Monthly Mentor

Jennifer Childress (April)
Jennifer Childress is currently self-employed as a curriculum and assessment consultant in art education. She is former Associate Professor and Program Head of Art Education at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, from 1998-2016. Recent projects have included in-school, after-school, and summer art programs for urban youth in the Albany area, funded by professional development and service learning grants; and run by her students.Ongoing interests have included performance assessment of higher order cognition and creativity; mitigation/mediation of poverty’s effects on learning; planning for specific cognitive skills development during art learning, making, and reflection; and near/far transfer of learning through interdisciplinary thinking and connection-making. Childress was named the 2016-17 New York State Art Educator of the Year in June 2016. Click "Go" to read full bio.



Join the largest creative community established exclusively for visual arts educators, college professors, researchers, administrators, and museum educators.

Join NAEA Renew Membership

« March 2017 | Main

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).

 MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39
MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_39


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.

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_01

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_03

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_04

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_10 

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_10

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_10

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_10

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_23

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_23

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_23

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_23

MA-JC EKK Lesson PPT FV_Page_23

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.

MA ART 375 EKK Lesson PPT Post 2_Page_1

MA ART 375 EKK Lesson PPT Post 2_Page_2

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.

MA ART 375 EKK Lesson PPT Post 2_Page_3

MA ART 375 EKK Lesson PPT Post 2_Page_4

MA ART 375 EKK Lesson PPT Post 2_Page_5

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).

MA ART 375 EKK Lesson PPT Post 2_Page_6

MA ART 375 EKK Lesson PPT Post 2_Page_7

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)


Wednesday 04. 5.17

Aspects of Artistic Processes

From: Jen Childress

The National Core Visual Arts Standards place emphasis on the mental habits artists either intuitively or purposely employ in order to generate artistic work ideas and move them through a process of change to a point of completion. I am delighted to finally see these all important ways of thinking – artistic problem-finding and problem-solving – become the core of art curricula. Though some artistic thinking processes are utilized across domains, some are unique to the arts. Between art forms many processes overlap, but some are even unique to each type of artistic manifestation. My April posts will focus on the thinking processes used by visual artists and how to integrate them into lessons and curricula in selective, meaningful ways.

My quest to figure out how artists think differently began in graduate school in the 1980s while at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan (MFA, Sculpture). Although certainly my artist colleagues were quirky or subject to neuroses, most were stable, usually cheerful people who could talk intently about post-modern theory one minute and in the next breath, the tensile strength of say, steel. In fact, the artists I knew mirrored the general population when it came to personality types, but they did differ in some ways. We were always in search of new sources, new ideas and new visual expressions, and used each work as a stepping stone to another. Artistic work was a way to appreciate, investigate, and understand the world we lived in, even when work was political or dark. Inspiration and sources were wide-ranging and eclectic, resulting in an ever-curious mindset. Because of this open-minded attitude towards pursuing ideas across disciplines, I read what became a seminal book and inspiration for my graduate thesis, Looking Glass Universe: The Emerging Science of Wholeness (Briggs, J.C. & Peat, F.D., Simon & Schuster, 1986).


The first chapter applied Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts to what was currently happening in the sciences, such as chaos theory and related ideas. I became convinced that artists and scientists shared many similarities in their investigative mindset, and that there were parallels in art history and science when it came to paradigms and paradigm shifts. I sensed a larger whole that both art and science provided different, but overlapping pathways to understanding.

A few years after graduate school, I became certified to teach art K-12. Soon however, I ran into that pernicious, enduring public attitude that artists are crazy, that art is unnecessary, and that making art requires only emotion, not thinking. Of course, today we know that this idea about the separation of the brain’s capacities into discreet areas of left and right, rationality and emotion, is at best misleading; and that the brain’s networks are much more complex and integrated. Unfortunately, even artists and art teachers embraced that old left brain/right brain saw to explain the differences between artists and others. I thought, why does generation after generation perpetuate this myth of the insane artist - the other- the outlier…artists do think differently in some key ways, but they are still using their BRAINS not some other body part. They need alone time to work and think – but so do writers and scientists. They tend to be independent and investigate odd things and unusual connections, but so do explorers and scholars and detectives and psychologists, just in different media, so to speak. And truth be told, I didn't see non-artists displaying any superiority when it came to “rational thinking.” While the answer to why? has centuries old-roots in Western civilization, I knew I could not change such deeply seated beliefs. But I could find out and make public- through my art curricula, research, and writing what kinds of thinking artists engaged in, for what purposes, and when. Hosted by the New York State Art Teachers Association, the New York State Education Department, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (featuring researchers from Nelson Goodman’s Project Zero), summer seminars in portfolio assessment, and work with NAEP pilots in visual arts assessment helped me focus on the generative, iterative, refining, and reflecting aspects of artistic processing during my career as a middle and high school teacher of art.

After I began teaching at the college level in 1998, I heard Charles Dorn present at an NAEA conference, and my mind was set on fire after reading his book, Mind in Art: Cognitive Foundations in Art Education (Routledge, 1999).


Several chapters investigated different approaches important artists had to developing a body of work. I particularly remember Dorn’s descriptions of how Jacob Lawrence spent hours in the library and thoroughly grounded his work in meticulous historical research. From Dorn, I moved on to writings on cognition and art by Howard Gardner, Elliott Eisner, Geoffrey and Renate Caine, Arthur Efland, Olivia Gude, Sydney Walker, and many others. I also collected published studies on neuroscience investigations into how learning happens in the brain, and when available, neural studies connected to creativity and visual art.

Artandcognition  Artsandcreation  Teaching_meaning 

The first piece I produced for my students to help them plan thinking like an artist into their lessons (and shared with fellow teachers in conference presentations), was titled “Aspects of Artistic Process.” The first version grew over time from about 15 traits in 2002 to more than 30 in the 2011 version. I’m happy to share it in this blog for fellow teachers to download, consider, provide feedback, copy, and/or share. Between 2006-2009, my summer graduate classes eventually expanded the list, and put it into a chart that indicated whether each trait could be categorized as primarily creative, critical, social, and/or emotional. Then we looked at curriculum and individual lesson plans, and using our chart, analyzed all the different kinds of thinking that were needed for each step or activity. My students and I were amazed at the complexity of thought, and the agility needed to frequently switch modes in a typical art lesson. We also used it look at dull lessons and analyze what would engage more student learning, and different kinds of student processing. I’ll provide that chart and an associated poster in a future post. 


The field of neuroscience is now producing study after study on how the brain processes creativity and even visual art-making, though music is still the subject of much more investigation than the other art forms. I’ll share some of those findings throughout the month, in the context of actual art lessons that include carefully selected aspects of artistic thinking, produced by my former pre-service art education students.  

Coming up in my next post: A 6th grade lesson based on self-taught Aboriginal artist, Emily Kame Kngwarreye. For an overview of her works, see a student researcher’s YouTube presentation (DatGuyMatt, 2016, February). It ends with Big Yam Dreaming (1995) which will be featured in the lesson.