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 01.30.15

Passing It Forward

As I get older, near the end of my career, doing what matters takes on an even greater importance. I have been preparing to go to the VAEA Annual Board Retreat this weekend in Richmond and am excited about the possibilities. We are all busy and taking a weekend is a significant investment for everyone - but, even after all of these years, I always take away something new and have the chance to make new relationships. Personally, it also allows me to give back to my profession and to help support the next generation of art education leaders - something which is very important to me.  

I have been fortunate, initially as an elementary art teacher, to have been mentored and given amazing opportunities by art educators who, in both VAEA and NAEA, have been accessible and willing to give of their time and expertise. These types of connections, which are taken for granted in our associations, make our profession and our ability to make a difference in our students’ lives stronger. The commitment we make to learn, grow, and take on leadership roles makes us better art educators.

The challenge then is, as we gain more expertise, to find ways to make sure that those coming along after us are also given the same – or better - opportunities. “Passing it forward” was a phrase my mother used. Choosing a mentee and doing everything possible to support that person professionally was a strategy that a fellow art educator used. We are in challenging times for education and often for art educators and our students. However each of us chooses, connecting to our professional community, learning all we can, and finding ways to bring along others can only help us make our strongest contributions to art education and ultimately to our students.

-Barbara Laws
Senior Coordinator for Art, Norfolk Public Schools, VA

Wednesday 01.28.15

More about Our Professional Journey

In the last blog, I talked about our departmental approach to professional learning and how we, together, worked to improve the quality of visual arts teaching and learning. I thought it might be helpful to have a few concrete examples of what we have done:
• In the beginning, we needed to develop common language and understandings as we shifted our instruction away from isolated activities and technical exercises to that which had assisted students in applying knowledge and skills to create personal meaning and understand content and using the artistic process from kindergarten to Advanced Placement. We used Art Education in Practice books on meaning, assessment and aesthetics and teacher-developed guiding questions to frame our discussions and agree on commonalities of effective practice. Teachers developed guiding questions for chapters and discussion centered around application in the classroom.
• We examined student work. Sample groupings (e.g., drawing progressions from kindergarten to Advanced Placement, Advanced placement examples across media) were developed to provide starting points to talk about student growth and what kind of teacher behaviors would support high achievement.
• Did I say we examined student work? On a semi-regular basis, art teachers are encouraged to bring samples of work to meetings – perhaps, a single lesson in a range of achievement levels, examples of particular media, or the work in response to our student growth/teacher evaluation performance assessments to build inter-rater reliability.
• It’s about student work – and building complexity. We take the opportunity at exhibitions to look at student work and photograph interesting exemplars. Sometimes the sample is a group of works which have interesting processes. At other times a common thread, like interesting treatment of surfaces, arises from the work itself. Teachers responsible for the lessons then discuss how they were able to scaffold student learning to achieve the results. Additional teachers add to the discussion with different approaches while others who might have had difficulties with the media or concept feel comfortable to ask questions and get advice.
• We also like for our professional development to tap the knowledge and skills of the entire art department and to result in something tangible at the end where possible. Working together – at times in K-12 groups and others by elementary, middle and high school levels – we have…
   * Unpacked big ideas, identified concepts, developed essential questions, and added supporting artists per elementary grade level with content deep enough to be resources for upper levels.
   * Reviewed piloted curriculum, developed pacing guides, unpacked grade level benchmarks.
   * After identifying some difficulties with the progression of 3-D work across the district, as a K-12 vertical team, planned backwards from Advanced Placement to kindergarten.
   * Identified beginning of the year activities to hook students.
   * Developed, piloted and reviewed a common district assessment for our art foundations course.
   * Developed a list of ways to connect with other curriculum areas in ways that would support our artistic goals.
   * Developed a list of performance assessments strategies used in art classrooms across the district.
   * Feed our artistic and educator souls on our professional learning days by taking a balanced approach with a concentrated adult-level studio workshop, art education discussions, and local artist presentations.

This list is just a small part of our professional journey. We are always on the lookout for ideas to improve what we do and would be interested in what you are all doing in yours.

-Barbara Laws
Senior Coordinator for Art, Norfolk Public Schools, VA

Monday 01.19.15

Building a Learning Community

In the many years I have been in education, I have experienced all kinds of professional development – often being done to me rather than for or with me, sometimes at the level of the elementary students I taught.  Many of the most meaningful experiences were the opportunities I had to engage in deep conversations about content and teaching practice with other professionals, both within and outside of art education.   

Two other factors have also guided the way I have thought about and have approached professional development.  When I started in the district visual arts coordinator position 13 years ago, art education had moved toward a more content and personal meaning-making focus.  As our art department began to make this curriculum shift, we needed to become a community of learners engaged in ongoing conversations about effective teaching practices and student learning.  Following are some of the strategies we have used to accomplish this.

• Treat the curriculum as a living document and review and revise frequently based on teacher feedback and new needs or understandings.
• Provide opportunities for teachers to work vertically across grade levels as well as with their grade-level or course peers.
• Build a safe learning community where teachers are not afraid to ask questions or seek help.
• Ensure frequent structured opportunities for teachers to collaborate and share expertise.
• Look at student work to assess professional learning needs.
• Ask teachers what their professional learning needs are.
• Set up conversations about effective practice by asking questions, focusing on a goal or collaborating on an instructional resource.
• In addition to regularly scheduled professional learning times, offer other opportunities for teachers to self-select.
• Focus on student work.
• Tap teacher expertise.
• Balance the discussions about curriculum and teaching practice with studio sessions and discussions by outside artists.
• Provide professional learning opportunities which are at the level of the adult learner and then make sure there are collaborative opportunities to identify classroom practice.
• Design professional development activities which assist teachers in translating district level initiatives into effective art instructional practices.
• Provide special support for struggling teachers, beginning teachers and those new to the district.
• Offer peer mentoring and observation opportunities.

As we have worked together over the years, the routine of looking at student work and teaching practice for areas that we need to explore further and then addressing them has become a part of our department’s culture.

-Barbara Laws
Senior Coordinator for Art, Norfolk Public Schools, VA

Thursday 01. 8.15

The Importance of Exhibitions

Every year about this time I chart out complete exhibition information in my office for quick reference. Completing the task earlier this week combined with being asked yesterday to provide a listing of how student progress is monitored made me think about the importance of exhibitions for measuring and raising the quality of teaching and learning occurring in art classrooms.

To begin with, displaying work and receiving feedback from viewers is a part of the art making process - so much so that “Presenting” is one of the 4 major organizing categories for the NCCAS Visual Arts Standards. In addition to the skills developed by students as they participate in exhibition processes, conversations, perhaps prompted by the way the work is presented, can take place among parents, families, students, and the teacher about learning represented in the works of art and the benefits, value, and purposes of art education. These connections can also be made with the community, decision makers, and other stakeholders and so the exhibition becomes a point of advocacy.

On the other hand, student exhibitions can serve as powerful learning tools for art educators.  I am thinking about the role it has in our district. We avoid isolating work by schools and, with major shows, hang collaboratively. These occasions become important professional development opportunities for teachers. While hanging and looking at work – their own students and others’ – they self-reflect, have discussions, and feed themselves with ideas for their own instruction. New teachers can begin to fill the empty files in their heads with examples of student work thus becoming more familiar with what quality is and what reasonable expectations are for their students. Because our curriculum, beginning in kindergarten, is based around using the artistic process and applying skills and techniques to make personal meaning, rather than isolated activities, student solutions are individual and there is always much to see and learn from in any exhibition.  

-Barbara Laws
Senior Coordinator for Art, Norfolk Public Schools, VA

Friday 01. 2.15

Happy New Year

The beginning of January is often touted as a time for self-reflection, an opportunity to examine what we have accomplished and where we have fallen short, and to make resolutions based on our assessments.  While self-assessment is an ongoing process for us, as art educators, we are well into our “new year” and the time is right for us, too, to take stock of where we are, where we need to be over the course of the next months, and what we need to do to get there.

In addition to the usual “where are my students now” and “where do I want them to be”, there are larger questions which can be helpful in thinking about instructional goals and direction and effective practice:
•    Am I teaching art, not just “having art?”  
•    Does my teaching support students in using artistic processes to create works of art with personal meaning?  
•    Rather than isolated activities, have I set up rich learning experiences which will give students knowledge, understandings, and skills to tuck into their proverbial artmaking toolkits to be used independently at a later date?
•    Am I helping students to become more thoughtful in responding to works of art, including their own?
•    Finally, to build support for rigorous instruction in the arts, how am I effectively communicating what students are learning in my classroom to parents, administrators, decision makers, and other stakeholders?

While these questions are phrased to apply directly to primary, elementary, and secondary art teachers, most of the rest of us should reflect on how effectively we support and assist teachers, through professional development and preparation experiences and the development of learning communities and other opportunities, in their quests to provide quality art education in schools. 

-Barbara Laws
Senior Coordinator for Art, Norfolk Public Schools, VA