Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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Friday 04.29.11

Support for Teachers

Ap2AP Studio Art, 2011

“Start painting with fresh ideas, and then let the painting replace your ideas with its ideas.”
-Darby Bannard, artist and professor

I wanted to end my month as the blog host with a few words of support for all teachers. This spring, teachers in many states have been under attack in unprecedented ways. As we adjust ourselves to viewing our profession through the lens of politics, we must never lose our compass; own inner vision and mission. Whenever, I need to recharge my batteries, I reach for Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach(1998). His words reinforce what we universally know, “good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher (10).” Integrity is defined as a state of being complete or undivided. Now, we need to be the advocate for the students we know and work with; we need to adhere to our values; we need to be the voice for our students in the larger debate about schools, and we need to be undivided. 

I started teaching this fall, my 22nd year, with fresh ideas. And then, I began to know my students as people and artists. My increasing knowledge of students annually replaces some of my “fresh ideas” with new ones. We know that teaching is like painting. If we are open to it, the classroom will soon reveal new possibilities. Take courage in your service and integrity. Be on a mission. Consider the current political climate, learn about it and begin to see new possibilities.   

In Jim Collin’s From Good to Great, he describes what he calls the Stockdale Paradox (named after a prisoner of war, American Admiral Jim Stockdale). The paradox calls for leaders to embrace both optimism and harsh realities. Take heart. Stay focused. End this year, with more successes, joy, and passion than ever before. For all of this external, political theatre, cannot destroy our identity or integrity as educators.

-Laura Milas

Tuesday 04.26.11

Students Speak Out on Creativity

One of my best sources on teaching methodology is my students. I am constantly asking them to reflect back upon their experiences and analyze the course content and my instruction. Many teachers, rightly so, are suspicious of student feedback. Name one career that allows fourteen year olds to assess and judge the actions of a trained professional. However, I still find that students are experts in the how they experience the formal and hidden curriculum. 

Since, the spring has been dominated by the theme of creativity, I recently asked members of my year-long courses to reflect upon their growth as creative thinkers and problem-solvers. In particular, I wanted to know about students’ beliefs about their own creativity and how they felt teachers impacted their thinking.

ApAdv. Painting, 2009

I asked,” Have you improved your ability to solve creative problems?” “Does the curriculum of the course help you build your creative thinking skills?” “What teacher actions helped or harmed your creative development?” The responses contained a few interesting themes.

One theme that emerged was the importance of high expectations that allowed students to push themselves and rid themselves of doubts about themselves as artists. “I discovered that with creative problems, my inadequacies kept me from having inspiration. Now, I know that I just have to keep painting, especially during those times.” “ I have been able to attack my problems first, instead of ignoring or procrastinating.” “The ideas we get in critiques help us push our ideas further.” “I no longer ignore the parts of a piece that I am afraid of.” Students need to have confidence to work creatively.

Another clear theme was the importance of positive relationships within the classroom. “The involvement of the teacher in every student’s work was helpful.” “When we brainstorm together, I improved my creative ideas.” “By looking at other people’s art and critiquing it, I am better able to consider many different approaches; collaboration is key.” In our solitary pursuits in the arts, we need a community to grow.

Students always  give me feedback that I can take into the summer with me. Many students desire more independence in short term, skill based projects. I know that I will wrestle on that one. Another idea to consider this summer is how to make the artistic journal even more spectacular. I was really surprised with by the feedback concerning the helpfulness of the journal to expand the student’s creative-thinking skills. I believed, through observation, that journaling was not a priority with my students and that they were merely “ticking off” my journal topic ideas. Teenage ennui is so deceptive!

In our latest Art Education, J.Ulbricht writes about the use of media to tell the public about the power of an art education (May, 2011). In particular, she calls for art teachers to use narratives to help the public and other decision-makers understand our purposes and values. If we were to share what our students say about creativity and their future potential for innovation, who knows how powerful our story may become. Could we develop a persuasive argument for more art education with the help of our student narratives?

-Laura Milas


Thursday 04.21.11

Recommended Reading for High School Art Students

Have you noticed that more and more college programs have in their literature a list of reading for incoming freshman students? As this trend developed, our team created a list and began to read the books. Our next step, is to include these readings within our curriculum. 

AP-Drawing-Portfolio AP Drawing Portfolio, 2010

Here is the list we have:

Recommended reading for incoming college freshman in art programs:
Art Forms in Nature, Ernst Haeckel, Dover Pictorial Archives
Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, Michael Wilcox
CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People: Inside the World of Design Thinking and How It Can Spark Creativity and Innovation, Warren Berger
How to Wrap Five Eggs, Hideyuki Oka
The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron
The Blank Canvas, Anna Held Audette
Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland

Do you have additional reading materials that you would recommend to this list?

-Laura Mila

Monday 04.18.11

Key Concepts and Essential Questions on Creativity

When considering how to discuss creativity with our high school students, our team of art educators developed a list of “key concepts” and “essential questions” that we would use. The department wanted to use a common language when engaging students in our separate disciplines.

Photography-AP-Portfolio-Entry Photography AP Portfolio Entry, 2010

Although, we are continuingly challenging this list, here is what we have so far:

Key Concepts
1. Creativity is an essential aspect of what it means to be human.
2. Creativity is when an artist reframes ideas and experiences in order to generate new ideas (Czikszentmihalyi)
3. Creativity occurs when an individual is faced with a problem that is ambiguous and proposes alternatives (Dewey)
4. Artists have many ways by which they organize and form their work.
5. Creativity allows our internal thinking to be made visible and communicate to others. Creation is a dialogue, not a monologue (Eisner).
6. Creativity requires judgment, reflection and editing.

Essential Questions:
1. Where do artists get their ideas?  What can I make art about?
2. Does something have to be original to be art?
3. What is creative thinking?
4. What personality traits exist among creative people?
5. What limits creativity?
6. Are the arts an activity that you do, or an activity that you think about- or both?
7. What does it mean to be an artist?

One way that we introduce creativity as a topic is to show students a video clip of artists or designers working. A list of guiding questions for students enables them to listen and watch closely. In graphic design, we have used an ABC Nightline Deep Dive video on the IDEO industrial design firm. For 3-D art, we have used Sylvia Hyman: Eternal Wonder. And, of course, the Art 21 is excellent for 2-D art classes.  What do you use to introduce the topic in your classroom?

-Laura Milas

Wednesday 04.13.11

Verbal Drawing

“In a fundamental sense, metaphor is a ‘verbal drawing technique’ that allows people to describe referents for which there is not adequate words available.” (Kovecses, 2002)

Ap_portfolioAP portfolio entry, 2010

In my high school classrooms, I commonly find students who struggle with the expression of abstract topics in their work. For my students, color symbolism is their only vehicle. In fact, I have sometimes asked my students to explain how they conveyed their ideas beyond color! It is clear that, at least for my classroom, extended metaphors are a struggle.

So, to raise awareness, I have used a variety of opportunities to engage students in metaphorical thinking. One of my favorite early activity comes from Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject by Rick Wormeli (Oct 5, 2009). Here is a short description:

Ask students to explain a concept or abstract topic in detail without using comparative language.   Choose a topic that will require students to emphasize the “what,” not the “how,” of the thing. Here are some topics to use: Friendship, Family, Trust, Mercy, Worry, Trouble, Honor, Balance, or Embarrassment.

Ask students to create detailed descriptions of the term using both: 
1. Metaphorical language
2.  Detailed descriptions without metaphorical language. (I usually put them into cooperative groups to do this activity.)

After a short period of time, have students share their results for both descriptions. Then, discuss with students: Which description is richer or more meaningful? How difficult is it to explain a concept without metaphors?

Do you have a favorite way to encourage metaphorical thinking skills in your classroom? If so, please share.

-Laura Milas

Monday 04.11.11

What creative thinking skills do your students struggle with?

Red-and-White-ShowThe art teachers in my department decided to survey students self- perceptions of their creative thinking skills. Here is what we asked:

Instructions: The following are specific ways that creativity can be developed. 
Rate yourself in each category. Think about your life and your art.

Red and White (Homecoming) Show, 2010

Do you practice spotting paradoxes? (paradox=irony, inconsistencies and apparent contradictions)
Do you notice discrepancies? (discrepancy=differences, gaps and missing links)
Do you see and make analogies? (analogies=comparison; likenesses among unlike things)
Are you a skilled researcher?  Can you obtain needed information? (artistic research)
Do you overcome the effects of habits? (Can you break out of conventional thinking and habits?)
Do you engage in visualizing? (seeing a problem in your mind’s eye)
Do you carry out intuitive thinking? (making an informed guess, or following a hunch)
Do you communicate in your art? (both skills and willingness)
Do you learn from mistakes?
Can you accept change and novelty?
Can you tolerate ambiguity? (ambiguity=doubt, uncertainty)
Do you have good work habits? (effort does matter)
What strengths and weaknesses did you spot?   
Write one ‘creative’ goal based upon your results.

We would be curious to know what your students report. Ours rated making analogies and seeing paradoxes as their weakest abilities. As a group of art educators, we are now engaged in using instructional strategies and lesson ideas that will help students practice and improve their skills in these areas. Do you have a favorite technique or lesson for improving students use and development of visual metaphors?

-Laura Milas


Wednesday 04. 6.11

Revealing Creative Thinking

One student excels at interpreting the visual world around them.  Their works amaze others with their fidelity to life and high level of craftsmanship.  Another student has journals full of ideas and often fails to complete a piece of art.  Which individual embodies your definition of creativity? 

The high school art department in which I work has been wrestling with our program goals in the area of creativity for some time.  At first, we merely wanted to provide students (and ourselves) with a workable definition of creative thinking.  We expected that once students understood the process, they would be able to model it.  Wrong!  Students continued to pursue photographic realism with little thought about how to take this training of their eyes into more original paths.   Although, we have continued to celebrate the training of the eye and the training of the brain, our students continue to make their own values known.

Now, we are working together to see how we might restructure our classrooms and assignments to capitalize on our findings.   We are clearly wrestling to find a balance between our students’ interest in traditional skills in art and our needs to educate all students to exercise their creative thinking skills.   As John Dewey discussed in Art as Experience, we are trying to set up conditions where art is experienced by our students in both practice and theory.    We want students to understand art as well as know it. 

So, we are reexamining our entry level course, Studio Art.  If the course is going to live up to its name, it needs to be a place for students to study art.  We need to allow students to participate in open ended, intense creative experiences.  And yet, we need to train the eyes (and therefore, thinking skills) of our students.  Although, rewriting this curriculum is one glimpse of how we might wrestle with our values about a successful art program.  We are confident that this change will bring with it many new opportunities and challenges. In the eyes of our community, we will need to provide clarity in our grading that helps enlighten and guide students in their efforts. 

Who is more creative?  Is it the student who excels at observational drawing? Or, is it the student who excels at ideation?  We hope to nurture both.

-Laura Milas

Friday 04. 1.11

Sparks of Genius

Have you picked up Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein’s book, Sparks of Genius, since the NAEASparksofGenius conference?  My copy recently arrived and I am curious to see how the NAEA Seattle Conference Super Session speech encapsulated the findings of this research team.  Most importantly, I am interested in sharing the book with decision makers in my District.

Through an ethnographic approach, the authors explore the thinking skills of the world class, domain changing minds.  The much understood and stereotyped form of thinking, called “creative thinking,” is explored.  The authors describe creative thinking as having and employing a variety of thinking tools: observing, imaging, abstracting, recognizing patterns, analogizing, body thinking, empathizing, dimensional thinking, modeling, playing, transforming , and synthesizing.   As this long list points out and the Bernstein’s write, education is not about knowing about things, it is also about understanding them (20).  

The book is calls for us as educational leaders to reassess our goals.  Are we asking our top students to achieve thoughtful work that goes beyond the knowing level?  Or, as students weave their way towards college, do we provide fewer choices and a narrower curriculum?  If our country needs us to develop innovative thinkers, why are the Arts excluded from the formal education of our teenagers?   How vocal are art educators on these issues?

Because the book focuses on creative thinking, art educators may feel that we are validated.  However, there are other groups of educators who feel that they provide creative opportunities to their students.  Ask your Science, Social Studies, and English teachers.  They will tell you that they are providing opportunities for students to think creatively.  They will insist that the kind of creative thinking that they assign has a larger and more significant impact on students than an art education.  Why?  Because, they continue to assume that creativity in the visual arts is rare and therefore, should only involve a few.  

Now, having opened my copy of Sparks of Genius, I am encouraged to pursue this topic with individuals who shape policy in my District.  As a District, we recently reinforced our beliefs that creative thinking is one of our curricular “big ideas.”  But, I know that I will need to be armed against stereotype and narrow thinking.

-Laura Milas