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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March 01, 2020

Designing Sequential & Scaffolded Studio Experiences to Deepen Learning and Optimize Technical Skill Acquisition

By Stephanie Silverman

I am very excited to have the opportunity to serve as the “Monthly Mentor” on NAEA’s member blog this March. When considering what overarching theme or idea I wanted to share over the course the month, I decided I wanted share an example of a curricular sequence I designed in my Architectural Design course to show how art and design educators might consider designing learning experiences that link and dovetail together to support and maximize deeper learning in visual art and design.

By showcasing a series of four interconnected assignments, carefully planned and designed in a sequence, I hope to illustrate the shift from a primarily instructor-led to a student-driven learning experiences over time, an important goal in each of my courses. Throughout the 4-part series, students develop technical skills and competence while expanding their conceptual approach to essential questions, design prompts, and studio projects in general. The goal for every art teacher should ultimately be to develop confident students who feel empowered in their creative capacity. By scaffolding learning experiences from very specific and primarily instructor-led projects to more open-ended and student-driven projects, you create optimal conditions for students to feel supported while developing a powerful sense of agency. Over time, students will begin to initiate their own discoveries and develop a unique personal voice through their creative work.

I intentionally target specific technical skills for each of the sequential projects I will be highlighting this month, with the intention of scaffolding both the technical and conceptual skills required for the capstone (or summative) project: a final architectural scaled model. Without these carefully designed and sequenced exercises and opportunities to acquire new knowledge about materials and an appreciation for quality technical execution, the final outcomes certainly not be nearly as successful. Without strong technical skills and facility to manipulate and intentionally control media, even the most sophisticated idea or concept will lose resonance and impact, much in the same way a limited verbal vocabulary may compromise the clarity and impact of a persuasive essay.

Over the course of the month, I will be posting a succession of projects that build toward the culminating final project. For each lesson, I will also share my specific assignment criteria, rubrics, and NAEA Standards.



Building a Conceptual Framework in Architectural Design: Scaffolding Learning Experiences to Maximize Student Success and Deepen Understanding


Four years ago, I decided to offer a course in Architectural Design in response to student interest and in order to offer a course in my program with direct real-world application in design. The biggest challenge I faced in designing the curriculum was time. Having only 12 weeks for the course with meeting times every day for 45 minutes (we were on a trimester schedule), I needed to devise a method of quickly and effectively imparting a three-dimensional design vocabulary and foundational experiences in model making, while also including both drafting and design experiences for a final culminating “capstone” project.

In response to the design limitations imposed by the class itself, I designed a curricular sequence consisting of three “mini foundation projects” that I believed would provide a solid working knowledge of spatial relationships, gestalt principles and the design process.

Each learning experience provided a successive layer of understanding of form and design, with each project building on the skills, concepts and knowledge of the previous learning experience. Though condensed and accelerated, these introductions provided valuable transferable “base knowledge,” and a basic yet functional understanding of three-dimensional design principles which students could later apply to new and more complex design situation (the final project).  

As is the case in any design-thinking based curriculum, the completed project is never the end goal, but instead it is the acquisition of creative thinking skills and agile learning attitudes that build the creative necessary for imaginative problem solving.

FOUNDATION PROJECT #1: Gestalt Squares: Visual Compositions
(1-2 block classes)

This assignment is based on one taught in many undergraduate architecture programs, and is actually a two-dimensional design assignment. However, it provides an excellent learning opportunity for students to consider how to plan, organize, design, and arrange objects while making scale determinations in order to elicit an emotional response or association in the viewer.

The exercise provides a concrete entry point for students to thoughtfully consider the fact that form and design--even when reduced to pure simplicity (in this case, squares), is charged with emotional and sensory associations. Students begin to understand that by making deliberate and thoughtful choices, they can purposefully generate and evoke emotive qualities in their work.

Students are also introduced to a studio experience framed by a tight time window and specific project constraints.

Studio Project #1: Gestalt Squares Beginning with 2D Design Principles

Teacher Prep: Cut Ten 12x12 white Bristol board or sturdy white paper squares for each student.

Materials: Black construction paper, rubber cement or glue sticks, self-healing cutting mats, exact-o blades, clear plastic triangles and rulers to use as straight edge references, scissors, mechanical pencils.

I ask students to cut and arrange black paper squares (of whatever dimensions they deem appropriate) within the bounds of a large white square (12 x 12) in order to generate one of each of the following sensations or associations in the viewer:

2. Congestion
3. Playfulness
4. Tension
5. Active
6. Passive
7. Comfort/Safety/Stability
8. Symmetry/Asymmetry
9. Rhythmic
10. Static

Students are asked to consider proximity (spacing), alignment, collision (interaction between squares) and focal point of each composition.

Students create square compositions.

Teacher Prep: Print all 10 descriptors out (1 copy for each student). Students then slice apart the descriptors.


Blog 1_2

We then meet as a group around a central table. We collectively try to determine the associations of each student’s designs. I ask students to silently determine which descriptor they believe their peer was trying to evoke in their composition by placing the world on the design.

Blog1_3Above: Student designs with text/descriptors placed, detail 

It is always very interesting to approach the “critique” of this intro project this way, since the silent activity reinforces the communicative effect of a successful gestalt square composition (reinforcing the idea that truly there is a visual “language” at work).

Check back on Monday, March 9 for the second lesson in this curricular unit.

- SS


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