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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Tuesday 05.30.17

Failing forward

From: Mary Elizabeth Meier

As art teachers work to develop assessments to gather information about student learning, I argue that we should assess habits and concepts which are of great importance in creative idea development. When I ask, “What matters most?” as I plan teaching and learning experiences, I consider the idea of failure. That is, making mistakes and exploring responses to failure. I attend to my role as teacher-facilitator to create a classroom culture of creative exploration in which students are empowered to play, exercise choice, make creative decisions that are not always successful and then work in collaboration to revise.

I remember exploring the idea of failing forward for the first time in a design-based thinking workshop led by Randy Granger, Past President of the Pennsylvania Art Education Association. Randy teaches his high school art students to work through many iterations of designs. Several years later, students enrolled in my art education methods course posed the question, “How should we support k-12 art students who are afraid of making a mistake in their artwork.” Together, we investigated the idea of “failing forward” as a framework for gathering information about student learning. (Students gave me permission to share our class discussion and some of their written reflections here).

One student, Letty, wrote in a reflection, “Instead of allowing failure to be one changeable mark in a whole composition, we [teachers tend to] assert failure as the sole, final mark” (Letitia Cawley, personal correspondence). Letitia observed that we must do more to help students understand creative mistakes as changeable and fruitful shifts along a meandering path of possibility. Therefore, failure is part of students’ experience to engage and persist (Hetland, et al, 2013) in their artistic process. Failure and its ambiguous role in creative process is worthy of our energy to document it. We can work in partnership with students to gather information about the role of creative failure, healthy risks, and momentum in artistic process.

Another pre-service student in our class, Beyona Eckstein, described the value of assessments of process by working with students as they develop a portfolio. Students can evaluate (find value) in their own work and the work of their peers by reflecting on their work as it unfolds over time. She wrote, “The idea of failing forward is about rethinking the way teachers have students document growth, how students are critiqued, and how they are assessed” (Beyona Eckstein, personal correspondence).

Beyona was making connections between “failing forward” as an assessment strategy and its value as part of a teaching philosophy rooted in her artistic practice as a ceramicist. Beyona wrote, “Not only is failing forward a method of teaching I want to practice, it is also a philosophy I want to follow... Art is the expression of human imagination and creative skills; when applied to students it is about eliminating the concept of finished work having beauty. As an artist, I find myself focusing on the making and the steps to a finished work, and rarely is the finished work ever complete. The process and method of failing forward is just that, [a] focus on the experience of creating. Finally, failing forward is about realizing mistakes and making them your motivation to work or create more” (Beyona Eckstein, personal correspondence).

Beyona asserted her intention to facilitate a studio-classroom where students are confident that failure is acceptable and is not permanent. She observed that help student to develop this stance of failing forward would help them grow as individuals in many of their life pursuits.



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.


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