didn’t cut the students too short from the discovery portion because they were all so engaged. Each student challenged themselves in a positive way and I would hate to have stopped the students before they had completed their last forms. However, I know by sacrificing closure I lost other important aspects of learning. Never enough time!!

The appropriate solution for this problem would be to create a successful closure in the next lesson and try to reflect on both days.

The final and third day, first grade students had wonderful conversations about whose slice should go where, as they took turns organizing their individual “lines” into an explosive, circular composition on the floor. Kindergartners created their lines, and the slices were carefully transported in to the hallway. Later, Erica and some of her lab peers worked on attaching any loose objects.

The results, as seen here in the lab school’s art exhibit, came out wonderfully! The two class’s installations greeted visiting parents, teachers, and students as they entered the gymnasium, where the spring semester exhibit was held.  The art exhibit features K-8 artwork, from two different art ed lab teaching courses – Curriculum and Assessment in Art, and Methods of Lab Teaching. These photos were taken an hour before the opening. The panoramic shot also includes the school principal, caught asking a question mid-photo.  

Kindergarten InstallationLab School Spring 2016 Art Exhibit

Kindergarten InstallationFirst Grade Installation

Kindergarten InstallationKindergarten Installation

Kindergarten InstallationKindergarten Installation Close-Up


Monday 04.24.17

Shinique Smith in the K-1 Classroom: Discovery, Transformation and Crazy-Pants Art! Day 1

From: Jennifer Childress

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Another lab teacher from our program, Erica Taussig, had already investigated Shinique Smith as a primary artistic influence on her personal studio work. She wanted to introduce her kindergarten and first grade lab classes to Smith’s investigative spirit and highly tactile sculptural installations. Her success as a contemporary black female artist with urban roots, and her wonderfully inventive artwork – on a very large scale (about 25’ in diameter) seemed like a great inspiration for our young students, and that definitely proved to be the case. 

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Erica thought these facts about Smith, gleaned from her research, were relevant to the lesson she was developing:

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The lesson’s primary purposes were to allow students to use discovery learning to make artworks, to make art from entirely unexpected materials, and to experience the joy that comes from independent problem-solving and working with colorful, exciting and highly tactile materials. The artistic strategies of using one solution to generate new questions and new problems to explore, and to see everyday items from a fresh perspective were key to this lesson. As Art Markman noted in his article on promoting creativity in Psychology Today,

“When you ask most people to do something creative, they quickly get stuck in a rut. Studies by The University of Alabama's Thomas Ward and his colleagues asked college students to draw animals from alien planets. Nearly all the animals people drew resembled real ones from Earth. They had similar sensory organs, legs, and arms and were symmetrical. Even when asked to be creative, people based their work on known examples. And that observation forms the basis of a crucial technique for generating new ideas.

Your memory automatically calls up information that is related to what you are thinking about… If you want to change the way you approach a creative problem, then you need to change what you are thinking about. You need to describe the situation in a new way. That will change what you pull from your memory and the knowledge you use to solve the problem…

A key strategy for changing what you think about is to find the essence of the creative problem you're trying to solve. Start by looking at how you described it. Then, see if there is another way to frame that issue and explore where that takes you (Markman, A., 2013, May 7). (emphasis mine)

In other words, look at things like an artist does – from multiple angles, and from different associations.

The results of the 2-day lesson (plus another 15 minutes on a third day) showed that both kindergartners and first-graders were capable – and unsurprisingly, very eager – to explore and invent new forms by combining everyday items like cloth scraps, socks, foam blocks, stuffing, yarn, string, etc.  As our lab teachers were required to write reflections on each lesson, throughout this post I will share Erica’s thoughts on this lesson and how it changed from her expectations.

Erica wrote:

Students expressed great fascination in transforming everyday objects like socks, yarn, clothing, and styrofoam into beautiful sculptures. They yielded a widely differing range of forms, and were eager to solve technical problems which arose during the art making process, like how to tie a knot, wrap yarn, stuff socks with styrofoam, etc. Many students went an extra step with their creative problem-solving by adding extra yarn to their sculpture, or tying a bow with their yarn, rather than a simple knot.

I feel that by choosing an artist who solves problems that are very approachable to students of this age level, I was able to really engage all students in this lesson. The media not only had a tactile appeal to the students, but created a tactile challenge as well, as students this age are learning to tie their shoes and are at that point where developing fine motor skills like the ones addressed in the lesson are critical. Student interest and learning increases when ideas that students are familiar with are re-contextualized. In this lesson, students were excited to solve the creative problem of transforming everyday objects into beautiful sculptures because the everyday objects were taken out of the context that they are used to.

On day 1, after having conversations about Shinique Smith’s artworks, what they were made of, and her ways of working and thinking, Erica demonstrated different ways to make forms. Before demonstrating, however, she increased the level of palpable excitement in the room by handing out bags of surprise materials to small groups that could not be opened but kept secret. Student helpers eventually were in charge of passing out certain materials at a time to their group, to help students stay focused on one task at a time and listen carefully to directions and demonstrations. Day 1 was considered the “skill-building” day more than the exploratory day, though plenty of new discoveries were taking place.

From Erica’s reflections:

As eager as the students were to transform everyday objects into beautiful sculptures, the students are still developing the fine motor skills that this lesson addresses, so we didn’t end up having enough time for the free-creation time that I had scheduled into the lesson. This was fine though, because I realized students needed to really practice these skills to get them down.

Using the classic method of gradual release, first Erica showed one example, then had students follow her step by step in how to stuff a sock with a foam block, and make a colorful rectangular solid.  Students were allowed to “finish” the block in whatever way they wanted (to deal with the leftover sock material). The next form was demonstrated and after students repeated back the steps, they proceeded on their own to make a tied form.

Erica demonstrating to KindergartenErica demonstrating to Kindergarten

For the next solid, a wrapped spherical form, students had to first use their deductive powers to figure out how it might have been made, then demonstrations followed. The forms provided much challenge for the 5 and 6-year-old’s fine motor skills, so Erica ended the day with a brief review of Smith’s work and how they had problem-solved their forms, rather than the free exploration she had planned. This was a good reminder that another important artist’s strait is to PRACTICE constantly, not just explore and invent. But the quality and nature of that practice is important. A particular frustration for our lab teacher was that in the Kindergarten class, which took place in the children’s regular classroom, the aide had to be discouraged from doing the activity for struggling children, rather than assisting/coaching from the side so that the child did most of the work. This did not happen in Grade 1, whose teacher expected the first-graders to develop more independence.

She wrote:

As much as I didn’t want to, I did end up tying knots and wrapping rubber bands for those students who absolutely could not perform the task on their own, even after re-teaching how to do so. In my kindergarten class, I noticed that the classroom helper, Mrs. ___, got up and began helping students by actually completing these tasks for them, rather than letting them do it themselves.

I feel that I did have to help the students who absolutely couldn’t complete the tasks even after I re-taught them how. This was especially true for my kindergarten class where some students simply hadn’t ever learned how to tie their shoes or wrap a rubber band. I can’t expect them to be able to do that after 1-2 tries, they need lots of practice. However, Mrs. ___ was reinforcing their “I don’t know how” way of avoiding a task by completing it for them without attempting to re-teach them first.

In day two of the lesson, there will no doubt still be students who are not developmentally at a point where they can complete some of these fine motor tasks. However, I plan to stress before independent art-making time that I want students to be able to try as hard as they possibly can to complete the task before receiving help because they had a chance to practice the skills last class. It is my hope that after repeating this expectation multiple times, Mrs. ___ will not feel as inclined to complete tasks for the students before re-teaching and making absolutely sure that they cannot do it themselves.

… Although I had planned moments where single students could come up and help demonstrate, I decided to cut time and exchange participation during demonstration with focusing on helping students strengthen the fine motor skills required during the times when I circulated the room. This is not to say that there was no participation during demonstration, because I had the entire class participate by telling me how to tie a knot, double knot, rubber band, etc. …I exchanged moments for demonstration participation for time to practice skills because I felt that skill acquisition was more important than participation during this [day of the] lesson. Although it sacrificed participation during demonstration for this lesson, I feel it was still a wise choice because extra time spent practicing sets the students up for success during the free-creation time planned for day two of the lesson.

I also planned an opportunity for students to participate on a personal level by collecting an everyday object from home and bringing it in to incorporate into their sculpture (with parent/guardian permission). Students were very excited about this.

For day two of the lesson, I want to push the students and encourage them to get really creative with the materials and discover what they can do, now that they have practiced the fine motor skills required. In addition, I will provide a segment of time for students to discover how all of the sculptures they made can then fit together to form a larger whole, allowing them to realize the positive impact of collaboration with peers. Over the course of the lesson, the level of discovery-based learning will continue to grow incrementally, until reaching its peak at the moment the students discover the larger whole.

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Markman, A. (2013, May 7). The danger of starting in the same old place: Reframing known problems offers   a creative fix. Psychology Today. Retrieved from         


Friday 04.21.17

How did the lab teacher build in opportunities for students to experience Kngwarreye’s approach to making art?

From: Jennifer Childress

In M.A.’s 6th grade lesson, students were first introduced to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work through classroom discussion based on images of Kngwarreye’s work; art criticism questioning; and contextual information about Emily’s life, her nature-based sources of imagery, and the Dreamtime. Students were very eager to discuss her work and were awed by its scale. They had also just completed a week of ELA testing and were very happy to have an extra art lesson that day. The art lesson was held in the regular classroom, so after discussion accompanied by worksheets as a class, desks were moved aside and the floor cleared for work. Shower liners were used to protect the floor, and swaths of brown craft paper were (eventually) taped down. M.A. also provided demonstrations of how to use the paint, and she invited students to help with the demonstrations as though they were apprentices.

M.A.’s lesson was developed for groups rather than individuals, for practical and conceptual reasons. First, she wanted students out of their desks and sitting on the floor (similar to Emily Kngwarreye) as they painted on large-scale lengths of brown paper. This required them to experience the full body, physical aspect of how Kngwarreye painted, and prevented a sense of preciousness that often accompanies making art on small desk-top. Hopefully this would free students up for experimentation as well.

The use of small groups made it possible for the students to finish multiple large works in the allotted time period; timed sessions urged students to work without excess deliberation; and the collaborative aspect encouraged independent problem-solving and on-the-spot visual solutions.

Students were given one size of brush to use but were encouraged to experiment making meandering lines of paint on smaller pieces of paper before moving to the larger “canvases.” They were provided with worksheets This helped them have more confidence as they took on the bigger task. Aborigine music was played during work sessions to help create a rhythmic mood, and to hopefully help students pace themselves.

Required Criteria:

1. Students must work in collaboration with their group members to create a large-scale painting based on EKK’s work.
2. Students must create one group painting using a wandering line and all paintings must include an irregular pattern with shapes in between the lines.
3. Students must work intuitively, no pre-planning (like pencil marks) except for quick check-ins with each other; and no corrections of painted lines.
4. Each student must paint 2 starting lines from one edge of the paper to the other (this was to encourage working the whole space of the paper).

Student Choice: 

1. The group collectively decides on the type of irregular pattern to apply to their painting, based on natural imagery.
2. The group decides on two color choices.
3. The group decides when the painting is complete.
4. The group decides on how to proceed, after completing two lines each.
5. Individuals create their own interpretations of the patterns within their own working space, but must make lines connect as they move towards each other’s work.

Though the painting was to be intuitive, M.A. wanted them to experience letting “one line inform the next,” which required remaining aware of the whole (natural pattern-like) as each small part was completed. Most groups were able to sustain this kind of focus for only about half of the painting time; many got caught up in the fun of painting freely, and ended up making hasty scribbly marks. It was clear after the lesson was completed that the timed work sessions needed to be shorter at first, then gradually lengthened to accommodate 11 and 12-year old attention spans (on a Friday afternoon in April, after a week of testing, no less!)

Nevertheless, most students expressed great enthusiasm for this new way of painting they had never before experienced, and were definitely eager to learn more about Kngwarreye and her work, and to do further experimentation. One student, who was standing out in the hall after school to admire her classmates’ drying works of art, declared, “This was the best art lesson I ever had!”

The slides included in this post have been excerpted from the lesson portion of M.A.’s lesson PPT (slides 28-54). They capture key moments of this lesson based on Kngwarreye’s artwork and painting methods, and include pictures of student work in progress.

In the full version of the PPT, the lab teacher includes her formative and summative assessment methods, evaluates the student work to note what students understood and struggled with; and evaluates her planning and instruction after completion (the full PPT in PDF form can be downloaded here).

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Wednesday 04.19.17

What guides the selection of an artist’s thinking and working processes, and contextual information for a lesson based on that artist’s work?

From: Jennifer Childress

In this lesson on Emily Kame Kngwarreye, the lab teacher (M.A.) and I dug into a range of sources to learn about Kngwarreye. Her life experiences, imagery, inspiration, and cultural cosmology deeply informed Kngwarreye’s working methods and artistic outcomes – indeed they were inseparably intertwined with how she created her art. In Emily’s words, they were “Whole lot. The whole lot.”

The question the lab teacher had to wrestle with was how much could our students understand, and could they (or even should they try to) produce work that was informed by ideas from that belief system, without being disrespectful, duplicative, and/or shallow. Since this was a short lesson, the opportunity for 6th graders to learn about Aboriginal Dreamtime and Dreamings was limited. Fortunately, they had just completed a previous art lesson from another lab teacher on a different contemporary Aboriginal artist, Lin Onus, and already had some background on Aboriginal belief systems, the terrible treatment of Aboriginals in Australia, and their long struggle to gain civil rights. Even with this background, however, students had difficulty grasping the concept of Dreamtime as a past and present force, essential to the cultural life of Aborigines. It is such a non-Western concept that even we as teachers could only understand so much. That meant the struggle to understand, and why it was so hard would need to be discussed with students too.

Through our discussions, M.A. and I decided that Kngwarreye’s attitude towards sharing her art and teaching others about her culture provided an opening for this lesson to take place; and she would choose nature as a “neutral” source of imagery for the students. Kngwarreye saw the natural patterns and formations on the earth’s surface as visual evidence of her cosmology; nature could be an inspirational source for students from many different cultural backgrounds. Our lab school was a small urban Catholic school, which served a very diverse international population of students, not all of whom practiced Catholicism. The school’s curriculum encouraged learning about other religions and belief systems as well.

The slides included in this post have been excerpted from the research portion of M.A.’s lesson PPT. They capture much of the research that informed her lesson and eventual choices of working processes (the full PPT in PDF form can be downloaded here). It’s important to note that our research was much broader than what was selected for the PPT; the bibliography on slides 25-27 of the downloaded version provide many accessible sources for further exploration.

The lesson itself (starting on slide 28), contains a further reduced selection of contextual information – enough to help students grasp an essential facet of Kngwarreye’s work in the short 80 minutes they would have to learn about her and try out her methods of painting.

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The research M.A. and I did together uncovered many topics that would have informed a much lengthier exploration of Kngwarreye’s life and work, suitable for an older grade level. What wasn’t included in her lesson PPT are these “hot topics”:

 - The ancient roots – over 40,000 years – of Aboriginal culture and the renewal of that culture in the second half of the 20th Century.

- A deeper view into several centuries (including the 20th) of colonialism, labor exploitation, and genocide of Aboriginal peoples in Australia; and comparison to the treatment of Indian nations in our own country.

- Kngwarreye’s unusual background as a station (ranch) hand, an occupation she chose for herself instead of house servant, as most Aboriginal women were forced to become in the first half of the 20th Both occupations were little more than slave labor; but being a station hand gave Emily much more physical freedom.

- The wellspring of Kngwarreye’s work – interconnected forms of ritual practice, including song, music, dance, body paint, and sand painting.

- The cultural practice of using dots to cover sacred or sustaining information in art, not meant for the uninitiated (especially whites). 

- A more in depth review of Kngwarreye’s artistic background, her multiple and innovative painting styles spontaneously developed as new media were provided, and some comparison to Western art and artists. 

- The issue of ownership of Aboriginal artworks, the positive and negative effects of commercialization and fame on Aboriginal artists, including Kngwarreye; and once famous, the resulting claim of kinship to Emily by many who actually were not related by totem or blood. 

- Kngwarreye’s ambidextrous artistry, and the impact of a stroke late in life that changed her technique, her palette, and her imagery.

Sources for these topics are included in the bibliography.


Monday 04.10.17

What is the artist’s process, what do we learn from it, and how do we teach it?

From: Jen Childress

In the art education pre-service course, Curriculum and Assessment in Art, my students had to select a work by an artist from a non-Western culture and design a two-hour lesson around it. The lesson would roughly equal a short, extended lesson that could take place over three or four 40-minute class periods, but it would be carried out in an after-school program at our lab school. Students were encouraged (though not required) to sidestep the most obvious examples and look at works by artists who combined long-standing cultural traditions with contemporary life. I wanted them to expand their thinking about other art forms beyond the past, especially when those forms were no longer practiced, and beyond the usual suspects. In this way, they learned to have a primary experience with an unfamiliar work, rather than teach a “canned” or pre-made lesson that so often loses resonance after too much thoughtless repetition.

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The Teacher Thinking Process – Building Up

I designed the following process for investigating any work of art that would become the basis of a lesson, but the non-Western lesson was the first time these students practiced the steps.

1. The first thing that my students had to do to make a deeper connection with the artwork they were investigating, was to simply respond to the artwork and be with it.

2. The next step was to “from the gut” identify 5 or so big ideas they felt were connected to the work, or that the artist seemed to be exploring through the work. The theoretical background for this step came out of Sydney Walker’s Teaching Meaning in Artmaking (Davis, 2001) and Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005). To supplement, I created a handout on big ideas early on, and later added an article I wrote for the NYSATA News in 2010. After research, these big ideas would be revised and narrowed down to one or two, to guide the curriculum and working process in the lesson.

3. The third step was RESEARCH. Students needed to find multiple sources of information on that particular artist (when possible), style, culture, and time period; that particular artwork and its content; and what we called lateral research – any special media or techniques, location/geography, things featured in the work that raised questions and provided supporting context. Sources were found, read or listened to, highlighted, and then documented.

4. The fourth step was to analyze the artwork’s structure, starting with a graphic movement analysis and then – after narrowing down to 1 or 2 big ideas – selecting particular content, elements, and principles that seemed essential to the impression of the chosen big idea(s). In this way, the resulting lesson was sure to focus on how form creates meaning, rather than using an artwork to teach form or technique alone. And because I wanted students to reach beyond the traditional “7+7” commercialized list of e’s and p’s, I created a list for them to work with that referenced Walker and Gude; and summarized lists of design principles culled from multiple sources, which differ according to time period, author, publication, and/or institution. This list has undergone quite a few edits over many years of its use. You can find our 2015 Analysis Cheat Sheet version here. I first created this list many years ago when I noticed that my students lacked a rich vocabulary to describe the visual aspects of works of art.

5. Next, the students filled in a matrix with the analysis terms, that required them to build from simple to complex based roughly on Bloom’s Taxonomy. The matrix included a cell for special artistic working and/or media techniques; which should have arisen from the research. Later, as students designed their lessons, they would need to write questions utilizing a selection of these terms; the Bloom’s matrix would help them think about scaffolding the critical thinking process for their own students.

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6. The next step in the teacher thinking process was for the students to write statements that explained how the chosen analysis terms supported the chosen big idea(s) and were supported by research when possible. Research, however, could not be substituted for these statements. It was important that my lab teachers processed these connections on their own. Though guidance from their readings could help focus their thinking, without this step, students tended to substitute their art history/contextual research for having a direct and deep personal experience with the art; and in fact, at times did not even understand what they read. (Our program’s art historians also found a majority of our undergraduates and sometimes graduate students struggled with critical thinking; indeed, this seemed to be a college-wide issue in liberal arts courses).

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The Teacher Thinking Process – Narrowing Down

7. At this point, my students had to stop and consider which understandings – and therefore which terms – were appropriate for the age level they would teach and the amount of time their students would have with the lesson. “Less is more!” and “Break it down, then break it down again, then break it down some more!” were common refrains as they narrowed the concepts down to an essential core, that would allow students time to develop an essential understanding, and plenty of processing and practice time. They also had to select appropriate contextual/historical information.

8. Finally, they made a teacher example (or two) that investigated the big idea chosen, utilized the selected design terms, and integrated a few key aspects of the artistic thinking/working processes employed by the featured artist(s). This step was essential in many ways; most significantly it forced the lab teachers to think about scaffolding and sequencing of the key concepts over time, given their class’s age level capacities. But other aspects also had to be considered. We did not want “cookie-cutter” teacher examples any more than we wanted “cookie-cutter” student artwork. By emphasizing the artistic process of work, the lab teachers had to move away from making simpler copies of the featured artwork. This was also a difficult step for many beginning lab teachers; it was not unusual for them to work through multiple teacher examples in order to get one that honored the process, embodied the chosen concepts, and explored the same big idea(s); yet had a unique quality that signaled their own personal mental processing. Thinking about the choices made along the way would help them open up choices for their own students.

- An intuitively produced artwork (ex: Kngwarreye) needed a supporting lesson that provided a large working space requiring whole body use (no desks! Use the floor!) quick exercises followed increasing periods of time to work, a background of repetitive rhythmic music, and other strategies that would help students turn off their need to control outcomes and inhibit teacher-example copying; such as working in teams or moving around the large “canvas” every so often to work from different angles.

- A very controlled artwork (ex: Mondrian) would need a supporting lesson that emphasized planning, careful measuring, multiple steps, brush control, and an increasing sense of visual balance through exercises in looking and making small scale works with just a few shapes.

Next Post

The Process in Action: A lesson based on the intuitive, nature-inspired work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Kngwarreye painting  Delmore gallery
Emily Kngwarreye painting 'Yam Awelye', at Belmore, August 24, 1995 (Delmore Gallery)