From: Janine Campbell
Like many teachers out there, my Summer really hasn't started yet. Sure, I am on Summer break, but the break from thinking and working towards a better classroom is always ongoing. I have spent my first week away from students working on lesson plans, material lists, purging past projects, and getting things ready for Fall. In addition to these tasks, I also had the honor and privilege to spend the end of last week in New York City for the 92nd Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
For those of you not familiar, this program honors young artists and writers throughout the country. It starts with Regional Adjudication where students works are blind juried and assessed based on Originality, Personal Vision, and Technical Skill; they are either not awarded or receive Honorable Mention, Silver Key, or Gold Key status. Gold Key works are then sent onto National Adjudication where they are blind juried again; this year’s National Medals were earned by 1% of those who moved to this level, including two of my students.
One thing that I noticed as I made my way through the collection of student work was the level of personal voice and choice. As a somewhat seasoned Visual Arts teacher, I can look at many student works in various shows or competitions and figure them out. Like a forensic scientist, I can see the artist of influence and how many steps the teacher may have used to get their students from start to finish. I can see all of this because I have used them at some point, too. At the Scholastic Show, though, it is a little tougher to figure out.
Each work is unlike the rest and many are completely different than pieces I have seen before. One of the reasons I think my students did so well in this year’s competition, both at the Regional and National Level, was because I have transitioned my classroom into a choice-based inquiry space where students are asked to investigate larger topics in their own way, using materials and methods of their choosing.
Using TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior) as a source of inspiration, I decided to change my methods of classroom practice to give more options to my students. I was nervous at first because of the unknown elements at play; questions about what kids will make, how they will make it, and how to manage so many different pathways were prominent in planning for this change in curriculum. I have had a successful program to that point and I was worried that engaging in this type of classroom practice might negatively impact that. I was wrong to fear the change.
And as I listened to the keynote speakers from last week’s Scholastic Art and Writing Awards ceremony as well as viewed the pieces on display, I realize that offering students the space to be creative and enact ideas I may never think of is the mission for my classroom.
When Whoopi Goldberg walked out on stage and started speaking to the audience to kick of the Scholastic Awards Ceremony, her words of encouragement filled Carnegie Hall with the understanding that these teens have the power to change the future with their unique vision. When deciding to move my classroom to a choice-based inquiry space, I was worried about the engagement of students and their ability to focus on self-prescribed projects. As the year went on, however, I found that students whom I allowed to be in control of their learning were more engaged and self-sufficient than those who still leaned on me as the primary source of information. I also found that students became more eager to experiment with ideas and take routes I had yet to see in my years teaching pre-planned outcomes.
By allowing students the room to engage with materials in their own way, I am empowering them to enact their unique voices and tackle issues they deem as important.
During the final moments of this year's Ceremony, Chelsea Clinton encouraged the young adults to use their talents to envision solutions yet imagined. She explained how each generation has the opportunity to imagine new possibilities, reaching beyond established horizons and impacting the future. When I think about these ideas, I think about the importance of fostering creativity in the classroom and allowing for play, experimentation, and ultimately divergent thinking. For both of my National Medalists, their works were done in the process of play.
Anna’s “NeckNib” was the result of taking old calligraphy nibs I had offered her when cleaning out the supply room and her seeing them as wearable art in the form of a necklace. Before committing to a design, she sketched out ideas and placed the pieces in various configurations. Her classmates and I gave her feedback along the way and she would continue to play. This act of fluid response allowed her to find the most elegant solution while engaging with materials and others through the process.
Jordan’s photograph also started out in a process of play. She was creating a window cling from puffy paint with no intentions of having it be “a final project.” I gave her the suggestion of creating a photo-series of the image placed on various windows. After many different solutions, she submitted her work and the rest is history. In both scenarios, students were able to experiment with materials in ways they envisioned because I was no longer limiting them by my imagination.
One of the most profound moments for me as an educator during the Ceremony happened during Tom Otterness and David Lipski’s presentations. As former Scholastic Award Winners, they spoke to how the awards changed their view of themselves as artists and helped propel their careers as sculptors.
When viewing the work displayed at the National Show, I could not help the amazement and pride I felt to have students in the same elite group as the two artists above as well as Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, Robert Indiana, and many more former Scholastic Award Winners. I cannot help but think of how these artists carved out their own visions for creating work and how winning that award may have helped embolden their ability to do so. It is this thought that most excites me about offering choices for students to engage with materials on their own terms and experiment with ideas using their own imaginations.
If you have not participated in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, I encourage you to start. If you have, what is your Scholastic Awards story? How has the program shaped your classroom, students, or teaching practice? Do you engage in choice-based practice for your students? How much control do your students have in the process of their making?